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Movies about cults? Interesting. Films about UFOs? Intriguing. A documentary about both? Welcome to Heaven’s Gate — The Untold Story.
Now streaming on Prime Video, the 1999 film centers on the infamous UFO cult Heaven’s Gate, a group of individuals who memorably committed mass suicide back in 1997. Led by Marshall Applewhite, 39 members lost their lives after consuming a fatal cocktail of barbiturates and vodka. Following their own doctrine that borrowed from both Christian and extraterrestrial ideologies, the cult believed they were evacuating their earthly “vehicles” (bodies) to ascend to a spacecraft trailing the Hale–Bopp comet that would eventually lead them to salvation.
Granted access to the cult’s archives, filmmaker Sergio Myers’ hour-long doc provides fascinating insight into the perplexing world of Heaven’s Gate by interviewing a number of former members and educators. The film gives viewers a look into the recruiting practices of Applewhite and his partner Bonnie Nettles (who died in 1985).
“They were going around announcing that they were two space aliens here to gather together people who were ready to enter the kingdom of heaven,” Professor of Religious Studies Kathy Wessinger explains. “At that time they were promising that the mothership would land soon and pick everyone up.”
Despite the fact that Amazon says this film is from 2017, it’s actually from 1999 (per IMDB) and it shows. The grainy footage and dubbing issues add to the delirium of the doc and can be a bit disorienting to the viewer, which is appropriate when you consider the subject matter. I may not possess any firsthand knowledge of cult life, but I imagine it’s a little bit like staring at the below photo of Applewhite for ten minutes while listening to Corona’s ’90s smash dance sensation “Rhythm of the Night.”
The most haunting part of the documentary is the array of testimonials from Heaven’s Gate members explaining their forthcoming mass suicide. These are seemingly good-natured people who, like many of us, are just trying to make sense of a nonsensical world. One member’s rationalization of the tragic event, which is chilling in its inherent relatability, helps to humanize the enigmatic world of the cult.
“I think everyone in this class wanted something more than the human world had to offer. They were seeking some type of goodness, some type of rightness, that they did not feel in this world.”
Heaven’s Gate — The Untold Story is a bizarre yet interesting look into the complex psychology of cults. The production value makes it look like it was created by the sophomore film student you’d least want to be stuck in an elevator with, but if you’re curious about the subject matter and can ignore the poor technical quality, it’s definitely worth a watch.