This article is part of the Motherboard Guide to Cinema , a semi-regular column exploring foreign and obscure speculative films.
In 1992, a now infamous study claimed that as many as 3.7 million Americans may suffer from “UFO abduction syndrome,” or the belief that they had an encounter with extraterrestrial visitors. This study has been criticized on both methodological and logical grounds, but there is no doubt that people who claim to have been abducted by aliens exist in significant numbers.
Many researchers in the past two decades have tried to account for the prevalence of UFO encounters by likening it to a religious impulse or the manifestation of a psychopathology. In the absence of hard evidence of an alien encounter, seeking alternative explanations for reports of ET abductions makes sense. But what if material evidence of these encounters does exist?
This is the conceit of Patient Seventeen, a new documentary released last month by Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell. Patient Seventeen chronicles the final surgery of Roger Leir, a foot surgeon and prominent ufologist who claimed to remove extraterrestrial nanotechnology that had been embedded in his patients.
The documentary is a poignant eulogy for Leir, who passed away during filming. He had spent a large part of his career striving to make the study of UFOs and alien abductions a scientific endeavor.
For those who claimed to have been abducted by extraterrestrials, Leir’s surgeries provided a bridge—however shaky—between their visceral personal experiences with non-human intelligences and the hard evidence needed to prove the reality of extraterrestrial encounters. Mainstream scientists continue to be skeptical of Leir’s work, however. They dismiss his alleged “offworld implants” as terrestrial objects, which has made his work the subject of some controversy.
When he set out to make Patient Seventeen, Corbell told me he was skeptical about alien implant technology, but he had “no doubt” that UFOs are real and piloted by non-human intelligences.
"I just figured I would get to the bottom of this whole thing within a matter of weeks…fuck I was wrong.”
“I was working on documenting the fields of nanotechnology and advanced propulsion, and how they relate to the UFO phenomenon,” Corbell told me. “I really didn’t want to make a movie about an alleged alien implant technology and I didn’t know what to think at the time. I just figured I would get to the bottom of this whole thing within a matter of weeks…fuck I was wrong.”
In an effort to shed light on the mystery of supposed “offworld implant technologies,” Corbell tagged along with Leir and the anonymous Patient Seventeen—who Corbell described as “just your average guy”—as they prepared for the surgical removal and analysis of a small piece of mysterious metal that was found to be embedded in Patient Seventeen’s shin.
When he showed up for the surgery, he found Leir trying to locate the piece of metal in his patient’s leg with a stud finder, a tool usually reserved for locating pieces support wood behind the walls of a building.
“I told Dr. Leir that I would film his surgery, but if he was lying, bending the truth or trying to deceive the public in any way by altering his results, that I was going to out him,” Corbell said. “I asked him if he was sure that he wanted me to film his work, and he said, ‘Yes, Jeremy. I've been doing this for more than two decades, and there’s something to this!’”
Patient Seventeen was also skeptical about the possibility that the piece of metal in his body was extraterrestrial in origin, although in the documentary he claimed to have had a number of extraterrestrial encounters as a child. He also openly acknowledged his hostility toward his extraterrestrial abductors in the film—he referred to them as “alien gangsters” and expressed a wish to “take them out.”
It was these hostile encounters with extraterrestrials in his childhood that led Patient Seventeen to seek out Leir to surgically remove what could be invasive alien technology. Leir claimed to have surgically removed embedded extraterrestrial nanotechnologies from seventeen different patients, although he never seemed interested in sharing his data or these objects with other researchers.
Leir passed away shortly after removing the small piece of metal from Patient Seventeen’s leg in early 2014. Although he didn’t get to see the results of his final surgery, two of his close research associates carried out the analysis of the strange object after his death and the second half of Patient Seventeen is devoted to their efforts.
Leir’s working theory was that the devices embedded in his patients were sophisticated nanotechnologies created by extraterrestrials. According to Leir, instead of radio signals these devices emit so-called ‘scalar waves,’ a type of electromagnetic radiation that has never been proven to exist and as such can’t be detected by human radio instruments. The last serious physicist to entertain the possibility that scalar waves exist was Nikola Tesla, who had no shortage of strange and scientifically dubious ideas.
Anyway, the device found in Patient Seventeen’s leg is more than a little odd in terms of its composition. Corbell, Leir’s associate—a materials scientist named Steve Colbern—and an alleged military-affiliated nanoscientist who simply goes by “Nano Man” (himself the subject of a short documentary by Corbell) continued the physician's legacy by sending the sample to two labs for composition analysis using scanning electron microscopy and broad spectrum elemental analysis. These tests can reveal an object's structure on the molecular scale and full elemental composition in a sample, respectively.
Ufology has its roots in the work of Josef Allen Hynek, a noted astronomer and military physicist who authored a number of government intelligence documents on UFOs. Even though it has captured the attention of a number of serious scientists, including Harvard psychiatry professor John Mack, the field has struggled since the 1950s to gain acceptance as a legitimate science. This is because most evidence of extraterrestrial encounters is limited to eyewitness testimony as photos and videos collected by these witnesses. Still, it lacks many of the hallmarks of hard sciences like physics or biology, such as the ability to conduct experiments to prove theories wrong.
In this sense, Leir was a true pioneer of trying to bring at least some semblance of scientific rigor to ufology. He regarded these alleged “offworld implants” as the hard evidence that could either prove or disprove extraterrestrial visitations to Earth. Yet as skeptics like Joe Nickell have pointed out, Leir’s reluctance to share his results or the supposed alien implants he has removed with other researchers for further analysis is anti-scientific and makes his claims seem all the more dubious.
Corbell, however, argued that Leir wasn’t trying to hide his results.
“Dr. Leir was absolutely not reluctant to share his work,” Corbell said in an email. “People just weren’t listening— including me.”
Without spoiling the film, let it suffice to say the results from Leir’s science experiments in Patient Seventeen are definitely strange. The object in Patient Seventeen’s leg had a number of hallmarks of an extraterrestrial object as far as its elemental composition is concerned, but this is far from conclusive evidence.
As events became stranger following Leir’s death, Corbell was left with more unresolved questions than he started with.
In an effort to make sense of the lab analyses of the object from Patient Seventeen’s leg, Corbell reached out to two outside experts—including UCLA meteorite expert Alan Rubin—who he said were unwilling to go on camera to talk about possible alien technology. When Corbell presented them with the results from the labs, he said they were puzzled, but ultimately concluded that more tests would have to be done to determine whether the object was extraterrestrial in origin.
According to Corbell, shortly after he finished shooting, Colbern—who took possession of the object from Patient Seventeen’s leg after Leir’s death—stopped responding to Corbell or Patient Seventeen’s calls and emails. Colbern had effectively disappeared and taken the only hope of solving this mystery with him.
Corbell said he didn’t hear from Colbern for two years, but shortly before the release of Patient Seventeen, the two re-established contact and now Corbell is in possession of the object from Patient Seventeen’s leg. Corbell said he plans to repeat the initial tests run on the object to ensure they weren’t false positives before exploring other tests that will ultimately determine whether the small metallic thing is from Earth.
In the meantime, Corbell said he’s refraining from any sort of judgment on whether the little piece of metal is actually extraterrestrial nanotechnology.
“I don’t think belief should play a role here at all,” Corbell said. “I might be sitting on the most astounding physical evidence of an off-world, non-terrestrial nanotechnological device from an advanced Alien intelligence…or not. But you can be sure that I’m going to find out. I owe that to Patient Seventeen and I owe that to Dr. Leir.”