There’s a very primary spoiler-based dilemma faced by reviewers and festival programmers alike when it comes to films like Ziga Virc’s “Houston, We Have a Problem!” Simply by reviewing it for what it is, or by placing it in the category in which it technically belongs, you give away the gag, and therefore throttle down the engine from which it might derive greater power. But short of intentionally misleading prospective viewers, what can a programmer do but exclude this seeming documentary from their documentary section, and what can a critic do but let the cat out of the bag up front: “Houston, We Have A Problem!” and the grand international Cold War-era conspiracy it purports to uncover, is a fake.
The mockumentary format has precedent and pedigree — from “This is Spinal Tap” to “Borat,” and even into non-comedic genres like horror (“The Blair Witch Project”) and conspiracy theory (like this year’s eerily similar faked-moon-landing exposé “Project Avalanche”). But it thrives best when its job exposing documentary clichés is only half the satirical intent, and the thing-being-satirized, whether it’s dog shows or heavy metal hubris, itself comes in for a clever, insidery skewering.
And this is where “Houston, We Have a Problem!” disappoints. It’s simply not about very much aside from lampooning the ease with which a canny storyteller (for such Virc undoubtedly is) can fabricate “truthiness” by co-opting the tropes and mechanisms that we all long ago accepted as the documentary norm. Imagine if “The Colbert Report” had only ever been about sending up political opinion shows, as opposed to being the vehicle by which a new slant on the actual news of the day could be delivered.
The shaggy-dog story that Virc and his brother Bostjan, who co-wrote the film, cook up together is that newly declassified information has come to light proving that in the 1960s the US paid $2.5 billion to buy the Yugoslav space program, under the mistaken impression that it was far in advance of where it was. Then, discovering they’d been misled, first JFK, then LBJ, and eventually Nixon, played hardball with Yugoslav dictator Tito trying to get the tech to work or to get the money back. Along the way, Virc intercuts the story as being told by purported historian Roger McMillan and via recontextualized archive footage, with interviews with the putative participants: high-ranking officials on both sides, and “Ivan Pavic” an engineer who was smuggled to the States to help them crack the moon-race code, as he returns home for the first time to visit the daughter he never met.
One of the issues is that for those of us in on the meta-gag, the individual scenes aren’t particularly funny. But there are times when Virc exaggerates for a dryly humorous effect. The reunited father and daughter go for an awkward walk to a windy beach (he is wheelchair-bound) while he tells a tall tale from childhood, only to be greeted with a flat, “You could have told me about that back at the hotel.”
There could have been more of that sort of humor, but most of the time, “Houston We Have a Problem” suffers from being a one-note joke, a single entendre perhaps worthy of a short film. Stretched out to feature length, it becomes impossible to ignore that the seeds of its own obsolescence are baked in to the very premise: There is some enjoyment to be derived from working out where the overlaps between real and imagined lie, but the serious point it makes about the unquestioning consumption of media will be lost on those who unquestioningly consume this media, while those who do “get it” have to sit through what essentially amounts to an overlong exercise in sophomoric pastiche.
“Even if it didn’t happen, it’s true,” theorizes popular philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek who pops up intermittently throughout. But this bit of sophistry, which suggests that fakery is valuable in exposing wider truths, flatters Virc’s film with a depth, or at least a multi-layered-ness, it does not demonstrate. In outlining an alternate history so adeptly it could be mistaken for reality, Virc overlooks the most clichéd (and therefore most correct) saying about truth: It’s stranger than fiction. “Houston, We Have a Problem!” is so convincing, so straight and un-strange that it can’t possibly be truthful, and who has the time to invest in so unedifying a lie?