Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
For the most part, I do my best to prevent my reviews from getting overtly autobiographical (because honestly, who gives a shit). But it would seem unfair, dishonest even, to attempt to appraise the documentary Journey to Planet X without acknowledging the part that my own history with no-budget filmmaking plays in my response to it. You see, the film is the documentary account of Eric Swain and Troy Bernier's two-year production of a 30-minute homemade sci-fi movie, and there are scenes within it that have the embarrassing familiarity of a high school yearbook. It is charming and funny and, in spots, almost uncomfortable to watch.
Both men work as scientists--Swain as a civil engineer, Bernier in academia. But on nights and weekends, they make sci-fi and fantasy shorts, heavy on wooden acting and terrible visual effects. From what we see, their output thus far has been pretty awful, though everyone close to the filmmakers is so polite, so delicate about the considerable flaws (for a crash course in going easy on someone you love, watch how Troy's wife talks about their work). Eric is mostly in it for fun, as a hobby, but Troy wants to up their game on their next film, Planet X, an action/sci-fi epic set on a moon of Pluto.
The contrast between those ambitions is set up early, and provides the film's limited tension--frankly, everyone's too nice for it to become much of a source of contention. Eric listens to Troy for a while before finally giving in and buying a better video camera, or repainting their blue screen green (which keys better on video), or replacing his seven-year-old PC with an iMac. It's not really a matter of raging egos; they both just want to make a good movie, or the closest thing they can approximate to one.
Their unbridled zeal rubs off on the film, which is vital; much of it walks a fine line between observation and ridicule. And for good reason--it's so hard not to laugh at these guys, as an audience member and (presumably) as a documentary filmmaker. Everyone has watched the behind-the-scenes featurettes on their favorite DVDs, and thus fall easily into the role of thoughtful talking head for on-set interviews. It's almost secondary that the product itself is so crudely made or incompetently acted; like Ed Wood or Mark Borchardt, they're clearly in love with the mere act of making a movie (no matter what the result).
That gee-whiz enthusiasm comes to a head at the big cast preview screening, and as the final product unspools, Journey to Planet X conjures up an odd mixture of responses: a genuine sense of happiness for these cheerful guys and their accomplishment, mixed with a dirty shot of heartbreak at the utter disillusionment on display. Directors Josh Koury and Myles Kane seem aware of that heady brew, and appear to have stirred it carefully--they gingerly avoid leaning their perspective in one direction over the other.
When this writer decided to let go of the dream of making films and instead focus on the more attainable goal of writing about them, it was based partially on fear--the vision of myself as a middle-aged man, still toiling away at no-budget efforts that went nowhere and did nothing. In other words, I worried I would turn into Eric Swain, 45-year-old auteur of bad, homemade movies. But he's a braver soul than I. It's easy to see him and Troy as a cautionary tale; it's harder to accomplish what Koury and Kane do, which is to salute their dedication and hard work, while acknowledging that yes, maybe their canon leaves something to be desired, quality-wise. And if they have a laugh at the bargain-basement graphics and cardboard acting, what's the harm in that?
Journey to Planet X probably won't appeal to the widest possible audience, even by indie documentary standards; the general movie-going populace may not be all that interested in how two Florida scientists make their goofy, cheapo movies. But for those who have taken a shot at the delicate art of movie making, it plays like an awkward, sad, yet uproarious home movie.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.