'Spinal Tap' meets 'Dr Strangelove' in a quirky blocumentary

Mock-documentary "Houston, We Have a Problem" comically exposes the secret history of the Cold War, with some stunning drone footage thrown in.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

We've had mockumentaries. We've had rockumentaries. And now, in "Houston, We Have a Problem", an absurdist mock documentary about the Cold War between the Eastern and Western Blocs, we have a blocumentary.

The film pieces together recent declassified secret documents and eyewitness testimony to reveal a shocking revelation: America's space programme was actually bought wholesale in the 1960s from what was then Yugoslavia, a secret deal that pitted capitalist and communist culture head-to-head and shaped the history of the world.

Obviously none of that is true. And yet, this fake documentary argues, it sort of is. Somewhere between rockumentary "This is Spinal Tap" and savage satire "Dr Strangelove", the film uses its absurd premise as a launchpad to explore the way nations are intertwined, how the world secretly moves to the whims of dictators and presidents, and how the lives of individuals are formed and crushed by the larger forces of history.

The shaggy-dog story begins with the comic claim that a Yugoslavian scientist invented space travel before the Second World War. After the war, with socialist Yugoslavia sandwiched between East and West, charismatic leader Joseph Tito launched a secret space programme. As the space rage publicly raged between the United States and Soviet Russia, we're told, Yugoslav scientists successfully launched a pig into space. Then, when it landed, they roasted and ate it.

From these absurdist foundations, director Žiga Virc launches a surreal alternate version of the Cold War, taking in genuine conspiracy theory touchstones from the Kennedy assassination to the Nixon tapes. Along the way we see the reality of how international dirty deals were conducted in unwitting neutral nations and during double-talking diplomatic missions, and how the world is defined, influenced and carved up by the scheming of the richest and most powerful. That actually happened -- just not quite in the fashion presented here -- and is still happening.

The era is evoked by clever use of retro Cold War footage, all vintage machinery, flag-waving parades and balding white men chomping pipes. Tito, "a man of big appetites and big ideas", is presented as an avuncular figure who jokes around for the cameras and cheekily smokes Cuban cigars in the White House. It's an interesting and timely look at how a charismatic leader manipulates public perception.

Things take a dark turn as America's plan to carve up Yugoslavia is revealed. The story culminates with the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia in 1991, US President Bill Clinton beckoning capitalism into the area's war-torn remains.

The premise may be deliberately absurd, but there's a lot if truth in the underlying story of how the powerful covertly scheme to influence history, and what it means for the individuals caught up in those schemes.

Meanwhile, as the wheels of history turn, tourists on Elm Street, Dallas, are shown taking selfies on the spot Kennedy was shot.

One unexpected treat of "Houston, We Have a Problem" is the film's use of drones . Beginning with an evocative trip to a vast derelict underground base -- the very real "Objekat 505" -- the film features a wealth of epic, soaring shots captured by a camera dispatched high above the scene. The energetic drone camerawork culminates in a stunning shot rocketing us through the narrow gangways and cluttered staterooms of an abandoned ship, before zooming across the deck and climbing into the sky until the rippling dock fills the frame.

Using a comic premise to explore the secret machinations of history from a different orbit, this slick blocumentary is one small step for comedy and one giant leap for drone filming.

"Houston, We Have a Problem" is playing at the London Film Festival and is set for wider release in 2017.