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It’s hard not to compare Journey to Planet X to Chris Smith’s American Movie, which has been a personal favorite of mine for almost 10 years. They’re both documentaries about people making movies, and both are essentially about outsider artists who make up for limited means with hard work.
But it’s also unfair to compare Journey to Planet X to American Movie since they’re different breeds of dog. In American Movie, you have Mark Borchardt, a working-class Wisconsin guy who lives at home with his parents, has to support three kids from a failed marriage, and struggles with credit card debt and keeping a decent job. In Journey to Planet X, you have Eric Swain and Troy Bernier, two gainfully employed scientists in suburban Florida with enough cash on hand to buy new computers.
From that, you can probably tell which is a more compelling and dramatic film. You can also probably tell where my review is headed already.
Journey to Planet X
Director: Myles Kane and Josh Koury
Release Date: TBD
In movies about making movies, one of the things that holds our interest is the personality of the filmmaker. You get behind his or her passion for what’s being made, and sometimes you begin to see the work in those terms. You may even identify with the struggle, even if it’s a futile or sad one. That goes for documentaries like American Movie and Lost in La Mancha as well as narrative films like Ed Wood, Adaptation, and Baadasssss! At its best, we get a little insight into another person’s artistic vision.
Eric and Troy are nice enough guys. Eric’s been making films for years as a hobby, and his previous films reflect that. They look like the stuff you’d film with your friends in middle school and high school. His buddy Troy, though, thinks they should step up their game for their newest sci-fi action short, Planet X. He feels it may even be the start of a legitimate film career — small steps and giant leaps.
So Planet X is a chance for our heroes to take filmmaking seriously for once. Eric and Troy cast local actors, enlist the help of an artist friend to do storyboards, and they even dedicate more time to the special effects than before. Gone are the crude but oddly charming blobs and models of Eric’s medieval yarn and high-flying dogfight picture, in come the digital effects. They even make some upgrades to the small studio space where they shot their previous films.
But nice enough isn’t quite enough to carry a movie. Eric’s aloof about filmmaking and doesn’t take it all that seriously. Even though you can tell he likes doing it, it doesn’t seem like he has any ambition to be a professional filmmaker. Troy takes it seriously, but he seems somewhat grounded. Tensions and conflict never arise between them because they’re both so level-headed and agreeable. Neither of these two are prone to delusions of grandeur or the emotional fits of a struggling artist. Rather than watching Don Quixote tilt at windmills, Journey to Planet X is a little like watching Don from accounts payable.
This lack of tension and personality is particularly pronounced since the production of Planet X doesn’t seem like a major challenge. Eric and Troy run into bumps here and there, but they’re never terrible or too memorable. They experience a few issues while filming in an industrial-sized supermarket freezer, for example, but Eric seems fine with taking a shortcut if things don’t work out. And since Eric and Troy have steady jobs and are content in their lives, it never seems like money is too much of an issue, or time, for that matter. It’s still feels like a hobby even though they’re taking it seriously and putting more effort into it.
Maybe that’s the main thing I noticed about Journey to Planet X: for Eric and Troy, the film they’re making doesn’t have some bigger, abstract meaning for them. There’s hard work, but it’s never quite a struggle; it’s a story they want to tell, but there’s not a sense that they’re personally invested in the film on a deeper level. Going back to American Movie, there’s a scene where Mark tries to get his elderly uncle to say the line, “It’s all right, it’s okay, there’s something to live for… Jesus told me so.” His uncle keeps flubbing the line because in real life he doesn’t believe what he’s being asked to say. But Mark keeps pushing him to say the line because it means something to him. Making movies, as hard as it is, gives Mark something to believe in, and it makes him write things that he feels are true. That feeling isn’t present in Journey to Planet X.
In the production notes for Journey to Planet X, directors Myles Kane and Josh Koury said that it felt like the right time to make this documentary given the interest people have in films like Birdemic and The Room. While their instinct was right, their aim seems off. A documentary on James Nguyen or Tommy Wiseau would have been much more fascinating. James Nguyen’s got a Birdemic sequel coming out this year and he worked with Tippi Hedren on his first film; and Tommy Wiseau is, well, Tommy Wiseau. (Hi doggy!) There’s something to be said about our fascination with bad movies that Kane and Koury could have explored. Think Troll 2, for example, and the Troll 2 documentary Best Worst Movie. Those memorable bad movies, like the people who made them, have distinct personalities which could be worth chronicling.
This makes me wonder what Eric and Troy think about movies like The Room, Birdemic, and Troll 2. Would they take offense to being lumped in with those films and filmmakers? Have they seen any of them? And I also wonder what movies Eric and Troy like, and what directors, and all that stuff you wonder about when people are driven to create things. I can’t recall a moment where they go into that, or just geek out over films or their heroes.
But before I come across as a total humbug, I’ll say that Journey to Planet X is still interesting despite my criticisms. Again, Eric and Troy are likable guys, and there are some genuinely (and unintentionally) funny bits in their finished film. Maybe I’m just harsh because the documentary occupies a similar territory as one of my favorite movies. Then again, maybe Journey to Planet X is interesting, but just not interesting enough.