Yes, we're still disappointed that we didn't get a World War Z mockumentary. After all, science fiction and horror lend themselves quite well to the faux-documentary format. So we're kicking back with 15 speculative mockumentaries, from a silly Star Wars lark to an earnest look at Britain on the eve of nuclear war.
It seems that false documents are never far from science fiction; we only have to look at Orson Welles' radio adaptation of War of the Worlds or the entire found footage horror genre. Characters from Battlestar Galactica and Supernatural have gone head-to-head with documentary and reality TV crews, and the entire premise of ABC's short-lived TV series The River surrounded documentary filmmakers. These films and TV episodes do some clever and sometimes playful things with the documentary, news show, and reality TV show formats.
Quick note: Where available, I've embedded the relevant media, or at least a short clip or trailer. I apologize in advance for the Hulu embeds.
What makes this 1965 documentary dramatization particularly unsettling is that it isn't presented so much as a "What if?" scenario as a "What would we do?" scenario. The film dramatizes the events in Britain leading up to and following a nuclear attack. Even though The War Game is speculative in nature, it actually won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1966. It was considered too disturbing for broadcast television, however. After it aired on the BBC's The Wednesday Play anthology series, the doc was pulled from the airwaves and wasn't shown on British television until 1985.
Zombie movies are usually venues for overt terror. There are the flesh-hungry zombie mobs and there are the potentially violent survivors, end of story. But American Zombie takes a very different, and ultimately chilling, approach to its horror. A documentary team follows four ordinary undead Americans, each experiencing varying degrees of acceptance of their condition. As Live Dead, the zombie version of Burning Man, draws near, we begin to suspect that the characters we've been getting to know for the entire movie might actually be monsters. Where many mockumentaries (especially a black comedy like this one) aim for social commentary, American Zombie uses it to slowly unravel its characters horrors.
Even before the 2007-08 writers' strike left our airwaves, Series 7: The Contenders brutally skewered the genre with its battle royale game show. Contestants are allegedly selected by lottery and then filmed as they kill each other off. The last one alive wins—and goes on to the next season. Complicating Series 7 are a terminally ill player with a history with the reigning champion, and one player who seems to know a bit too much about the game. But perhaps the best part of Series 7 is Will Arnett's voice-over narration, which is so dead-on that you'd think he'd been moonlighting for some terrible cable documentary series.
There are enough documentary-style and found footage horror movies to fill up their own list: The Blair Witch Project, [REC], and Lake Mungo, just to name a few. What makes Ghostwatch so special? Well, it has a bit of a War of the Worlds reputation. On Halloween 1992, the pre-taped horror mockumentary aired, pretending to be a live broadcast. As the paranormal events unfolded, the BBC was flooded with phone calls from upset viewers, many of whom had mistaken the program for a live reality show. A few physicians even reported diagnosing children with PTSD after the broadcast, although other experts have questioned the wisdom of such a diagnosis.
Kevin Willmott remixes world history to imagine what might happen if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War, leaving Jefferson Davis as president of the entire United States. Willmott casts the renamed Confederate States of America as a superpower, imagining slavery spreading across the continent and even into South America, and remaining into the late 20th century. Although there are a lot of potshots taken at white Southerners in the form of the film's fake commercials, it casts the entire country as complicit in the expansion of slavery. It also puts some clever twists on 20th century history, replacing the perceived communist threat with an abolitionist one and creating a Cold War with Canada, which harbors runaway slaves and abolitionists alike, and enjoys the progress brought by their cultural and political contributions.
In the year 2040, the great economic superpowers are in Asia and North Americans serve as a cheap labor pool. On the one hand, it's about shifts in economic power, but this documentary puts a wonderfully weird spin on the future of labor. The "ghosts," as the North Americans are termed, work jobs like digital janitors (clearing out all of the brand names in digital spaces), human spam (casually dropping the names of products), and silk scavengers (who gather the leavings of giant mutant spiders). While there is a lot of thought put into the movie's small details (even going through a language selection at the start of the film), it's also a mock-doc that has a lot of fun with itself.
In the short film that Neill Blomkamp made and then adapted into District 9, various residents of Johannesburg appear to offer their opinions about a group of alien refugees. But the particular genius of this post-apartheid film isn't just in the final product, but in its creation. In the sequences that don't specifically mention aliens, the interviewees are not actors; they're South Africans giving their opinions about black Nigerians and Zimbabweans.
A mockumentary about the aftermath of George W. Bush's assassination may sound like an opportunity for filmmakers who aren't fans of Bush to prematurely dance on his grave. But Death of a President takes a different tack, instead imagining what the aftermath of such an assassination might look like under President Dick Cheney. Although there is some social commentary regarding civil liberties and racial profiling, Death of a President takes on the tone of a political thriller when some of the machinations behind fake-Bush's death are revealed.
In a rather bizarre crossover, The X-Files filmed one of its seventh season episodes in the style of another Fox show, Cops, down to the reality show's opening credits. The episode centers around a creature that remains unseen, but feeds on mortal terror. It's a largely comedic episode, but the idea of a fear monster roaming around an X-Files/Cops crossover is weirdly apt; after all, both shows have their own ways of spreading fear.
This isn't a particularly great episode of Babylon 5, but "And Now for a Word" does show some of the weaknesses in the hour-long news special format. A team from the Interstellar Network News (ISN) arrives on the space station to investigate whether Babylon 5 is a worthwhile endeavor, interviewing members of the crew and the diplomatic inhabitants. The episode lands in the latter half of Season Two, so we've had hours and hours to get to know the station and the people who live aboard it. Aside from the slightly creepy Psi Corps commercial, the news segment doesn't offer much insight life in the Year 2259. It's no wonder that folks back on Earth can't really appreciate the work aboard Babylon 5.
Farscape gets a far superior mockumentary episode after the crew of the Moya visits Earth. A television series examines footage that John Crichton's nephew shot of their alien visitors. It's fascinating to see talking heads offer their interpretations of the crew members and what this encounter means for life on Earth. There is a mixture of excitement and doubt, and Farscape treats it with wonderful self-reflection. These talking heads aren't trying understand the aliens so much as they are trying to understand humanity's context in the universal community. And the whole time, we're not just watching the documentary; we're also watching the viewing audience, the Moya crew members, who aren't wholly thrilled with the way they've been depicted.
A zanier entry comes from LucasFilm, which made this Droid-centric mockumentary as a goof during the filming of Attack of the Clones. Done as one of those behind-the-scenes of celebrity life specials, Beneath the Dome is set in a world in which R2-D2 is a real Droid who plays himself in the Star Wars movies. It's a fun flight of fancy filled with celebrity interviews and a hefty dollop of Photoshop.
Andy Bobrow directed this Ken Burns-spoofing short film about NASSA, the Negro American Space Society of Astronauts, which was "reluctantly" deemed ineligible for the 2005 Nebula Award. It details the exploits of a homespun space program run by black astronauts, which fails to get any sort of public recognition, despite frequently outmatching "white NASA."
Peter Greenaway's feature film debut is deranged, surreal, and utterly charming. The subjects in the film's 92 short biographical segments are linked to an incident called the Violent Unknown Event (VUE). After surviving the event, each subject (whose last names invariably start with the letters F-A-L-L) has developed strange interests or abilities, often connected to birds. Greenaway unabashedly pursues with own obsessions in ways both compelling and visually playful, and it's the one entry on this list that will make you feel transported to another dimension.
Werner Herzog and Zak Penn's mockumentary explores the nature of truth in filmmaking in occasionally surprising ways. Herzog plays himself, filming a documentary about the Loch Ness Monster with Penn while another documentary crew films their process. But it gradually becomes clear that Penn is staging aspects of Herzog's documentary in order to make it more interesting. We expect that some Nessie-like beast will pop up eventually, but what's unexpected is when, Penn's faked truth becomes the real thing, such as when an actress hired to play a sonar operator becomes the crew's de facto sonar expert. By the end, we're invited to ask not "What is real?" but "What is true?"