“Ever hear of a conspiracy theory?”
When weary filmgoers declare that they’re sick of “found footage”-style films, what they really mean is that they’re sick of bad “found footage” films. The type that take the format popularized (but by no means invented) by The Blair Witch Project and do absolutely nothing new with it other than pointing a shaky camera at actors acting like they’re not acting. Every now and then, though, a film will take up the “found footage” challenge and do something unique with it. Enter Matt Johnson’s inventive, clever and at times unsettling Operation Avalanche. Johnson’s film tackles the urban legend/conspiracy theory that refuses to die: the “faked” moon landing. Even now in the 21st century there are some people — and not just those who exist on the fringes — who firmly believe that NASA or some nefarious, shady government agency staged the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. As if this wasn’t a juicy enough rumor, some theorists have taken it a step further by insinuating that none other than legendary director Stanley Kubrick was the guy who was hired to film the fake moon landing that fooled a nation.
Operation Avalanche dives head-first into the conspiracy pool, in faux-documentary style, focusing on a the lowly, nerdy agents in the CIA’s av club (played by Johnson and Owen Williams). The two have been friends for years, and while they’ve got a comfortable gig in the CIA — the film opens with them investigating if Kubrick has communist leanings — Johnson is constantly trying to climb higher-up in the agency, much to Williams’ chagrin. Through bull-in-a-China-shop determination, Johnson first convinces his superiors into sending the av club into NASA to see if there’s a commie spying on the Apollo program. But once at NASA, the young, impulsive CIA agent learns that NASA haven’t figured out how to land on the moon yet. Not to worry, as Johnson has a brilliant solution: they’ll fake the moon landing and broadcast to the world.
A large part of Operation Avalanche’s appeal is on an aesthetic level. Since this is supposed to be 1969, the character’s aren’t supposed to be running around with modern, crystal-clear HD cameras. As a result, every frame is chock-full of of meticulously crafted film stock grain, blurred frames and distinct hisses and pops on the audio. It’s effective: the overall look of the film conveys an air of authenticity, transporting the viewer back in time while never coming across as forced or staged. Yet as commendable as the film quality — or deliberate lack thereof — may be, Operation Avalanche is slightly derailed by its cast, who seem far too young and inexperienced to be in the CIA, and, worse, speak and behave in a very modern manner. Johnson’s performance can at times be quite hilarious, as he barrels ahead and drags his crew reluctantly along, but he never once seems like someone from the late 1960s, but rather an individual from the 21st century who accidentally stumbled back in time.
Anachronistic performances aside, Johnson and Williams play off each other well, with Williams growing more and more distant and disillusioned from his once close friend. The relationship between the two lends a human element to the proceedings that other films in this vein are sorely lacking.
Operation Avalanche slowly proves itself adept at mastering a subtly shifting tone. The first half of the film is light and even deliberately comical at times, and there’s a distinct thrill in watching the characters go about staging their fake moon launch, including one scene where they visit Kubrick on-set while he’s filming 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the deeper into their mission the filmmakers go, the more danger awaits them, and an eerie atmosphere begins to prevail over the story. In less talented hands the shift would be jarring and confusing, but Johnson and his crew pull it off nicely, and by the time the film reaches its final act it’s fully committed to political thriller territory. Overall, Operation Avalanche is the exact type of film needed to remind audiences that not all “found footage” films need to be met with hesitation and scorn. Sometimes all it takes is one small step to make something tiresome seem fresh and exciting again.
This review originally appeared on March 15, 2016.