Sometimes all it takes is one scene for a movie to stand out. A single moment, concept, or shot can make the difference between something sticking in your mind indelibly, or fading from memory altogether. When you’ve got several of those moments strung together, you’re not only ahead of the curve — you’ve likely got a very strong film on your hands.
All of which makes Matt Johnson’s second feature, Operation Avalanche, so frustrating. Premiering here at Sundance, it’s a conspiracy thriller about the faking of the Apollo Moon landing that doesn’t just have one special moment — it’s got dozens of them, piling smart ideas and clever beats atop one another into a pastiche that should be a home run for anybody with a love of movies, space exploration, or just good old-fashioned X-Files government paranoia. Instead, it ends up being a little too smart for its own good, so enamored with the cleverness of its found-footage premise that it forgets to tell a riveting story along the way.
Avalanche takes place in the late ‘60s, where two new ambitious CIA agents named Matt Johnson and Owen Williams (played by… director/co-writer Matt Johnson and Owen Williams) are tasked with making movies that investigate various areas of agency concern. Their latest assignment is a film looking into allegations that Stanley Kubrick is a spy (he isn’t), and we see the action through the camera lens of their crew, who make a habit of filming everything the team does. When word leaks that there is a mole in NASA leaking space race secrets to the Russians, the duo pitch their superiors to get the assignment. They’ll pose as a documentary crew making a movie about the Apollo program, they say, and with that kind of cover they’ll be able to track down the enemy agent.
With NASA running behind, they propose a solution: fake the Moon landing
Once they start working they learn that NASA is far behind schedule, and won’t be able to land on the Moon until years after John F. Kennedy’s target date of 1969. Their bosses want to pull them off the assignment, but Johnson talks them into a better option: he and his team will fake the Moon landing using burgeoning movie special effects techniques in an elaborate ruse that will fool everyone from NASA Mission Control to the American people.
It’s not the cleanest of set-ups, and the with the actors playing roles named after themselves and the film we’re watching ostensibly a documentary made by the group’s own team, the movie starts eating its own tail pretty early on. But Operation Avalanche is nevertheless a blast in the early stages, blurring the lines between reality and fiction as the duo first set up shop at NASA, then start outlining how they’d actually fake footage from the Moon. Johnson isn’t terribly strong as an actor, particularly in the heavier dramatic scenes, but he nails the overeager, selfish buffoon aspect of his character, and is immensely entertaining even while his character alienates the members of his team.
Avalanche’s crowning achievement, however, is the way in which it lovingly pays homage to visual effects — and Stanley Kubrick himself. At a certain point the team become convinced that the only way to pull off their illusion will be to use the same front-projection techniques Kubrick is using to shoot 2001: A Space Odyssey, so they travel to Shepperton Studios to visit the set of the film. It’s executed with a seamless blend of archival footage and Forrest Gump-style visual effects, putting us on the actual set of 2001 as Kubrick decides how to shoot the famous Moon monolith sequence, with Johnson’s character later hitting the auteur up for his autograph.
A loving homage to visual effects and the work of Stanley Kubrick
The sequence is simply delightful, and it’s Operation Avalanche at its very best: clever, funny, and so in love with movies themselves that it nearly forces you to smile. Those kind of flashes come throughout the film — it may be the only found footage movie I’ve ever seen where they show somebody actually cutting the footage you’re watching — but that delight starts to fall away as the team begins to suspect that they’re being hunted by Russian agents, or even worse, double-crossed by the CIA because they know too much.
Ultimately, the movie falls apart for the same reason so many other found-footage films do: it wants to tell a bigger story than the premise allows. Watching documentary footage of Johnson and his team building a fake lunar rover on a soundstage makes complete sense within the framework of the film; accepting that somebody’s going to keep a camera rolling when people’s lives are at stake, or when the characters find themselves in a high-speed car chase with bullets whizzing by, simply doesn’t. If I’m thinking about the feasibility of the style, I’m not inside the world of the movie — and Operation Avalanche kicked me out time and again.
It could be so much better if it ditched the found footage gimmick
What kept running through my mind throughout the last third of Operation Avalanche was just how much better the film could have been if it had ditched the found footage conceit and told its story in a more conventional form; if it could have focused on simply telling the best version of this story instead of constantly servicing the set-up. Matt Johnson’s first film, The Dirties, followed a similar approach, using a meta-documentary premise to tell the story of a pair of friends making a movie about bullying that goes horribly awry. It’s clear he’s comfortable with the format, and to his credit Operation Avalanche is more ambitious in every possible way. But it’s already clear that Johnson is a young filmmaker who has outgrown this particular bit of cinematic sleight of hand.
That’s not to suggest you shouldn’t check out Operation Avalanche when you get a chance — the Shepperton sequence alone is worth it. (It should be released by Lionsgate sometime this year.) But I’m much more excited about what Matt Johnson does next.
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