On youthful prankishness, rigid visual grammar, and the perfect marriage of cinema and conspiracy
Operation Avalanche Lionsgate
Director: Matt Johnson
Screenplay: Matt Johnson and Josh Boles
Starring: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles, Jared Raab, Andrew Appelle and Krista Madison
Rated R / 1 hour, 34 minutes / 1.85:1
(out of four)
You'd think the mere thought of a government faking one of the great accomplishments in human history would have sparked the imagination a bit more by now. We're closing in on 50 years since the moon landing - an event made iconic by the very filming of it - and in that time the cinematic interest in it seems to have faded. For decades - practically since the invention of movies - filmmakers had dreamt up fantastical adventures about the moon, ages before it was even remotely possible to get there. Once we'd done it, however ... I mean, sure, we go back now and again, but usually cloaked in reverential tones, telling stories protected by the approval of history.
Which is a shame, really; a faked moon landing still makes for an awfully good story, and I'm not sure it's ever been told particularly well. The conspiracy theory (like most) is gloriously asinine, but that's only further argument that the screen is where it belongs. The movies are no place for reality, but for possibility. Speculation, states of mind, subjective interpretations and reinterpretations of the world around us, the world before and after us. Conspiracy works marvelously at the movies. It feeds our appetite for paranoia, our mistrust of institutions, our lingering doubt of conventional wisdom.
There have been attempts here and there - most prominently Peter Hyams' Capricorn One, which re-framed the conspiracy as a faked Mars landing, and which is sad and embarrassing when it's not unintentionally hilarious; otherwise probably a handful of B-grade thrillers everyone has long forgotten and the occasional viral video. I must admit, the subject would have been catnip for my 14-year-old self, who was going through an intense X-Files phase and in a completely unrelated coincidence briefly decided that the moon landing had been faked. Consider that poor kid's disappointment that in the many years since, just about the best we've come up with on the matter is Matt Johnson's Operation Avalanche, which tells of the "event" from the perspective of the amateur documentarians who presumably pulled the hoax off.
It makes a delightful kind of sense, doesn't it? I mean, why wouldn't a couple of overconfident young filmmakers in the middle of the space race try to pull something like that off? The film's hoax is framed as a bit of youthful mischief, a result of a couple of young guys (although one is the clear ringleader, the other the more skeptical collaborator) trying to do something big and crazy with no tangible appreciation for the bigger picture. The prize is in the doing, and the risks are only an abstract concept. They're working hard on pulling this fake footage off, but in their behavior - the playfulness of their enthusiasm, their mugging for the camera whenever they happen to make eye contact with it - they're giving it all the weight of an elaborate prank. They giggle like they're getting away with something - but certainly nothing that'll turn out to be the single most famous film clip of the 20th Century. How apt, that in their youthful zeal - built, as youthful zeal always is, on Teflon illusions - they achieve immortality, but only through a frivolous antic, and only by accident.
It's the devil-may-care attitude of the characters - Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, named after the actors playing them - even as it becomes increasingly clear that they're in way over their heads that carries Operation Avalanche for a while. There's a moment early on, when Matt has just devised the idea of faking the moon landing, when it comes time for him to make his pitch to the higher-ups. He's rehearsing in the hallway, just moments before heading in for his big moment. It's clear he's prepared a whole spiel, but in that hallway practice session, he flubs his line ... then instantly laughs it off and charges gung-ho into the board room, somehow more confident in his ability to close the deal. It's a perfect embodiment of the naive, exuberant recklessness that defines the whole endeavor. This hoax begins as a lark - a silly idea from a couple of nobodies, only begrudgingly accepted by the government decision-makers - and snowballs into an axis-shifting national strategy.
And again, this works up to a point. But at that point, Johnson's filmmaking choices start to become more and more of an obstacle - which he's frankly not quite resourceful enough to overcome. The film is shot as a behind-the-scenes filming of the filming of the lunar landing - complete with locating scouting, test footage, overseas consultations with Stanley Kubrick, you name it. Even if we just go ahead and swallow the fundamental flaw of the government allowing footage of the creation of their giant conspiracy to be recorded on film (Let's fake the moon landing *and* film ourselves faking it, for posterity!), Avalanche proves unable to handle the tone shifts and logistical challenges as the story moves more into paranoid thriller territory. (Needless to say, the hoax doesn't go as smoothly or as quickly as Matt and Owen would like.)
By design, the film's events are given a matter-of-fact quality. This making-of doc (part of a planned excuse for why they're carrying around cameras and building moon-like sets, should someone ever ask) is little more than a cover story - not the true artistic ambition of Matt and Co. - so there's a rough-around-the-edges looseness about it, bordering on carelessness. When something eerie or threatening happens, or when a NASA executive has a testy exchange with one of the filmmakers, it's essentially caught only happenstance. Right place, right time. But the narrative moves so far away from its initial objective that it affects what works and what doesn't about the entire filmmaking approach. Johnson can only give us things that can be easily captured from the first-person viewpoint - so the bulk of the second half is made up of scenes that either aren't narratively imaginative enough, or are too elaborate to be done justice by the very specific camerawork the film employs. This tends to happen to films when the visual grammar is so rigid. Shooting a car chase scene entirely from the POV of the cameraman in the backseat of one of the cars sounds a lot more interesting than Johnson is ultimately able to make it.
The movie's general idea, I get. It's clever. And its cleverness - documentary footage about the manufacturing of other "documentary" footage - is almost self-contained enough to work. But as it changes its own course, its stylistic approach isn't malleable enough to keep up. Considering the aforementioned lack of good moon-conspiracy movies, this one of course seems to me like a bit of a missed opportunity. What's kind of amusing is that it works as a freewheeling backstage comedy, and only falters when it actually starts getting conspiratorial. For all the potential in the prospect of a faked moon landing, it's hard to imagine that the most interesting angle is the personalities of the dopes doing the faking.