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movies matter | criticism by maryann johanson

Operation Avalanche movie review: to the moon?

Operation Avalanche red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
This Apollo-era would-be suspense-thriller mockumentary is more an exercise in “look how film-school cool and clever we are” than anything else.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m a big ol’ science and SF geek
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Two young CIA agents go undercover at NASA in 1967 in order to root out a suspected Russian mole, and instead end up embroiled in a conspiracy of their own making. That sounds pretty cool — I’m always a sucker for space stuff and paranoia — but this would-be suspense-thriller mockumentary is more an exercise in “look how film-school cool and clever we are” than anything else. Director and cowriter (with Josh Boles) Matt Johnson casts himself as “director” of a faux documentary about the Apollo program as cover for the spy mission — Owen Williams plays his partner — which uncovers the top-secret “fact” that the space agency has hit technical roadblocks and won’t make it to the moon before the 1970s. So the agents concoct a plan to fake moon-landing footage themselves, and in such a way that even most of NASA (such as the people in mission control) don’t even realize that men are only orbiting the moon and not actually landing on it. (Their plan requires the complicity of the astronauts, obviously.)

Operation Avalanche spins an already well-worn conspiracy theory into a shaggy-dog story.
tweet

Much of Operation Avalanche — that’s the code name the agents give their scheme — is meant, I suspect, to be something of a black comedy about how a pushy and audacious asshole like Johnson’s operative is subverting what is allegedly a triumph of gung-ho science and clean-cut all-American Right Stuff-ism. It doesn’t quite work on that level, because it’s never actually funny, not even in a snide, bitter way.tweet And the film’s mock-documentary conceit falls down in ways that undercut the paranoia that is allegedly mounting as the agents fear that Avalanche’s success, should it come to pass, will mean that the CIA will off them in order to maintain the secret. (Why obsessively document how they are covering their own tracks? That footage only creates more tracks to be covered!)

Open flames, such as cigarettes, are generally not recommended in the vicinity of rocket fuel.

Open flames, such as cigarettes, are generally not recommended in the vicinity of rocket fuel.tweet

But the larger failing of the film, the one that ultimately kills it, is that Operation Avalanche is merely spinning out an Apollo hoax “theory” that is nothing new. A mention of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick early in Avalanche is a clue to where it is heading — the notion that Kubrick helped NASA fake the 1969 moon-landing footage enjoys a robust life in the more idiotic corners of the Internet — and it never finds anything new to say beyond that. Operation Avalanche turns an already well-worn conspiracy theory into a shaggy-dog story. There is no payoff in the end.tweet

All Avalanche has is a commendable mounting of the period on, presumably, a very low budget, as well as an impressive use of practical FX and, apparently, technology (such as cameras) of the era. But even that comes with a rather distasteful self-congratulatory tone.tweet The CIA hoaxers’ names are “Matt Johnson” and “Owen Williams” — cinematographers Andrew Appelle and Jared Raab also play CIA camera operators of the same names — which is downright bizarre. These young men wouldn’t have yet been born in the 1960s, so there’s no possibility that we might be fooled into thinking that they are playing themselves and that there’s nothing “mock” about Operation Avalanche. Is Johnson likening them all, though, to men clever enough and skilled enough to have fooled the entire world into believing Neil Armstrong actually walked on the moon? That’s more than a bit of a stretch, and when the film has nothing other than good looks to recommend it, it’s more than a bit impudent.


red light 2 stars

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Operation Avalanche (2016) | directed by Matt Johnson
US/Can release: Sep 16 2016
UK/Ire release: direct to DVD

MPAA: rated R for language including a brief sexual reference
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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  • RogerBW

    Yeah, they did a great job on a low budget… by lying to NASA, claiming they were making a film about the moon landings. Which makes life harder for every filmmaker who comes after them.

    I’m in favour of the Buzz Aldrin approach.

  • Bluejay

    Funny how conspiracy theorists fancy themselves courageous thinkers, daring to ask questions outside the box. And yet their imaginations are so meager that they can only believe that Kubrick faked the moon footage, because of his work on 2001. Why do they never consider, instead, that all the footage from 2001 was REAL? :-)

  • LaSargenta

    I think that would be me, too.

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  • by lying to NASA

    Yeah, that’s part of the “look how film-school cool and clever we are” problem, too.

  • David Jones

    I found this film to be entertaining and highly original. It’s probably the most audacious piece of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Clearly, the reviewer was never drawn into the story, as I was. Nonetheless, I think it’s completely unfair for her to say that all it has going for it is its look. I thought the acting and the story were both excellent. I also thought that the ending was quite strong. What did the reviewer expect would happen? That the moon landings would be exposed as fakes?

    There are a couple of places where the dialogue falls down (the main character is relating a story and is using anachronisms such as “and so I’m like ‘What are you doing?’ and he’s like, ‘None of your business. . . ‘”) People were not substituting the word ‘like’ for ‘said’ until the year 2000 or later. But that’s a minor slip.

    Also, Bluejay, and RogerBW: The director is not a conspiracy theorist and doesn’t believe that the moon landings were faked. At least, that’s what he said when he showed his film at the VIFF last year.

    This is a comedic mockumentary–and a very good one, at that. I don’t think that Buzz Aldrin would have had a problem with that. What he objected to were people who refused to believe that he had actually walked on the moon.

  • Danielm80

    I was using “like” to mean “said” back in the 1980s, and I adopted the speech pattern later than most of the other kids in my school.

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