In the world of the internet, everything is a conspiracy. Mass shootings, elections, a diverse cast in the new Star Wars, and street sweeping tickets have been accused of being part of various conspiracy theories to dupe the public and line the pockets of those in power. Aside from 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination, no other world event has inspired a more attention from the conspiratorially tinged than the Moon landing. That certain subsection of the population with their ceilings and windows lined with tinfoil, those who have manually removed the fillings in their teeth believe that Moon landing never happened. It was all an elaborate ruse by the CIA to gain the upper hand over the Soviets in the Cold War and the space race. From director, co-writer, and star Matt Johnson, Operation Avalanche is a committed blend of found footage and mockumentary techniques to tell the fictitious story of a small group of CIA agents that faked the Moon landing.
After a fake opening credits with the logo of the CIA, we’re informed through text that the agency in the late ‘60s hired a group of filmmakers with no military or espionage experience to be the agency’s film department. Following a bit of archival footage of Kennedy’s famed speech about space exploration, we meet a few of the young CIA agents Matt and Owen (played by Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, respectively, whom are billed as themselves). Their past assignment which is nearing completion was a background check into the possible communist ties of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who had recently scored a hit with Dr. Strangelove. For their follow up assignment Matt and Owen will pose as a documentary crew to investigate possible Soviet infiltration of NASA. But while they find no evidence of communist spies in the ranks of NASA, they uncover that the brains of NASA can’t make their expected launch date and won’t be able to safely put astronauts on the Moon and bring them back until 1971.
The ambitious Matt sees this as an opportunity to impress his superiors and proposes filming a faked Moon landing to broadcast live to the American public. In order to pull it off, Matt and the crew will travel to London and get tips for recreating space from touring the set of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike the popular theory that Kubrick directed the faked event, Operation Avalanche just allows the legendary director to provide the inspiration for the CIA’s A/V club. As they finish their elaborate hoax, paranoia sets in as the heads of the agency keep a close eye on the production and will stop at nothing to ensure secrecy upon completion.
From the faded color and handheld shakiness of the images to the costumes and cars, Operation Avalanche remains fully invested in trying to make everything recreate the feel of its era. But there’s only so far you can go with this format as proved time and time again. Matt Johnson and co-writer Josh Boles, who like cinematographers Andrew Appelle and Jared Raab is billed as “himself,” shoehorn their story with that constantly has to explain why its characters are filming every minute detail of a vast conspiracy.
Like the characters explaining why they’re recording any given moment, a majority of the film is about the how and why of this elaborate hoax. This leads to a number of nods to the famed conspiracy theory. Of course, there’s the aforementioned involvement of Kubrick, and at another point Matt Johnson is designating rocks as “A” and “B rocks,” an obvious reference to the “C rock” mentioned in the documentary Room 237. Operation Avalanche only seems escalate towards its conclusion because it need some kind of tension, but the tragedy is it comes far too late.
Operation Avalanche is better than the average found footage movie and has a commitment to its visual authenticity that is admirable. There’s a lot of effort and a bit of talent on display here. But the film can’t elevate its concept beyond the confines of its chosen genre. The film winks at the audience about the details of the conspiracy and is brisk in its running time. But it stumbles too often in being truly compelling, waiting far too long to escalate the tension that is all but absent for a majority of the film. Between Operation Avalanche and Moonwalkers, another film about the faking of the Moon landing from earlier this year, it seems that Room 237 has inspired a new generation of filmmakers to toy with the notion of a legendary figure like Kubrick’s involvement in this vast conspiracy theory that just won’t die. It may not always work, but at least Operation Avalanche has the kind of ambition that most found footage movies lack, and the film stays committed to its ambitious framing throughout for better or worse.