A captivating film about faking the Apollo 11 mission filled with innovative tricks and provocative ideas.
Operation Avalanche (Sundance Review)
If you took the guerilla-style shooting from Escape From Tomorrow and the faux-documentary approach from Computer Chess, you might have something close to what Matt Johnson creates in Operation Avalanche, a captivating film about faking the Apollo 11 mission. Shot illegally (though staying within Fair Rights), Johnson manages to film in NASA headquarters by pretending to be making a documentary. What better place to film a conspiracy film about the moon landing than NASA itself? It’s a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.
There’s a meta element to Operation Avalanche because the characters in the story employ the same tactic as the real filmmakers. Set during the space race in the ‘60s, America was worried about the possibility of a Russian spy stealing their secrets to get to the moon first. Enter Operation Zipper, a small film crew assigned to pose as clueless documentarians to find the spy. They go around conducting interviews with NASA employees and tap the phone lines of the higher-ups, eventually learning that NASA is 5 years behind schedule because they haven’t figured out how to actually land their moon lander.
Once word spreads that the space program may be jeopardizing John F. Kennedy’s target date the commander wants to shut down Operation Zipper, but the filmmaking team comes up with a plan to save their jobs and fix NASA’s problem: dubbed Operation Avalanche, the team offers to fake the moon landing using the same special effects used in movies. Their first task is to visit the set of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; since Kubrick’s film involves landing on the moon, why not use his techniques to create their illusion?
Operation Avalanche wonderfully blurs the line between reality and fiction by splicing together new footage with archival footage, creating a similar effect famously used in Forrest Gump. Here, they insert themselves asking for an autograph with the real Stanley Kubrick that looks so authentic it’s scary. Even though the film was shot digitally, cinematographers Andrew Appelle and Jared Raab accurately replicate the visual look and feel of the era. One trick used to create that effect was grading the film, converting it to a 16mm print, and then converting it back to digital. They also film one of the best car chases scenes you’ll see in any film, independent or otherwise.
Most found footage and/or covertly shot films tend to rely on the gimmick of the filming technique, so their narrative takes a back seat. But with Operation Avalanche, the meta format fits effortlessly with the story. It’s an inventive film that works not just because Johnson managed to sneak into NASA and film, but because he crafts an enthralling story to go along with it. Operation Avalanche is an energetic film, filled with innovative tricks and provocative ideas to please anyone looking for an amusing ride, especially those obsessed with conspiracies.