“Yeah but this is one of the good lies, like Santa or the Easter Bunny,” interjects CIA Agent Matt Johnson in the comic thriller Operation Avalanche, as he hatches a put-up job to fake the moon landing back in 1967 so that the USA will appear to beat the Ruskies in the space race.
And therein lays the premise for co-writer (along with Josh Boles), co-star, and director Matt Johnson’s ambitious follow-up to his lively 2013 debut, The Dirties. And like that taboo-smashing film––The Dirties was a dark comedy detailing a high school shooting––Johnson’s latest is a faux-documentary about an obsessed young man who gets in over his head and the results are both amusing and impressive.
Johnson, who by the way doesn’t believe NASA or anyone faked the lunar landing, uses all the conspiracy elements regarding this “hoax”; from Stanley Kubrick’s connection to gat-packin’ G-men and the results are an oft-times dizzying mélange of Woody Allen’s Zelig and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View with just a dash of Arrested Development absurdism. It’s a stew with a lot of ingredients and, more often than not, the results are palatable and playful.
Encouraged and inspired by Randy Moore’s 2013 horror fantasy Escape from Tomorrow, which was filmed at Disneyland without permission but with the able assistance of lawyers to hurdle copyright infringement (according to Johnson, Moore’s legal team consulted him repeatedly on this film to avoid legal issues), Operation Avalanche was filmed in a similar guerilla style without permits at NASA, under false pretenses. This DIY determination certainly adds to the urgency and derangement that permeates the film, particularly when it moves from comedy to full-throttle thriller.
Operation Avalanche is at it’s best when it gets creative with authentic-looking stock footage––something like 275 visual effects shots and stylishly slow 16mm angenieux lenses work miracles––weds with Forrest Gump-like pop culture pastiche (as when Johnson and his team write the famous “one small step” coda while brainstorming).
As the film’s artificial and actual history lurches ever forward, a dizzying car chase contained in a single muscular take, lands like lightning (like a poor man’s Children of Men or a low-cost French Connection).
Operation Avalanche is an impressive coup d’état on a micro budget that had me repeating what I first said after seeing Johnson’s The Dirties at VIFF a few years ago: given a proper budget what might he be capable of? These two fine films may well be a preface to an important cinematic voice.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.