One small step for man, one medium leap for Director Matt Johnson in his found footage conspiracy thriller Operation Avalanche. As director, star, and producer, Johnson shows he is able to accomplish both a lot and very little at the same time. The found footage medium has seen a lot of ups and downs over the years, but Operation Avalanche can be recognized as one of the better ones. Strong performances, technical achievement and stylistic sense manage to make this film a more likable one than not.
The CIA sends Ivy League recruits Matt Johnson and Owen Williams(playing themselves) on a mission to infiltrate NASA and expose a Russian mole. To do so, they use the cover of a documentary film crew that’s attempting to document the behind the scenes efforts leading up to man’s landing on the moon. In a turn of events, Matt and Owen realize the U.S. cannot actually land on the moon by the expected date and are forced to take on a new mission to fake the moon landing to “beat the Russians.”
While the premise may sound ridiculous and Argo-esque, Johnson and his team deliver something that has more comical moments than one would expect. Because the plot involves creating a fake documentary, the style feels like a mockumentary. Great acting is key in any film, but the found footage, mockumentary medium emphasizes capturing facial expression, small ticks and changes to the face that make a performance not only believable, but feel real.
During the Q&A after my screening of the film, Johnson revealed his difficulty in playing his character because of his inability to relate to him. He is, however, able to show us a passionate CIA agent with a restlessness to accomplish his mission. His determination shows not only through his character, but through his technological achievement. In one scene, Johnson and his crew visit Stanley Kubrick’s film set of 2001: A Space Odyssey to find the necessary technique to replicate the moon setting. Since this never actually happened, VFX specialist Tristan Zerafa had to animate old photographs of Kubrick on set and combine it with the footage of Johnson and company. This alone lends even more credit to this film as an ambitious one.
Operation Avalanche is supposed to be a thriller, but sometimes doesn’t feel like one. Tension doesn’t always build the way it’s supposed to and the climax doesn’t feel as thrilling as one would hope. While the narrative is easy to follow and technical parts of the film are explained well, pacing led the film to feel longer and dragged out during certain parts. For something as large as the moon landing, the film doesn’t quite deliver on the ambitious and impactful journey it sets out to be.
The film’s likable, comical nature combined with its stylistic approaches easily outweigh its lackluster climax. Operation Avalanche may not have reached its potential, but for its small crew and budget, Johnson manages to deliver something that stuck the landing with a great, fun, crazy film to watch. With a personal rating of 4 out of 5 stars, I’d invite you to watch Operation Avalanche.