Film review: Operation Avalanche
The trailer for Operation Avalanche, a new comedy that imagines the Apollo Moon landing was faked
The conspiracy that NASA faked the Moon landings is as old as the Apollo programme itself. It seems few cosmic expeditions, even in the current age, are immune to the cynicism of naysayers seeking to burst the bubble of the world’s space agencies and their uncanny ability to achieve the impossible.
Yet for all the evidence supporting space exploration as fact, there remains something tantalisingly fascinating about the idea that it is at least possible the Moon landings were dreamt up in a studio by a world super power racing to beat its ideological opponent.
This enduring fascination with the Apollo conspiracies is clearly not lost on Matt Johnson and Josh Boles, whose latest film Operation Avalanche imagines the theories to be true.
A found footage comedy thriller, much like the writers' feature debut The Dirties (2013), the film stars Johnson and co-star Owen Williams as two CIA agents hired to seek out a suspected Soviet mole within the Apollo programme. But while listening in on a tapped phone conversation between NASA officials, they overhear the admission that the US will be unable to fulfill John F Kennedy’s “within a year” promise to the American people. NASA, it turns out, cannot land a man on the Moon and bring him back.
The agents become embroiled in a conspiracy to fake the Moon landings, filming the lunar touchdown inside a studio to be beamed to TVs around the world. With reference to some of Apollo 11’s most iconic images – Aldrin's footprint and full-body portrait – the film gives an intriguing explanation as to how the first Moon landing might have been hoaxed.
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The filmmakers look upon their creation: a dummy lunar lander that will be used to win the Space Race for the US
Operation Avalanche is shot in found footage style, on 16mm to give it that authentic late 1960s feel. The film begins with Johnson and Williams – playing ‘themselves’ - coming up with the idea that they can better infiltrate NASA by pretending to be documentary filmmakers covering the Apollo mission. Who better, after all, to seek out the mole and blend in than a group of seemingly clueless amateur filmmakers? The film’s story takes a sharp turn, however, when Johnson overhears the admission from NASA itself that it will have to renege on Kennedy’s promise.
Johnson believes not only that the Moon landings can indeed be faked convincingly, but that pulling off the mission is an ingenious act in itself: “one of those good lies, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny”. His colleague Williams, however, believes the pair are in over the heads. As the film plays out, the audience too will begin to believe he is right.
Beginning as a comedy about a group of hapless undercover agents, Operation Avalanche soon becomes a Cold War-era CIA thriller, as spying, undercover agents and the threat of Soviet reprisals make the two friends turn on each other. Yet while elements of the narrative begin to take a darker tone, the film never loses its comedic roots, remaining entertaining and mischievously provocative throughout.
Johnson (left) and Williams (right) prepare for the hoax of the century
While many space and NASA fanatics may take offense at the mere suggestion the Moon landings were anything other than the result of hard graft and ingenuity, such anxieties will hopefully be diminshed through the portrayal of the administration as it existed in the late 1960s. There is much here to satisfy those interested in the Apollo programme. The film has a look and feel faithful to the NASA of that era, and supposedly (real life) Johnson and Williams actually pretended to be documentary filmmakers during the making of the movie, in order to get authentic behind the scenes footage.
Clearly, too, much research has gone into the Apollo conspiracies and the workings of their fabrication, as the method by which the characters suppose to fool the world’s populace – and, it turns out, Mission Control itself – actually makes sense (to the layperson, at least).
Ultimately, Operation Avalanche is a film about filmmaking. We receive numerous shots of antiquated film equipment, and one amusing scene sees the characters blag their way onto the set of 2001: A Space Oddyssey and actually speak to Stanley Kubrick himself, in a nod to the late director’s supposed involvement in the creation of ‘fake’ Apollo footage. Kubrick teaches them about ‘front screen projection’, a technique using mirrors that enables the filmmakers to project a lunar background onto a screen, in front of which the fake landing will be enacted. Operation Avalanche asks its audience to consider whether illusion is as good as reality, so long as the observers buy into the trick.
Believable realist performances, noir-style twists and plenty of 1960s-era NASA footage make this a thrilling and enjoyable comedy, for both conspirators and believers alike.
Operation Avalanche is out via Lionsgate UK on digital download 6 March and DVD 20 March, 2017.
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