What if the moon landing was staged? It’s not a new thought, of course, but one that has been lit by its fair share of flints. Still, filmmaker Matt Johnson’s enthusiastic exercise in revisionist history is kettle-popped with strangeness. The creative hydra behind “Operation Avalanche” – the Canadian filmmaker wrote, directed, and acted in this particular film – is working with steam and carbonation. Johnson’s plan: Use contemporary found-footage techniques to tell a story about two naive, career-driven ladder climbers attempting to spin the moon landing. What if Neil Armstrong didn’t actually trounce on the natural satellite, after all, and the actual historical event was filmed in a rural backlot somewhere? Though the topic has been broached before, almost ad nauseam, by conspiracy theorists, “Operation Avalanche” still manages to reignite the childlike curiosity of outer space while also fanning the flames of adult conjecture.
In the film, Matt Johnson and Owen Williams play two wide-eyed, pencil-chewing CIA agents who find themselves in a tenuous scheme to fool the American people for the benefit of thwarting the pesky Soviets. Matt’s rolled up sleeves, sweaty brow, and fists-to-the-table personality is part gunpowder and part jester. He has the personality of Jason Segel and the psychological motor of Doc Brown. Meanwhile, his co-pilot in action, Owen, is logical to the core: shirt pressed, voice firm, and habitually skeptical. The odd couple trope works, mostly, as the unlikely pair burrow into the depths of government secrecy, NASA powerplays, and internal turmoil. It all sounds exhaustively ambitious, and for the most part it is just that.
“Operation Avalanche” is an errant sparkler that whirs, hiccups, and flashes light in every direction. It’s dizzyingly erratic, entertaining, and, for better and for worse, wholly unleashed in its energy. The sets are mostly period appropriate, but once and again you’ll see something jarringly out of place. Anachronistic bugaboos are nearly clear of the frame, but they still exist in sloppy shrugs. The errors are less infuriating than they are smirk-inducing. But that’s not to say that the film should be underappreciated: from clothes to quips, there is a good deal of attention to era-specific detail. Still, you can definitely tell that the crew is so caught up in their hurried, anxiety-laden 1960s cosplay that unintentional gaffs and Easter eggs are, more often than not, certainly present. Matt Johnson is so excited about this project that it’s nearly impossible to not admire his ambitious, almost equipment-free, mountain climbing. Budget restrictions be damned.
As a film, Johnson and company have built a warm, erroneous, and sepia-toned ebb of artifice and humor. Here is a Joe Swanberg-like found-footage approach that is matched with Andrew Bujalski humor. Gunshots, fake moon rocks, a hilarious use of archival Stanley Kubrick footage, and manic energy: This is one of the weirdest films of the year that is unafraid of its own lunacy and period-focused theatrics. While it doesn’t always work – and can grow frequently tiresome when it doesn’t – Johnson’s movie is one of the oddest, and most interesting, releases of 2016. And for that alone, it’s worth a look.