Back in 2014, Matt Johnson and Owen Williams made their presence known by starring in (and in Johnson’s case co-writing and directing) their genre blended debut feature, the timely, intertextual and darkly comic Drama/Thriller The Dirties. So many audiences (including this writer) were intrigued to see what these individuals might turn their attention to next and where exactly do you go from school shooting story wrapped in a cinema love letter? Well, The Moon landing wrapped in a cinematic love letter, naturally.
Operation Avalanche, set in the mid ‘60s, conceives that there is a Russian mole at NASA tracking the progress of their mission into space and young CI A agents, Owen Williams and Matt Johnson (themselves), pose as documentary filmmakers at NASA to uncover this mole. However, when they discover that NASA is losing the space race, they put mad plans in place to fake the moon landing and help their agency hoodwink a nation - and the world - but soon events spiral into uneasy territories. Conspiracy theories can be attached to most things nowadays from huge disasters, to government law, to a Lady Gaga music video but one of the biggest around remains to be the alleged faking of the iconic 1969 moon landing. To this day the theory remains shrouded in debate and mystery and even various works of space-set cinema have come to acknowledge it (Interstellar). Heck, many remain convinced that filmmaker Stanley Kubrick had something to do with it! It is a theory as ingrained in our culture as the assassination of JFK and the death of Princess Diana (also both shrouded in conspiracy).
So, in making such a big piece of history - and the much discussed theories attached to it - the core of his latest film, Matt Johnson has certainly taken a giant leap from his smaller scaled debut. True Operation Avalanche does at times feel to take on a bit more than it can handle, with a wealth of technical information, some logical stretches (would the CIA so easily be led into assigning two young agents on a case) and the odd bit of dialogue feeling too modern for the ‘60s setting. This being said, the enticing concept and the enthused delivery ensure that this is never less than far reaching and exciting viewing. The on location shooting and times where this film’s making and the onscreen narrative blurred lines (there was a level of deception that went into shooting the movie), makes this one hell of a brazen project to undertake. Filmed in faithfully grainy vintage footage, with the costumes evoking the era well, Johnson has done a fantastic job in using the budget in all the right ways.
Many of the cast are credited as themselves and in turn give naturalistic performances and the clever way in which the film blends archive footage with shot footage makes the film feel very authentic, even though we know the events depicted are not reality. Like The Dirties, Johnson litters his film with cinema references (with posters and a mid-film cameo (kind of) and the whole production feels passionately constructed and thus demanding of your respect. Some may think that it comes over as a bit ego-driven at times but this reviewer saw it more as confident, clever and - in an age where most bemoan the death of found footage style capers - fresh.
Operation Avalanche is a really enjoyable watch that uses an ambitious screenplay by Johnson and Josh Boles and gets as much as it can out of the concept. Much like Christopher MacBride’s The Conspiracy, the film shows that the found footage-like approach is a perfect fit for this kind of narrative, with the final 30 minutes of Avalanche being a testament to this. One car sequence in particular is better delivered and more heart racing than some films with 10x the budget.
While the results are not always perfect, they are always tremendously entertaining and further proof that this young director is a force of cinematic enthusiasm and aspiration.
Special Features: Behind the Scenes / Deleted Scenes
OPERATION AVALANCHE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: MATT JOHNSON / SCREENPLAY: MATT JOHNSON, JOSH BOLES / STARRING: MATT JOHNSON, OWEN WILLIAMS, JOSH BOLES / RELEASE DATE: 20TH MARCH