If nothing else, Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson is one clever SOB. The writer/director/star of the cult comedy web series ‘Nirvana the Band the Show’ and the rather brilliant school shooting flick ‘The Dirties’ already has a very clear and distinct voice early in his career, backed by deep affection for the medium. His latest film, ‘Operation Avalanche’, is a project rooted in movie nerdery and executed incredibly well given the meagre resources available.
Its appeal will pretty much exclusively be for those who are as fascinated by the concept of Stanley Kubrick faking the moon landing as its creators. That may not be a big crowd, but damn will they ever be amused.
The film starts with Johnson and Owen Williams playing a couple of geeks working in NASA as documentary filmmakers. When they discover that the CIA is attempting to sniff out a potential Russian mole in NASA, they lobby for the gig under the amusing guise that no one would ever suspect a pair of bumbling filmmakers could actually be spies on a mole hunt. It works and they play spy games, with all the comedic fuck-ups and peculiar paranoia you’d expect. Then they launch a second secret government project, to stage footage that would be impossible for NASA to actually obtain during the moon landing. That leads to a sneaky trip to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001’ set to steal techniques, as well as a secretive production filled with suspicion and good old-fashioned bickering.
Structurally, ‘Operation Avalanche’ is very similar to ‘The Dirties’, opening in goofy character comedy mode with references to more serious material before gradually transitioning into a thriller. Technically, it’s in a whole different league. Johnson and company have meticulously pieced together their mock documentary with mountains of stock footage from the era (some actually acquired from NASA) with new footage shot today. The illusion can be breathtaking, especially when Johnson inserts himself into the notoriously secretive ‘2001’ set for a gag with Kubrick. It’s impressive, yet admirably invisible. You only see the tricks if you’re looking for them, while the story and characters take center stage.
Johnson once again plays an irrepressible geek hilarious in his obnoxiousness, while Williams is the more grounded straight man just trying to do his work. They play well together in the early going and get some big laughs. Eventually, the film transforms into a straight-ahead paranoid thriller in the 1970s mold (‘The Conversation’, ‘Three Days of the Condor’, ‘Capricorn One’, etc.), but that transition doesn’t quite play out as smoothly. The jittery documentary style works well with suspense and there are some remarkably well executed sequences (especially a climatic car chase). However, the film offers such a cartoonish take on the Cold War era early on that it’s tough to take the characters and world as seriously as intended when the stakes run high and scenes end tragically.
Still, this is hardly a massive fault. ‘Operation Avalanche’ is an ambitious low-budget film that does so much so well that the fact it doesn’t quite congeal as planned hardly distracts from the way the impressive parts cling together. The performances are strong, the visuals are impressive, the awkward comedy hits, and most of the paranoia-flavored third act is admirably tense.
Clearly, Johnson and his merry band of prankster filmmakers have chops. Their movie-obsessed vision is so specifically targeted this time that it’s unlikely anyone actually interested in the subject matter won’t be impressed. Hopefully they’ll get more resources to launch their next feature, because if they can pull off ‘Operation Avalanche’ with so little, they could undoubtedly do something very special with even a modest budget. Until then, it’ll be fun to see what they dream up in their little corner of the sandbox.