Operation Avalanche is, above all, an exercise in chutzpah cinema. The tale of a bunch of Canadians who went down to NASA pretending to be filming a documentary only to surreptitiously capture scenes for their conspiracy thriller is already legendary. Matt Johnson, brainchild of the whole exercise, brims with confidence and bravado that somehow seems to avoid coming across as douchebaggery. The ingredients are here, in short, for a kind of masterpiece.
Alas, Avalanche doesn’t quite scale the heights of its ambition. From a production point of view it’s a home run – the film looks terrific, the staging is excellent, the costumes spot on and the construction of the various sets near perfect. As a hook it’s intoxicating, taking smatterings of Kubrick lore about faking the moon landing and supplanting them into a loose, pseudo found-footage romp. You’ve got car chases and faked moonwalks, betrayals and botched missions, all running through a kind of kinetic frenzy that comes super close to working.
Unfortunately, the film’s scope means it runs out of steam, particularly towards the end. The tone, delicately vacillating between farce and deadly serious at the outset, leans towards the dour at the end. It reminded me a bit of what happened with Berberian Sound Studio, where the playfulness with the form led to the film devolving into the thing it was parodying.
The film owes much of its bite to the spirit of Doctor Strangelove, and it behooves one to remember that film became more, not less farcical as the stakes got higher. The opposite is the case here and the film suffers for it, as if the darkness lets us feel that now, as things get real, we need to buckle up and take what we’re seeing with more emotional heft. This brings a dour pedantry to the ending which ends up losing steam as it goes along.
Still, focussing on the mishandled last act does a disservice to all the elements that really work. It’s hard to see the film without Johnson in the lead, as his winking smarminess is the core of what has to transpire. One can come very close to believing that a gormless character so conniving would really be behind such a preposterous event, and the film is best when it shows that incompetence and selfishness rather than ideology drives this kind of consipiracy. Like Kubrick the horror and humour comes from the banality at the heart of such serious decision making, the paradox being that the things that truly matter are often the result of decisions made in the most superficial way.
Operation Avalanche has its stumbles, but it’s truly an accomplishment from both a visual and narrative point of view. It can’t be underestimated how terrific the idea behind the flick is, which makes for me the missteps at the end all that more frustrating. I feel there’s a masterpiece in there somewhere, as if some added elements that tweaked the tone, or perhaps some dropped storylines, would have improved the film. Some parts felt too long, some felt rushed. I think it ended up being a film that had to please a certain audience, and I’d bet, perhaps without winning, that there’s a cut of this film that would speak to me in a far more pleasing way.
Read our interview with Operation Avalanche actor and cowriter Josh Boles here.