Found-footage movies are inherently impossible. The conceit—that we’re watching newly unearthed, raw recordings of extraordinary events—betrays itself with every single cut. (Who’s editing this stuff?) Film is a medium built on our brains’ reaction to seeing two images edited together, and a movie that loses credibility with every edit faces a steep curve.
The makers of Operation Avalanche should know this stuff; their movie is a love letter to the movies. About a group of cinema-obsessed CIA recruits who decide to film themselves faking the moon landing, the movie fetishizes mid-century paraphernalia like Super-8 and goes out of its way to explain how front-screen projection works. Its heroes worship at the altar of Stanley Kubrick, from whom they steal a few special effects during the making of 2001. It’s a clever premise. Nodding to the period’s fixation with meta-text, they restage moments from Blow-Up. At one point, a character offers a lesson in film theory by explaining the intersection of image and expectation.
That cleverness is part of what makes the movie so disappointing. Operation Avalanche promises the pulpy recklessness of Oliver Stone and the formal verisimilitude of Todd Haynes, all with a movie-nerd twist. But the movie never grows into anything more than a rough sketch. It hits every tired found-footage cliché and ends up highlighting the form’s hollow limits. (On the heels of Blair Witch, which distilled and elevated the found-footage conceit, Operation Avalanche feels especially vapid.)
Still, there’s a can-do spirit behind Operation Avalanche that’s endearingly sincere. That it squanders its potential with such pedestrian execution is a letdown. But, in a way, that’s fitting too: the movie is as flimsy as its moonscape soundstage.
Operation Avalanche. Directed by Matt Johnson. Written by Matt Johnson and Josh Boles. Starring Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, and Josh Boles. Opens in Kansas City September 30.