Over the years the found footage/shaky cam technique has become synonymous with the horror genre and acquired a bit of a negative stigma in the process, but director Matt Johnson proves that the shooting style has loads of potential when the narrative warrants it with his latest feature, Operation Avalanche.
Johnson also stars in the movie as a character by the same name. In the film, Matt Johnson and Owen Williams (also the name of the actor playing the character) are two of 25 students recruited by the CIA in the late 60s to be part of the Bright Recruits program. With their cameramen, they make up the CIA’s entire AV department. They’re working on Operation Deep Red, an examination of director Stanley Kubrick, but are eager to be transferred to Operation Zipper, a mission to identify the soviet mole at NASA. They’re convinced that if they go to NASA posing as documentary filmmakers covering Apollo 11 that no one will ever suspect that they’re from the CIA, making them the perfect agents to do the research without tipping off the target.
It’s important to assess a movie as a standalone entity, but in Operation Avalanche’s case, not only is the story of how Johnson and co. made the movie remarkable, but it also enhances the quality of the film. The story is about a group of guys who gain access to NASA by posing as filmmakers so Johnson and his team did the same. They actually told the folks at NASA that they were students shooting a documentary about the agency. What better way to get into the headspace of a character than by literally putting yourself in that exact same position? Sure enough, Operation Avalanche rocks two spot-on lead performances and an abundance of sets that look authentic – because they are.
But, you’ve also got to consider the time jump. The movie was shot recently, but the story takes place in the 1960s. There’s no doubt that there were NASA employees walking around with cell phones in modern attire, but there certainly isn’t a single trace of it in the final product. Between the shooting location, the way the film was shot, the performances and the expert use of archival footage, Johnson truly succeeds in making you feel as though you’re watching a documentary about something that really took place in that time period, especially during one particularly phenomenal scene that involves Kubrick.
The shooting style certainly contributes to making Operation Avalanche a must-see feat, but Johnson and co-writer Josh Boles (who also plays a character by the same name in the film) also deserve a good deal of credit for coming up with a very clever spin on the popular conspiracy theory that pairs perfectly with those technical achievements. While trying to find the mole, Matt and Owen wind up intercepting new information that forces them to change their mission objective. Now, instead of identifying the mole, they shift their resources towards shooting a fake lunar landing themselves.
The movie kicks off strong, but from this point on, it forges forward with a significant amount of momentum. If you appreciate the meta quality of Johnson infiltrating NASA to make this movie then you’ll really get swept up in the material that focuses on him making a movie within the movie. Johnson delves into the details of how one might film a believable lunar landing to such an extent that it makes a pretty good case for the conspiracy theorists out there and it also winds up being quite the treat for those intrigued by movie magic as well.
Adding yet another layer to the experience, Operation Avalanche sells the mission’s importance on both a personal and a political level. At the start, Matt comes across as an overeager wannabe filmmaker who’s more concerned about making a documentary than actually completing his assignment. However, as the story progresses, Matt begins to identify and consider the grand scale repercussions of what he’s doing, which is something that comes in handy when blending the comedy with the more thrill-driven portions of the film.
Operation Avalanche treads into silly territory every so often and it’s also guilty of the familiar found footage flaw – making viewers question why a character would film or continue filming particular moments – but those missteps certainly never affect the entertainment value of the movie. It’s a unique experience that lets you marvel at the technical achievements without ever taking you out of the narrative. It should be interesting to see where Johnson goes from here. I’ve never seen his first feature, The Dirties, but it was shot in a similar way, which begs the question, “Can Johnson take the shooting style a step further or is it time to see what he’s capable of on a more traditional production?” While we wait to find out what he’s doing next, I will likely be watching The Dirties.
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