Operation Avalanche, the only good conspiracy—fake the Moon landing, get promoted

With this weekend’s 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, it’s worth remembering most conspiracy theories are more-or-less the same: a shadowy cabal of all-powerful, all-knowing elites comes together to manipulate us commoners, for whom they have nothing but contempt. The cabal changes—globalists, Lizard People, the media, the Vatican, whatevs—but the song remains the same.

So a few years back when I heard someone had made yet another a low-budget mockumentary about faking the Apollo 11 Moon landing, that’s what I was expecting. Maybe even Kubrick would be evoked again. Instead, imagine my surprise when 2016’s turned out to be light on conspiracy against the sheeple and heavy on a bumbling, baby-faced doofus who comes up with a plan to fake the Moon landing as basically a way to impress his boss.

Psychologists speculate that people are drawn to conspiracy theories because a world controlled by dark forces is still preferable to a world in which no one is at the controls. But truthers will find cold comfort in ‘s view that the masters of the universe are more likely to be a grinning nincompoop whose best friend’s wife greets him with “Don’t touch me.”

Not your typical conspiracy

opens in the late 1960s and follows BFFs Matt Johnson and Owen Williams (played by director/cowriter Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, natch) who are lackeys in the CIA’s audiovisual department. Through a combination of bravado and BS, Johnson talks his perpetually irritated superior into letting them hunt for a Soviet mole that has burrowed into NASA. Instead of posing as scientists or engineers, they’ll pose as a documentary film crew in order to gain access to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. (Fun fact: the real-life filmmakers were able to film on location with NASA . When NASA found out after the fact, it was not pleased.)

Wait, haven’t I seen this before?

If the premise of faking an extra-planetary landing sounds familiar, are you thinking of , the hour-long mockumentary that aired on French TV in 2002? Or maybe 2015’s , in which CIA agent Ron Perlman enlists rockstar Rupert Grint to help fake the Moon landing? No, you’re probably thinking of 1978’s fake Mars landing adventure , which stars James Brolin and running back-turned-actor O.J. Simpson, who is famous for nothing else (if you ask a conspiracy theorist named O.J.). But while that movie is overstuffed with astronauts, politicians, wives, journalists, chases, helicopters, and Telly Savalas in an Astros cap, has a much tighter, grungier focus and plays out like a deadpan farce hatched by improv comics.

Watching how an undercover mission leads Johnson to, almost by accident, back into a scheme to fake the Moon landing is too much of a hoot for me to spoil. From there, our heroes pick up another superior (cowriter Josh Boles) who has even less patience with the barely suppressed emotional neediness that is so clearly driving Johnson. They eventually end up turning a warehouse into a makeshift studio where they play all the Moon truthers’ greatest hits: cutting photos, setting up cameras, hammering together a lander, etc.


As director, Johnson uses his previous experience helming the mockumentaries and to keep light on its feet. A few sight gags aside, most of my laughs weren’t from the characters doing or saying funny things but from how their situations become progressively more dangerous and asinine at the same time. Along the way, morphs into one of those ’70s-style paranoid thrillers that are usually about a man who’s about 15% less clever than he thinks he is getting in over his head. (Think Warren Beatty in or Gene Hackman in , , and probably a few other flicks.) As someone who is deathly afraid that I’m not as capable as I think I am, I have no idea why I can’t get enough of stories like this. Maybe they’re cathartic.

Speaking of (and its spiritual cousins and ), is interested in process. Unlike , another Moon conspiracy film in which the entire fake landing is planned and built before the movie even starts, the protagonists in can’t just snap their fingers and know how to fake low gravity and the lunar surface. Their quest for locations, filming techniques, and special effects frustrates them when it yields multiple dead-ends. While labor intensive, actually building the phony lander might be the least complicated thing they do.


‘s low budget doesn’t hurt it for a couple reasons. First, of course, is how much of it was shot at Johnson Space Center (which was the Manned Spacecraft Center until 1973, although the filmmakers may have goofed and shown the big JSC sign that’s off NASA Road One). And second: despite what movies have taught us, the interiors of most government buildings look like public high schools. The film also makes liberal use of era-specific stock footage in which our characters are occasionally inserted a la and .

turns 20 this year, so we all know what found-footage films look like. Still, because ‘s CIA agents are often covertly filming their subjects, themselves, and each other, the movie has some lovely frames within frames, and the filmmakers have fun hopping between aspects ratios and going from black-and-white to color. The kind of cinephile who fetishizes scratched film, blown-out lighting sources, and shots that are temporarily out of focus will not leave disappointed.

As for those scratches, IMDb says that was shot digitally using Red One and Blackmagic cameras. That means (sad face) that the scratches and grain were added by the filmmakers to mimic beat-up old films. They aren’t real, and they aren’t always convincing either, but we appreciate the effort. That also means that, when the CIA guys are talking about shooting film to look like video, we’re watching them on video that’s been made to look like film. Cram your brain into that Möbius strip for a few minutes.

But they don’t believe this crap, do they?

I have yet to scour the Internet for interviews with Matt Johnson to see if he actually believes the Apollo 11 landing was faked (he clearly believes that the bundle of unmet emotional needs he plays would be more than eager to fake anything). My gut says the movie is tongue-in-cheek, but I might be projecting because I enjoyed it.

You may be asking, if the filmmakers don’t believe Apollo 11 was faked, isn’t it irresponsible to make a movie that says it was? Won’t conspiracists use as a way to spread misinformation? Why throw jet fuel (which can’t melt steel beams) on that fire? What’s next, a thriller about vaccinated children roving the streets in search of human flesh?

And if the filmmakers think the Moon landing was faked, wasn’t it irresponsible for festivals like Sundance to show ? Isn’t it irresponsible of Amazon to carry it? Should we protest Alamo Drafthouse for the rest of time for screening it this year? Aren’t I making the world a worse place just by writing this review?


Operation Avalanche

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