Director – Matt Johnson, Screenplay – Josh Boles & Matt Johnson, Producers – Nate Bolotin & Matthew Miller, Photography – Andrew Appelle & Jared Raab, Music – Jay McCarrol, Visual Effects Supervisor – Tristan Zerafa, Special Effects Supervisor – Mel Ramsey, Production Design – Chris Crane. Production Company – XYZ Films/Zapruder Films
Matt Johnson (Himself), Owen Williams (Himself), Josh Boles (Boles), Jared Raab (Himself), Andrew Appelle (Himself)
It is 1967. The CIA is certain that there is a Russian mole operating within the NASA space program. They are planning to send an agent in posing as a scientist. Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, two agents in the CIA audiovisual division, persuade their bosses to instead mount Operation Zipper and let them go in posing as people making a documentary about the Space Program. After bugging the phone of the NASA director, they make the discovery that NASA has no way to make the craft land on The Moon. Faced with being shut down, Matt fakes documents to authorise Operation Avalanche that will commission them to fake the Moon Landing on film and broadcast it to tv audiences. After an abortive attempt to recruit Stanley Kubrick to direct the operation, Matt and Owen set out to build a replica of the lander and a Moon set and then film the Moon Landing.
The idea that the Moon Landing was faked by tv is an idea that has become surprisingly prevalent in conspiracy theory – it is one of the most popular next to the JFK assassination and the 9/11 Inside Job conspiracies. There are a number of competing ideas and claims – most of these seem to centre around how the Landing was not technically possible/too dangerous and that NASA faked it by tv in order not to lose the Space Race to the Soviets. The origin of the Moon Landing conspiracy can be traced back to the book We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle (1976) by Bill Kaysring and there have been numerous other works, websites and Reddit threads since then. Conspiracy theorists point to various inconsistencies and implausibilities – the conflicting angle of shadows in the photos, flags that are supposedly seen flapping in a vacuum, footprints that remain in the Lunar sand despite the lack of moisture to preserve them, the lack of impact crater near the Lander, and other details. NASA has issued a detailed rebuttal of these claims. Mythbusters even devoted an episode NASA Moon Landing (2008) to debunking the idea using several simulations to show how the claims of the conspiracy theorists did not hold up.
The faking of the Moon Landing (or at least a NASA mission) is an idea that has occasionally played out on film. There was the fine and very Watergate-influenced Capricorn One (1978) about the faking of a mission to Mars. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) saw that the Moon Landing was really a pretext to investigate Transformer artefacts. The film that seems to have sparked a renewed interest in the idea was Room 237: Being an Inquiry Into The Shining in 9 Parts (2012) in which one of the interviewees made the casual claim that Stanley Kubrick was the one who directed the Moon Landing. (The idea of Kubrick directing the Moon Landing originated in a satirical usenet article published in 1995 and has been taken as factual by more than one conspiracy theory writer). This single scene clearly caught on with filmmakers and in the next couple of years we saw Moonwalkers (2015), a comedy about the attempt by the CIA to recruit Kubrick for this very purpose. This idea is also present here and we even get an exactingly recreated scene where the two filmmakers sneak onto the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in an attempt to recruit Kubrick. Surprisingly, the idea of a mockumentary about the faking of the Moon Landing with the involvement of Stanley Kubrick had been conducted before in the 52-minute French tv movie Dark Side of the Moon (2002).
Operation Avalanche ingeniously takes the perspective of two filmmakers filming themselves as they take on the task of fabricating the Moon Landing. This proves rather hilarious as we watch everything from their attempts to test out a Moonwalk and build replicas of a Moon Lander and the Moon’s surface on a warehouse soundstage. One of the funniest scenes is seeing them go through the trial and error process of trying to formulate what we recognise as Neil Armstrong’s famous “one small step for mankind” speech. Everything winds down by the end where the film throws in a downbeat conspiratorial assassination plot in order to wrap the show up. Nevertheless the audience get the joke and the result is a clever and funny film that never wears out its welcome.
Operation Avalanche was the second film for the Canadian Matt Johnson and his best friend Owen Williams, who previously made the amazing The Dirties (2013), a film they started as high-school students and takes on so many layers of meta-fiction that it leaves your head spinning with the creativity overspilling from it. The film here was shot on 16-mm and the effort to mimic the grainy look of footage from the period is superbly done. So too is the efforts to get everything from the costumes to the cars, props and hairstyles authentic to the period. Much of Operation Avalanche was shot in guerrilla fashion with Johnson and Williams posing as students shooting a school project while touring the NASA facilities and not telling the people they interviewed what they were doing (none of the NASA personnel are actors). In other scenes, they broke into the old 2001 set at Shepperton Studios and shot scenes there while Kubrick’s presence was composited digitally using still photos from him on the set.