Director: Matt Johnson
Stars: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams
2 (out of 5) Globes
How undying is the claim that the Apollo 11 moon landing was a fake? Enough to gift us with two sarcastic comedies about it in the same year. It’s “Deep Impact” vs. “Armageddon” or “Antz” vs. “A Bug’s Life” all over again, only with tinier budgets jokes and wackadoodle conspiracy theories. First was the English “Moonwalkers,” a wilder and more Midnight Movie offering than “Operation Avalanche,” a guerilla indie whose resourcefulness is impressive enough to almost give it a pass. Each has its pleasures. For “Moonwalkers,” it’s the simple sight of Ron Perlman, as a CIA hardass, coldcocking untold hippies. With “Operation Avalanche,” it’s the ability to pull off effects once seen as landmark in “Forrest Gump” but on the dirt cheap. (This is to say nothing about past fake moon landing movies, including 1978’s po-faced “Capricorn One.”)
Both films have the same idea, though: The CIA fears NASA won’t be able to pull of JFK’s wish that America hit the moon by the end of the ’60s. Thus the Plan B that some crazies think was the Plan A: Shoot a fake and then air that, should Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin et al. not fulfill their mission. Both touch on the bizarre claim that Stanley Kubrick was involved. But where “Moonwalkers” teems with flowery filmmakers and gesticulating druggies and trigger-happy gangsters and copious blood, “Operation Avalanche” sticks with three geeks who con their way into NASA HQ, stitching together their own fake moon landing with the equivalent of bubble gum and Scotch tape.
It’s a mockumentary, too, with our heroes — the loudest played by director/co-writer Matt Johnson — filming everything lest the government think they can snuff them out. What Johnson and crew achieved is almost as impressive as, well, faking a moon landing: The footage mimics (thanks to our future’s bottomless pit of filters and image effects, but still) something from the 1960s. They even seamlessly insert themselves into actual archival footage, including a bit where Johnson chats with Kubrick on the set of “2001.” Much of their antics involve R&D and test footage, breaking down the trial and error of how one would replicate the surface of the moon or being careful not to get the camera in the space helmet visor. (They even show, more or less, a simple way to do “2001”’s floating pen.)
It’s a technical marvel! And like many technical marvels, it comes at the expense of creativity elsewhere. “Moonwalkers” tried too hard to please genre hounds; in fact, it could have lent some of its energy to the “Operation Avalanche” crew, who come up short when it’s time to take the story in new directions, and whose cast can’t improvise worth a damn. (Johnson, who looks faintly like “Peep Show”’s David Mitchell, seems to have assumed flustering up a storm would make his stock dialogue sound priceless.) When they’re staging a shoot-out from inside a car, with blockbuster-grade fake bullets hitting the windshield, it’s easy to think you’re watching something special. But to think it’s all aces would require believing in something crazier than a fake Apollo 11 mission.