There’s no doubt there’s a good, loopy feature to be made from the crackpot notion that the 1969 moon landing was faked, but “Operation Avalanche” isn’t it. This independent, found-footage effort has some zany ideas and enough irony to sustain a fair-sized short, but at 94 minutes, it sputters and stalls.
It’s 1967, and a couple of button-down, fresh-from-the-Ivy-League CIA agents, played by Matt Johnson (who also directed) and Owen Williams, decide that their knowledge of filmmaking can help their careers. The agency believes that someone in NASA is passing secrets to the Soviets, which may give them a boost in the space race.
Johnson — in a common trick of the found-footage world, the character is named after the actor — has the bright idea that he and his buddy will infiltrate the space agency by posing as documentary-makers. Once inside, they realize NASA is going to miss its deadline to put a man on the moon.
The agency spymasters are skeptical, but the young men switch gears and plot to film a fraudulent landing to enable the United States to “win” the moon race despite NASA’s failings. They scour the countryside for moonlike surfaces and steal Stanley Kubrick’s famed front-projection technique after visiting the set where he’s making “2001: A Space Odyssey.” (This is a twist on the venerable urban legend that it was Kubrick who faked the moon landing.)
Meanwhile, upping the ante of paranoia, our heroes notice they are under surveillance — but by whom? There’s also a mounting sense of separation between the two men, as Williams grows skeptical of his partner’s woolly ideas. Arguably these notes of alienation speak to the movie’s theme, but they also start to feel like padding.
To establish the time period, filmmaker Johnson lays it on thick with clothing, cars, rock music (plenty of Creedence Clearwater) and movie posters (“Lolita,” among many) of the era. He also interpolates genuine footage, most of it entirely predictable bits featuring President Kennedy, Walter Cronkite and Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.
There are a few clever turns in “Operation Avalanche,” but besides creating a murky conspiratorial mood, the film’s aim is, well, unclear. There are implausibilities here that no viewer is going to miss, and they aren’t the kind that might be employed to create an air of mystery or suspicion. They are of the “hey, wait a minute …” type.
A bright idea can take a movie only so far. Mission not accomplished.
(At Screenland Armour.)
Rated R. Time: 1:34.