Any budding filmmakers making their feature film debut pray for success and recognition right out the gate, which of course is not always the case. Yet, an auspicious debut can lead to unduly high expectations for a filmmakers’ sophomore effort. That is not to say that Matt Johnson’s The Dirties left me expecting a masterclass in filmmaking with his next feature, but I was nonetheless intrigued to see where he would go next with his admirably nuanced approach to the found footage genre. Sadly, a bigger budget and studio backing could not elevate Johnson’s subsequent 2016 feature, Operation Avalanche, which, in spite of its merits, feels more like an unintended spiritual successor to The Dirties than it does a standalone title in its own right.
What is most detrimental to Operation Avalanche is that it lacks any meaningful sense of originality. With The Dirties, Johnson at least used the found footage format as a platform for social commentary, and I have come to appreciate it more as time goes on, given his fine balancing act between comedy and drama, which is anchored by relatable characters.
Its premise of two CIA agents (portrayed by Matt Johnson and Owen Williams as themselves), who become embroiled in a conspiracy to fake the moon landing with a found footage spin might be intriguing on paper, but in execution it is just another conspiracy thriller that adds little to the genres at play here.
Johnson’s very appreciation for, and application of, olden cinematic techniques situates the writer/director as a postmodernist filmmaker, in the sense that he seems to acknowledge everything has been done before, so all you can do is frame it in your own way. Quentin Tarantino is the master of this. Yet, Johnson fails to inject any real sense of individuality into his film, conveying only a grand sense of ‘been there, seen that.’
Furthermore, Johnson struggles with tone this time around, failing to strike the same seamless balance of drama and comedy found in The Dirties. There are moments where Operation Avalanche feels like the former, and other times like the latter, but rarely do the two cohere in a manner that creates any real sense of fluidity. I get the impression that Johnson and cowriter Josh Boles found themselves penning more of a drama than a comedy, so to create an apparent equilibrium, they would simply insert a comedic bit to cap off the scene, a practice that becomes transparent all too quickly, even if it does elicit a few laughs in the process.
Even the performances tend to lack the same level of naturalness seen in The Dirties, epitomised by cowriter Josh Boles’ role. Johnson is the highlight of the cast in Operation Avalanche, as he imbues his character with a credible contrast of aptitude and naivety throughout. Nevertheless, this is partly because his is the character most present in the ongoing narrative, as opposed to the large amount of screen time he shares with Owen Williams in The Dirties, which is sorely missed here. I admired the performance of Williams in The Dirties, as well as the measured growth of his character, but in Operation Avalanche, the actor is reduced to nothing more than a one-dimensional wet blanket.
Where Johnson has distinguished himself most as a filmmaker, however, is in his third acts. Johnson has a clear knack for closing out his films, which is no small task, even for the finest of filmmakers. I was never as engrossed in Operation Avalanche as I was for the final 15 minutes or so. It was exhilarating to say the least, and did well to tie together the several narrative components that had been gestating for the majority of the film, however tired they felt at the time. The final moments before cutting to black lack the same abrupt power as seen in The Dirties, but Johnson still manages to close out Operation Avalanche in a fitting fashion that respects its overarching narrative.
Thus, Operation Avalanche is not without its redeeming qualities, and by most accounts it is not a bad film. I view it as more of a miscalculated follow-up that does little to distinguish itself from the previous work of its director, or indeed any genre it tries to emulate. Johnson is still an interesting writer and director who has a great understanding of film practice. My only wish is to see him branch out with future efforts, possibly even abandoning the found footage genre altogether in favour of something new and adventurous, instead of retreading his past efforts.