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DVD Review: Lunopolis

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There are people on the moon and they control human affairs. They do this by traveling through time and altering past events to create a new and supposedly better future. They are led by J. Ari Hilliard, founder of the Church of Lunology and discoverer of the secret of immortality. Don’t believe me? Check out Lunopolis, Matthew J. Avant’s 2009 “documentary,” to be released on DVD by Walking Shadows October 11.

French academic Jean Francois Champollion VI, having discovered in 1992 a collection of videotaped footage shot by some university students, pieces together the story of what happened in the 12 days leading up to December 21, 2012 (yes, the very day supposedly predicted by the Mayan calendar to be the end of the world as we know it). Champollion helpfully surrounds this found footage with the testimony of experts who fill in the gaps and explain the complex concepts involving time travel and parallel worlds which underlie the grand conspiracy laid out by the film.

Like most found-footage movies, Lunopolis aims to create an air of reality and conviction around a fantastic story. What distinguishes Avant’s movie from most others of its kind is the inclusion of the extra contextual material to expand on and explain the found footage. Generally, viewers are left to form their own opinions, but here we have something closer in form to a conventional documentary. This is both a strength and a weakness, however. Found-footage films are a game played with the audience, aimed at assisting us in suspending our disbelief.

While the approach used by Avant allows him to lay out some fairly elaborate concepts which would be more difficult to explain if he had stuck strictly to the students’ found footage, we know that much of what the “experts” are talking about is not actually true (the Church of Lunology, for instance, is an obvious pastiche of Scientology, with J. Ari Hilliard standing in for L. Ron Hubbard), so the more overt documentary material actually undermines the found-footage narrative by emphasizing the fictional nature of the film – exactly the opposite of the effect the found-footage technique aims to create.

It’s difficult to write about a film like Lunopolis without talking about the plot to some degree, so be warned: there may be spoilers ahead.

After a brief, somewhat cryptic television news report about a viral Internet video which may or may not show some kind of supernatural event at a shopping mall, we are introduced to Matt (director Matthew Avant) and Sonny (Hal Maynor). These two young filmmakers are embarking on a documentary investigation triggered by a panicked phone call to a late night conspiracy-themed show in which a terrified voice talks of people on the moon who are controlling world events. The follow-up arrival of some documents, including a strange Polaroid photo with GPS coordinates written on the back, leads them to a partially submerged cabin in a Louisiana swamp beneath which they discover a vast, seemingly deserted installation. Deep inside they find an odd machine which they take back to the university.

Needless to say, the device turns out to be a prototype time machine and the fact that they’ve stolen it leads to them being watched and pursued by mysterious figures.

All of this is presented in typical, rough-edged “found footage” style. Director Avant gets around some of the limitations of the format by having his team shoot with two cameras, which permits more conventional editing of some scenes (being sure to include occasional shots where the cameras glimpse each other). But these scenes are intermittently interrupted by more formally shot interview clips featuring the heavily-accented Frenchman Champollion who comments on and occasionally offers an explanation for what we are seeing, and later by various scientists and former members of the Church of Lunology. So, unlike movies like The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Last Exorcism (2010), or Paranormal Activity (2009), in Lunopolis we don’t simply have a collection of found footage; here, that “raw material” is being framed and shaped by someone other than the characters we see in the main body of the narrative.

This seems to become problematic towards the midpoint as the story is interrupted by a long, traditionally structured talking-heads sequence in which a variety of experts suddenly appear to explain the background to what the young filmmakers are discovering and to lay out an elaborate theory of paralle worlds and how the discovery of time travel has led to a vast conspiracy which controls world events.

This story involves J. Ari Hilliard, who was born in the ’40s (and mysteriously published the foundational text for the Church of Lunology seven years before his birth), discovered how to move through time and, on December 21, 2012, went back with others to 350 BC where he set about altering events to “correct” what he saw as historical mistakes. Eventually, Hilliard and his people established a civilization on the moon from which to control history. This involved a lot of time travel, which resulted in an increasing number of problems, because any action always has unforeseen consequences. And, as in many other time travel stories, each action results in a duplication, creating more and more parallel worlds, each a little different than the others, but all close together and occasionally impinging on each other (resulting in such phenomena as ghosts, deja vu, clairvoyance).

By this point a big question hangs over the film: if these theories and this history are so obviously widely known and studied by experts, how can they be such a mystery to Matt, Sonny and their crew, and why are sinister forces connected with the Church of Lunology threatening the filmmakers because of what they are discovering? Although this problem is at least partially solved at the end of the film when the source of the found footage is revealed, on first viewing it tends to undermine the credibility of the narrative and this mid-section seems like an awkward way to insert a massive dose of exposition which Avant couldn’t get into the narrative itself.

But despite this problem, the big story, the conspiracy involving time travel and immortality, multiple parallel worlds and alternate histories, is an entertaining construct, and Avant keeps it moving at a swift pace so we stay interested even though we may not always be fully engaged. Eventually the film circles back to that opening news report, but now we understand exactly what happened. The resolution ties together many of the film’s convoluted threads (with a not entirely surprising revelation about the identity of a major character), and is dramatically satisfying.

On the level of filmmaking, Lunopolis is impressive for a low-budget first feature. The elegantly formal interview clips make it clear that the jerky found footage sections are a deliberate creative choice, and the contrast between the two modes adds a sense of urgency to the rough footage. Most of the performances seem natural and convincing, with Dave Potter a stand-out as the reclusive David James who shows up to give the filmmakers some crucial information, though his motives turn out to be more sinister than his easygoing manner suggests.

The DVD also includes a commentary track with writer-director-star Matthew Avant and his brother Nathan (who plays Nate, one of the cameramen), moderated by associate producer Michael David Weis. It’s a chatty track which offers some interesting information on the genesis of the film and the ways Avant managed to squeeze production value out of a limited budget, though at times the three seem to forget that they have an audience and waste time joking amongst themselves.

Overall, Lunopolis is an intriguing concept, executed with skill and enthusiasm, though not always completely successful in achieving its aims.

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About K. George

I have been a film editor for some twenty years, cutting shorts and features, drama and documentary, theatrical and television. Since my earliest memories of movies — watching Omar Sharif as Ghengis Khan, Ursula Andress as She in the Odeon or Regent or Pavilion in Chelmsford, Essex, in the early ’60s, or catching King Kong or Quatermass 2 on a small black and white television in our living room in White Roding — what engaged me, and still engages me, is story and the techniques of storytelling. Even in my documentary work, the concern is always with how to shape the material into a compelling narrative. When I returned to school in my mid-20s, I started hanging out at the University of Winnipeg student newspaper office and eventually became the weekly film reviewer — an excellent gig because it meant I got to see a lot of movies for free. No doubt that experience helped when I fortuitously got an opportunity to go to Los Angeles and interview David Lynch and many of his collaborators on the production of Eraserhead for an article for Cinefantastique. And that article in turn landed me a job on the production of Lynch’s Dune, a remarkable six months in Mexico helping to document the day-to-day details of production on one of the most expensive movies ever made. Eventually returning to Winnipeg, I wrote fairly regularly about film and other matters for Border Crossings, an arts quarterly. And then, in 1989, I joined the Winnipeg Film Group and set about making my own first film, a 9-minute comedy in the form of a dubious documentary called Incident at Pickerel Fillet. This was followed by a short piece in a collaborative project called The Exquisite Corpse, and then a more ambitious comedy parodying old-style sci-fi movie serials called The Adventures of Stella Starr of the Galaxy Rangers in the 23rd Century. These experiences led inexorably to a career in film editing, mostly on documentaries. Over the years, I have also sporadically continued writing — a number of unfilmed scripts, plus a brief history of the Winnipeg Film Group for Cinema Scope, and most recently a chapter on filmmaker John Kozak in the WFG’s anthology about Winnipeg directors, Place.
  • Zaporini Perete

    this movie insults my intel

  • Speusippus

    I did not think it was a particularly awesome movie, but the talking heads problem I think can be given a resolution within the framework of the film–I took those sequences to be from a different timeline (the film calls them “dimensions”) than the one inhabited by the documentarian protagonists. The facts about lunopolis were unknown to the protagonists, and known to the experts, because the experts (and the newscasters at the beginning) inhabit a different (and in the film’s terms “later” or “higher”) timeline than the documentarians.

  • Laura

    I enjoyed this movie allot, I think if you didn’t, then you couldn’t follow the story line and your confusion led to your dislike. Also you have to have a knowlege of things like moon missions, scientology, time travel, area 51, coast to coast…etc. I was really impressed with the car disappearing scence…for a film without a mega million dollar budget, I was surprised they pulled it off as good as they did. Some of their shirt and tie guys were a bit unbelievable as threatening…but, I really enjoyed the acting of the main characters and the story line. :)

  • Chris R

    It’s sad to know that there are people reviewing movies who miss the easiest concepts of a movie.

    The “talking heads” know everything about the theories because they are being interviewed way after all of the events of the movie. That’s how brilliant the storytelling is, and how much it flew over your head: one main tenet of the film is changing the past to progress human knowledge. Look what our two documentarians (or Hilliard, depending on how you argue) managed to accomplish: they brought to light the most advanced and mysterious understanding of the time dimension.

    It’s funny that I wrote a whole paragraph about one plot factor, when this movie has well over 15 specific plot factors that not only all tie up at the end, but can be logically explained within the realm of the movie.

    It was simply too good for your tastes.

  • K. George

    I’m not sure why you feel the need to insult me because I had a few criticisms about the film’s structure. Overall, I wrote a positive review of a film which I found interesting and creative. Guess I’m just a dope, though. K. George

  • Ava Marie

    ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC!!! Congratulations. I was so impressed I watched it twice in one viewing, taking notes of course. You see my family has many people who have worked on Moon “information” issues. As well as, I “may” have knowledge about Scientology, Coast to Coast, a seeker of truth in theologies and concepts about bending time. You did your homework, plots, film, effects, music, very well indeed! I have not been this fascinated or captured by a film in a long time. Especially because block buster films do not attempt this artistic style, subject matter or shed light on things that must be illuminated. Refreshing to know that some truths can be untarnished by money, gems or sexual favors in the city of Angels…or LA.
    No doubt, I will be a loyal fan of your careers.
    Keep on…. keeping on : )