Friday, January 17, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Moon Zero Two (1969)



Following the success of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a boom-let of near future space movies marched into cinemas around the globe.
In this memorable group, you will discover Gerry Anderson’s underrated work of art, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), The Green Slime (1969), Silent Running (1972), Solaris (1972), and the subject of this review: Roy Ward Baker's Moon Zero Two (1969).
Moon Zero Two was billed as both the first “space western” and the first “moon western,” and like some of the other films on the list above is set less than a century into the future, in 2021, and involves near space -- meaning our solar system -- rather than “outer” space.
And very much like Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, and Silent Running, this film very directly grapples with the reality that space travel is an expensive and thus controversial proposition.  This fact was also handled directly on the Gerry Anderson cult-TV programs of the era, from UFO (1970) to Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977).
Though not exactly scintillating in terms of its pace or narrative clarity, Moon Zero Two nonetheless establishes a thematic point later covered (better…) in Outland (1981), another space western.  And that point is simply that man -- no matter what frontier he broaches -- is the same animal as he is here on Earth.  And therefore, the “dream” that drives him further and further, beyond the next horizon is not necessarily the glory of exploration, but the opportunity to get rich
This very idea of commercialism on the frontier is diagrammed in the lead character’s existential crisis.  Bill Kemp (James Olson) was the first man to set foot on Mars, but doesn’t wish to spend the rest of his life ferrying passengers to and fro, so he becomes an independent “pilot for hire” above the moon instead.  In other words, the explorer’s job is done, and now business interests and regulations dominate the arena.
For all its abundant flaws in terms of pacing and human interest, Moon Zero Two returns again and again to signs and symbols that directly critique the idea that man -- even when he goes to the stars -- must take unfettered avarice and greed with him. 
On a more fantastic and visual note, Moon Zero Two from Hammer Studio also features some impressive sets, as well some remarkable miniature landscapes and vehicles from the great Les Bowie, an effects artist who contributed his considerable talents to First Men in the Moon (1964), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and later to Superman: The Movie (1978). 
Although it is true that -- forty-four years later -- some of Moon Zero Two’s effects appear dated, many vistas, including a long establishing shot of a lunar city in the distance, remain awe-inspiring.  There’s also a well-executed landing of a lunar ship at a site called Far Side 5, and some good scenes involving a miniature Moon Buggy traversing a treacherous frontier landscape.  These are effects from a different era, but ones that deserve acknowledgment for their depth and detail.



On a personal note, the quality that makes films such as Moon Zero Two or Journey to the Far Side of the Sun required viewing in my book is the fact that they were produced during the Apollo program, in a span when regular travel to space -- in my life time -- was an absolute expectation.
There was no thought in any of these films that man wouldn’t continue and succeed in his quest to conquer the sky and beyond, and so these productions, while grappling with issues such as greed and the cost of the next frontier, also boast a kind of hopefulness that space films of other eras don’t necessarily reflect.   
As much as I love and adore Star Trek, it is set hundreds of years in the future…a future I won’t live to see.  
In terms of 2001, Space: 1999, and Moon Zero Two, these films and television programs were thrilling in a very different (and now lost…) way because the incredible future appeared to be just over the next mountain, or on the surface of the moon…and therefore visible to the naked eye in the night sky. That future was being built before our eyes by astronauts on TV...
Today, our politics have grown too small to dream so big, but when I was a kid in the 1970s, even flawed films like Moon Zero Two seemed, well, realistic. I just knew that I was going to “live” in that future...



 “We’re all foreigners here…”
Early in the 21st century (circa 2021), Earth’s moon is the latest frontier, and is bustling with activity as business interests compete to lock up mineral and territorial rights. 
One astronaut, Bill Kemp (Olson) is a former explorer, but now captains his fifty year old junk heap, the Moon Two, to retrieve damaged satellites and claim salvage rights on his finds.
Kemp is recruited by a businessman in the settlement of Moon City, J.J. Hubbard (Warren Mitchell), to wrangle an approaching asteroid, which consists of six thousand tons of sapphires.  Hubbard wants Kemp to re-direct the valuable rock to a set of coordinates on the lunar surface. 
Although Kemp doesn’t like Hubbard, he takes the job because the Corporation will soon make it illegal for him to continue flying the old, ostensibly “dangerous” Moon Two.  If he wants to stay independent, he’ll need a big payday to buy a new ship.
Meanwhile, a beautiful visitor to Moon City, Clementine Taplin (Catherine Schell), also wants to hire Kemp to help locate her missing brother.  He had gone prospecting out on the far side of the moon, but before he could stake a claim on what he found, he disappeared without a trace.  Now Clementine fears he is lost, and perhaps dying somewhere on the dark lunar surface.
As Kemp soon learns, the two jobs are connected in an unexpected way, and behind the murder of Clementine’s brother is the eternal human quest to get rich quick…



“Let’s hope we all have a profitable trip.”
In a very real sense, Moon Zero Two is all about what happens when big business interests get involved in a new, profitable frontier, and seek -- by any means possible – to immediately secure the wealth buried there. 
The film’s unseen, but frequently mentioned antagonist is called “The Corporation,” and Moon Zero Two features much dialogue regarding the fact that “the small, independent pilots” are getting “squeezed out” by said Corporation, so it has a better chance of striking it rich on the moon. 
Indeed, Captain Kemp is subjected to draconian Corporation rules regarding the condition of his ship, rules that will make it impossible for him to keep his job.  He is forced to work with Hubbard -- a crook – because he needs the money to get a new ship.  He is the man being squeezed out of his job, and the Corporation tries to paper over that fact by offering him a job as a passenger ship pilot.  It's a job he has no interest in, and so the lesson here is about freedom. Kemp wants the freedom to chart his own destiny, but the Corporation wants to fit him into a square peg.
Moon Zero Two suggests that the moon frontier is considered, by the Corporation, a big pie to be sliced up between friendly interests, and the film does decent job of visualizing that idea in simple and memorable terms.  Mid-way through the film, for instance, a board game is depicted in close-up called, amusingly, Moonopoly. 
The name of the game is controlling the board, and that’s a metaphor for controlling the frontier.  The original Monopoly, of course, is a game intrinsically about the acquisition of wealth, and the increasing ability to squeeze out other players by consolidating that wealth into power.  “Moonopoly” -- Moon Zero Two’s space-age variation of the game -- makes explicit the movie’s theme that even in space, money is the most highly-prized resource.

The runaway capitalism angle of the film is expressed in other ways as well.  The greeting that passengers receive upon landing at Moon City is heard to be “let’s hope we all have a profitable trip.”  Again, the focus is on accumulating wealth.
But caveat emptor: even a brief stay on the moon could cost you an arm and a leg because, in the words of Kemp, the moon costs “a lot of money to get started” and the Corporation wants to recoup its losses.   
Specifically, Moon Two Zero's script observes that it costs thirty-five dollars for a single drink in the hotel’s space “saloon,” and is certain to note that the currency there is, amusingly, “moon dollars.”   To put a fine point on it, there’s a lot of emphasis in the film on the economic aspects of moon life.  And this is a far cry from modern science fiction or space fantasy, which rarely focus on money matters in the final frontier.
The idea of rampant, out-of-control commercialism is visually represented in another fashion too.  Shoppers can go to the “Galaxy Boutique” for shopping, soon after making landing, and the Moon Bar -- with dancers pretending to be space cowboys and the like -- could be something out of a modern Las Vegas revue: a lascivious show designed to efficiently separate you quickly from your hard-earned cash.

Moon Zero Two’s on-screen villain, Hubbard, is a businessman hoping to make a killing outside the confines of the law, furthering the film’s leitmotif about greed.  He has killed Clementine’s brother so that when the jewel asteroid lands on his claim, he won’t be present – or alive – to dispute Hubbard’s ownership of the treasure. Hubbard knows that if he is to make a killing and be a player on the moon, he must act now, no matter the legality of his actions.
Outside of the social critique involving unfettered avarice in the new frontier, Moon Zero Two tries hard to make its case that Space = The American West. 
In terms of theme, the reference certainly makes a degree of sense.  Brave men and women risked everything to go West in the late 19th century, but were soon followed by a parade of railroad companies, banks, land magnates, and so on, who swooped in to establish civilization…but also control of the new territory. 
In terms of Western touches, Moon Zero Two involves the wrangling -- the literal physical lasso-ing -- of satellites and asteroids (think steer wrangling...), features the futuristic equivalent of a stagecoach -- a Fargo Moon Buggy -- and highlights thieves, bandits and crooks attempting to steal legitimate claims on mineral riches.  There’s even a (zero gravity) fight in the Moon City saloon, which reflects a generation of Western films, though the fight is poorly executed in terms of special effects.



Catherine Schell (here billed as Catherina Von Schell) also plays a very Western-sounding character, Clementine: an independent-minded woman who braves the frontier to find a missing family member.  Years after Moon Zero Two, Schell returned to the frontier, of course, in Space: 1999 as Maya.  If you were ever at a convention with Schell, you may remember her amusing words about working on Moon Zero Two, and her overall opinion of the production.
The Western motif and the commentary on uncontrolled capitalism render Moon Zero Two worth watching, for certain, despite the admitted paucity of thrills.  The special effects also boast a very distinctive look and feel, and will prove a source of enjoyment for space movie fans of a certain age (like myself). 
All that established, however, the movie is never as intriguing or compelling as it could have been, and more often than not, the drama simply falls flat (which may be part of the reason the film was once featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000). 
Even the film’s credit sequence -- a Schoolhouse Rock-styled cartoon depicting man’s history on the moon -- seems strangely out of place, a miscalculation that sets the wrong tone for what is essentially a humorless picture.  
The rest of the movie has its ups and downs, to be certain, with the zero-gravity saloon fight standing out as one area where poor execution trumps a brilliant concept.  But on the other hand, Catherine Schell strips down to her space undies in one scene, which for some viewers is absolutely a moment worth the price of an admission, or a rental…

So, how to parse Moon Zero Two, an ambitious but not very successful genre film? 
Well, it certainly paved the way for other space westerns about the commercial pitfalls of the frontier (namely Outland), and features miniatures and production design that will strike your fancy if you are a fan of the works of Gerry Anderson, or Stanley Kubrick. 
I suppose the film does work best as a time capsule.  Almost unintentionally, Moon Zero Two reflects this innate optimism that we will be in space (and on the moon) in a serious way in our lifetimes.  Even the cynicism about corporations and commercialism can’t undercut the essential optimism of that (apparently time-limited…) view-point.
So even though I acknowledge the film’s myriad flaws involving tempo and clarity, I also admire Moon Zero Two for absolutely believing in its own premise.   
For a dream to come true, you have to believe in it first, and the space films of the 1960s, including Moon Zero Two, dreamed a great future for all of mankind.  There would still be greed, there would still be crime, there would still be corporations...but the final frontier would also open before us...and mankind would grow.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for writing this. While no classic I always thought it was better than its reputation.

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    1. Thank you, Jeanette, for your comment. I agree with your perspective. Moon Zero Two has some big problems, but it is much better than its reputation suggests. The film is filled with great concepts and ideas, only the execution falters. And even some of the execution -- vis-a-vis the visual effects and production design -- is quite remarkable.

      All my best,
      John

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  2. Anonymous10:50 AM

    I agree that this is an under-rated film, and I appreciate your essay on it. I have always found it interesting that this space-western (certainly arguably the first) is a British production, which really I think speaks to the universality of the theme. The production designs are first rate, and, while I would have appreciated a more humorous film, there is something earnest about it that I do like.

    --Hugh

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  3. John extremely interesting review of a film I must see Moon Zero Two (1969). For that era we have four different depictions of Lunar settlements: Moon Zero Two, 2001:A Space Odyssey, UFO and Space:1999.

    SGB

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  4. And let's not forget that Carol Cleveland of Monty Python fame has a part in this film too! Of the films that MST3K covered this one and Danger: Diabolik are two of the ones I actually think are rather good. Certainly fun to watch too.

    When I watch films like this, 2001 or shows like Space 1999 it always reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke writing that for the cost of the Vietnam war, all the hard science things in 2001 (space plane, space station, moon shuttle, moonbase and expedition to Jupiter) could probably have been made real. Depressing that.

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  5. Just caught this film as part of the MST3K boxset. The movie itself does have its flaws but overall I love the look of it and colors. That animated opening credits sequence is extremely strange though. Not sure what they were thinking with that one.

    As an MST3K episode, it is actually pretty funny. The movie has some really goofy moments in it (the zero G bar fight is one of those), and the riffers work with it really well. This is a season one episode, so the riffing is a bit slower and less polished than it would get in later seasons, but this is one of the better season one episodes.

    For what it is worth, the riffers aren't hard on the film, they seem to have fun with the production design and the fact that everything starts with "moon" (which reminded me of your comment about everything starting with "Ape" in your animated planet of the apes review). I have to say, it did make me curious to see the complete film.

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  6. Anonymous8:08 PM

    Even if the "space western" label promises a rather juvenile tone, "Moon Zero Two" has considerable adult appeal. It's flashy, but also intelligent. Hammer put quite a bit of money into the sets and it shows. The film is a visual treat. Catherine Schell is beautiful (as always). I would rate this film as entertaining as "Journey to the Far Side of the Sun", another often overlooked late 60's film.

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  7. Anonymous5:45 PM

    John, another well written and excellent review. I look forward to reading your reviews of both 2001 and 2010, soon. Keep up the excellent work.

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