Saturday 10 November 2012

Moon Zero Two (1969)

Hammer’s 1969 release Moon Zero Two was one of their most costly and most ambitious projects. It bombed at the box office but it’s actually quite entertaining.

Hammer never had any problems making their gothic horror movies look more expensive than they were, but when they turned to other genres like the adventure movie or in this case science fiction their budgetary limitations became much more noticeable. And Moon Zero Two hit the cinemas a year after 2001: A Space Odyssey and any science fiction movie coming out at that time was inevitably going to be compared to the special effects wizardry of 2001, and naturally in this case the comparison was not going to be to Moon Zero Two’s advantage.

Which is not to say that the special effects in Moon Zero Two are poor. In actual fact they’re pretty good, and for a modestly budgeted movie they’re mostly very good.

Hammer promoted this movie as a space western and as well as a few obvious touches it does have a plot that would be quite at home in the western genre.

Captain William Kemp (James Olson) had been a space age hero, the first man to land on Mars. But the age of space exploration has ended. The emphasis now is on scheduled tourist flights to the Moon, and Kemp has no intention of becoming a mere passenger pilot. He earns his living piloting an old lunar space ferry, the Moon Zero Two, with a Russian space engineer named Kaminsky. He makes his money from space salvage operations.

Kemp is having an affair with one of the top people in the Lunar Bureau of Investigations but she is about to ground the Moon Zero Two for safety reasons. Another astronaut has just been killed, and any more space accidents may scare the tourists away from Moon City. Then Kemp receives an offer from the very wealthy, and very notorious, J. J. Hubbard (Warren Mitchell). Known, not so affectionately, as Hundred Percent Hubbard, he is a businessman with somewhat flexible ethical standards. Still, his offer is tempting, since it includes a brand new spacecraft.

Hubbard has a daring plan. He has discovered a small asteroid with is composes mostly of sapphire. Six thousand tons of sapphire. Kemp points out that mining asteroids has never been economical, but Hubbard has other plans. He wants to attach some old rocket engines to the asteroid and crash it into the Far Side of the Moon.

Kemp also picks up another job. Clementine Taplin (Catherine Schell) has lost her brother. He is a prospector who has staked out a claim on the Far Side of the Moon (an idea that certainly relates the movie to the western genre). She wants Kemp to join her in finding her missing brother. These two major plot strands will eventually intersect.

The movie’s biggest problem is that it features a spectacularly bad opening titles sequence  that gives entirely the wrong idea of the movie that is to follow. The title sequence suggests a wacky goofy comedy but the movie is actually relatively serious. It is in fact one of the more realistic science fiction movies of its era - the Moon Zero Two looks like an updated version of NASA’s Lunar Module, and astronauts in orbit are actually weightless. There are no laser guns - both the heroes and the villains use ordinary handguns which might not look as cool but is probably much more realistic.

The production design is generally excellent with the spacesuits being particularly impressive - they’re groovy and colourful but they do look like spacesuits. Moon City looks reasonably good. The special effects are patchy - some are excellent, some not so good. The moon vehicles look great. The fashions are simply wonderful.

James Olson makes a good hero and wisely does not overdo the maverick space cowboy thing (and the movie as a whole does not overdo this angle). Catherine Schell is fine as the heroine and Warren Mitchell makes a terrific villain, playing the role less for laughs than you might expect from this actor.

Warner’s DVD release (paired with When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth)) looks marvellous with gloriously vibrant colours.

A much better movie than either its reputation or its box-office failure would suggest, this is one of Hammer’s forgotten gems.


David said...

It also has a terrific title sequence -- complete with groovy animation and a catchy theme song -- in the style of "Schoolhouse Rock."

David said...

Okay, so I read to quickly and missed the part where you hated the title sequence. It doesn't really fit the film, but damn that song is hard to get out of your head once you've heard it!

Unknown said...

Is it just me or do you think that George Lucas ripped some costume designs off of this? Check out the costume on the women in the middle in the first picture? Looks the uniforms for Imperial officers, and the spacesuits? I think that I've seen them in the cantina scene.