The year is 1969 and man has just landed on the Moon. As Neil
Armstrong sets foot on the Sea of Tranquility, some see it as the end
of a hard-fought space race by the United States against the Soviets. For others, it
is the beginning of a new era of not just manned space exploration,
but of colonisation and exploitation. It's the
opening of a new frontier with the astronauts playing the part of
pioneers to be followed by engineers, administrators, miners,
settlers, entrepreneurs, tourists, and then all the sundry ordinary
folk who make up a civilisation.
Meanwhile, back on Earth at England's Hammer Films,
the studio's most expensive film to date is being readied for
its 20 October release; part of which involves calling back the young
American lead actor to dub in a line referring to the recent Moon
landing. This is crucial because the film takes place in the
year 2021. The location: The Moon.
The film is Moon Zero Two. Most people
today have never heard of it and of those who have, it's probably due
to pirated videos of an early Mystery Science Theater 3000
episode that lampooned it–which is a pity, because Moon Zero Two is a
forgotten gem of '60s cinema and an example of that incredibly rare
animal; the hard science fiction film. More than that, it's a
light-hearted popcorn movie of a hard science fiction film, which
probably puts it in a genre all its own.
Good poster. A
shame about the tagline.
Made before Star Wars instilled the attitude
of "screw it" when it came to verisimilitude, Moon Zero Two
tells the tale of Captain Bill Kemp; the first man to land on Mars and
who has in recent years been reduced to operating an aging moon ferry.
When Kemp and his engineer Kaminsky aren't eking out a meager living
salvaging space junk and picking up the slack ferrying passengers and
cargo to the far side of the Moon, they're dodging creditors and the
authorities who want Kemp's ship grounded for safety violations.
Faced with an ultimatum from the local police constable, who is also
Kemp's girlfriend, that he either gets a new ship in a week or gets
grounded, Kemp is approached by a "won't take 'no' for an answer"
billionaire, who offers to replace Kemp's ship if Kemp will help him to
engineer an asteroid to crash on the Moon–a highly illegal operation.
With nothing to lose, Kemp agrees. But then, there's also a
recently arrived woman from Earth who's looking for her brother who's
been prospecting on the far side and hasn't been heard from in weeks.
That's when things start to get complicated. Moon Zero Two isn't a
perfect film. Its budget limitations and poorly constructed sets
are often obvious and there are a couple of plot holes that you could
fly an asteroid through, but nothing that makes you want to tear your
hair out and throw the dog at the screen. The fact
that it got made at all is remarkable. Though it's not the
first Hammer film to include spaceships, it is the first one to be set
in the future and in outer space. It's also not the usual horror
picture that springs to mind when Hammer is mentioned.
It's much more of a light adventure than a scream fest, but that isn't
as odd as it seems, since the Hammer library did include a number of
straightforward adventures and even comedies–if On the Buses
can be called that.
But Moon Zero Two was something else again.
This was a space adventure that actually took science and technology
seriously–or as seriously as poetic licence would allow. In Moon
Zero Two, no one can hear you scream. Space is silent with all
the usual sound effects made up for with music. Who knew that
rockets sound like muted trumpets? It paid
attention to things like low gravity, celestial mechanics, the dangers
of living inside a pressure dome, and other conditions that go along
with starting a lunar colony. It even has one up on 2001:
Space Odyssey in that there are no godlike aliens, stargates, or
monoliths and the conflict is based on science, engineering, and good,
solid doses of honest greed and megalomania. It had all the
makings of at least something memorable, but in the end, it gained its greatest fame as the target of Joel and
did Moon Zero Two sink into obscurity? Maybe it was bad timing.
Maybe it was because Hammer was past its days of greatness and was
having trouble getting it distributed in the American market. A
lot of it, however, had to do with the publicity campaign that billed
it as "the first moon Western", which probably had the audience
thinking it was in store for some campy genre mash up when in reality
it was nothing so overt.
Some parallels can be found between the
script and that of a stock Western, but science fiction isn't
called "space opera" for nothing. In their heyday, Westerns were
called "horse operas" and the simple frontier plots of both the
Western and science fiction (helped by early writers recycling stories
by changing Wyoming to Mars and six shooters to blasters) produced
some obvious similarities.
In Moon Zero Two, the only overt Western
motif is a hotel bar that has a Wild West decor, but the script makes
it clear that it has less to do with the Moon being a new Montana than
it does with a much put-upon barman trying to please a management that
has an insane liking for themes that change by the week. And to
set up a gag involving a huge bar fight. Otherwise, Moon Zero
Two might as well have been the story of a bush pilot in Australia
or sailing captain in the Bahamas. It all depends on how you
look at it.
title sequence didn't help either, with a fair share of the budget
blown on a three minute cartoon that suggested that the audience was
in store for some sort of a parody of the '60s Space Race. Such
a waste of money on schizophrenic credits showing a pair of slap-stick
Cold War astronauts must have left more than one patron checking his
tickets to make sure there wasn't some sort of mistake.
We won't even go into the effect
of being released on a double bill with When Dinosaurs Ruled The
At any rate, the damage was done, audiences stayed
away in droves and Moon Zero Two's estimated $2 million budget sank
under a box office that looked like the space programme budget for the
Duchy of Grand Fenwick.