1968 was a big year for science fiction. 1969 was a big year for science over science fiction. In April of 1968, Planet of the Apes was released. Less than a week later, Stanley Kubrick released the game changing 2001: A Space Odyssey, featuring the world’s most recognizable temporary soundtrack. The two of them represented a quantum leap forward in the quality of science fiction film making and the way in which they were regarded by both the public and film critics. Before 2001: A Space Odyssey, even serious science fiction films weren’t taken very seriously. Movies like This Island Earth, When Worlds Collide, and Forbidden Planet did their best to show that science fiction movies could be meaningful and respectable, but decades of cut-rate quickies generally eliminated whatever goodwill bigger-budget efforts generated for the genre. Not that I’m really complaining; I’ve never felt that a movie genre had to be taken seriously by the mainstream to be taken seriously, and I’ve never felt that a film of any genre had to be respectable, either. But for some people, those things are a big deal.
England’s Hammer Films had the misfortune of releasing their nicely decorated but somewhat tepid science fiction romp, Moon Zero Two, in the wake of a genre-changing film, and as a result, Hammer’s effort comes out looking small-scale and quaint — which is one of its saving graces, at least in retrospect. Perhaps even more crushing, Hammer released their breezy little moon adventure movie in 1969, and wound up competing directly with an actual moon adventure. While a vision of the moon that included scantily-clad dancing girls and scotch dispensers appeals to a certain sensibility (mine), in the end Moon Zero Two just couldn’t beat out Neil Armstrong hopping around on the surface of the moon, even though the real moon ended up not having any dancing girls or scotch — at least, one assumes, until Alan Shepard got up there with his golf clubs.
If Moon Zero Two got lost amid the shuffle of big-budget science fiction films and bigger-budget reality that seemed like science fiction, then no great crime has been committed. Moon Zero Two isn’t really all that great a film, though it has enough goofball late ’60s decor and outlandish costuming to make it an entertaining visual experience even if it fails to be much more than “middling” as a film. Part of the problem is that Hammer’s forays into science fiction during the previous decade had been very much of the “thinking man” style of science fiction. While the theories in them may have been daft and half-baked, at the end of the day they were serious-faced films about serious scientists solving serious scientific mysteries by using serious science. Ten years later, Moon Zero Two dispensed entirely with the notion of science fiction being in any way intellectual and instead went for a rootin’ tootin’ space western with too little rootin’ or tootin’ in it.
Captain William H. Kemp (James Olson, who would go on to star in The Andromeda Strain) and his partner Karminski (Ori Levy) are a couple of freewheelin’ space salvage pilots in the year 2021. They seem moderately successful in the wild west of moon life circa 2021, but as is always the case, things could be better. And things seem like they might be getting better when Kemp is contacted by moon tycoon J.J. Hubbard (Warren Mitchell), who wants Kemp to help him rope an asteroid that is basically a giant, orbiting sapphire. It seems like a pretty sweet deal except that Hubbard, who probably should have been wearing a ten gallon hat and shouting “Yee haw!” as he danced around and shot the space equivalent of six shooters into the air if this movie really wanted a proper western vibe, has a sneering, prig-faced henchman (Bernard Bresslaw, with a performance that channels the pure essence of Stephen Fry) hanging around all the time. As any good space cowboy knows, anyone who employs snooty, sour-faced henchmen probably has some evil ulterior motive. Also, if that billionaire minces about in a purple tunic while wearing a monocle and sporting a pointy goatee — come on, man!
Complicating things further is a mysterious woman named Clementine (former Bond girl and future Space: 1999 star Catherine Schell), who is poking her nose into the plot. Her brother, a moon miner (or “mooner” I assume), has vanished, and she suspects foul play. Naturally, Kemp will get involved with her so the movie can convolute itself a little by working in a whole claim jumper angle, since if you are going to make a space western, you have to cram in the plot cliches of every western you can think of. And screenwriter Michael Carreras certainly seems intent on making sure no western movie trope is left out of the script. He definitely seems more invested in that than he does in stitching together a plot that makes much sense or keep viewers interested. And so we get a procession of familiar wild west references, only with “lunar” attached to them. For instance, everyone hangs out in the lunar saloon, which I can’t decide if I should call a salunar or samoon.
Needless to say, as was required by law at the time, the saloon is frequented by Michael Ripper (this time in a…a…pardon me, but is that a vinyl flannel shirt???). The saloon has dancing girls, but instead of a saucy can-can show, they wear psychedelic body stockings and perform acts of abstract modern dance, since we all know that there’s nothing hard drinkin’ miners, be they mining moon rocks or coal, like more than to watch abstract modern dance. There’s also a barroom brawl, though since all the alcohol is dispensed from one of those futuristic booze machines, there are fewer broken whisky bottles than is appropriate, and they don’t get to do that thing where a dude slides another dude down the length of the bar and through a bunch of abandoned drinking glasses, with the one guy who casually lifts his out of the way to avoid calamity but is otherwise disinterested in the violence — which is probably for the best, because I seriously doubt this movie would have been able to resist accompanying that classic barroom brawl move with a slide whistle sound effect.
There’s also a local sheriff in the form of Adrienne Corri (Vampire Circus), though unlike other sheriffs of small old west frontier towns, she gets to parade around in thigh-high PVC boots and a purple miniskirt (High Noon would have been such a better film if…). She and Kemp are supposed to have some sort of flirtatious rapport, but frankly, Kemp’s romantic chemistry with his mustached bear of a buddy, Korminski, is more convincing. Ultimately, Clementine is Kemp’s romantic interest, because the hero always has to fall for the distraught but determined woman looking to avenge her brother’s murder. Other old west cliches grafted onto the year 2021 include the aforementioned claim jumper subplot, space Wells Fargo, and gunslingers who sling guns in considerably less exciting fashion than usual since everything is done in slow motion in order to convey that sense of low moon gravity.
Moon Zero Two is considered by most people to be an amiable misfire, and I can’t really argue against the assertion. It wanders from beginning to end with the languid saunter of a ranch hand checking fence posts, and it never achieves any sense of excitement or wonder, sort of like a ranch hand checking fence posts. But that said, there’s still a lot about this movie that is entertaining. Most obviously, there’s the art direction. Moon Zero Two seeks to recreate the look of 2001: A Space Odyssey, mixing the streamlined design of the jet-set swingin’ sixties with the more outrageous and groovy aspects of the latter half of the decade, all filtered through the perception of a bunch of old British guys. The results are eye-popping and absurd, like what might happen if Hammer transported the swingin’ hippie-mods of Dracula AD 1972 to the moon.
Perhaps the most glorious absurdity dreamed up by the costuming department is the bizarre lampshade-cum-badminton shuttlecock hat that Clementine sports from time to time. The rest of the outfits are glorious and probably of a design familiar to anyone who appreciates such things — a blend of 1960s styles with a dash of Ancient Greece thrown in, plus lots of guys in turtlenecks. Women favor wigs of unnatural, metallic colors, while the men prefer to sport muttonchop sideburns. Spacesuit designs vary between the big, bulbous-helmeted baggy suits from the Destination: Moon era of cinematic space suit design to the more slim cut, shiny plastic of the 2001: A Space Odyssey era. The hard shell suits may look cool, especially since they come in a variety of vibrant colors, but they seem a bit ill-designed for easy operation in the cramped quarters of a spaceship or lunar rover. But then, sometimes you have to make sacrifices in the name of looking good.
It’s a vision of future fashion for which I still hold out some hope. I mean, come on. If America has lost interest in the exploration of space, is it because the Cold War ended, thus eliminating the bogeyman that spurred us on to conquer space before the red planet became a planet of reds? Or is it because our astronauts give interviews from the International Space Station while wearing polo shirts instead of turtlenecks, Nehru jackets, and a jaunty Ascot? Would the ISS not be a better place if the European Space Agency, instead of contributing logistics transport vehicles and a pressurized lab, had sent up an expansion module full of go-go dancers and an Italian fashion designer armed with nothing but translucent plastic discs and some aluminum foil?
Unfortunately, we didn’t chose to go that way, even though things looked promising once Alan Shepard was up there swatting golf balls around. Surely that cat wanted a lounge. I don’t know what went wrong, but the combined artistic visions of Moon Zero Two and The X From Outer Space somehow didn’t result in the moon getting its own swingin’ nightclub. Heck, we never even thought to let astronauts pick their own spacesuit colors. We make them all wear white or orange when I know some of them are yearning for a sweet mauve spacesuit. And I don’t know what jackass forgot to install the scotch dispenser on the space station, but come on!
Sylvia Anderson must have been influenced in some way by Moon Zero Two when she designed the awesome costumes for Gerry Anderson’s television show UFO (well, awesome except for the string vest uniforms of the submarine crew). Moon Zero Two isn’t quite as outre in its design as, say, Barbarella or Danger! Diabolik, but hey — those were all Italians and French guys. Moon Zero Two was a bunch of old British guys. It must have taken every ounce of his willpower for writer/producer Michael Carreras not to just suit everyone up in Harris Tweed space suits.
The miniatures and model work is also great. The designers of Moon Zero Two‘s spaceships and lunar rovers had the benefit of working at a time when actual moon vehicles were being unveiled, so they took those real-world ideas and taped some extra crap to them, then called it a day. I mean, are you going to really design a better lunar lander than the lunar lander that actually made a lunar landing? Just add a whiskey dispenser to that baby, and you’re ready to go. The moon city is also a beautifully intricate model, as are the various moon outposts. The extensive miniature work makes Moon Zero Two look less like 2001 and more like a Japanese sci-fi film, or maybe one of those wild and ridiculous sci-fi films Antonio Margheriti was cranking out down in Italy around the same time. That’s all pretty cool with me. While 2001: A Space Odyssey may have gone and raised the bar for the quality of special effects in science fiction movies, there was still plenty of room for the more modest sort of miniature work done in films like this one. Sort of how like The Beatles ushered in the beginning of the end for Elvis, but there was still plenty to love about Elvis.
Yet still something goes wrong, also sort of like Elvis. You have good actors. You have insane costumes. Bright colors, spaceship models, moon buggies, Catherine Schell in a space bikini, Ori Levy with his space mustache, space dancing girls in giant space cowboy hats — man, everything about this movie should be awesome. And if all you ever did was watch it as a visual experience, it would be pretty awesome indeed. But this is a movie, not a bunch of drawings, so it behooves the film to provide us with a story, and the execution of that story is where the balloon wheels start to come off of Moon Zero Two‘s moon buggy. Carreras and Baker just can’t find the energetic vibe this movie needs to succeed. I know I should be having fun. I know the movie has all the pieces I consider requisite for making something fun. But the fun never sticks around for very long, popping from time to time like Michael Ripper making a cameo appearance. It’s like a hyper little kid asked his stuffy old grandpa to tell him a story involving sexy space girls, space cowboys, lunar gunfights, and scotch machines, and the grandpa proceeds to take all those individually wonderful elements and plant them in a meandering story told in a remarkably dry and listless tone.