(1969) Directed by Roy Ward Baker; Written by Michael Carreras; Story by Gavin Lyall, Frank Hardman and Gavin Davison; Starring: James Olson, Catherina Von Schell, Warren Mitchell, Adrienne Corri, Ori Levy and Bernard Bresslaw; Available on DVD (Warner Archive)
“We’re all foreigners here. We always will be.” – Captain Kemp (James Olson)
“It was more than a headache. It turned out to be practically impossible. What nobody realized at the time is that you simply cannot make a space fiction picture at those prices at double or even treble normal Hammer budgets.” – Roy Ward Baker (excerpt from interview with Stephen Laws, Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films)
Once again, I extend a heartfelt thanks to Gill Jacob from Realweegiemidget Reviews, for helping make The 2nd Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon a reality. I’m honored to have co-hosted this three-plus-day multi-blogger event. Be sure to check out all the exceptional posts! Without additional fanfare, here’s my second contribution…
Roy Ward Baker was one of Hammer’s secret weapons. Prior to Moon Zero Two, the versatile director delivered the one-two punch of cerebral science fiction thriller (and personal favorite) Quatermass and the Pit (1967), followed swiftly by the Bette Davis dark comedy The Anniversary (1968). Calling Baker’s lunar adventure Hammer’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would be a stretch. For starters, its diminutive budget was £500,000 (roughly equivalent to $1.25 million in 1969 dollars), compared to $10.5-12 million for Kubrick’s film. Also, the Hammer production, touted as “the first space western,” had more modest aims, in contrast to Kubrick’s lofty goals (which was about nothing less than tracing the evolution of the human species). Considering the time, money and resources that Baker had to work with, Moon Zero Two was an ambitious project nonetheless.*
* Fun Fact #1: In The Hammer Story, Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes point out that Baker’s film wrapped in three months, compared to three years for 2001.
Moon Zero Two has enjoyed a sketchy reputation for many reasons, but perhaps its biggest blunder is that it takes the material so seriously. The lighthearted animated opening credits sequence, accompanied by a bombastic theme song (sung by Julie Driscoll) that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Bond film, suggests it’s going to be a Dr. Strangelove-esque farce. A cartoon U.S. astronaut and Russian cosmonaut duke it out over lunar real estate, before encountering a swinging ‘60s moon base. The film’s ensuing reality, however, is closer to Treasure of the Sierra Madre by way of Goldfinger, with its themes of greed and deceit. Set in the far-off future of 2021, ex-astronaut Kemp (James Olson) operates a creaky 10-year-old moon transport. Instead of performing odd salvage missions for hire, he’d rather be exploring the solar system. To makes matters worse, he’s about to be grounded by moon authorities. His skill set captures the interest of a wealthy magnate with eyes on a valuable celestial prize, but without the means to secure the meteor. He courts Kemp’s services, while hatching a scheme to dodge any pesky U.N. regulations.
The best role belongs to Warren Mitchell as the shifty, monocle-wearing Hubbard.* Hubbard knows how to make an entrance, accompanied by an entourage of groovy space chicks, an accountant, and a towering bodyguard (played by the 6’ 7” Bernard Bresslaw). Okay, to be fair, I doubt anyone’s paying much attention to the accountant (My apologies to any CPAs who might be reading this). He sets his sights on the Maltese Falcon of the story, a 6,000-ton sapphire-encrusted asteroid. To sweeten the proposed deal, he dangles a tantalizing carrot in Kemp’s face – offering him a new space ferry in exchange for his help.
* Note to fashionistas everywhere: According to this movie, the monocle is destined to go back in style in 2021. Remember, you heard it here first.
It’s not usually a good sign when the colorful villain robs the stage from Kemp, the bland protagonist. Instead of Olson’s vanilla version of a space hero, the film needed someone with a Connery or Eastwood quality to pull off the role. Instead, we’re expected to believe, by virtue of the script, that he’s been around the moon base with more than a few of the women he works with. Some sparks ignite but fizzle out quickly between Kemp and his main squeeze, Elizabeth “Liz” Murphy of the Lunar Bureau of Investigation (Adrienne Corri). Poor Liz gets the short end of the stick in favor of Clem (Catherina Von Schell, in her only Hammer role),* who arrives on the moon in search of her missing brother. Somehow, Clem and Kemp manage to share even less chemistry.
* Fun Fact #2: Corri and Von Schell would return for more moon-based hijinks in the Gerry Anderson television series Space: 1999.
Moon Zero Two attempts to exploit its western leanings with a few scattered anachronistic affectations of the genre.* One of the lunar outposts boasts a wooden structure that appears to serve no practical purpose. A saloon (with cardboard facades) features dancers doing awkward routines to distract the patrons from the rotgut they’re forced to drink. There’s even a requisite bar fight sequence, in which the filmmakers try to spice things up with Kemp turning off the artificial gravity. Inexplicably, the action turns to slow motion, as if the fight were underwater.
* Watch for Michael Ripper, Britain’s answer to Dick Miller, in a bit part as a card shark.
While there are many aspects of Moon Zero Two* that don’t quite gel, it’s worth giving the film credit where it’s due. Budgetary limitations aside, the filmmakers did a lot with what they had, featuring some detailed model work by Les Bowie’s special effects team (which reportedly numbered at least 40 individuals) and a full-scale moon buggy. Other highlights include the outré costumes designed by Carl Toms and moon women sporting candy colored hair (recalling the short-lived Gerry Anderson series U.F.O.). It’s too bad the inconsistent tone and pacing detract from the film’s kitschy appeal. In 2001, there was an intentionality to the pacing of the space-based and moon exploration scenes. Here, in a movie that’s supposed to be more action oriented, it just appears to be padding. There’s little excuse for the sloth-like procession of these scenes, which bring the film to a screeching halt. Moon Zero Two isn’t quite the disaster that some film guides might lead you to believe. If you’re in the mood for retro future shenanigans and not much more, it might scratch that itch.
*Fun Fact #3: In a case of counting his moon rocks before they were collected, producer/writer Michael Carreras planned a sequel feature, Disaster in Space, and a subsequent television series. On account of Moon Zero Two’s less than stellar box office receipts, neither project ever materialized
Sources: The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes; Hammer Glamour by Marcus Hearn; and Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wane Kinsey