After years of making genre films – notably horror films centered around Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman – Britain’s Hammer films jumped onto the space craze with a project the original ads billed as “the first moon western,” but Moon Zero Two is much more than that: it’s a bloody train wreck in slow motion, and a stunningly awful film whose gaping flaws rest solely on producer/screenwriter/Hammer executive Michael Carreras.
Carreras wasn’t completely off his rocker; Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981) was essentially High Noon in outer space, and it worked extremely well, but Moon Zero Two has no idea what it wants to be. Much like Casino Royale (albeit populated by far less characters), everything is tongue in cheek, but when the plot becomes serious in the second half – sister Clementine hires freelance pilot Kemp to land on the dark side of the moon and search for her missing brother – the film can’t reinvent itself as a space drama because its leading characters are buffoons.
Carreras larded the script with several dreadful jokes (visual gags include a pair playing “Moonopoly,” and the rival groups regularly converge at a makeshift saloon/”moon bar”), and drew his villains as near-absolute cartoons: J.J. Hubbard (Warren Mitchell) is a monocled, drool-heavy goon who leads an entourage comprised of bonehead bodyguard Harry (the Carry on gang’s Bernard Bresslaw), a self-serving scientist named Whitsun (Dudley Foster) with a then-portable calculator about as big as a toilet seat, and two near-illiterate babes literally kept in line with chains.
Lead characters Capt. Kemp (James Olson) and Clementine Taplin (Catherine Schell) are given a bit more breathing room to grow, but Kemp’s affair with local sheriff Elizabeth Murphy (Adrienne Corri) nor sidekick Kominski (Ori Levy) remain caricatures. Corri in particular treats Murphy with complete sincerity, and her efforts to bring some gravitas never manage to transcend Carreras’ banal dialogue. Levy, in turn, basically pops wisecracks throughout the film, while photogenic Schell reveals she really has little acting chops, although the script gives her little to emote beyond confusion at being on the moon, annoyance with future love interest Kemp, and shock when her encounter with her brother ends up as a horrifying experience.
Back in his heyday, director Roy Ward Baker made some fine dramas, including the 3-D noir film Inferno (1953), and the Titanic mini-epic A Night to Remember (1958); both films proved he could handle intimate conflicts as well as grand scale action, but the budget of Moon Zero Two really gave the director little to exploit.
Much like George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950), the studio lights are frequently reflected in helmet visors and vehicle windscreens, and in many ways producer Carreras didn’t strive to give the film special effects more sophisticated than 1950. The lighting of small scale models weak, the rubber costumes and bulbous helmets are silly, and the sequences where Kemp’s ship is placed in close proximity to an orbiting ‘gem stone’ are shot in bland medium and close-ups. The is no sense of scope or scale, and the sheer dullness of each shot shows a director resigned to ordering up perfunctory visuals, knowing Moon Zero Two could never deliver the scope and elegance of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released a year earlier.
Even the sets and props are cheap: the saloon is quite small, given the previously displayed ‘apartmemts’ that house the local populace; and the moon “bug” Kemp uses to travel across the rocky moon surface looks delicate. (Indeed, when the characters step out from the craft to search for Taplin’s brother, the safety bar by the door wobbles.)
The strangest choice of all creative members, though, is hiring jazz trumpeter Don Ellis to score the film. Ellis’ music in The French Connection (1971) is a beautiful mix of dissonance and brassy brutality, but this was Ellis’ first fling as feature film composer, and the movie was scored when the jazzman was branching out into his own brand of electrified, funky jazz fusion – a reason jazz connoisseur Carreras probably wanted Ellis to write the score.
The film is very much a pop art production, so the funky percussion tracks and Ellis’ trippy trumpet solos for the moon exploration scenes fit with the purple wigs, oddball costumes, and bizarre dance numbers in the saloon. It’s an intriguing approach to scoring, but it’s so wrong and intrusive. Ellis also wrote a pair of source cues to support two incredibly tacky dance numbers (the second of which has the bosomy girls gyrating in spacey Indian garb).
For years this film has looked awful on TV, so it’s a treat to see it finally letterboxed on DVD, albeit with very low volume levels, and minor compression issues, since Warner Bros. chose to double bill the film with When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). Unfortunately, not only is the DVD a bland bare bones effort (there’s no trailer, nor chapter menu), but it’s been withdrawn due to some rumoured legal nonsense. Worse, the title was initially part of another irritating Best Buy exclusive, so it’s become tough to track down for a reasonable price.
With the film finally out on DVD, though, perhaps a Region 2 release is possible, with some extras that put the film in context within Hammer’s output and failed effort to ride the space film craze using meager funds. Don Ellis’ score is not particularly good, but it too deserves a proper CD release, since the awful vocal tune is the only cut that thus far has appeared commercially.
James Olson’s next big leading role would happen in the far superior Andromeda Strain (1971) before largely staying within the TV realm, whereas Catherine Schell would move to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and later achieve a modicum of space culture immortality as Maya in the second and worst season of the juvenile series Space: 1999 (1975).
Director Roy Ward Baker would make a number of further films for Hammer, including The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Dracula-kung fu absurdity The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, whereas Michael Carreras would respectively finish up his writing and directing career with Creatures the World Forgot (1971) and the clumsy kung fu actioner Shatter (1974).
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan