Early into filming, what began as a TV series pilot was reconfigured into a feature film, albeit using the same blah sets, cheap props, and generally uninteresting dialogue that was supposed to set up (presumably) a married military couple living on Man’s first moon base (like the title says).
Producer Jack Seaman, who also co-wrote the story & script with veteran sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein, is apparently the man to blame for this fairly dull programmer, of which its only virtues (in order of priority) are Hershel Burke Gilbert’s strikingly atmospheric score, spunky actress Donna Martell, and a 63 minute running time which ensures snappy scene transitions, and moments of editorial stupidity.
The basic plot is sound, but the execution under a $1.25 budget is laughable: while the U.S. is revving up its plans for a mapping of the moon, a group of ‘bread-not-spaceships’ activists knock out the mission’s photographer – the smooth-sounding Doctor Wermher (played by elastic-faced Larry Johns) - and slide in place their mole who’s able to glide through military training, peer vetting, fingerprinting, and any knowledge testing due to having dyed his hair the right shade of grey to match the real egghead.
Wermher (Get it? He’s ‘wermhing’ his way into the mission!) is to serve under Colonel Briteis (Martell) and Major Bill Moore (Ross Ford), in spite of the two being not only fiercely competitive, but ex-lovers. Their C.O., General “Pappy” Greene (veteran character actor Hayden Roarke) threatens to spank Briteis (pronounced ‘bright eyes,’ presumably due to her innate hotness) unless she agrees to fly one of two ships with Moore. Thank goodness she agrees, because it’s their unbreakable bond which will ensure they’ll survive the emergency crash landing on the moon, and inevitable double-crossing from werhmy Wermher.
Fake Wermher deftly learns how to disrupt the craft’s pilot control by simply asking Briteis lots and lots of super-smart questions, but instead of the craft crashing into the orbiting space donut as originally planned by the socialist terrorists, the shift is safely landed on the moon when the guidance controls are re-grabbed by Briteis and Moore.
However, there are some serious issues. Problem A: there’s not enough fuel to blast off and return to the central donut. Problem B: unless they establish a communications link with Pappy & Co., no one will find them until it’s too, too late.
Fake Wermher has a change of heart and offers to help Moore setup the radio relay on a mountain, but we’ll never know if his heart was true because he falls to his death, breaking the plastic helmet the production borrowed from a nearby children’s space ranger show. Briteis’ efforts to maintain contact with Moore soon buoys his determination to make it back to the ship (actually called Spaceship Canada!), and when their desperate signal is intercepted by Pappy, they’re ordered to remain in place, and become the first married couple on Moon Base Alpha. End of story.
Before we can watch the couple finish their kiss, a hasty “The End” card was spastically hacked into the print, presumably to ensure Lippert Pictures got some credit for releasing this dud to audiences when no one else wanted it. The cast crawl then juts into place, bearing a wholly different font and constellation background that is in tune with the main credit sequence.
It’s hard to say exactly to which audience demographic the originally proposed TV pilot was aimed because it’s part sitcom / part suspense, a wonky hybrid not unlike Universal The Invisible Woman (1940), which took a perfectly viable sci-fi franchise and turned it into an aborted Blondie rip-off.
Deficiencies nonetheless, Project Moon Base is a gem of ridiculousness, and deserves to be cherished for it’s moments of unintentional hysterics. The ‘wireless’ telephones are fifties phones with glued-on antennae so big, the ‘real’ Doctor Wermher keeps knocking into the pedestal’s wire receptor with the receiver. The white ‘wireless’ bug with which the socialist swines listen to Werhmer is the size of a brick and is placed under a brown desk, and none of the futuristic radio gear looks more advanced than a Heathkit set.
Spaceship “Canada” and fellow Spaceship “Mexico” dock into the main space donut like two phallic members nudging their way into a female hatch, and when on the moon, the spacemen descend to the lunar surface using a winch which the director conveys using a montage comprised of real actor footage and a Revell model spaceman.
When Pappy invites the ‘media’ into his office for a pre-flight briefing, the only press member is Polly Prattles (Get it? She doesn’t know when to shut up!), who wants to join the mission because the possibility of weighing zero in space will make her more attractive. (The film has a peculiarly condescending tone towards the women. In one scene, Briteis apologies for ‘going female’ which is code for ‘getting emotional and losing one’s professional edge.’)
Pappy’s briefing scene with Prattles is worth discussing because it’s endemic of the spastic editing that runs throughout the film. The hysterically funny launch of ships Canada + Mexico have coverage, but it seems there was an intention to intercut close-ups of some kind between Pappy’s elaborating on the mission details. Actor Roarke keeps pausing between sentences, as though he was told they needed gaps for cutaways – maybe stills or reaction shots – to shots were never used or perhaps filmed. In the finished movie, the producer allows most of the take to continue untrimmed, making Roarke look as though he’s having a series of aneurisms.
Towards the end of the film, Moore’s trek back to Spaceship Canada after Fake Wermher’s death is intercut with still frames of Briteis at the viewscreen’s controls, with her arm frozen in midair. The production keeps cutting back to the same shot, layering it with outtake dialogue that’s completely redundant.
Project did borrow some material from prior space exploration films, including Destination Moon [M] (1950), the landmark space film written by Heinlein (and coincidentally distributed by Lippert, too). However, perhaps feeling the sense of G-force wasn’t sufficiently realistic in the 1950 film, the actors not only sweat like madmen (and mad women) during the launches, but scream as though each realized their underwear is lined with tacks.
Because space has no gravity, like Destination Moon, magnetic boots are used to navigate in and around the space donut, and there’s a great split-screen shot where two oncoming groups respectively walk on the floor and ceiling, passing “Do Not Walk on the Walls” signage. The concept sort of backfires when Briteis and Moore meet their superiors in an office room, and the set design has the two parties looking at each other not from a level floor, but from the floor and wall – craning their necks to make eye contact in spite of a severe 90 degree angle.
Corinth’s DVD is very short on production ephemera, but the transfer comes from a good source print, and its ongoing availability ensure one of the best worst sci-fi films of the era can be relished by genre fans.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan