Dec 16, 2019
Moon Zero Two (1969): a recap (part 1 of 10)
I went into my local comic book store (Comix Corner, owned by Dan and Delores since ’84) and there’s a guy there named Tom (this isn’t some meta thing where I have a conversation with myself; There really is a second Tom in this story) who, for a for a guy that essentially becomes a captive audience for every nerd who walks in still bitching and complaining about Spider Man’s deal with the devil or how badly the New 52 launch was botched, is a surprisingly calm guy. I sometimes think he maintains his composure through meditation. Or he fantasizes about numerous ways to kill the more annoying customers as he stands there calmly behind his counter.
I imagine on one or two occasions he fantasized about crushing my skull with a cinder block.
We got to talking about old movies and TV shows, and I mentioned my undying love for Catherine Schell. For those of you who don’t know who that is, Schell appeared in the television series Space: 1999 as the resident alien Maya.
And to be nerd-thorough, she was also in the Tom Baker Doctor Who serial City of Death. Tom said that if I liked her so much, then I must have seen Moon Zero Two.
I had no idea what that was. But I knew I had to have it.
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Eventually, I was able to find a copy. I was intent upon watching this film, dissecting it, and turning it into an episode of Tom’s Retrophilia. That was two years ago. Since then, I’ve tried my best to condense the film down to a fifteen-minute Retrophilia episode, and it’s beaten me each time. So what was my only option?
That time-honored Agony Booth tradition: the extended recap. God help me.
When a lot of people hear about Hammer Films, they immediately think of Christopher Lee in a string of various horror movies featuring copious amounts of a substance too red to be blood. This isn’t surprising, because most of the movies made by Hammer Films in the ‘60s were either pure horror such as Lee’s films…
…or had horror elements to them, like the Ursula Andress/Peter Cushing film She…
…which is a movie where an immortal woman burns alive her rival for a man’s affections with lava, then has her ashes delivered to her father. The funniest part of that film is how surprised the guy delivering the ashes looks when the father has his slaves slaughter both him and his soldiers. Then there’s the sci-fi horror film Quatermass and the Pit…
…which got the utterly lame American title Five Million Years to Earth. What the hell does that even mean? Look at that name: “Quatermass”. Say it out loud, hear how good it feels. It’s so utterly badass you’d sell tickets just so people could see it on the big screen and hear people say it with British accents. I’m tempted to call up all my British friends and just have them say it to me via Skype so I can record it.
So, Moon Zero Two is unique to Hammer.
Released in 1969, Moon Zero Two was advertised as the “first moon western”, like this film was going to set off a string of copycat movies and TV series like the James Bond franchise. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that; At the time the movie came out, there were numerous westerns airing on American television, among them Bonanza, Daniel Boone, Death Valley Days, and The Wild Wild West, the latter being a TV series that combined the spy, western, and sci-fi genres in an insane mash-up that simply should not have worked, but did.
There were eleven Westerns total on the air, and bear in mind there were only three networks back then. The genre was still going strong in theaters, with almost forty westerns in 1969 (and over sixty released the following year), which included musicals like Paint Your Wagon and deconstructionist takes like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch. You had comedy Westerns, mystery Westerns, even the cowboys vs. dinosaurs classic The Valley of Gwangi. So a Western taking place on the Moon? Frankly, I’m shocked it took until ‘69 for it to happen.
We really do love the idea of cowboys in space, don’t we? From Roddenberry’s Star Trek and his “Wagon Train to the stars” pitch, in which the series had been subtly and/or peripherally space-western-ish, to later on, when Fred Freiberger became the show’s producer and things became a little less, well, subtle.
Star Wars had its western influences, from Mos Eisley feeling like a wild west border town, to bounty hunters like Boba Fett. Sean Connery was in Outland where he played a sheriff on one of Jupiter’s moons in a plot that blatantly rips off High Noon. Roddenberry claimed Trek was Wagon Train to the stars, but Glen Larsen’s Battlestar Galactica took that almost literally. There’s not one, but two space Western cartoon series: Bravestar and The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. And of course, there’s Firefly and Serenity, which are the most space western-ish things since, well, Moon Zero Two.
Moon Zero Two was headed by veteran British director Roy Ward Baker who, considering his varied résumé, was well suited to tackle this particular project. Before this film, he had directed historical epics like the Titanic movie A Night to Remember, and episodes of eclectic TV shows like The Saint and The Avengers. He even directed a Western, The Singer Not The Song, and he was experienced in cross-genre projects like the aforementioned Quatermass. If there was a director better suited for this project, I can’t imagine who it might have been.
Moon Zero Two takes place in (what was then) the far flung year of 2021, and was released in theaters during a time when colonizing the Solar System seemed so inevitable that a con artist could have sold tickets for a flight on Pan Venusian Spacelines. And the poster for the movie implies a certain grittiness.
I love how the sepia tone, reminiscent of Butch Cassidy’s prelude, is counterpointed by the futuristic font. It’s hinting that we’re going to see something special, something unusual. And then… the credits roll.
Well, they got the unusual part down right. Unusually crude, that is. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my dad would take me to his graphic arts office/studio on take-your-kid-to-work-so-Mom-doesn’t-murder-him day, and he’d set me up in a room full of Magic Markers, colored pencils, and paper. And yeah, I’d make something that might look a little better than that.
It looks kind of like the tall leg/tiny torso art style of Yellow Submarine, sharing the aesthetic minus the quality, as if the Yellow Submarine B-team was hired to hammer out the credits over a drug and booze filled weekend. The credit goes to “Stokes Cartoons Ltd”. That could be related to Jack Stokes, who illustrated… Yellow Submarine. Well, mystery solved, then. I think. IMDb is sparse with the info and it’s asking for me to upgrade to pro, but I’ll be damned if I pay for anything on the internet. By the way, don’t forget to become a patron and click on the Patreon link. Thanks!
Along with the wigged-out animation, we get about the most Sixties-ish of Sixties songs. Go ahead and give it a listen. The article isn’t going anywhere. It… well, it doesn’t suck. I mean, if you’re looking for bad Sixties tunes, give “Sugar, Sugar” or “I Got You Babe” a listen. Do you remember “Yummy Yummy Yummy”? No? God, how I envy you.
I’m watching the credits, and it turns out the music is composed by Don Ellis. That’s Academy Award winner (The French Connection) Don Ellis. Well, he had to start somewhere, I guess; James Horner’s first movie was the Seven Samurai knockoff Battle Beyond the Stars, after all. As far as the singer goes, there’s no credit, which is a bummer, because I have to admit, she’s got pipes. I’m also impressed that Ellis didn’t decide to take the whole “Moon Western” thing literally and go heavy on country guitars and harmonicas.
The cartoon American and Soviet space men fight, and all the while ships are arriving on the Moon, and before either one realizes it, bam, there’s civilization! There’s a city on the Moon, and the two are overwhelmed and find themselves dumped on a trash heap.
They flee the Moon in the American ship, and… wow. I mean, the animation isn’t to my taste, but watching it I realize that the opening credits are telling a story, setting the scene, where nationalistic ideals have no place on a Moon ruled by greed, where commercialism holds sway. I heard from sources that the movie is “so bad it’s good”. Mystery Science Theater 3000 did an episode, for god’s sake. Is this movie deeper than I thought? I hope not; I was really hoping I could make fun of it for at least eight or nine installments.
Still, the cartoons are distracting. Opening credits can act as an expository device, like they do in this case. But opening credits also set the mood, and well, it feels like we’re ready to sit down to watch Pink Panther in Space. Now that I think about it, considering where that series went, I’m surprised that never happened: so many other franchises have done that when they ran out of steam.
The credits finally come to a close, and the cartoon Moon segues into the real thing… or at least a nice studio model, and the camera pans back to the interior of a spaceship cockpit, where two men mutely push buttons. This goes on so long I begin to wonder if they have a baby on board and are afraid to wake it up.
The interior of the ship and the spacesuits the guys are wearing are almost boringly functional, as if Baker was intent on making a serious movie completely divorced from those opening credits or something. We shift to another camera and we get an exterior shot of the vessel, floating near what looks like a satellite. Actually, it looks like the Apollo Lunar Module, only with an extra deck stuck in between the cockpit and engine, kind of like the way an eight year old kid with a Lego set might try to make a ship cooler than the ones seen in the instructions.
Really, it’s butt-ugly, and not in the so-ugly-it’s-cool kind of way. Look, I can respect the production team wanting to make something that feels real world, but this design just feels lazy. One of the men exits the ship and grabs the satellite, and turns it over to reveal it’s damaged. Ah hah! Maybe these guys are the police and have uncovered sabotage! They’re the Moon marshal and his deputy, the Space Sheriff, the Lunar Law. If these guys are police, I admire the producers’ restraint by not painting badges on their space suits. The man floats back to the ship using a jet backpack, and once inside, his buddy starts the ship up. The first man calls Lunar control and identifies the ship as “Moon Zero Two”. I was wondering what the title of the movie meant, although I’m not sure if naming the movie after the main ship was the way to go. It’s like the first Star Wars movie being called Millennium Falcon.
Okay, I take that back. Millennium Falcon would have been a badass name for the first Star Wars movie.
They’re told by the pilot of the “Pan Am Moon Express” that they need to speed things up. Wow, between 2001: A Space Odyssey and this movie, it was like everybody thought Pan Am was too big to fail. The guy who made the spacewalk essentially tells the Pan Am Moon Express pilot that he’s an hour late and he can pretty much go suck it, which leads me to believe that maybe these guys ain’t cops. Or they’re the coolest cops ever. The guy with the mustache pilots the ship down to the Moon to the sounds of Don Ellis’s sweet jazzy beat, and… Wait a minute. A combination of Westerns, space, and jazz? That sounds familiar.
Back on the Moon, our heroes find themselves in customs, dealing with an officious prick who wants to charge them duties for bringing in electronic equipment. The taller of our two heroes, and the only one of the pair who’s done any talking so far (maybe they’re the sci-fi equivalent of Penn and Teller) argues that it’s not electronic equipment if it’s been trashed by a meteor. Ah, so these aren’t cops, and it isn’t sabotage, and I think we’ve stumbled on our first Western trope: the prospector panning for gold and bringing it to town to be soaked by the local merchants. Honestly, after the opening credits, I was expecting a lot less subtlety both in plot and visuals, like everyone would be walking around wearing aluminum cowboy hats or something.
The satellite is for communication, and the taller of the two guys points out that nobody has been able to contact the far side of the Moon ever since it got holed by a meteor. What, and no one was worried? On either side of the Moon? What I find most amazing right now is how in all the years people have apparently been on the Moon, nobody’s laid cable for landlines. For Christ’s sake, the Transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1858. I’m smelling a plot device here. The short guy speaks for the first time, and I don’t know what his accent is, but it’s got kind of an Eastern European vibe to it. He lays down a shit-ton of legalese on the officious prick and shuts him down. And then a Pan Am Spaceways rep announces the arrival of a new ship.
And I notice two things: the first is the artificial gravity sign. I was kind of wondering how they were going to address the huge gravity elephant in the room, seeing how the Moon’s gravity is only a sixth of Earth’s. Two, there’s a giant switch next to the sign. Are you telling me anyone can just walk up and switch off the artificial gravity? Trust me, you wouldn’t want me working at that desk for an eight-hour shift.
Before our heroes head off with the not-tronics, a guy comes up and starts to give the tall one a hard time. It turns out he’s the second officer of the Pan Am Moon Express, and he’s pissed off about being delayed by two minutes, which is kind of a ballsy thing for him be bitching about, considering he’s already an hour late. His flight was just announced as arriving; he sure as hell didn’t waste any time coming down to customs to make an ass of himself.
Poor bastard. He’s so irrelevant to the plot that he doesn’t even get a name. He disses the Moon Zero Two and calls it a piece of junk, but our hero plays it cool, and before the second officer can make himself look more like a jackass, his superior shows up and pretty much tells the second officer to piss off. We then find out the taller astronaut and the Pan Am captain are friends, or at least have a history. And the shorter astronaut is named… Dan. Dan? Dan?! How could a guy with such an epic ‘stache and way-cool accent, with god-like powers of bureaucratic acumen be named “Dan”? Couldn’t they have at least given him a cool Euro-sounding name like Danko or something? Okay, whatever.
The tall guy tells Dan (sigh) to take the junk and sell it, but not to accept anything less than “12,000 Moon dollars” for it. “Moon dollars” is about the most god-awful boring name they could have used for currency, but I guess it beats calling them “moonies” or “lunies” or “craterbacks” or something else Moon-related. The captain of the Pan Am flight calls the taller guy Bill, and says he wants to talk to him. Bill says he has just enough time for a shower. I guess Dan can just go around stinking up the joint, then.
Say… wait a minute. Two guys struggling to get by in a run-down gray ship with a radar dish on top, and one of them is hairy with a funny accent? What does this remind me of?
Coming up next: We meet our heroine, our villain, and get another Western trope. Is our director going to abandon subtlety altogether and make the heroine a space school marm? Or have the villain a crater-based cattle rancher? Are our heroes going to get deputized and paint stars on their spacesuits? Will this movie remind me of yet more franchises? Find out next time!