SATURDAY MORNING B-MOVIE CRAP FEST: “Moon Zero-Two” (1969)

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 9/26/09

I almost feel like I’m violating the unwritten rules of the Saturday Morning B-Movie Crap Fest, which have been passed down to us by the elders since time immemorial, nearly three months ago. This is the second film in a row that I (A) Haven’t already seen and (B) Doesn’t suck out loud. In fact, if we compare it with last week’s movie, “It Came From Beyond Space,” it’s actually pretty damn good. It’s actually a surprising attempt to do a medium-budget high-quality SF film that takes actual *Science* seriously!

It’s curious that I’ve never seen this film before. I love Science Fiction; as detailed elsewhere, I spent my Saturday afternoons gladly suckling at the glass teat of madam television, guzzling down whatever crappy SF movies came out, and clamoring for more; and through most of my adolescence I had a crazily inappropriate case of lust for Catharine Schell, who stars in this movie. Curiously, the film never aired in my area, and I can’t figure out why. I mean, I’d *heard* of the film (Super-8 copies were for sale in the back of Starlog Magazine in the 70s), I’d seen stills, but it never aired on my local stations. Generally that meant there was something nasty in the film, horrible violence, nudity that didn’t invovle Maureen O’Sullivan, or simulated sex, or something like that. I even knew kids at school who’d seen the movie when they lived in other states.

“Oh, it sucks,” they’d say.
“Are you sure?,” I’d ask in my ten-year-old not-really-aware-of-why-I’m-increasingly-fascinated-by-girls way, “It’s got Catharine Schell in it, and she’s kinda’ neato.”
“Bah, it’s garbage, she’s terrible,” they’d reply.
“Really? Because, you know, she’s kind of interesting no matter what she’s doing, I can’t imagine her being bad. If she was just going to the store and buying potatoes, I’d still kind of like to watch it…”
“Ha! You like her!”
“What? Well, yeah, of course, I just said I kind of do…”
“Republibot 3.0 likes girls! Republibot 3.0 likes girls! That’s so gay!”
“What? What the hell?”
Then I’d get whisked off to the principle’s office for swearing.

Anyway, on to the movie:

PLAY BY PLAY

It is the year 1969! We’re treated to an embarrassingly badly-animated sequence of the first manned landing on the moon. Almost immediately, a Soviet lands on the moon. The two quickly discover each other while exploring, and set about hassling each other, knocking over their flags, and fighting. Meanwhile, in the background a zillion other spacecraft are making their way to the moon, and building “Moon City,” which looks kinda’ like ‘Vegas in this opening title sequence. The Astronaut and the Cosmonaut stop fighting, and go in to Moon City like best buddies, run afoul of the locals, and get thrown out.

It is the year 2021, and the Moon Zero Two - a little surface-to-orbit shuttle that looks like a stretch version of the Apollo LEM - is salvaging a wrecked communications satellite in orbit around the moon. Bill Kemp, the owner of the M-02, is a hardscrabble bush-pilot type, down on his luck, scrambling to make ends meet, flying a spacecraft that’s clearly seen better days, and about to get permanently grounded both for flying an unsafe spacecraft, and for being way, way in arrears on his bills. He’s also quite a bit balder than we’re used to seeing our leading men in these kinds of roles. No sooner are Bill and his flight engineer back, when they discover another pilot in similar circumstances - a guy named “Otto,” who flew a craft exactly like the M-02 - has crashed and died. Bill goes to get a shower, the engineer goes to sell the wrecked satellite to the scrappers for 12,000 Moon Dollars. (Yes, he really says “Moon Dollars”) Meanwhile, the always-yummy Catharine Schell arrives on a liner from earth looking not-at-all yummy. Honestly, I’ve never seen headgear ruin a woman more than the weird leather armored burka or whatever the hell it is she’s wearing. Anyway, she’s trying to find someone, and can’t, so somebody in the spaceport (Don’t you just love that word?) suggests she try Bill Kemp, and she wanders in to find him in the shower. After some spluttering, she runs out embarrassed, and he seems a bit embarrassed himself.

They bump in to each other again on the monorail back to Moon City (Which does not look at all like ‘Vegas), and they’re somewhat more cordial. She explains that her brother is a prospector on farside that wired her to say he’s found something big, and she should come up to help with it. Unfortunately, she didn’t hear anything after that, and he wasn’t there to meet her at the ‘port. Kemp agrees to give her the nickel-tour of the diorama they’re traveling through, if she’ll just take off that damn cowl, so she eventually does and - bang - she’s yummy again. There’s some no-holds-barred exposition about how awesomely bleak the moon is, and how humans are outsiders here, and probably always will be.

In the Moon City Hotel, Kemp explains some of the particulars of moon life - the 2-week nights, the recycling system, the life support - and then explains that since the communications satellite he salvaged is busted, they’ve been out of contact with Farside for about two weeks. They go their separate ways. Kemp then goes to a bar, split’s the take with his engineer, and the two of them attempt to get loaded on ludicrously expensive, ludicrously dangerous, apparently foul-tasting moon-hooch…at M$30 a glass yet! We’re told it’s distilled from rocket fuel. The bar really isn’t bad. One half of it is generic 60s future-mod, the other half is carved out of the living rock, there’s dancing girls. I’ve played worse places.

A gunsel keeps bugging Kemp to come visit Hundred Percent Hubbard, the local billionaire/crime boss. Kemp resists at first, clearly assuming this is some kind of leg-breaker operation for his debts, but then the gunsel pulls a gun (Which is what they do, you know), so he unwillingly goes along. When they get to Hubbard’s swanky orgy-tastic evil lair (Complete with hot, scantily clad chicks who - the movie makes a point of showing us - can barely read), Kemp quickly disarms the gunsel, and explains that he didn’t want to do it above ground where a stray bullet could pierce the pressure dome and kill a whole bunch of people. Wow!

Hubbard (Who I keep wanting to call “Henderson” for some reason) explains that he needs Kemp’s services for some illegal goings on, and if Kemp will do it, he can buy himself his own ship, any kind he wants, price is no object. Kemp is pretty excited, but wants to know why before he signs on. Hubbard needs a tramp pilot that is (A) really good at his job and (B) that no one pays any attention to. Someone who’s continually going off in to space without a flight plan to look for scrap, or haul tourists around. He had been using Otto for this purpose, but Otto’s spacecraft finally exceeded the warrantee and killed him.

In the far-off future year of 1997, a small asteroid with an erratic orbit was noted coming near the moon, then zipping off in to deep space. No one paid much attention to it at the time, but eventually spectrographs of that pass came to Hubbard’s attention and he realized that it wasn’t made of aluminum as they thought, but rather made of emerald (Which is related to Aluminum). The asteroid is passing the moon again now, and for the last three years, he’s been working out a scheme: Crash the asteroid in to farside, then “Accidentally” discover the impact, stake a claim for it and get filthy rich(er) off of 60 tons of emerald. Of course it’s illegal to crash stuff in to the moon, which is why he’s keeping it on the QT, and why he needs a crackerjack pilot like Kemp. He enthusiastically signs on.

Meanwhile, a bunch crazy miner 49ers from farside show up - there’s periodic overland convoys to Moon City - and Catharine Schell is unable to get word about her brother. It seems no one’s seen him in quite a while.

Kemp, his engineers, and Hubbard’s science guy fly up to the asteroid. The plan is to alter it’s course twice, with two sets of rockets. The first batch will push it towards the moon, and alter it’s course enough to keep it “Behind’ the moon and off of radar, the second, a week later, will crash it in to the surface in the pre-arranged place. They tether themselves to the asteroid - which has no appreciable gravity, and if they didn’t they’d go flying off in to space, and then attach the rockets. Kemp needs to stay tethered to the thing a bit longer to actually fire the rockets for no adequately explained reason, but so long as he jumps off within 30 seconds, everything should be fine. He does and he does, and it is, and the Moon Zero Two comes over to pick him up as he drifts in space.
Back on the moon, and high on life, he bumps in to Catharine Schell again, buys her a ‘drink’ and asks how things are going. Bad, it seems. Turns out no one’s seen her brother in 4 months. Kemp says, “What the hell, I’m very nearly rich, I’ll fly you over.” There’s no way to land in the region her brother’s staked out, but he can land at Farside Five and rent a buggy. It’ll be a 24-hour drive to the claim, a 24-drive back, he’ll be here in three days, easy, plenty of time to get back to his illegal job. One of Hubbard’s goons spots this going on, and a very goofy low-gravity barfight takes place.

Sans their engineer, the Moon Zero Two lands at Farside Five (“The Last, Best Hope for Peace..es of homemade pie on the frontier”), chat with an irritating shop owner who rents them a buggy, and off they drive. En rout, Schell asks Kemp if he’s the same Bill Kemp who was the first man on Mars, back when she was 12. He allows as how he is. She asks how he came to this obviously sad pass, and he explains that he’s an explorer, not a cruise ship captain, but they’ve already explored the moon, Mars, and Venus, and the technical limitations of the day prevent them going on to Mercury or Jupiter, there’s no real call for him. They offer him jobs captaining the liners to Mars and Venus, but that’s not the kind of work he can take and still feel like a man.

They get to her brother’s claim, but see no sign of him, though all his equipment is there and evidently fine. There’s evidence that he found a vein of some valuable metal, too, but since he’s been up here two years without reporting his find, his claim for the area has expired, and it’s now public land again. Presently, in a kind of neat scene, they find her brother’s skeleton in a space suit, though no punctures or signs of foul play, and they take his life support unit just to be sure. Then three gunsels show up in space suits and start shooting everyone up. Kemp is able to take them out, but his buggy is busted, and her brother’s buggy-dozer, while still running, isn’t exactly in great shape. They head overland to Farside 5, with the buggy breaking down as they go. First the A/C goes out, so Catharine Schell strips down to her space skivies - and again, how the hell can someone say there’s nothing good in this movie if it’s got her running around in her kind-of-ridiculous future underwear? Geez! - and then the whole thing breaks down in sight of the outpost. They quickly get dressed again (Damn), and get out right before the thing blows up.

Back in the outpost, Kemp’s girfriend shows up to arrest him. She’s a cop, and there’s been a blink-and-you-miss-it romantic subplot there, so I haven’t bothered to mention it until now. Suffice to say he’s got a litany of legal woes, but Kemp is quickly able to prove that the irritating outpost shop owner poisoned Schell’s brother to jump his claim, and the guy fesses up. Just then, Hubbard shows up and kills the cop/girlfriend, and that’s the end of that subplot, so, really, I think you’ll thank me for not taking up any more time with it here. Seriously. Anyway, Hubbard strongarms Kemp in to going ahead with their plan, or else he’ll kill Schell. Hubbard, Science Guy, Gunsel, Schell, Kemp, and Flight Engineer Guy fly back up to the asteroid to fire the second set of rockets. They also explain that about a year after they started working on this particular evil scheme, Schell’s brother staked a claim where they were planning on crashing the rock, so they just paid the local shop owner to off him.

Kemp, Hubbard, and Science Guy are tethered to the asteroid setting up the rockets, and Gunsel is suited up in the doorway of the Moon Zero Two, kind of covering them from ‘above’ and watching the hostages inside the ship, but Schell manages to kill him in a manner that’s entirely too clever for me to spoil here, and once he realizes the tables have turned, Kemp starts the asteroid rockets and jumps off the thing before Hubbard and Science Guy have a chance to react. They’re towed along with it towards the moon.

Kemp is recovered by his crew, and comments on how Hubbard and Science guy will get to the moon before them - ha - but they’ll follow and stake a claim for the impact site, and then he and Schell will celebrate by having sex in her hotel room.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Despite the seemingly-universally bad reputation has, there’s a lot to like here, and I found myself won over by the films goofy charms. I really liked it, and feel cheated that I didn’t get to see it as a kid.

There’s a lot of attempts to go ‘hard science’ here - the Moon Zero Two is basically a stretch limousine version of an Apollo-era LEM, and kind of cool in its functional ugliness. The life support setup for Moon City is more-or-less plausible, and discussions of communications satellites, and the impossibility of direct contact with farside are bang-on-perfect. The constant reminders of the moon’s extreme conditions are well-handled, and really the whole thing has a very high plausibility factor. The first moon landing happened while this film was being made, so they threw in a reference to the “Moon landing memorial” during the tour-the-city sequence. Furthermore, the mention that Mercury and Jupiter were beyond the limits of their present technology was a very, very good doubletalk explanation for why Kemp wasn’t forging ahead. It’s basically the reason we’re not on Mars now ourselves - the fuel and energy requirements for getting there are daunting - just extrapolated outwards a bit. There’s no sound in space in this movie, by the way.

Where the movie falls down is it’s use of Artificial Gravity inside Moon City. They do address this, of course, at least pointing out that they’re using it, particularly in the goofy bar brawl where it gets switched off, but it’s pretty unlikely and implausible. Also: the movie completely disregards cosmic and solar radiation by having everyone live on the surface, and gadding about for years at a time in puptents without any concern for glowing in the dark. I’ll cut it some slack for that, though.

Assuming the actors are roughly the same ages as the characters they’re playing - which they’re no reason to do, by the way - then Kemp was 37 and Schell was 23. The movie takes place in 2021, so if Shell was 12 when Kemp landed, that would mean the first manned landing was around 2010. Sigh. The future ain’t what it used to be. Given the time this film was made, however, that’s a surprisingly conservative estimate, though, because when this movie was made NASA was publicly estimating being on Mars by 1981. I suspect that Kemp is older than the actor who played him, however. I get the feeling we’re supposed to believe he’s in his mid-40s, but that doesn’t really change the numbers above any. I think Schell was playing a character about her own age.

Katherina Freiin Schell von Bauschlott, better known as “Catharine Schell” was a Bond Girl the same year this film came out, in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and was also in a Pink Panther film. Most famously, however, she was Maya in the second season of Space: 1999. Her last genre credit was in an episode of Dr. Who in 1979.

James Olson is perhaps better known for his role in “The Andromeda Strain.” He never made the bigtime, and he’s got one hell of a widdow’s peak going on in this movie, but I always like him. He’s a very serviceable leading man, and he’s got a kind of strangely modulated Midatlantic/Midwestern accent that bespeaks intelligence and education, which is kind of a must in a film like this. When he gets introspective in the film - “Maybe we never should have come to the moon” - it has a lot more power coming from him (Even though we just met him) than it would from someone else, simply because of the odd candor in his voice.

He’s got a great line in the film when Hubbard questions Kemp’s use of his normal flight engineer, because the guy is from some communist country and not from the west. Kemp fires back with a tired, “We’re all foreigners up here,” line that, again, speaks more than it should coming from him.

Man, you’d think with all that money, Hubbard could afford to get his teeth fixed.

There’s something of a westward expansion motif going on in this movie. On the monorail, there’s a western playing on the big TV screen, though no one’s watching it. When the farsiders come to town, they look like grizzled miner 49ers, and talk about the same way. Farside 5 has what appears to be a two-storey wild west saloon attached to it. Moon City is effectively St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1879, and Farside is clearly the wild west. At one point, the bar changes it’s look (Which it evidently does every week), and goes for cheap cardboard wild-west décor, and the dancers are either supposed to be Indians or chickens, I’m not quite sure. Of course the whole plot revolves around claim jumping, too. And yet, billing this as the first “Space Western” for its American release was a very bad move, because all of this stuff is here for resonance, not for cheeze-value. It’s in the background for color, not because this is a “Black Bart’s a-gunnin’ for ya” story transposed in to space.

The opening animation - a poor choice, and a terrible sequence, by the way - seems to imply that the superpowers started their saber-rattling as soon as they got to the moon, while the other powers simply ignored them, colonized it, and then shut the superpowers out. In fact, interestingly, there’s no mention of “America” in this movie. Kemp is obviously American, but virtually everyone else in the movie is English or European. There’s no mention of NASA, just a “Space Exploration Corporation” that does what it does for profit. Since World War III was a foregone conclusion in movies of this era, I wonder if there’s even still supposed to be a USA and a USSR existing in the time frame of this story. They never mention anything about it. Regardless of what happened there, however, this movie is another member in a very small subgenre of SF films that postulates Europe making very significant contributions in space, independent of the superpowers. Another example would be the more-or-less concurrent “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” http://www.republibot.com/content/movie-review-%E2%80%9Cjourney-far-side... and curiously, I just like the hell out of both of these movies, even though I’ll be the first one to admit that “Journey” is stupid as all get out.

Set design is super-fab and groovy in ways that only late-60s films set in the future can be. It’s worth a watch just for that. Granted, it’s a bit threadbare in the details, but it’s neat. It’s like walking in to a Worlds Fair pavilion, and really that’s what we all want out of our lives in the future, right?

The sexual aspects of the movie are kind of interesting. Kemp and the cop chick seem to have a friends-with-benefits relationship, and little more. The Flight Engineers keeps saying that Kemp should marry her, but Kemp seems genuinely confused as to why he’d say that. When she dies, he’s upset, but not in a ‘the love of my life died in my arms’ kind of way, more in a ‘a person I know died’ kind of way, and he takes up with Schell pretty damn quickly after that. The relationship with Schell and him is…well, it feels like there’s some mutual attraction from the moment they meet, but it feels mostly physical, it’s not like they’re terribly compatible. She’s more like “you’re famous and I want to nail you” and he’s like “You’re hot and I want to let you.” They have a rousing adventure, they’re gonna’ shag a bit, and they’re all going to get filthy rich, but there’s no indication that they’re going to spend the rest of their lives together, or even be together terribly long. It’s not quite as callous as a Bond movie, but it’s not quite as cloying as a typical 50s space monster romp. I dunno. I found it kind of refreshing.

Direction and lighting are all competent. Nothing avante garde about it, but much better than, say, a Matt Helm movie of the same period. Acting is pretty good, really. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small role from Carole Cleveland. Costume design ranges from horribly embarrassing to not bad. The tight, dark brown number Schell wears through most of the first half of the film in…ahem…yes. Quite nice. The Police uniforms are uhm… http://davidszondy.com/future/moon_zero_two/constabulary.htm ludicrously silly, but you won’t hear me complaining. I like the boots. Quite a bit. Again, a shame about the hat, though. Music is ok, excepting an over-long and terrible theme song.

You know, I’d really like to see a sequel to this movie - it’s 40 years later, involving the same characters.

If you’d like to watch an MST3k version of this film, you can see it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1PjGm2F0sw&feature=PlayList&p=60952D0B6D...

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

Yeah, probably. There’s nothing dirty in it, though some of a particularly prudish bent might take exception to Miss Schell’s brief scene in her breifs, and Kemp’s deliberately-awkward shower scene. There’s nothing pro or anti American in the film, and capitalism is clearly alive and well in outer space. And it’s a fun little crime caper.

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