Saturday, July 18, 2015

Moontrap (1989)

Aging NASA astronaut Jason Grant (Walter Koenig) and his younger wise-cracking sidekick Ray Tanner (Bruce Campbell) are doing the usual space truck tours that are what a lot of people born too late actually now know as the only kind of spaceflight they ever saw. Though at least the two don’t have to work for commercial operators who can’t even get a supply rocket up into orbit. They stumble (or however you call that in space) on something rather spectacular: the wreck of an ancient space craft, complete with a dead human body that’ll turn out to be 14.000 years old, and a strange egg-like metal thing, Jason picks up.

Back on Earth, NASA determines the ship’s point of origin was on the moon. While the boys and the NASA scientists are still attempting to convince a government big wig that this is not an elaborate hoax they’ve cooked up to get funding, and that they should probably take a look at the place the ship came from (which would also grant Jason his old dream of setting foot on the moon), the egg shaped thing turns out to be a nasty little machine that turns itself into a large, lumbering killer robot via judiciously applied metal pieces and body parts. That moon expedition just might be even more important than everyone expected. If you’re into the whole “survival of the species” thing, that is.

I still remember I was pretty bored by it when I first watched Robert Dyke’s Moontrap as a kid, despite the lovely casting of the main heroes and the film’s cheap but fine killer robots. Today, I’m rather more fond of the film, even though some of its flaws are undeniable.

There’s for one the at times surprisingly sluggish pace of proceedings in a film where on paper a lot of stuff is happening; the problem is that Dyke’s direction is very dry, presenting a good eye for shooting cheap special effects so they don’t look quite as cheap but nearly completely missing a sense for drama and tension. Then there’s the lack of depth or thought put into the script, leading to things like a complete lack of explanation as to what the killer robots actually want. Okay, they use humans as spare parts, but why are they stranded on the moon, and why does it take them 14.000 years to build a spacecraft to get from the Moon to Earth?, and so on. And don’t even get me started on the character of Mera (Leigh Lombardi) whose why and wherefore in the film opens up dozens of questions the film doesn’t even seem to ponder asking. Now, I’m not expecting too many believable answers from my pulp science fiction, but I’d really rather prefer it to put a bit of effort into the film’s supposed female main character beyond using her as an opportunity to shove in another pair of naked breasts and threaten us with a Walter Koenig sex scene.

Yet still, Moontrap does have an undeniable charm, even though I’m not completely able to explain it. Perhaps it’s the visible love put into the film’s not very probable robots and past future tech? Or perhaps the general lived-in feel of the film’s universe, and its willingness to let that collide with pure pulp SF? Or it might just be I’m a sucker for cheap SF movies with groovy death scenes that don’t really manage to project how existentially horrifying some of its basic ideas actually are?

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