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:: Saturday, October 04, 2003 ::

Project Moonbase

Project Moonbase is one of those deeply controversial films. With legions of both fans and detractors, it chronicles the American struggle to reach our moon and establish a military outpost. And bring some of the finest chauvinism into the canon of classic sci-fi movies.

To its critics, the ripeness of this film's potential for mockery is evinced by its appearance in Mystery Science Theater's very first season. Yet I count myself among its strongest fans. Why?

That's right, the maestro has a writing credit.

Set in 1970, the film transports us into the dark and retched world of communist subterfuge. Dr. Roundtree (Herb Jacobs) sits at the center of a cabal of enemy agents seeking a way to infiltrate and destroy America's nuclear-tipped space station.

And he has a neat wireless telephone. Back in the seventies, didn't we all?

Discovering that an American payload specialist on an upcoming flight (Dr. Werhner, played by Larry Johns) bears a strong resemblance to one of his evil agents, Roundtree begins 24-hour surveillance of Wernher's hotel. When the double (also played by Larry Johns) is ready, Roundtree poses as a bellboy to gain entrance to Wernher's room. Boy does he give Wernher what for!

Fake-Wernher swaps clothes with his comatose counterpart, grabs his bags and takes an official car to the United States Space Command (SPACOM) launch facility. Mind you, the official driver doesn't take fake-Wernher through the main gate -- rather he drops his passenger off curbside.

Wouldn't you hate to live across the street from that? Oh, and isn't SPACOM the trendsetter when it comes to headgear?

While fake-Wernher rushes through security, we meet General 'Pappy' Greene (Hayden Rorke, who would go on to serve the American space program again as Dr. Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie. He's explaining to Major Bill Moore (Ross Ford) what an honor it is for Major Moore to command the first circumlunar flight.

Bill's pleased as pie, but an unexpected telegram brings disastrous news: the President of the United States demands that Colonel Breiteis (Donna Martell) be the mission commander. Oops, consider that credit a spoiler. Up to this point, the characters have been really careful not to use any sex-specific articles to refer to Col. Breiteis. Throughout the film, not a single person refers to her by first name. So when she walks through the door, boy are we supposed to be in for a big surprise.

Breiteis is the star of America's space program. She flew the first orbital mission (in part because she weighed a lot less than the other candidates). Having risen so quickly through the ranks, she's a bit lippy. Good thing Pappy's here to set her straight.

In preparation for the circumlunar flight, Pappy assembles the three astronauts (Breiteis, Bill and fake-Wernher) and a reporter for a quick exposition dump briefing. It's pretty standard stuff, but one thing struck me upon the second viewing:

The models he uses to illustrate the flight aren't just the kind of contractor gratuities you often see on the desks of officers, they're the actual models used to film the scenes set in space. Mr. Heinlein, did you sign off on that decision?

Reporter Polly Prattles (Barbara Morrison) attends, because the meeting would drag without a comic foil. She asks Pappy about weightlessness, and he is only too happy to expound on the subject. But when she asks whether she might be able to visit the space station, Pappy very diplomatically declines to extend an offer. His explanation: lifting mass into orbit is tremendously expensive, and Polly could afford to miss a few meals. Of course, that's not what he says verbatim, but -- oh my -- there is no delicate way to construct the explanation, is there?

By now, you might be thinking: "Pappy's not coming off to well. Are we supposed to like him or hate him?" Well he redeems himself with the best line of dialog ever written.

And with that, it's rocket day.

You know what that means, right? Simulated Gees!

Their craft, the rocketship Mexico (Serial #63) is a single-stage-to-orbit rocket with all the latest technology on display in the cockpit. As you will see in subsequent pictures, it's got everything: big clocks, spinning reels of film, banks of elevator lights. About what you'd expect in 1970, really.

Our protagonists arrive at the space station and begin preparing their circumlunar rocket (the Magellan) for its historic flight.

It's the ugly-looking thing stuck to the starboard hatch.

How do our heroes tolerate free-fall? Breiteis gets a bit of the space-sickness, while Bill gleefully leaps out of his acceleration couch -- and promptly drops to the floor. Just like on the Shuttle. Normally I'd let that slide, but in the next scenes everybody makes a big deal about magnetic shoe discipline.

And wearing seatbelts in the briefing room.

This briefing is entirely redundant. Even Pappy's present. Are we going to sit through another discussion about the importance of the upcoming circumlunar flight, just to admire an optical effect? Yes, enjoy.

With the briefing at an end, our protagonists make their way to the Magellan and depart for the Moon.

Is that plastic siding on the cabin interior? What a strange material to use here. In fact, it's a spoiler, but a very oblique one. You'll have to read the BMS's next review to dispel the mystery.

As our protagonists jet off to the Moon, I bet you're wondering: "what's fake-Wernher doing on the moon rocket?" As you recall, he has orders to blow up the space station. Like any self-respecting military space station, the platform has but two vulnerabilities:

-sabotage the magazine's A-bombs, or
-ram the space station with an object of sufficient mass and velocity.

Looks like fake-Wernher's going with Plan B.

And what better way is there to execute a secret plan than to blow one's cover. He arouses suspicion by taking too keen an interest in the Magellan's controls. And because he's using the real Wernher's legend (Brooklyn scientist), he ought to be slightly conversant on the subject of the Dodgers.

Surmising that Dr. Wernher is a fraud, Bill attempts to wake and warn Breiteis. In his efforts, Bill is too loud for his own good. Fake-Werner overhears the conversation and realizes this is a now-or-never moment.

Like any ditzy broad, Breiteis just won't accept Bill's theory. Her doubts dissolve when fake Wernher attacks!

In the struggle, fake-Wernher's hand slips and strikes Breiteis's control board. Igniting the engines, he sends the spaceship hurtling to the moon with tremendous force. How tremendous? Try floor six!

Breiteis struggles to regain control of her ship, while Bill subdues and incapacitates fake-Wernher. With horror, Breiteis realizes the Magellan has arrived at the Moon ahead of schedule. But the extra speed came a terrible cost: the ship hasn't nearly enough fuel to return to Earth. Her only choice is to land and hope for rescue.

And to think that her Academy nickname was 'Free-return Breiteis.' Anyway, she sets the ship down inside a crater on the edge of the dark side of the moon.

Without a line of sight back to Earth, our protagonists will never be able to call for rescue. Is this the end? And why am I including fake-Wernher among the protagonists anyway?

The film answers by presenting us with the script's penultimate conflict: survival. In this abrupt change-of-plot, Project Moonbase reveals the full scope of its ambition. As you know, there are only three plots in the entire library of human endeavor:

1) Man versus Nature,
2) Man versus Man, and
3) Man versus Woman.

Timing in at just 63 minutes, Project Moonbase adroitly encompasses all three. Who said Heinlein couldn't write?

Realizing her efforts at landing the ship have only stranded our heroes to an inevitable end, Breiteis breaks down. Just like any ship's captain would do. Realizing her mistake, she apologizes in a manner I don't think compensates adequately...

Bill proposes a long-shot: use fake-Wernher's payload (television cameras) and part of the radio shack to create a radio relay station on the lip of the crater. With the help of his pistol (!) he convinces fake-Wernher to suit-up and assist him. In fact, fake-Wernher has a complete change of heart and renounces his Communist associations. Either he's scheming something, or the writers needed a likeable character for an upcoming heroic death. As they trek off, they wonder whether their oxygen supplies will last them through their mission. Breiteis breathlessly monitors the situation from back in the cockpit.

And there, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the vaunted 1970's spaceship set.

While Bill sets up the relay, fake-Wernher steps on a squishy moonrock (who knew?). Falling to his death, he neatly resolves the O2 question.

Or rather, he doesn't. Bill must still gasp his way back to the spaceship.

With Bill safely back aboard, Breiteis turns her attentions to the radio. Contacting Earth, she explains our surviving protagonists' predicament. Pappy promises logistical drone rockets, resolving the man-versus-nature conflict. In fact, he designates the Magellan as the new Moonbase One. Now how will a young man and a pretty lady pass the time? That's right, Project Moonbase lurches into plot three. You want witty, romantic banter, you got it baby.

Back at SPACOM, Pappy calls the President to announce the lunar landing. Together they discuss the novel problem confronting them. SPACOM can't have an unmarried man and woman shacking up together. It just wouldn't do. SPACOM must either return our astronauts to Earth or convince them to marry.

SPACOM decides to go with Plan B.

Pappy pitches the prospect to Bill, who isn't as receptive as you might think. After some goading, Bill decides to take one for the team.

Here's his big moment: man's first proposal in space. And just like Armstrong, he flubs it.

Not to worry, as they say: in space, you always get a second chance. And with that, it's wedding day.

But wait, there's more. Mr. Major marries Miss Colonel? Will hilarity ensue? Er, no.

Madame President (Ernestine Barrier) calls the Moonbase to announce Bill's promotion to Brigadier General. Said promotion was Breiteis' secret wedding gift to Bill. Now all's right in the world and on the Moon. The end.

Now that you've practically seen the film, you might wonder why I enjoy this film as much as I do. I'll confess the spaceship models are inferior, and the ambiance is really hokey. But Project Moonbase saves itself in the details. The science is well above film-average. Especially for 1953. The film doesn't always play by its own rules, but the rules it establishes are more or less right. Weightlessness, consumables, commies and fianc├ęs: these are what astronauts worry about. So what if Project Moonbase fails to reach its mark; it sets the mark awfully high and for that I admire and recommend it.

Two ears up.
:: Anna 7:37 PM [+] ::

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