Moontrap (1989) Retrospective

SUMMARY
On July 20, 1969, during the last phase of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, a robotic eye emerges from the lunar soil and takes notice of the landing module as it takes off. The eye buries itself again.

Decades later the Space Shuttle Camelot encounters a derelict spaceship in orbit around Earth. Mission commander Colonel Jason Grant (Walter Koenig) leaves the Shuttle to investigate. He discovers a reddish-brown pod and a mummified human corpse. Both things are brought back to Earth, where it is found that they originated on the Moon some fourteen thousand years ago. Shortly thereafter, the unattended pod comes to life. It builds itself a cybernetic body with parts from the lab and pieces of the ancient corpse. The cyborg kills a lab technician and exchanges fire with security guards before Grant destroys it with a shotgun blast to the head.

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Using the last completed Apollo rocket, Grant and fellow astronaut Ray Tanner (Bruce Campbell) go to the Moon on a search-and-destroy mission. They discover the ruins of an ancient human civilization. Inside, they find a woman in suspended animation who identifies herself in a rudimentary fashion as Mera (Leigh Lombardi). Mera later reveals the name of the killer cyborgs — the Kaalium. They survive the attack of a spider Kaalium and return to the Lunar Module, with Mera wearing her own spacesuit but it turns out that the Kaalium have stolen the module. The Kaalium also shoot down the command module, leaving the astronauts stranded on the Moon. In subsequent attacks by the Kaalium, Tanner is killed, Grant and Mera are taken prisoner, and the Kaalium head to Earth.

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Grant frees himself and rescues Mera from certain death at the hands of a cyborg. In the meantime, the Space Shuttle Intrepid is launched to intercept the approaching alien ship. Grant and Mera look for the control room and find the landing module, which has been adapted into the alien machinery. Grant supposes the module was the last piece of equipment that the Kaalium needed to complete their ship. He starts the module’s self-destruct sequence and as they are attacked by a Kaalium crew member, discovers that he can use his gun as a rocket to get away. He and Mera exit through a breach in the hull. The ship explodes after they have reached safe distance.

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Some time later, Grant and Mera are shown as a couple living on Earth. Mera, having learned to speak English, explains that she was put in stasis to warn others about the Kaalium. Grant tells her that she does not have to worry anymore, that it is over and hugs her. However, one of the pods survived the explosion and is now in a junkyard preparing to build itself a new body.

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As the end credits finish rolling, a brief audio clip is heard of Grant talking to a NASA official on the phone about the possibility of any debris that may have fallen to Earth in the aftermath of the ship’s explosion. The official denies such a thing and assures Grant that anything that would have crashed to Earth would have incinerated upon entry.

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DEVELOPMENT
Commercials director Robert Dyke chose an intriguing premise for MOONTRAP, his feature film directing debut. Filmed independently in Detroit for release later this year by the newly formed Shapiro/Glickenhaus company, the film tells of mankind’s encounter with the kind of extraterrestrial intelligence posited by the von Neumann machine theory. Published by mathematician John von Neumann in 1948, the theory outlined the manner in which extraterrestrials might try to locate other intelligent life in the universe. According to von Neumann, extraterrestrials could build a sophisticated probe capable of using the native materials on whatever world it landed to build a duplicate of itself to be launched to explore successive worlds. MOONTRAP tells of man’s encounter with a von Neumann probe that has gone awry.

Dyke, who heads Detroit’s Magic Lantern Studios, a producer of commercials and special effects, said he’s always had an interest in science fiction. He teamed up two years ago with friend Tex Ragsdale, another science fiction fan and an ad exec at Detroit’s Smith/Winchester Agency, to come up with the script for MOONTRAP. Dyke raised money from local businessmen to finance pre-production work, using local talent. Shapiro/Glickenhaus entered the picture through the Grace and Wilde video distribution company, partially owned by Dyke’s wife. Set up with a budget of $3.6 million-Dyke said science fiction doesn’t have to be expensive two large warehouses were secured as a base for the production in Troy, Michigan, a Detroit suburb.

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Ragsdale said he got the idea of casting Koenig after reading Newsweeks 1987 cover story on STAR TREK. “We were trying to think of a lead character who was not that expensive and who would have a recognizable name,” said Ragsdale. “If he was in the genre, that would be a bonus. Ragsdale contacted Koenig initially at the American Film Market that year in Los Angeles and Koenig liked the script. After contacting Koenig’s agent. Ragsdale had his leading man. Bruce Campbell, a friend of Ragsdale’s and Dyke’s from previous movies produced in Michigan (Dyke’s Magic Lantern company contributed to the effects of EVIL DEAD II). had been cast as the secondary lead almost from the project’s inception.

MOONTRAP’s associate producer is John Cameron, part of a Michigan “brat pack” consisting of school friends Campbell and EVIL DEAD director Sam Raimi, who grew up together making 8mm films, Cameron, an alumnus of Dyke’s Magic Lantern productions, studied film at New York University and has worked on THE ROSARY MURDERS, EVIL DEAD II, and COLLISION COURSE, which recently filmed in Detroit for DEG. The youthful Cameron, 29 years old, keeps a tight rein on the purse-strings of MOONTRAP’s low budget. For economy, most of the film’s interior sets have been built in warehouses at the production’s Troy, Michigan base, including one of the moon’s surface. A contemporary setting allows the film to utilize actual NASA space footage, with Michigan’s Fermi Il nuclear power plant standing in for a NASA control room, and Detroit’s Club Taboo for a bar scene.moontrap1

Ragsdale’ script for MOONTRAP his first screen credit, co-authored with Dyke, consists of three acts. The first takes place on Earth at the NASA base; the second on the moon; and finally, the escape back to Earth for the conclusion and epilogue. On the moon, the astronauts find the remains of a lost human civilization and more of the dreaded alien machines, called Kaaliuns. Leigh Lombardi plays Mera, the film’s female lead, found by the astronauts in suspended animation and revived to join in the adventure. Ragsdale said Lombardi was obtained for the film through a casting call in Los Angeles, “We were going after a certain look for the character because she does not speak any English until almost the end of the movie,” said Ragsdale. “She needed to have a Eurasian quality because she’s the only survivor of this lost colony from Earth, over 14,000 years old.”

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BEHIND THE SCENES
Walter Koenig stars in the film with Detroit actor producer Bruce Campbell, play NASA astronauts who explore an ancient alien spacecraft in Earth orbit, bringing back a petrified human corpse and a mysterious red seed-shaped metallic object for further study. The alien artifact turns out to be a machine intelligence which uses parts of the corpse and NASA’s technology to construct a biomechanical body that threatens to break out of NASA’s fortified research facility.

Koenig. who often complained about the insignificance of his role in STAR TREK is understandably pleased with his part in MOONTRAP, his first starring role. Koenig portrays an aging astronaut who missed out on the space program because he was “… too young in the 60s and too old in the 80s. Despite the starring role, Koenig has not escaped the science fiction genre that trapped him so long in STAR TREK. About that Koenig waxes philosophical. “All we are doing is changing the costumes and the milieu,” he said. The behavior is universal. Whether I am working on an afternoon soap opera or a cops and robbers whodunit, behavior is behavior. They are going for a sense of reality in this movie. In the face of something fantastic, I think you have to achieve as much reality as possible.”

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In this first starring role in a film without his Russian accent, Koenig also gets to “act his age.” That’s something he feels good about, *There is a certain pressure about always being \h^ youngest member of the Star Trek crew. You’re always playing someone who is slightly more naive than the rest of the crew,” he comments. “It’s a nice feeling that I don’t have to watch for every wrinkle and crease. If they’re there, they’re there. If anything, they might add some dimension to the character.”

Koenig’s co-star, Bruce Campbell, plays Koenig’s partner, a smart-alecky younger astronaut. With two EVIL DEAD movies under his belt, Campbell, who calls himself a “self-taught” actor, is relieved to be playing an intelligent character instead of an idiot-type who is just surviving on instinct. Together Koenig and Campbell team up with Lombardi to fight Kaaliun monsters, engage in some spectacular space visuals and show us that we still haven’t seen all there is to see on the moon.

Bruce Campbell is quick to state how much he has enjoyed working with Koenig. “Waiter’s a pro,” says Campbell. “I think he’s glad to have a starring role. He told me that, for the most part, he has been part of the team. Now, he’s the focus. That’s good because Walter is a very talented actor.”

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“Science fiction is already one step removed from reality/’ Campbell adds. “We try to bring it back a little in the way we portray the characters.”This part is different,” he says “With the Evil Dead movies, I’m used to killing people to survive. And because this movie is about Walter and his character, it’s a different perspective for me; I’m used to not only being the movie’s star, but working behind the camera, too. This is a nice departure because it’s mostly dialogue and not being an idiot.

SPECIAL EFFECTS
Hollywood has steered away from high-tech science fiction because it’s expensive to produce. But Detroit-based producer director Robert Dyke is demonstrating how the design problems and flashy visuals of the genre can be conquered on a low budget.

Dyke, noted for the faithful recreation of classic film moments in the commercials produced by his Magic Lantern Effects company, assembled a talented group of Detroit-based filmmakers to realize the science fiction concepts of MOONTRAP. Former National Lampoon artist B.K. Taylor served as the film’s production designer, devising the look of its “kaaliun” monsters and the alien civilization from which they sprang.

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Michigan art directors Peter Gurski and Larry Fox transformed Taylor’s concepts into working sets on a miniscule budget. Their moon vista was built as a large forced perspective miniature. fully taking up one of the production’s two warehouse shooting stages. Slanted on an angle, the set rose from floor level to 8’6″ in height, stretching 100 in length.

Built on a plywood deck with 2×4′ supports, the set was sprayed with urethane Insulating foam and covered with Portland cement to give it that dusty texture. “You have to be flexible,” said Gurski of the low-budget filming. “The material you want may not be available, or something else might be more pleasing to the eye.”

Taylor’s robot design, dubbed the Kaaliun, was realized as a 12 full scale working prop by Acme Special Effects, headed by Gary Jones, another Michigan movie fan who once dabbled in 8mm films. Acme, also headed up by David Wogh, built the Kaaliun out of fiberglass with hard rubber legs and a framework of PVC and wood. Designed to be a stationary, the Kaaliun was placed on a rolling cart or teeter totter to convey the illusion of motion, and articulated with cables by up to seven off-camera operators.

Dyke turned to the Special Effects Center in Livonia Michigan, an umbrella production base for a pool of talented optical and visual effects specialists. Richard “Jake” Jacobson of Entertainment Engineering provided the film with motion-control spaceships, using a 7-axis unit he designed and built from parts ordered by catalogue while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan.

Jacobson worked on MOONTRAP’s impressive visual effects with Dave Hettmer of Phantasy Visual Effects, who provided the motion-control programming MOONTRAP’s optical effects on a budget” were produced by using in-camera composites rather than blue screen, a more difficult but less expensive technique. “A typical shot involves 200 decisions on the level of one to 10-such as where to set a miniature or matte painting in relation to the other images in the frame,” explained Jacobson. “Any mistake means that you start over again.”

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Ed Wollman’s Elegant Motion Optical Effects company provided MOONTRAP with its low-budget optical effects, including 14 matte shots, paintings by Bob Kayganich, and 140 cuts involving animation rotoscoping of laser beams. Wollman said Dyke had a specific kind of soft-edged laser effect in mind which made the work time consuming. “The basic problem is that everyone wants a nice, fuzzy edge with a very hot core,” said Wollman. To get that effect, Woliman shot the laser artwork through a fog filter, exposing it with a blue gel, and combined it with an exposure of the hard-edged artwork as the white hot inner core.

Dyke “tightened up” some of the film’s extensive lunar effects prior to release, scenes shot in miniature by Acme Effects. These included a three and one half minute sequence of the lunar rover, affectionately referred to as “Barbie and Ken on the Moon.” Many shots of the astronauts walking on the moon were also cut for the sake of speeding up the pace of the movie.

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
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STARLOG#65
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CAST/CREW
Directed/Produced
Robert Dyke
 
Produced
John Cameron
James A. Courtney
Stephen A. Roberts
 
Written
Tex Ragsdale
 
Walter Koenig as Colonel Jason Grant
Bruce Campbell as Ray Tanner
Leigh Lombardi as Mera
Robert Kurcz as Koreman
John J. Saunders as Barnes
Reavir Graham as Haskell
Tom Case as Beck

2 thoughts on “Moontrap (1989) Retrospective

  1. I have always loved this movie. I even taped it off TV a few years later from a UHF three-fer with Moon 44 and Dark Side of the Moon (both excellent). For me, Moontrap is as inventive as Bava’s Planet of the Vampires.

    Walter Koenig is excellent in this and it was no nice to see him in the lead. I wished it would have lead to more and bigger roles for him.

    Liked by 1 person

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