Directed by Robert Dyke
Screenplay by Tex Ragsdale
Starring Walter Koenig, Bruce Campbell, and Leigh Lombardi
Release Date: November 18, 2014
During a routine space shuttle mission astronaut Colonel Jason Grant (Walter Koenig) and his friend and co-pilot Ray Tanner (Bruce Campbell) encounter a derelict alien craft floating among the stars. Upon inspecting the ship Grant discovers a desiccated human corpse and a strange red pod. Back on Earth the body is carbon-dated to be 14,000 years old and the pod contains a small robot that can build itself into a virtually indestructible killing machine with the help of some scrap metal and human appendages. The machine is destroyed after engaging NASA’s finest in a body count-heavy battle and Grant and Tanner are assigned to travel to the moon in an old Apollo spacecraft to investigate the alien’s origins and find out if they have any more surprises in store for mankind.
Oh Moontrap, where have you been all my life? Long have I known of this indie sci-fi thriller’s existence through edited clips on the unjustly cancelled USA Network show Shadow Theater (hosted by Robert Englund) and a passage in co-star Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, but it has been unavailable on home video since the dying days of the VHS era….until now. Directed by Robert Dyke, a visual effects artist and producer and director of commercials making his feature debut as director, from a screenplay by the awesomely-monikered Tex Ragsdale, Moontrap is a pure delight of unpretentious creature feature fun that makes its long-awaited debut on Blu-ray and DVD Stateside.
Those worn videotape copies you’ve been holding onto for years hoping they would fetch a pretty penny on eBay are now officially worthless. That’s not a bad thing though. The movie has been restored in HD to look even better than it did on tape, and with sci-fi/horror icons Campbell and Walter Koenig teaming up to battle killer robots from outer space with handy one-liners and badass stances Moontrap‘s fan base should see some growth that I would average to be better than decent. Put simply, this is one of a rare breed of cinematic junk food that delivers on the promises of its advertising campaign without giving you heartburn or the desire to give your television set a smashing blow that would make Pai Mei grimace.
The plot borrows heavily from far superior features like Alien, Predator, RoboCop, and the thousands of Alien imitators launched (and in many cases sent to an early grave) by its box office success and cultural impact, but it also has the playful, tongue-in-cheek tone of 1950’s and 1960’s genre cinema. If Moontrap had been made and released when Eisenhower or Kennedy were occupying the White House it would have been a production of American-International Pictures and most likely had parades of shiny convertibles filing in and out of America’s drive-in theaters (and it would have been in 3-D too). From the creative talent to the cast, everyone involved with this movie’s making appears to be having the time of their life. That sense of fun and excitement generated by the sheer joy of low-budget filmmaking outside of the studio system is infectious. If you’re in the right mood you start to feel it the moment the movie starts rolling.
Director Dyke employed a vast array of practical effects to bring Ragsdale’s story to life including stop-motion animation, mechanical effects, matte paintings, miniatures, and more. The work is first-rate even as its seams can’t help but show in high-definition. It’s a kick to watch a movie made when CGI was in its infancy and the thought of including effects created on a computer in nearly every film made that required effects could only have been dreamed of by the insane. There is a textural beauty to seeing model spaceships landing on lunar surfaces that might look artificial but have more life and soul to them than any special effect in the Star Wars prequels.
For the production of Moontrap a warehouse in rural Michigan was converted into a series of soundstages encompassing locations like spacecraft interiors, the NASA laboratories, and the surface of the moon where many of the plot’s mysteries and complications are put to rest in the third act. This is a very interior film – not a single scene takes place outdoors – but the gorgeous matte paintings and other effects help open up the story so claustrophobia never becomes a problem (until later in the film). The action sequences are shot with fluidity and attention to detail and are – pardon the pun – spaced apart enough to keep the pace from lagging. Ragsdale’s screenplay doesn’t burden the actors with ponderous, cumbersome dialogue. None of the wisecracks really stand out but the laid-back interplay between Koenig and Campbell gives their conversations the energy and snap of classic comic books and pulp science-fiction. These guys know exactly what kind of film they’re making and at no point during Moontrap do they try to convince us otherwise.
The supporting cast is mostly a wash but our ideas do a lot of the performance heavy-lifting while barely breaking a sweat. At the time they made Moontrap Koenig was still mainly known as the original Pavel Chekov of the Star Trek franchise and Campbell was a little-known actor from Michigan whose starring roles in the first two Evil Dead features were making him a household name among horror fans but could barely keep his rent checks from bouncing. Make no mistake folks, Koenig’s the star here and the Chin’s on comic sidekick duty, but both actors play their parts with believability and professionalism. Koenig in particular is effective at times playing an astronaut who was too young for the space program in the 60’s and is now too old for exploring the stars in the less-forgiving 80’s. But he also gets some heroic character beats, the occasional action hero one-liner, and even a love scene with Leigh Lombardi‘s mysterious moon occupant.
Lombardi bares her breasts during their rather chaste romantic interlude and there’s also a gratuitous scene set in a strip bar that begins with a topless dancer doing her thing for the enjoyment of a plastered Campbell, who cuts a pretty heroic figure in the action scenes and has a friendly camaraderie with his more experienced co-star. The world of Moontrap is one for the dudes, so if you’re looking for strong, intelligent female characters you’ll be sorely disappointed. If you’re willing to forgive the movie its regressive gender politics (sure there’s a woman piloting the shuttle in one scene, but what was her name again?) you might just pleasantly entertained by everything else.
Moontrap was restored in high-definition for its U.S. debut on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films and for the first time since its theatrical release the film has been framed in its original widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Given its age and low-budget origins the transfer looks pretty good for the most part with a moderate amount of grain and balanced black levels in the darker scenes shot by cinematographer Peter Klein (The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure), of which there are plenty considering that most of the film is set in outer space. Print damage has been mostly removed though a few traces remain but hardly enough to detract from the fine restoration work. No subtitles have been provided.
Olive has supplemented the restored picture with an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that replicates Moontrap‘s original monoaural soundtrack and does a terrific job in the process. The campy dialogue is very easy to hear without necessitating manual volume adjustment, while the era-appropriate synthesizer music score composed by Joseph LoDuca (the Evil Dead trilogy) is very prominent and has been mixed at a comfortable level that doesn’t overwhelm the overall mix or fade into the background.
Director Dyke and screenwriter Ragsdale team up for a new audio commentary track where the two participants have much to say about the development and production of the film and the warm reception it has been given by sci-fi and horror fans over the years. Elsewhere on the disc both Campbell (21 minutes) and Koenig (33 minutes) return for fresh interviews. Unfortunately the interviewer’s questions are too pedestrian to really engage his subjects’ interest, thus making the pace of each featurette drag when some editing was needed. Olive did not see fit to include the original theatrical trailer, but I have took the liberty of embedding it below.
If you’re in the mood for a cheesy fun late-80’s sci-fi exploitation flick that knows better than to take itself too seriously, Moontrap will give you your fix. It’s cheekily entertaining with solid lead performances, a few interesting ideas, and some excellent old school practical effects created and executed with precision and care. What more could you want from a feature like this? Moontrap is a real hoot. Olive Films has treated this forgotten gem from a decade full of them to a fine A/V upgrade and even given it some new bonus features. You have my permission to call that a hearty recommendation.