Lunar Tides: Moontrap (1989)

Matty is lured in by Robert Dyke and Tex Ragsdale’s attractive cult item.

Featuring gunplay, zombie-cyborg mayhem, bare boobage, and a strange, eerie and perilous tone, MOONTRAP might be the most extreme PG the BBFC have ever certified [1]. Headlined by Star Trek’s Walter Koenig and featuring a fun supporting turn from the mighty Bruce Campbell, this charismatic and hugely enjoyable sci-fi chiller occupies the middle ground between Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985) and John Bruno’s Virus (1999). In fact, the latter lifts more than a few of the independently made Moontrap’s ideas and beats, just on a grander, studio-backed scale [2]. 

Replete with Lego man toupee and classic-era chin respectively [3], Koenig and Campbell exhibit fine chemistry as a pair of astronauts who encounter a seemingly abandoned spaceship while in orbit. The vessel belongs to a fourteen-thousand year-old race of semi-robotic moon-dwellers, and the weird bio-mechanical bastards are intent on assimilating humanity — or, at least, parts of them — into their metallic make-up, Borg-style. Cue Koenig and Campbell shuttling to the big ol’ cheese-rock to stop ‘em, disbelieving NASA and government higher-ups be damned. 

Though occasionally prone to dawdling and stricken by some hokey dialogue, by and large Moontrap is a triumph of imagination, heart and resourcefulness. An industrial and commercial filmmaker by trade, and part of the same Michigan circle as Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and Scott Spiegel (hence the casting of Campbell and a bit of additional cast and crew overlap), Dyke had previously supervised the stunning miniature work on Evil Dead II (1987) and his eye for unusual detail shines here. Shot in early 1988 on a budget around the $1million mark [3], the helmer’s passion for the material is obvious. The film’s lovingly rendered production design is sublime — and, from a purely practical perspective, a real masterclass in cost-effective ingenuity. Who’d have thought a warehouse filled with quick-dry cement mix would make for such a frightening and convincing lunar atmosphere… Similarly excellent are Moontrap’s FX. Designed by B.K. Taylor and brought to life by the brilliant Gary Jones (another Michigan creative), the Kaaliuns — the cybernetic beasties at the centre of scripter Tex Ragsdale’s compelling, Forbidden Planet (1956)-shaded narrative — are a formidable threat and, best of all, insanely cool to look at.

Premiering in the U.S. at WorldFest in Houston, Texas on 28th April 1989, Moontrap bagged the festival’s special merit award in the sci-fi/fantasy category and hit North American video via Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment the following September. Encouraged by strong sales, the film was given a comic book adaptation by Caliber Comics, and SGE, Dyke and Ragsdale reconvened for a sequel. ‘Moontrap II: The Pyramids of Mars’ was initially set to roll in spring 1991; sadly, the twin blows of Koenig backing out and SGE’s increasing financial difficulties put paid to the project. Dyke and Ragsdale attempted to revive it several times throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s before finally getting an altogether different follow-up off the ground, Moontrap: Target Earth (2017), over twenty-five years later. It is, alas, nowhere near as good as its predecessor.

USA ● 1989 ● Sci-Fi ● 86mins

Walter Koenig, Bruce Campbell, Leigh Lombardi ● Dir. Robert Dyke ● Wri. Tex Ragsdale

[1] The two brief nude scenes were pre-cut by Moontrap’s original U.K. VHS distributor, Cineplex, but reinstated for 88 Films’ 2014 DVD release which, amazingly, still walked away with a PG rating.
[2] Circumstantial evidence: Virus’ writer, Chuck Pfarrer, had teamed with the Moontrap-adjacent Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert on Darkman (1990) and Hard Target (1993).
[3] The film was part of one helluva run for Campbell: Maniac Cop (1988), Moontrap, Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1990), Maniac Cop 2 (1990), and cameos in Intruder (1989), The Dead Next Door (1989) and Darkman.
[4] Exaggerated to $3.6million in Moontrap’s publicity.

Updated with corrections 17/7/22

4 thoughts on “Lunar Tides: Moontrap (1989)

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Gareth. Totally forgot about that. I keep meaning to give My Name is Bruce and The Man With the Screaming Brain a rewatch.

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  1. Actually, the UK distributor for this wasn’t Cinepix, but rather Cineplex Entertainment, a genre offshoot of Parkfield Entertainment.

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