Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bond Is Forever: “Moonraker”

A space shuttle known as Moonraker is commandeered in flight, its engines destroying the shuttle carrier aircraft in the process. MI6 agent James Bond (Roger Moore) is assigned to investigate, and he begins with Drax Industries, the company which had manufactured the Moonraker and is owned by Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale). Bond meets scientist Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) and subsequently uncovers blueprints for a vial. In Venice, Italy, 007 finds a laboratory and learns that vials are being produced for the distinct purpose of housing a deadly toxin. The spy and Holly Goodhead, who is more than a scientist, follow the investigation to Rio de Janeiro and evade assassination attempts, most of them courtesy of the apparently indestructible Jaws (Richard Kiel). Everything culminates in outer space, as Drax’ fiendish plot is one of worldwide proportions.

Moonraker (1979) was the fourth Bond film to feature British actor Moore as the dashing spy. The previous 007 film, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), concluded with the disclaimer that Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only. However, producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli opted to make Moonraker next, in the wake of the overwhelming success of George Lucas’ Star Wars, released in 1977. As with the previous 007 movie, Moonraker took very few elements from Ian Fleming’s source text, with the name of the villain being the only notable similarity. The Moonraker of the novel was actually a nuclear missile intended for Britain’s defense, not a space shuttle.

Roger Moore was not the only person to return to the Bond series in Moonraker. Bernard Lee as M, Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, and Desmond Llewelyn as Q all reprise their roles from earlier films, as well as Walter Gotell as KGB head General Gogol, Geoffrey Keen as Sir Frederick Gray (the Minister of Defence), and even Kiel as Jaws. Director Lewis Gilbert had previously helmed You Only Live Twice (1967) and The Spy Who Loved Me, and screenwriter Christopher Wood had adapted The Spy Who Loved Me and additionally wrote the novelization of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker (which is indicative of how much the screenplays differed from Fleming’s original novels). Editor John Glen had worked on preceding 007 films (and would direct the subsequent five movies), and Shirley Bassey performed her third song for the opening credits, after 1964’s Goldfinger and 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever (singer Johnny Mathis had worked on the title song with John Barry but dropped out of the project, with Bassey stepping in weeks before the premiere of Moonraker).

Moonraker is my least favorite of t
he Bond series. The film does include some exciting sequences, such as 007’s pre-credits drop from a plane (sans parachute, leaving the spy with no other choice than to steal one from a skydiving villain) and a thrilling chase on the water with Bond piloting a weaponized boat. But the film’s third act, taking place aboard a space station, is both trite and derivative. When Bond and Holly slip onto a shuttle’s prearranged flight, the launch and corresponding navigation to the station is lethargically paced with loud, accompanying music, much too similar to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). A battle in space resembles Star Wars (mostly with firing lasers, both sight and sound), and one can’t help but associate the emotionless, baritone-voiced Drax with Darth Vader of Star Wars, or the lanky, rarely-speaking Jaws with Chewbacca (Jaws, who never uttered a word in The Spy Who Loved Me, speaks his solitary line near the end of Moonraker). To gain entry into the lab in Venice, a five-digit code must be inputted, which Bond discerns by the keys’ sounds. The five notes were taken (with permission) from Steven Spielberg’s popular 1977 sci-fi film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s less of an homage and more of another attempt to link Moonraker with the recently successful films of the science fiction genre.

Moonraker doesn’t simply borrow from other films but from its own series as well, more specifically the preceding entry. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Stromberg’s plot is to initiate a war and subsequently inaugurate a new civilization in an underwater city. Drax’ scheme in Moonraker is essentially the same thing, only he’s prepared to establish a society in outer space. Moonraker unnecessarily rehashes one of the villains from The Spy Who Loved Me. Jaws was a worthy, formidable opponent for Bond in the 1977 film, but he’s played for laughs in his second appearance, and by giving him both speech and a silly love interest, his villainy slowly dissipates, completely absent by the movie’s end.

It’s abundantly clear that Moonraker focused most of its energy (and budget, reputedly more than double the budget for The Spy Who Loved Me) on the sequences in space. Sadly, the characters suffered as a result. Hugo Drax is a one-dimensional antagonist, and although French actor Lonsdale is an accomplished performer (with an impressive filmography), he plays it straight and flat and comes across as bland. Likewise, Holly Goodhead is a drab Bond Girl, and actress Chiles typically sounds as if she’s going through a line reading, with little to no inflection in her voice. Suppor
ting players, such as Drax’ bodyguard, Chang (Toshiro Suga), and Bond’s contact in Rio de Janeiro, Manuela (Emily Bolton), are of diminutive value. Chang is overshadowed by Jaws, and Manuela, after being attacked by the metal-teethed henchman (she’s standing outside a warehouse, waiting on Bond), is sent away to “rest” and is never seen again within the movie’s timeline.

This was the final appearance for Bernard Lee as M. The actor died before filming on For Your Eyes Only had begun. Moonraker ends by stating that Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only. This time the disclaimer proved true with said film appearing in 1981.

Despite its apparent flaws, the producers’ decision to jump on the sci-fi bandwagon was lucrative, as Moonraker became one of the top ten grossing films domestically and earned over 200 million in worldwide gross. It remained the highest grossing Bond film until GoldenEye in 1995. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, losing to Ridley Scott’s Alien.

What does everyone think of Moonraker? Any fans of the film? Counterpoints to any criticisms? I would love to hear any thoughts.

Bond Is Forever will return next month with Thunderball (1965).


  1. Sark, this is an interesting and well written review! I love Roger Moore as James Bond. He is a handsome man! I loved the outer space scenes in this movie which do indeed remind one of Star Wars...which is probably why I like them. However, I do agree that the plot is so silly, it doesn't seem like one is watching a 007 spy movie. Jaws once was enough for me. He tends to rather get on my nerves in this movie. I agree with you about Chiles too. She appears that she is bored with the movie's plot too. Splashy special effects do not make the plot or characters interesting. Good song and I'm so glad Bassey sang it. It is my least favorite of the Bond films with Roger Moore. Good review and I enjoyed it!!

  2. Sark, I enjoyed reading your review. I wish I had an insightful comment to add, but I am not very familiar with the Bond films. However, I always enjoy learning the names of Bond's female cohorts...Holly Goodhead, really? Could have been worse, her first name good have been Jolly.

  3. Sark, I agree with your spot-on (highly informative) assessment of MOONRAKER. Jaws was a great one-time henchman, but bringing him back was a mistake...and, as you pointed out, giving him a girlfriend and making him good stripped him of any villiany. In short, he comes across as a cartoon character. The "homages" are silly, such as the one you mentioned and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN theme playing while 007 is riding a horse. It's probably my second least favorite Bond picture. All that said, I first saw MOONRAKER when I was dating my future wife so it holds fond memories for me. Finally, I know Toto was looking forward to commenting on MOONRAKER, but cannot since she went out of town to help care for her father, who is ill.

  4. Really good one, Sark. Believe it or not, I never saw Moonraker, so I can't really comment with any knowledge about it. But from your description, it doesn't sound like much. The Ian Fleming novel was wonderful! You did mention my favorite Bond movie of all, You Only Live Twice. The space sequences in that were just right, with thrilling suspense and great music. I'll try to catch Moonraker when it is on next. Oh, and I agree with Kim completely. Holly Goodhead? And who could forget Pussy Galore? Boy, it's a good thing the code was gone by then!

  5. Yes, yes and yes. Worst Bond, Drax is a snooze and Jaws dumb in this one. BUT Lois Chiles is drop dead gorgeous.

  6. Thanks very much for the compliments.

    Aki, I like the opening song, too. Shirley Bassey didn't consider it one of her own songs since she was brought in at the last minute to record it (like a gun for hire). But she did a superb job!

    Kim, the Bond Girls' names are occasionally unsubtle, but Holly Goodhead is one of the worst.

    Rick, what did you and your then girlfriend (now wife) think of MOONRAKER at the time you both saw it?

    Becky, I'm a fan of the novel, too! Bits and pieces of it have appeared in other Bond films, but I wish they'd do a straight adaptation of it. It'd have to be updated but could still be a great film.

    Milton, I agree about Lois Chiles.

  7. Sark, Awesome review!! From what I remember about Moonraker, that it was very a light-hearted Bond film. It seemed that Roger Moore, really enjoyed himself working in this movie.

  8. Forgive me if I have some mistakes because I am from Czech Republic and I translated the text on Google. The film I saw a few days ago and was very nice.