Moonraker (1979)

When it’s on: Saturday, 4 August (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Poor old Moonraker. It’s routinely lambasted as the poorest of all the Bonds, the ultimate expression of spectacle over Ian Fleming’s concept that, the legend goes, caused so much soul-searching on the part of Cubby Broccoli that its sequel, For Your Eyes Only, was deliberately rebooted on a back to basics platform. The intention of Moonraker to cash in on the success of Star Wars is perceived as shameless and opportunistic, ruining Bond’s good reputation at the cost of squeezing a few more bucks from the craze for science fiction. How could they do that? What happened to the nice, down to earth stories of yore, the ones with hollowed out volcanoes and so on?

The trouble is that the film’s accusers have it about right. Fleming’s Moonraker had nothing to do with space and was instead a nuclear rocket; as the script developed layers of his plot were lopped off so that, in the end, little remained beyond the name of the story’s villain, Hugo Drax. The film appears to have been conceived almost as a compendium of 007’s greatest moments, taking in the likes of Venice and Rio in an attempt to deliver the last word in lavish entertainment. The ‘dream team’ of writer Christopher Wood and director Lewis Gilbert was retained after the success of The Spy who Loved Me, whilst Jaws (Richard Kiel) returned also to resume his popular tussles with Moore’s agent. The whole show had to build up to scenes set in space, and the plot was therefore engineered to have Bond uncover Drax’s scheme to destroy all human life, only keeping a number of ‘perfect specimens’ in a station located above the Earth’s atmosphere, to which 007 will eventually travel for the climax.

It’s undoubtedly very silly, with an emphasis on fun and stuntcraft, the action never pausing long enough for viewers to ask the obvious questions concerning plot holes, or indeed wonder why Drax would even bother wiping out humanity when he’s a very rich man who could, if he so chose, lock himself away in a Kanesian Xanadu and keep the rest of the world at bay, not to mention the convenient way Drax is Bond’s first point of investigation (what are the odds?). However, Moonraker did incredible business, being the first Bond to take over $200 million at the box office and initially enjoying more good reviews than bad. Clearly, the negative opinion is something it’s shouldered over time, turning a film that tries earnestly to entertain into the franchise’s pariah.

A deserved reputation? Well, yes and no. The good points begin with Michael Lonsdale, the French actor hired to play Drax as the production moved to Paris in order to bypass tougher tax laws that had been passed in Britain. Lonsdale plays it cold, gifting Drax with the kind of single-minded megalomania missing from so many flamboyant Bond villains. Check out his rather brutal killing of Corinne Dufour, or the way he tells his manservant to ensure that ‘some harm’ comes to Bond. There’s no feeling in his voice, nothing, just the deadened necessity of getting the job done. In the book, Drax was a Nazi, which justified his brusque attitude to the human race. Here, he has no excuse, and he’s all the more chilling for it.

Then there’s the cash that was lavished on making sure this was the most extravagant of movie experiences. You need a carnival scene? Hey, why not set it in Rio’s Mardi Gras, the biggest celebration of them all? After a classy European location? How about Venice? Want a set piece using glamorous backdrops? Would the Iguazu Falls suit? The latter features in Moonraker to serve a brief stunt, but was hit upon because, at the time, little had been filmed there previously, giving the dramatic Falls a fresh and awe-inspiring appearance. Other scenes flickered seamlessly from location shots to those based in the studio, from Bond standing outside a pyramid in Guatemala to entering a Ken Adams set. It’s all brilliantly executed, the action in Brazil particularly well put together.

Naturally, the action is leading to the science fiction showdown and Drax’s space station, in reality a model situated in Pinewood. For the film’s space scenes, the crew went for the archaic method of filming something, say a shuttle, rewinding the film and shooting something else, the stars perhaps or Earth, and overlaying the images. It works really well, even during its ultimate test of the space battle between Drax’s cohorts and United States marines, all equipped with laser rifles for that authentic Star Wars feel. Adams designed the awesome space station interior, with its clinical, austere look that reflects Drax’s philosophy, but the best bit in the film – and for me, one of the finest ‘money shots’ in the entire series – comes earlier. Bond and Dr Goodhead (Lois Chiles) are on board a space shuttle, heading on automatic pilot for some fixed point, and then the station emerges, lit gradually by the morning sun and rotating serenely, John Barry’s score reaching a suitably grandstanding crescendo.

The downside is a script that tries to inject humour into any given moment. The film’s meant to be a bit of fun and scenes played for comedy are generally welcome, but too often the laughs are heavy-handed and not very funny. When Jaws’s parachute fails in the prologue and he tries vainly flapping his arms, that’s fine because he’s a character largely played for comedic effect and we expect nothing less, and besides Kiel had an under-appreciated sense of timing. Elsewhere, some of the musical cues are just rubbish and hammer home for audiences a visual gag played fairly subtly, such as when the theme from The Magnificent Seven appears to absolutely flat effect. Then we have the reappearance of Victor Tourjansky and the worried glances at his plonk, and even a pigeon performing a double-take.

It’s bottom of the barrel stuff and simply jars with the excellent – and sometimes genuinely life-threatening – work that went into the stunts and the immense care taken over location shooting and Adams’s thrilling sets. Otherwise, it’s refreshing to see Bond treat his lady loves with more than casual disregard, also the moments in the film where he actually looks as though he’s in some peril, as in the centrifuge chamber. Chiles makes for a decent heroine, and if little else works for viewers, then the closing joke, in which Q suggests 007 is attempting re-entry, is one of the better ones.

Moonraker: ***

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7 Replies to “Moonraker (1979)”

  1. I never realised this was initially well received! Between it’s reputation and the fact they went a totally different direction next time round, I always assumed it had received a mauling. Similar, say, to Die Another Day: successful at the box office because it’s Bond, but actually disliked. Though saying that, it seems to me DAD‘s reputation has also dropped from solid reviews on release to mud now, so maybe they’re still similar.

    As I said the other day, I was surprised to find myself enjoying Moonraker last time I watched it. I think your review is spot on: it gets a lot wrong, but also a surprising amount right. Even when I hated it, I always felt Drax had some of the absolute best lines in the entire franchise.

    1. Thanks Bob. Moonraker certainly seems, over time, to have become the Bond it’s okay to hate thanks to its excesses and shameless riding on the coat-tails of the science fiction craze, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film, and whilst For Your Eyes Only is seen as better for going back to basics, there are some horrid, jarring moments in it that threaten to ruin the overall effort.

      I really don’t think Moonraker’s that poor. It’s as daft as a brush, obviously, but there are times when it hits real greatness and I’ll still maintain that the scene where the space station is revealed, along with Lonsdale’s playing of Drax, are just brilliant. If only all Bond villains were so cold in their evil ways…

  2. I remember being really excited about this as a kid (I was 10 when it came out at the cinema) and had loved STAR WARS but did feel let down even then by the sheer silliness. It is bizarre how they essentially took the same plot of the previous film in the series (rich madman steals secret military hardware destroys life on earth to start a new colony) and then just grafts on the climax to THUNDERBALL (John Barry even resurrects his own very martial 007 theme, last used in that film in fact). But as you say, there are good things such as the slow-mo killing of Corinne (which was, like the pre-credit teaser, directed by John Glen, who direct all the 80s Bond flicks of course).

    1. Thanks Sergio, and yes I forgot to mention the rip off of Thunderball that Moonraker clearly is – that said, I think it’s a lot more fun and much, much loopier. I remember an issue of Starburst around the time that dissected each 007 film as getting sillier and sillier, with Moonraker providing easy pickings as the daftest of them all. Looking back, it was a rather sniffy piece really, though accurate in its thesis. Still, it’s difficult not to remember Bond post-‘raker and wonder where on earth (or beyond) the series was going to go from here…

      1. I probably read that too – one suspects by the great, late, John Brosnan, who was never better than when in a bad mood but who knew his 007 inside out, having written a book on the subject that was suppressed by the Broccoli clan would you believe. Used to love Starburst as a kid …

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