Moonraker: Roger Moore’s James Bond goes on a space odyssey in the grandest and the most grandly absurd of all Bond films

Moonraker(1979) is the eleventh James Bond film and the fourth starring Roger Moore as Ian Fleming’s James Bond . This is the kind of ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining Bond spectacle that’s unthinkable in today’s times.

After ruling the silver screen in the 1960s, James Bond was facing some tough times in the 70s. Bond, brought to the screen for the first time in the 1962 film Dr. No by Sean Connery had peaked with the blockbuster  success of Thunderball in 1965. But he was almost dead in the water after the failure of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service(1969) and the new Bond George Lazenby. Lazenby was hired as Bond after Connery retired from the role. It took some time for Bond to recover from this debacle . First, Connery was coaxed out of retirement to do the next film, Diamonds are Forever(1971). It was more successful than the previous one, but it was nowhere near the success of the most successful Bonds. Diamonds turned out to be  Connery’s last official outing as Bond – he would later make the unofficial Bond film Never say Never again in 1983 -as he retired permanently after the film. Next, the producers hired Roger Moore to replace him. Moore’s first two outings; Live and Let Die and The Man with the golden gun, were average and below average at best , signifying that perhaps the days of James Bond were numbered; especially with serious dark dramas like The Godfather and Chinatown being the flavor of the season. Believing the same, Harry Saltzman, one of the producers of the films, decided to bow out  and sold his stock in the James Bond franchise to the studio United Artists, leaving Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli as the sole captain of the franchise, which was now in some seriously troubled waters. But undeterred by the recent setbacks, Broccoli went back to the old dictum of the great movie moguls to revive his franchise, which is ‘Make’em Big‘. The films post “Majesty’s Secret Service” were rather tightly budgeted – with regards to the scale of the Bond films – and it showed. The Man with the Golden Gun is one of the cheapest looking films in the Bond Franchise. So for the next film, The Spy who loved me(1977), Broccoli went big by investing close to fourteen million dollars. He assembled the best technicians, the biggest sets, the most inventive stunts and the most exotic locations. He also dipped into the existing movie Zeitgeist by  making a predominantly oceanic adventure and creating a character called Jaws – a hit tip to the mammoth Steven Spielberg shark blockbuster released in 1975- in the form of 7 ft 2 inches tall Richard Kiel; an indestructible human with stainless steel teeth with which he manages to kill even sharks. The result was a gargantuan hit to the tune of $180 million dollars worldwide- almost doubling the box office take of The Man with the Golden gun. James Bond was back and was back to stay and the producer launched into the production of the next installment which was going to be For your eyes only. But then, another movie phenomenon called Star Wars hit the screens the same year and topped The spy who loved me at the box office. Star Wars and Spielberg’s Close encounters of the third kind- again released the same year- made Sci-fi a rage and Cubby Broccoli, ever the shrewd businessman, decided to capitalize on the current trend. He postponed For your eyes only and embarked on adapting Ian Fleming’s Moonraker as the next Bond movie, which would be turned into a tale of Bond going to space. Broccoli aimed to top The Spy who loved me, and create the ultimate Bond spectacle. To this end, he invested an astounding sum of thirty four million dollars into the picture; which was three times the budget of Star Wars . Roger Moore returned as Bond and so did director Lewis Gilbert- who had made The spy who loved me and You only live twice.

Moonraker is virtually a remake of The spy who loved me, which itself was a kind of remake of You only live twice. Here, the ‘outer space’ forms the background of the film as opposed to the ocean in The spy who loved me. The overall tone of the film is light, tongue in cheek, rather silly and carefree. I don’t want to call it self-parody because the Bond films themselves are a sort of parody of Fleming’s more serious novels . But, the film represents the zenith of that Bond blockbuster aesthetic that was  firmly set with Goldfinger(1964) and was taken to it’s ridiculous extreme in the Roger Moore era . But here’s the thing: Moonraker is ridiculously entertaining; jam-packed with one gigantic set piece after another and with Roger Moore playing the character with that self winking style of his; just lazily leaning into every scene and dialogue, as if telling the audience that hey guys I know this is just silly fun so don’t take it seriously and just enjoy the ride. It goes without saying that this film couldn’t have been made with any other actor except Moore; suspension of disbelief would have to start with him because, at 51 he was too long in the tooth and just a little too clumsy and tired to be playing a Globetrotting, sexy superspy. The writing and casting of the film also mirrors this grandly absurd quality. The dialogues are peppered with double entendres and cheeky one liners throughout, and the characterization, whether it’s the women or the chief villain Drax, does not rise above the level of being just cartoonish  stereotypes.

The film begins with Bond in the sky, or rather, Bond making love in the sky, and ends with Bond making love in the outer space in zero gravity. From that itself we can guess the scale, the scope and the overall silliness of this Bond film. Between space and outer space, Bond makes pit stops at London, California, Venice, Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon forests.  The picture starts with the usual pre-credits action sequence, though in Moonraker,  it is two sequences in one: The first actually sets up the succeeding plot, where two nameless men pull off the feat of hijacking a shuttle (called a Moonraker in the film) while it is being transferred via a Boeing 747 piggy-back ride, resulting in the unfortunate destruction of the Boeing and its crew. The second introduces Bond; M enquires Moneypenny about Bond’s whereabouts and she replies that Bond is coming back from Africa and and he is on his ‘last leg’ of the journey, and the film cuts to Bond feeling up the legs of a stewardess on the flight. Yeah, the sexual innuendos have already begun. But then the  pilot and stewardess try to kill him, assisted with a timely intervention from Jaws (Richard Kiel).  This sequence features some impressive skydiving action, particularly when Bond must deal with both a hostile pilot, the metallic-jawed villain, and the fact he exits the plane without a parachute. Jaws appears out of nowhere, and unless he was hiding in the toilet or something, Bond would have spotted him much earlier. Jaws presence in the scene shows the filmmakers’ intentions with the film, that’s to throw practically everything at the screen. It’s not enough we have a breathtaking action scene as a prologue, it needs to be amplified by the presence of this super villain. But it actually produces the reverse effect, because the scene comes to a ridiculous end with  Jaws crashing into a circus tent and escaping unharmed. So, what began as an extraordinary action scene ends in an anticlimax. We will see this mixture of brilliance and silliness throughout the film.

Post credits, we find Bond in London. M(Bernard Lee) assigns him the task of investigating the apparent theft of the Moonraker, as it was the responsibility of the British government to provide security for the transfer. Just before Bond leaves, Q (Desmond Llewelyn) equips 007 with a neatly concealed wrist-mounted dart launcher.  Bond is off to California to meet Hugo Drax, head of the corporation that builds the Moonraker shuttles. He is received by Corinne Dufor (Corinne Clery), a humble pilot in the service of the Drax Corporation, who gives him a  quick air-tour of the facilities. He finally comes face to face with the elegantly menacing Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale). Drax is one of the strangest villains in the Bond film cannon. He is emotionless , passionless and seems to be forever walking around in a tranquil, medicated haze, speaking his lines half asleep.  Drax quickly  realizes that Bond poses a threat to his plans – yet unrevealed – and he asks his henchman Chang to take care of Bond. His exact words being :”Take care of Mr. Bond, make sure some harm comes to him“. Bond’s next encounter is with Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), on loan to the Drax Corporation from NASA. The tour turns deadly during a demonstration of a G-force trainer when Dr. Goodhead is called away and Bond is left at the mercy of Chang. He manages a last-minute escape and recovers quickly enough to seduce Corinne Dufor and prevail upon her to help him crack Drax’s office safe. The clues he obtains from the documents in the safe leads him to Venice, Italy. But before he could leave, he is invited to a shooting contest by Drax. Bond accepts the invitation but, surprisingly, his shot misses the target. Drax mocks Bond saying “you missed Mr. Bond” and Bond retorts “Did I” , and in the next instant, we see one of Drax’s henchman fall from the trees. Well Drax had planted him there to shoot down Bond and Bond, realizing this, had aimed at him rather than the birds, who were the target in this shooting match. Having failed in his attempt to kill Bond, Drax turns his  anger on Corrine for helping Bond to crack his safe. Drax’s dogs chase Corrine and make a meal of her. The scene is superbly shot and underscored by John Barry.

Drax’s henchmen  persists in their attempts to kill Bond. In Venice, Bond is attacked while he’s travelling through the canal. The gondola that Bond is riding, transform into a motorboat and then into an automobile in which Bond rides through the streets, thus outsmarting the goons. Later in Rio de Janeiro, Bond runs into Dr. Goodhead, who, Bond finds out, is actually a secret agent working for the CIA. During a river expedition through the amazon forests, Bond is attacked by Jaws and cohorts. A boat chase, lots of gadgets and explosions, and a desperate fight with a python follows. In the end, Bond is captured and brought to Drax’s secret lair which functions as the base for launching the Moonraker shuttles. Drax lays out his  plans for Bond’s convenience: he intends to kill the Earth’s population and then repopulate the planet with his own master race of men and women from his space city – which he has manage to  keep hidden from the world. But Bond being Bond, easily manages to outsmart him: first by sending information about  the location of the space city to U.S. space marines – who arrive in the time to indulge in a Star Wars style laser gun battle with Drax’s army in space; and then, by killing Drax and saving the world from his poisonous gas. The film ends with the customary love scene between Bond and Dr. Goodhead in the space shuttle, which, unfortunately for both, is broadcast live onto a video screen on earth and is watched by M and other dignitaries. Q tries to make good of an embarrassing situation with his immortal  quip “I think he’s attempting re-entry!” . The final words of the film belong to  Dr. Goodhead and it tops all the double entendres in the film: ” James, Take me around the world one more time “.

The big paradox about Moonraker is that, while it’s centerpiece is the final half-hour, which takes place aboard an Earth-orbiting space station, this is actually the least entertaining portion of the film. The film, that’s a great roller-coaster ride of stunts, sets and colorful locations up until that time, becomes tedious and pretty boring as Bond and co. arrive in space- what with everything seems to be happening in slow motion. An even more bizarre subplot involves the redemption of Jaws, who finds love and decides to switch sides and becomes Bond’s ally in the climax. Some of  the action scenes – like the fight on a cable car between Bond and Jaws also has the problem of being great in conception but poor in execution, with some terribly dated blue screen work. The real stars of this movie, as it has been the case in every Bond spectacle since Goldfinger, are production designer  Ken Adam  and special effects wizard Derek Meddings. With the  gigantic space station, the shape shifting gondola in Venice and other flashy gadgets, Moonraker establishes itself as the ultimate gadget movie. Music maestro, John Barry is also in top form here, providing one of the best scores in  the series. In addition to the traditional Bond themes, Barry uses an unusually diverse selection of musical cues, including the familiar theme from The Magnificent Seven and the five-note greeting from Close Encounters of the Third Kind – a special favor from director Steven Spielberg after Cubby Broccoli personally requested him for the rights to the score. Broccoli would return the favor when he would allow Spielberg to use the Bond theme for one of his productions.

Watching Moonraker today, in the age of Daniel Craig Bond films, it made me wonder about how much the Bond formula have been watered down from its original grandiloquent conception. Bond has always been designed to adapt to changing times. As it is the case with Moonraker: When Star Wars came along Bond went to space . In the age of hardcore action pictures of the 80’s – Die Hard, Rambo – we got Timothy Dalton and  License to Kill.  When James Cameron’s special effects Blockbusters became the rage in Nineties, we got Golden Eye. When the Bourne films became a rage,  Bond responded by introducing a grittier, more grounded sensibility . But post Casino Royale – which was a great Bond for today’s age, Bond films have gone from bad to worse, mainly in an attempt to duplicate the marvel formula of creating universes. Bond films were always supposed to be stand alone affairs. Moreover , Bond was always the one man army; fighting and shooting his way through the most adverse situations  single-handed and emerging triumphant. But in recent times , Bond films have become Bond & Company adventures, what with M, Q and even Moneypenny picking up weapons to fight the good fight. Even worse is the fact  that Bond’s basic  character has been radically redefined; by turning him into a sour and dour Hamlet or Oedipus; Seeing Bond moping around for a lost love or the loss of the mother figure M gives me the creeps.; and all this feeding into a dead-serious, funereal tone for these films, especially with the dark, monochromatic color palettes that the cinematographers have been adopting for the recent Bond films as if they are shooting the next installment of The Godfather. It’s one thing to remove the clichés and adapt Bond to changing times, its completely another to change the basic characteristics of the character and the series to an extend  that it doesn’t remain the same. I am afraid that’s what’s been happening with the Bond films recently. It’s now a fashion to make fun of the Roger Moore Bond films and perhaps a lot of them do deserve the derision, but the fact is that as times change and sensibilities change, what was once exalted will fall from favor. The Daniel Craig Bond films too would fall out of favor soon, that’s if it hasn’t already. Moonraker, believe it or not, along with Thunderball, is the most successful of all of the Bond films, adjusted to inflation. The film collected a massive $210 million in 1979. It would stand unbroken until 1995, when Golden Eye surpassed it with a take of $350 million. Moonraker, for all its flaws, remains an entertaining watch, and epitomizes an era of grand, unpretentious, escapist entertainment. It even makes one long for that age of uncomplicated heroes and their colorful escapades.


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