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Moonraker - Retrospective

Dateline: December 2010

Roger Moore’s fourth outing as 007, and the eleventh movie in the official series is an interesting one to revisit. This time we see Bond take on mega-billionaire industrialist (and Messianic megalomaniac) Hugo Drax, who has global genocide and world domination on his mind (no surprises there then).

The adventure takes us around the world in the best Bond tradition and then finally out into space for a showdown aboard Drax’s hidden orbiting lair. ‘Space?’ I hear you say? If this seems odd to you, don’t worry; you’re not alone. Allow me if you will, the indulgence to set the scene…

It’s 1977 and Bond movie #10 The Spy Who Loved Me has hit the cinemas and is a significant commercial hit. It injects new life and pizzazz into the series. It also further cements Roger Moore into the public consciousness as Bond, allowing him to properly own the character in a way not quite fully realised in his first two outings. At the end of the movie just before the closing credits roll, there’s a tag line that says: “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only”.

As we all know, he actually turned up in Moonraker next instead. So why the switcheroo? Well, also in ’77 a certain modest budget movie called Star Wars breaks upon the world stage and changes everything. It’s massive, it’s everywhere, it’s probably the single most colossal steroid shot in the bum a movie genre has ever received. Suddenly science fiction is ‘go! go! go!’ and all the Hollywood studios begin scrambling around to see what sci-fi properties they own or have in development or even languishing in turnaround that could be reappraised as ‘go’ projects in the wake of Star Wars mania. In the midst of all this, the Bond folks decide to change tack, jump on the bandwagon, and cash in on this new rush of sci-fi vitality. The decision was made to postpone For Your Eyes Only and do something more ‘spacey’ instead. Moonraker was the best choice of course. Chosen really for the title alone, with Fleming’s original story inflated and expanded beyond recognition into one that could deliver the sci-fi thrills and spills the post Star Wars audience would get on board with.

In pursuit of bringing this most spectacular of Bond yarns to the silver screen, the budget more than doubled from the previous episode. How the producers managed to achieve this is perhaps testament to everyone’s new found faith in ray guns and spaceships! Moonraker was to be a James Bond meets sci-fi tour-de-force. Did the plan work? Well yes and no.

The movie was a massive commercial success to be sure, raking in over 5 times its own inflated budget and certainly ensuring the franchise’s continued rude health into the 1980s. You certainly see every penny of that £30million+ budget up there on screen (as well as vast amounts of rather conspicuous product placement). Multiple exotic locations, imaginative set pieces, awesome stunt work, convincing (at least for the time) Oscar nominated visual effects, and some of the most stunning set design/realisation anywhere in the pre-CGI era (Ken Adam excelling himself once again).

Despite all this, Moonraker is another one of those movies in the series that strongly divides opinion among true fans as well as more casual viewers. For me, upon release it was an awesome movie experience. I was lucky enough to see Star Wars on its original 1977 run at a tender six years of age. It completely blew my little mind in a way that’s almost impossible to express to anyone who didn’t also share a similar experience. The result of this being that in 1979 I was perfectly star (Wars) struck enough to be completely receptive and on board with Bond’s new spaced-out adventure. I lapped it up, loved every minute of the movie, and was actually a little deflated when the next one returned to a more down to earth brand of action. Others (perhaps more mature viewers) weren’t so lucky, and found the space aspect of the final reel of the movie to be too far out of their comfort zone for a full ‘thumbs up’ (although I guess the stunning box office figures are all that really counts).

To be fair, the producers did a good job of grounding as much of the space stuff in NASA reality as possible. Pretty accurate depictions of the (then) new space shuttle’s launch were among the first seen anywhere in the movies. Attention to the effects of weightlessness was good too, with some very adventurous (and record breaking) wire work in some scenes. Things really only get out of hand once violence kicks off around Drax’s orbiting space station and we get spacewalking US marines firing chest mounted laser rifles at similarly armed Drax henchmen. Too sci-fantasy for many to take seriously even within the accepted hyper-reality Bond normally operates in.

Regardless, it’s certainly an exciting and enjoyable romp. Also on the ‘plus’ side, we see a completely relaxed and effortless Roger Moore perhaps at his ironic and cheeky best. Not quite fully over the hill at this stage but certainly teetering on the summit with his unusually high waistbands!

Other than Moore; the casting is a little hit and miss. The regulars are great of course, with the chemistry between Bond, Q, Moneypenny and M firing well (this would be Bernard Lee’s final outing as M, and the franchise would sorely miss him). Michael Lonsdale’s Hugo Drax is perfectly droll, deadpan and effectively insane where it counts. He gets many of the best and most quotable lines (I guess the best baddies always do). Richard Kiel makes an uneasy return as Jaws (but I’ll talk about him later). Lois Chiles’ Holly Goodhead is disappointing in my opinion. Perhaps a little too cool and frosty for a lead Bond girl I think. Considering the name they thought up for her, I feel she should have been played more obviously sexy. Chiles is attractive and intelligent but lacks warmth and her ultra slim frame seems to get stuffed into one frumpy outfit after another, until lastly she gets to sport that lovely yellow jump suit (zipped up to the neck of course). This lack of skin is somewhat unusual for an old school arena like a Bond flick! I guess those particular scales are rebalanced a little with the bevy of scantily clad girls in the more minor roles adding the obvious sex appeal that Chiles’ wardrobe seems to avoid like the plague. If only they’d put her in the leggy one piece illustrated in the film poster (sorry ladies).

I think the ‘played for laughs’ side of Moore’s Bond movies went up a good few notches in Moonraker, and seems out of whack with the other staple components. For instance, one can accept (again within the Bond hyper-reality) that he might have cars that are gadget packed and armed to the teeth. Fine. But a motor powered Venetian gondola that also transforms into a hovercraft? Hmmm…..

That’s not to say that the sight of Bond’s hover-gondola gliding through Venice’s Piazza San Marco isn’t an impressive visual spectacle, but when you add all the humorous reaction shots topped off by the pigeon doing a comedy double take, you’re firmly announcing to the world that this film is in maximum tongue in cheek mode and we have found our level. Again that’s not to say that I find this light-hearted comedy approach unacceptable under any circumstances, it’s just that in places Moonraker approaches a sort of ‘Bond On The Buses’ or ‘Carry on James’ feel. The humour in the James Bond franchise is best tempered in my opinion with some real threat and danger to the principal cast. Moonraker is at best lacking here. Put in juxtaposition with today’s Bond, or even some of Connery’s best; real threat is positively absent.

This brings me to the aforementioned return of Richard Kiel as Jaws. In keeping with the lightweight comedy setting, he is unable to bring much (if any) menace to the proceedings. He is thrust instead into the role of comedy fool (almost literally), and then loved up via the sudden and improbable arrival of ‘Dolly’ (all pigtails, bouncy cleavage and no taste in men). By the final reel Jaws has had a change of heart and is thoroughly redeemed and reborn as a ‘goody’. Oh dear. I assume that because the producers had this kiddie friendly redemption arc in mind for Jaws, they couldn’t really let him kill or even hurt anyone earlier in the movie. However, with his formidable and genuinely menacing turn in the previous film firmly in mind, all this malarkey now seems misjudged. It only really works within the specific confines of this movie’s more comic approach.

With Jaws not appearing (pre-credit sequence excepted) until the second half of the movie and neutered anyway, Drax’s personal manservant/killer ‘Chang’ is left as the movie’s only other (rather ineffectual) featured henchman. He ain’t no Oddjob that’s for sure (closer to Nik Nak), and 007 never seems in any danger of being bested by this little man. We are actually impatient at how long it takes Bond to finally punch his annoying diminutive ticket.

In fact, while we’re on this theme; the only fatality in the whole movie that has any real bite (pardon the pun) is the death of the French chopper pilot ‘Corrine’ near the beginning of the movie. Bond’s seduction of her is by the book, if a little lazy. Her subsequent willingness to allow JB to crack and ferret through her boss’s safe, taking pictures with his nifty 007 spy-cam though is baffling. The sex was THAT good?!

Next morning (after JB has made his swift exit), her disloyalty is rewarded by being chased into the woods by Drax’s Dobermans, killed and presumably eaten. One wonders if 007 ever gave poor Corrine’s fate a second thought while on his flight to Venice. It’s brutal (at least in this light setting) but one can’t help but think the silly girl kinda brought it on herself. If it seems like I have lingered rather a lot on the comedic tone and lightweight feel, I apologise. But it’s definitely what stood out and jarred the most on watching the film again.

Moving on. Moonraker is notable in that it is the third and final (to date) movie in the series to feature a song performed by Shirley Bassey (if you discount the unused one she recorded for Thunderball). Generally considered the weakest of her three official offerings however; I personally prefer it at least over ‘Diamonds are Forever’ (The perennial ‘Goldfinger’ remaining pretty much untouchable out in front of course). I think it’s a great song and its musical motifs perfectly echo the space theme of the movie without resorting to the use of any crude blips or zaps so prevalent at the time in ‘spacey’ theme music.

The one concession to slightly questionable late ’70s taste is the clunky disco version of the song played over the end titles. We can forgive them that though because it was 1979 after all, and disco was about as all encompassing as Star Wars!

John Barry’s orchestral cues and themes throughout are beautiful and memorable, wonderfully describing in music what the finer elements of the movie convey in rich or dreamy visuals. Not much of the classic Bond themes though, but you don’t really miss them until you realise they’re not there (if that makes any sense at all).

And so to close; I must do a quick shout out to all the fans of Bond double entendres out there. Moonraker has one of the best….

Allow me:

After saving the Earth; Bond and Goodhead retire to their shuttle’s obligatory boudoir and make with the naughties.

Meanwhile M, Q and the minister of defence have patched into the shuttle’s vid-com and are presented with Bond and Goodhead floating weightlessly mid-coitus.

“My God! What’s Bond doing?” says the appalled minister, eying the view-screen.

“I think he’s attempting re-entry sir” says Q looking at a different (presumably telemetry filled) screen.

It’s classic, funny, perfectly timed and a fitting cap to this most comedic and fun filled 007 episode yet.

A flawed gem to be sure, and a product of its time in more ways than one (not all of them good); but a gem nonetheless, and I still love it to pieces. Time may not have been kind to Moonraker and I suppose its place in the Bond pantheon may always be somewhere out of most people’s top 5. The space/sci-fi aspect will always bother some folks. The overtly lightweight, less than lethal, fun and comedy aspects will bother others (just remembered the Drax lab whose entry keypad plays the famous theme from Spielberg’s Close Encounters when the correct code is entered!!!). We will never see its like again I suspect though, which in some ways is a bit of a shame. Casino Royale it’s not, but it’s not trying to be either. Moonraker is totally unapologetic in its light entertainment purity, and on that level it’s still a winner.

Ben Pegley for Filmwerk - December 2010

Addendum - April 2019

Nearly a decade after writing this retrospective, nothing much has changed in terms of my opinion of Moonraker. It definitely has its charms, and works pretty well, even so far beyond the cultural environment that seeded its creation. In retrospect; I wish I had discussed the score a little more, as I glossed over it pretty quickly. A crime really, as the score is arguably up there with Barry's best. Not all of the classic Bond scores are easily and enjoyably listenable from beginning to end, but I would contend that Moonraker is one of them. Some of Barry's themes here are so breathtakingly beautiful, one almost wishes they were associated with a more serious movie.

Moore's outings came crashing back to earth after this, and although For Your Eyes Only is a half decent (if slightly underwhelming) film, the final two (Octopussy and A View To A Kill), were almost parodies of the genre, with the aging Moore becoming more and more ridiculous as 007.

Ben Pegley - April 2019

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