Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.
But Moonraker is a hugely enjoyable Bond movie for most of the reasons it is generally maligned; the most successful of the Moore run, cannily riding on the coattails of the Star Wars sci-fi boom, it has generally been consigned to the vault of guilty pleasures, whereby one must be apologetic if one admits to liking it. It’s true that the comedy is broader than that of The Spy Who Loved Me, but not so much more so that it isn’t readily identifiable as that film’s sibling (with which it shares director Lewis Gilbert). There’s a willingness to throw anything at the screen and see what sticks that might be considered sloppy, and it’s certainly easy to understand why its irreverence might stick in the craw of purists. At times you’d be forgiven for thinking this a comedy masquerading as a spy thriller (verging on Carry On Spying), rather than the latter with comic elements.
My take has always been that the series is flexible enough to expand in a variety of different stylistic, tonal or formal directions so long as the viewer has the touchstone of basic Bond tropes (Bond himself, scheming villainy, Bond girls; even stunt-packed set pieces are not an essential). As long as it is accomplished in its chosen approach, be it comedy, gritty thriller or overblown fantasy, I’ve tended to be quite open-minded. Oh, and it should never be boring.
It isn’t difficult to like Moonraker; the original hook (the conquest of space) that is only marginally more fantastical than some of the latter ‘60s Connery movies, and the action climax is much more involving and better-sustained than many of its overblown predecessors (Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me). It features one of the last great Bond villains (Michael Lonsdale as Hugo Drax), some of the series’ most memorable set pieces (even if the joins show rather painfully at times), finest model work and sets, and the broadest of lines in cheerfully hit-and-miss humour (yes, I even like the double-taking pigeon!)
Moonraker saw a number of repeat performances for the series, quite aside from being a fourth outing for a very-at-home Moore. He’d found a natural collaborator for his type of humour in director Lewis Gilbert, and they would take it to further lengths here. Also returning was writer Christopher Wood (Tom Mankiewicz delivered an early script, ultimately unused but later cannibalised). Moonraker is effectively a direct sequel to TSWLM, seeing the return of Jaws (bridging the two even more than the return of Sheriff Pepper linked Live and Let Die to Man with the Golden Gun) and near-enough transposing the ocean for space, as a wealthy Machiavellian mastermind seeks to wipe out the population and furnish the cleansed Earth with his own vision of humanity. Apparently, Barbara Bach was even supposed to feature as Gogol’s nocturnal delight (“How can I sleep? Nothing but problems, problems, problems“) until a couple of months before shooting.
Indeed, Moonraker may be the most perfunctorily plotted of Bond films. Whilst it takes in a steady flow of locations and set pieces during its two hour-plus running time, these all amount to the next breadcrumb on the trail to the next Drax Industries company. There’s never any real sense of narrative integrity because the film makes no concessions to the real world. This is a scenario where Drax can secrete six space shuttles in an Amazonian hideaway and build a massive space station (complete with radar jamming device – presumably that was the first piece of working equipment!) with no one noticing.
But then, the film kicks off with a space shuttle, carried atop a Boeing 747, taking off on it; forewarned is forearmed as regards any sense of verisimilitude. If you’re going to embrace the film, you have to allow for the rules of judging each Bond entry being different to each other. As I said, does it work on its own terms? Moonraker has been labelled the campiest of Bond films, but I’m not sure that’s really true; it’s definitely the film that most embraces the comedic potential in the series (well, outside of the original Casino Royale), but that’s something different. In terms of the villains and the plotting it’s no more extreme than some of its more theatrical predecessors; it’s easy to perceive it as being so, however, because it takes that one giant leap – into space.
While Moonraker is enormously satisfied with itself, as smug in places as only Moore’s Bond can be, it would be unfair to suggest that it isn’t trying at all. Christopher Wood is complacent in his plotting, and Lewis Gilbert takes insufficient care to ensure his first and second units match up, but in all other respects this is Moore’s Bond operating at his peak.
The immediate, slightly embarrassed backtracking of For Your Eyes Only (originally planned to follow TSWLM, but reconsidered due to the success of Lucas’ bright new world) tried to posit Moore’s Bond in a real setting that wasn’t really him, and which the actor had ensured he had moved his incarnation away from. Moore was 52 when Moonraker came out, and further adventures were always going to be pushing his sell-by date (as remarkably preserved as he always appeared). His closest contender, Pierce Brosnan, another immaculately pickled actor, was just shy of 50 in his last outing and if he hadn’t been unceremoniously shoved off it would have been no stretch to see him do one final adventure. But Moore turned 58 in the year A View to a Kill was released, and no one was fooling anyone by that point. If he’d left after this one it might not have been such a loss, but we wouldn’t have got his last great gasp, Octopussy.
The irony of Moonraker is that, as effortlessly entertaining as Moore is, he generally has the show stolen from him by other elements – be it cast members, sets, or stuntmen. His one-liners are only sporadically successful, but some just die a death (“Play it again, Sam”), whereas Michael Lonsdale’s are consistently some of the pithiest a Bond villain has been furnished with.
If Cubby Broccoli showed mercurial wisdom in pushing Moonraker up to take advantage of the sci-fi boom, he was sanguine about the investment needed to get the enormous undertaking on screen; at $34 million ($115 million, or thereabouts, in today’s money) it dwarfed the budgets of most of its contemporaries. The gargantuan cost was instrumental in the decision to relocate production to Paris (with only special effects filming taking place at Pinewood); high UK tax rates during the ‘70s had seen any number of high-profile figures expatriate themselves (Caine, Connery) and it must have been a highly symbolic “Up yours” to have Britain’s greatest box office representative abscond. British governments have had a fluctuating relationship with film productions over the years, unsure whether to bait them (balancing tax breaks against a proportionate upswing in business flowing into the country) or tax the life out of them. One only has to look at the brown nosing involved in returning Star Wars to UK shores after several of the prequels saw George Lucas taking advantage of cheaper production costs in Australia.
The locations of the film, following a fairly sedate opening where Bond visits Drax in California (France with added matte shots), took in Venice, Brazil and Guatemala. By Bond standards, this is a fairly manageable mix (especially since the Guatemala location represents little more than some exterior shots). But it’s the lack of clear plot trajectory that makes them appear somewhat random and disorganised.
In Venice, Bond actually sits about in a gondola, apparently waiting for villains to pounce (for which he is duly rewarded); you couldn’t get a clearer statement as to the rather lazy approach to plotting if you tried. The action will come to Bond if he just sits around for a couple of minutes. Is anyone clear why Jaws goes to the elaborate length of attacking Bond atop a cable car? It’s completely random, and not remotely logical.
As for the second boat chase in the film, Broccoli’s to blame there since his inspiration that the Iguazu Falls should be included was just about the first edict the writer(s) received. The result is that it’s shoehorned uncomfortably into the proceedings. That, with the concomitant production difficulties mean it’s on display for less than a minute; I’m not sure anyone would agree it was really worth it. If some Bond films feel like they’ve been shorn of a vital action sequence or two (The World is Not Enough is one such), Moonraker would have benefited from dumping at least this. You have to admire the consistently skewed vision of Gilbert et al, however, as the credits section listing locations finishes with “and in Outer Space!” Those wags!
Drax: Even in death my munificence is boundless. When this rocket takes off, I shall be leaving you in your own private crematorium.
Moonraker was Fleming’s third 007 novel but, villain aside, it bears very little resemblance to the film version. His plot revolves around a nuclear missile project, but it does include a scene where Bond is imprisoned beneath the rocket’s booster engines (much as with the shuttle in the film). The skyjacking of a Moonraker, which we discover was a rather foolhardy decision by Drax (one of his wasn’t working, so he needed another; wouldn’t it have been wiser to ferry one back and forth from the space station rather than draw attention to himself?), is a readily recognisable plot-starter for the series (both Thunderball and You Only Live Twice used similar devices to get underway).
Moneypenny: He’s on his last leg, sir.
As with TSWLM, Moonraker kicks off with some freefalling. The opening sequence was renowned for being the most elaborate and expensive of its kind at that time. It remains a well-shot piece of action, with a clear narrative line; Bond must obtain a parachute from the pilot, and then deal with the unwanted attentions of Jaws. Where it falls down is in paying insufficient attention to disguising the stunt doubles and really not caring at all about matching the insert close-ups of Moore and Kiel with the main action. One can find such mismatches throughout the series if one looks, but it becomes particularly overt around this period.
One could almost believe that, since no one thought Moore was capable of performing stunts himself, there was active disinterest in disguising the joins. Much as I’m a fan of Kiel’s comedy shtick, I’m less enamoured of a stunt guy with a bit of silver foil in his mouth flapping his arms. Gilbert sets both the broad tone with the opening (the “Big Top” music cutting in as things start to go wrong for Jaws) and the “That’ll do” attitude that undermines suspension of disbelief. Why didn’t he just go the whole hog and have Moore break the fourth wall?
Bond: I fell out of an aeroplane without a parachute.
Gilbert’s definitely not an action guy but, for all the areas where Moonraker seems content not to seek perfection, this is definitely the best paced of his three Bond efforts. You Only Live Twice is a stillborn stodge and, while it’s a better film than Moonraker overall, The Spy Who Loved Me suffers from the familiar third act tendency to favour blowing shit up over a clear narrative trajectory. Moonraker’s finale may be one of the series’ best, if you’re willing to swallow its orbital setting. But elsewhere the spectacle is victim to the same first/second unit issues as the freefall.
Moneypenny: James, you look like you’ve just fallen off a mountain.
The cable car sequence is one of the film’s most famous, but Gilbert never gets to grips with how to shoot it; his camera picks out the stuntmen in long shot and then cuts to Moore and Kiel against blue screen. The result is never completely involving because its artifice is in your face. So too, when the actors are cut into the speedboat chase at the Falls.
Corinne: What he doesn’t own, he doesn’t want.
In direct contrast to TSWHLM, Bond meets his opponent early on, visiting Drax’s chateau and encountering his first (well, second if you count the chick on the plane) Bond girl of the film, Corinne (Corinne Clery). Michael Lonsdale is easily the best-served Moore era villain, perhaps second only to Auric Goldfinger. Lonsdale came as part of the French co-production deal, but there’s never a feeling that he’s other than the right man for the job. Witty and cultured, he marks something of the end of an era for criminal masterminds. Drax shamelessly riffs on Bond villain types (the first couple of Moore films mixed things up a little), but does so much more rewardingly than the slightly dull Stromberg in TSWLM.
Drax: Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him.
Although its only showy sequence is the centrifuge, the opening section is one of the most satisfying parts of the film. There’s a chance to ease into proceedings and for Moore to be at his most Moore-like. He gets to be sexist to Dr Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), have a shag, and become a little flustered. In terms of the latter, Bond post-centrifuge has him actually looking quite ruffled for a change and even has a veiled swipe at Moore’s age (“Come on, Mr. Bond. A seventy-year-old can take 3Gs”).
It’s more effective than the other action sequences, as Moore actually seems to be a part of it (blowing air at his face from below to simulate G-force). It’s a bit dozy of Bond to enter the villain’s lair and then allow himself to be put directly in harm’s way (I’m sure he could have demurred and told her Goodhead he had been in a centrifuge before, but that would lose us a sequence). And, for such a show-stopping film, Bond has minimal gadgets on this occasion; just a trusty wrist action dart gun that proves to be his salvation on several occasions.
While Chiles’ character has the most Carry On name for a Bond girl (topping Pussy Galore), her performance is never quite right. Chiles was considered for TSWLM, and she’s as pretty as most of Moore’s leading ladies, but she never really introduces much personality to the part; she’s the skilled undercover CIA operative who starts out sparring with Bond but is soon enough being bedded by him. It all feels a little familiar (change nationality and you have Amasova in TSWLM), and I’d sooner see the incompetent but memorable Goodnight, to be honest. Her most natural moment is a beguiling shrug when Bond notes that her flaming perfume is a “trifle overpowering”.
If Goodhead is merely okay, Drax’s initial henchman is outright weak. Has there ever been such a forgettable underling in the series as Chang? Toshiro Suga was Michael G Wilson’s aikido instructor, and the lesson is clearly that sometimes a spur-of-the-moment casting inspiration isn’t the best way to go. Chang follows Bond about for the first half of the film, and they have a protracted glass-smashing altercation in Venice, until Bond throws him into a piano in Rio De Janeiro. I guess it builds up the re-entrance of Jaws (“Oh yes. Well, If you can get him, of course”) but it means Bond lacks a strong opponent for a significant period.
Drax: You missed, Mr. Bond.
Bond: Did I? (The assassin he has shot falls from a tree) As you say, such good sport.
Moore is on fine form during the pheasant shooting, but most notable is the strange, unnerving demise of Corinne.
Pursued by Drax’s savage hounds through a dry-ice filled forest, it’s a sequence more redolent of a horror movie than a Bond film. There’s a distractingly ghoulish quality to the danger that female characters come under in an otherwise quite larky film.
Later, Jaws will menace Manuela (Emily Bolton) in a Rio backstreet, protractedly attempting to bite her in the neck. Presenting Jaws at his most serial killer-like probably isn’t the best way to go a short time before asking audiences to switch sympathies with him (although, if Wilson is to be believed, little switching was necessary as the kids just loved him).
The Venice sequence fuels much of the opprobrium directed at Moonraker, piling on the gags. We have Alfie Bass goggling at a coffin sinking beneath the waves and Bond nonchalantly (no mean feat as there was limited crowd control) driving a hovergondola through St Mark’s Square as onlookers, including TSWLM’s wine drinker and the aforementioned double-taking pigeon, are askance. This is vintage Moore Bond, but I can quite see how it tips over the edge for some into unwanted parody.
Bond: Could this be the moment for us to pool our resources?
Given this is Bernard Lee’s last outing as M, it’s nice to see him out of the office. That said, his “So there was a laboratory” suggests that, for all his criticism of Bond’s lack of discipline he is actually willing to believe that 007 would invent a load of old nonsense. It doesn’t really mesh, as you would have thought he’d believe his top agent’s word even if he the evidence suggest otherwise (although he’s always been even less tolerant of Moore than Connery). The entrance to Drax’s former nerve gas lab in gas masks is a neat little undercutting of Bond, but the nature of the poison is even more of a flight of fantasy than the space setting (an orchid that made the indigenous population sterile, adapted to wipe out the population of Earth while leaving the animals unaffected).
Jaws: Well, here’s to us.
Jaws is absolutely Moonraker’s scene-stealer. His gags are never less than obvious (setting off the airport metal detector with his teeth) but Kiel is so winningly confounded in his performance that he makes them work. I mentioned his behavioural resemblance to Wylie Coyote in my TSWLM review, and that is even truer here. He’s interrupted in his attempt to kill Manuela by a procession of carnival dancers who drag him away with them. When his boat is about to plummet over the Falls his “Not again” look is classic Wylie. And his uncertainty over whether the cable wheel for the cable car has stopped moving has the air of someone who knows that something is likely to go wrong at any moment. It always does.
Arguably, a mercenary who wantonly kills by biting people doesn’t deserve a happy ending. But Kiel has managed to imbue him with a lumbering innocence that invites identification. I can’t say it feels like a cheat to have him turn hero and get the girl at the end. In fact, my very favourite part of the film is his encounter with the pig-tailed, bespectacled (and adorable) Dolly (Blanche Ravalec) as he stumbles from the wreckage of the cable car. (ADDENDUM: She did, of course, also have braces originally, but thanks to that damn, mysterious Mandela Effect, she’s been shorn of the full ensemble.*)
Gilbert chooses to blast out Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture as an irresistibly dopey signature for the star-crossed lovers. Ravalec doesn’t even get a word in the film, so it’s quite something that she walks away with the honour of the film’s best “Bond” girl. Kiel does get the one line, of course. I like how the producers doubly impress upon possibly concerned viewers that Jaws and Dolly have survived; first Bond says he’ll be all right and then M and Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen) are informed they’re fine.
Drax: A race of perfect physical specimens. The ultimate dynasty, which I alone have created.
I also like the touch of basing Jaws’ shift in allegiances on his rejection of Drax’s eugenics programme (or rather, its rejection of him). It does occur to one that slightly porky Drax isn’t in peak condition, but proponents of such schemes rarely are.
Drax: Mr Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you. You’re not a sporting man, Mr.Bond. Why did you break off the encounter with my pet python?
Bond: I discovered he had a crush on me.
Only Moore could get away with such a groaner as that, particularly given the laborious set-up from Drax. The stop off at the Amazon lair of Drax is little run-of-the-mill. Ken Adam may have designed his set to look artificial, but there’s a difference between something looking man-made and looking like the set it is. It doesn’t help that Bond’s punch-up with a rubber python is completely lacklustre, only there because Bond villains must own a deadly beastie.
Drax: At last I shall have the pleasure of putting you out of my misery.
The final half hour of astronautic antics holds up extremely well, even though the makers had none of the benefits of state-of-the-art Lucasfilm technology. One might suggest Broccoli was being a cheapskate, but if the stories of a request for a percentage of the gross are true it’s no surprise that they went their own way. The layers of effects were achieved through winding back the negative in the camera, a painstaking and nerve-wracking business where weeks or months of work might be ruined with just one mistake.
There’s a stateless elegance to the space scenes that is more Kubrick than Lucas, but that’s only appropriate if the film is to be prevented from drifting too far from the real world. As it is, the laser space battles and shuttle doors opening to let out squads of astronauts are pure fantasy, but they evoke memories of the aquatic battles in Thunderball so just about fly.
Ken Adams’ sets, the Amazon one aside, are amazing, and the results preserve intermittent nods to reality; the zero gravity issues is addressed optimistically, as are explosions in a vacuum, but the need for sound in space is quite understandable.
As I’ve noted, the gigantic set piece climaxes in Bond films are often their least impressive aspect. They become about showing off the set at the expense of narrative drive or pace. So it’s an endorsement of the underrated Moonraker that it is mostly successful in this regard; the zero gravity sequences are well achieved, while Drax’s demise is a thoroughly satisfying villain send-off (topping the not dissimilar fate of Goldfinger). The most overt nod to Star Wars is not the laser battle, but Bond “using the Force” when he has to switch to manual targeting in order to destroy the globes before they enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
M: My God, what’s Bond doing?
Q: I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir.
The best last line in a Bond film? Definitely the most famous example of schoolboy smut in the series.
One of the most in-your-face elements of Moonraker, which I had not been overly conscious of in Bond revisitations up to this point, is the amount of product placement. Most shocking to modern eyes is probably the proliferation of Marlboro packets and billboards, but even more prevalent is the rampant publicity for Seiko watches. The current incarnation gets flak when his sips on a lager, but that’s (ahem) small beer.
The other aspect of the film that deserves some attention is the soundtrack. This saw John Barry’s return after Marvin Hamlisch’s disco-a-go-go on TSWLM. The only legacy of that approach is the dancefloor version of the Shirley Bassey title song over the closing credits. I’d never been a huge fan of the track, but the unadorned version is a grower and as that rarity (a slow ballad) adds a luxuriant quality to a film that is resolutely disinterested in being classy (Barry adopts strings rather than brass, which encourages the sense of warmth).
Elsewhere the 007 Theme (during the speedboat chase) appears for the first and only time in a Moore film. But it’s the nods to other movies and media that make for the most memorable musical interludes. TSWLM began a tradition for aural sight gags (which would continue until the final Moore film) with the Lawrence of Arabia theme beckoning Bond in from the desert. I’ve mentioned the use of the Romeo and Juliet Overture, but the most flagrant is the shoehorned-in Bonanza theme. It looks for all the world as if someone though, “Let’s use the Bonanza theme!” and then worked-in Moore wearing a poncho and riding a horsey. Elsewhere, Strauss is used amusingly for the Venice hovergondola sequence and there are nods to Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Close Encounters notes for communicating with the alien spaceship appear as the keycode for a door.
An Oscar nomination for Best Special Effects was forthcoming. Up against an unparalleled four other contenders (The Black Hole, 1941, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien), it lost out to Alien but it represents a deserved validation of the old-school techniques used in the movie. At the box office too, while it failed to equal Alien and Star Trek (in the US, anyway, but it ranks fifth in the series adjusted for inflation), it was widely perceived as Bond on the crest of a wave of popularity not glimpsed since Connery’s peak.
Anyone coming to Moonraker for the first time, who is familiar with only the Daniel Craig incarnation of 007, might be forgiven for mistaking this for a straight-up parody. I don’t regard it as deserving of any of the vitriol that has been directed at it by some outraged fans (many of whom will also praise The Spy Who Loved Me, which is guilty of many of the same “sins”) but its tongue is as firmly planted in its cheek as the canonical entries in the series ever would be. You do have to be open to the idea that Bond can be other than a straight spy thriller. And you have to find Moore and his penchant for ultra-smut and self-conscious meta-textual winks at the audience actually funny. But if you do, Moonraker is one of the most rewarding Bond films. It’s full of vim and brio, albeit often at the expense of verisimilitude, and for once the effects and sets, which you’re always told about as if they are the star attractions, actually dazzle.
Addendum 11/09/22: Jay Dyer takes in SDI (but do satellites exist?), suggests “the real space programme is a private one” which is “a profound secret of the overall deep-state agenda”; he’s quite set on there being a genuine secret-space programme, which unless he’s being opaque requires freemasonic space to work. On the other hand, the breakaway civilisation may not be in space, but beyond the ice wall (or on other “planets” but not ones reached via space travel). I’m unconvinced by his suggestion of a “variant of transhumanism” in Drax and his “offspring” – a very weak strain, in that case.
*Addendum 25/10/22: Miles Mathis has Dolly’s braces being intentionally altered just to mess with our heads. Which is feasible, except that I’m a little incredulous that no one, anywhere in Miles’ staunchly globe-shaped world, has come forward with a home VHS (or Betamax) copy yet they’ve had since circa 1981 (as opposed to one on ebay).