To Boldly Go Where No Bond Has Been Before: Moonraker’s Celestial Madness

VHS Revival Boldly Goes Where No Bond Has Been Before

For those of you who are familiar with VHS Revival’s James Bond coverage, you’ll know that I am something of a Moore apologist. I say this because many fans of the series cry foul over Roger’s eyebrow-raising antics and his decision to play Bond as a lover rather than a ruthless, Fleming-esque spy. I think part of this can be attributed to the changing times. Bond has been a part of the zeitgeist for so long that the character is constantly evolving to meet cultural and political trends as the series shifts and evolves in an attempt to stay relevant. Roger came after the civil rights movement, and in many ways Moore’s cosmopolitan, comparatively carefree loverman was a product of the times, which, along with his advancing years, is probably why many viewed his later efforts as irrelevant. Moore’s successor, Timothy Dalton, was far more attuned to the relatively stringent, Cold War ’80s, but Roger would stick it out for just a little longer.

Moore would star in a further three instalments in 1981‘s For Your Eyes Only, 1983‘s Octopussy and 1985‘s A View to a Kill, the latter featuring a 58-year-old actor who was way past his sell-by-date. Initially, he wasn’t supposed to make it past 1977‘s The Spy Who Loved Me until Moonraker was rushed into production in order to cash-in on the popularity of Star Wars, a franchise that would temporarily usurp Bond as cinema’s most beguiling attraction. In the end, a fourth appearance as the irrepressible 007 represented a financial cherry that was simply too sweet to squash, a decision that was justified after Moonraker became the highest grossing film worldwide in 1979. It perhaps comes as no surprise that, at $34,000,000, the movie’s budget was more than the combined total of the first six EON instalments. Still, I can’t help but feel let down by the end of Moonraker. There are some fantastic moments, but my attention seems to wander once we arrive in space, regardless of how hard I attempt to persevere.

There have been sillier moments (007’s swinging Tarzan impersonation in Octopussy immediately leaps to mind), but as a full feature Moonraker takes some beating. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Moore’s sillier side in small doses, but Moonraker‘s rushed production and ulterior motives make for a somewhat bloated and haphazard affair that takes things just a little too far. It has its share of wonderful moments too — this is Bond, after all — but on the whole I think it does more harm to Moore’s reputation than good, with a space-bound final act that feels at odds with both the rest of the film and the series at large; in many ways it feels like two movies glued awkwardly together. I loathe to be negative about Bond, but there’s something about Moonraker that rubs me the wrong way, even if it does get off to a blistering start.

The film’s opening, pre-credits scene is Bond at its absolute best, our seemingly limitless super spy thrown ruthlessly from a plane, before tussling with an airborne pilot and skydiving his way into a parachute. Except for the usual actor close-ups, the sequence was shot in free fall using helmet-mounted cameras, each jump lasting approximately a minute in total. Due to the insane process of capturing the two minutes of footage we see on screen, the entire sequence would be repeated 88 times and would take a period of five weeks to complete. Just imagine that in today’s CGI-heavy climate, it’s unthinkable, but boy is it worth it! Back in 1979, Bond was still the main attraction when it came to elaborate stunts, and this one is truly spectacular. Even the seeming demise of Jaws, suddenly cushioned by a circus tent, is just the right amount of silly, but that particular character will ultimately make the kind of transition there is no coming back from.

Moonraker also features a superlative villain in Michael Lonsdale’s exquisitely deadpan Hugo Drax, the billionaire owner of Drax Industries, a private company which makes space shuttles for NASA. British actor James Mason was initially set to play the character, but Frenchman Lonsdale won out in order to comply with the criteria of an agreement that made Moonraker an Anglo-French co-production, a decision that was taken to avoid England’s high levels of taxation. Lonsdale certainly made the most of it. Drax is typically haughty and supremely confident in his infallibility, the kind of aloof culture vulture who proudly extols how every last stone of his California-based French château was imported from France, delivering classic Bond villain lines, such as, “Mr Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you.” There is also that wonderful moment when he and 007 are out hunting pheasant (something a new-age Bond doesn’t seem to agree with), and we’re aghast to think that the world’s deadliest spy has this time missed his target until a tree-bound sniper falls unceremoniously to his death. Nobody can pull off the smug punchline that follows quite like Roger. This is classic 007.

Hugo Drax : [Bond seems to miss his attempt at shooting a pheasant] You missed, Mr Bond.

James Bond : [sniper falls out of tree to his death] Did I? As you said: such good sport.

Drax is distinctly evil. If he’s not setting packs of wild dogs on helpless secretaries, he’s attempting to incinerate James and the unfortunately named Miss Goodhead (really?) beneath the blazing propulsion engines of a space shuttle, recalling those elaborate, doomed-to-failure plots to eradicate the world’s most fortunate MI6 agent. Drax would be the last quintessential Bond Villain until Christopher Walken’s wonderfully deranged turn as Nazi-experiment-gone-wrong Max Zorin in A View to a Kill six years later thanks to John Glen’s sobering hand as the series embraced the 80s. Those movies offered a necessary toning down of the classic 007 formula for a maturing audience, particularly the superlative For Your Eyes Only, which proved a welcome antidote to Moonraker‘s oddball decadence, while also being a contender for Moore’s greatest ever performance as Bond, but Drax was a great note to go out on.

Like all classic Bond, the movie also benefits from lavish locations and a series of top-notch action sequences beyond the opening airborne salvo. Particularly impressive is a cable car scene high above Rio de Janeiro, one that sees James and Goodhead tussle with a returning Jaws with some death-defying stunts that almost spelt the end for real-life stuntman Richard Graydon, who actually slipped and narrowly evaded death during the kind of grandiose spectacle the series is synonymous with. Equally enthralling is a rip-roaring river chase in the Amazon and a fully-loaded speedboat with gadgets aplenty, though in reality the scene in question began on the North Fork of the St. Lucie River at Jupiter, north of Palm Beach on Florida’s east coast, and ended on the border of the Brazilian state of Paraná, the Argentine province of Misiones and Paraguay.

Dr Holly Goodhead: [In reference to Jaws] You know him?

James Bond: Not socially. His name’s Jaws. He kills people.

There is also the wholly absurd but charming gondola-come-hovercraft that ends up cruising the affluent Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy, and the sight of an assassin appearing from a canal-bound coffin. Both rather silly but within the realms of acceptability where Moore is concerned. There is also something of a kung-fu hangover from The Man With the Golden Gun that results in a rather curious battle between Bond and a seriously anomalous kendoka, a scene that recalls Peter Sellers’ battle with Cato in 1976‘s The Pink Panther Strikes Again. Still, it’s a fantastic and particularly brutal battle with a spectacular climax, one that has the distinct honour of featuring the most break-away sugar glass ever used in a single scene. All in all, so far, so good.

One of the elements that particularly irks me when it comes to Moonraker is the handling of Richard Kiel’s Jaws, who, a toothy moment on the fringes of a carnival aside, comes across less a monster, more a lovable buffoon. Sure, Jaws was portrayed as something of a klutz in The Spy Who Loved Me, but his turn in that movie was largely fearsome, forging arguably the most memorable henchman in the entire Bond canon. After that infamous moment in Moonraker when Jaws spies a peculiar, big-breasted girl with pigtails, everything changes, our once towering menace skipping gleefully into the proverbial sunset. On a side note, didn’t the girl in question once have braces, or am I simply imagining it? A little research tells me that thousands of people imagined the exact same thing in what is the only instance of the Mandela Effect I’ve personally ever experienced. Odd, though it would still only represent the second strangest occurrence to come out of that scene. I’m sure Moore and long-time friend Kiel were somewhat pleased with their newfound onscreen friendship, but Jaws as a lovestruck protagonist? No wonder Moonraker would prove to be his final appearance.

Still, it’s great to see Jaws again, and I have become more accepting of the silliness over the years. The series had been heading in that direction for some time, and in Moonraker‘s final act it shot for the stars and exploded like so many dud rockets careening back down to Earth. I mean, it looks fantastic. You can certainly see where all that money went. British film and television special effects designer Derek Meddings was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for Moonraker, and deservedly so. But for me it’s rather ill-fitting. For one thing the movie begins to meander terribly. It’s more about the visual spectacle than any kind of apt resolution, and everything else seems to get sucked into a cinematic black hole. Yes, it looks a lot like Star Wars, but did we really need a celestial gunfight full of lasers in the case of Bond? George Lucas’ efforts had pushed the boundaries of cinema, and as a reaction, typically second-to-none Bond decided to expand its horizons, and to its detriment. The whole final act reminds me of an elaborate space-bound ballet and makes as much sense to me as an Italian opera. Visually, quite the treat, but it all feels just a little aimless and tacked-on.

With so many half-baked ingredients thrown so haphazardly together, half the time I’m not quite sure what is going on or who some of these characters are. Moonraker has all the hallmarks of classic Bond (up to a point), but it never shows any real conviction, and in fact continues to flounder with each passing scene. At times the movie is unashamedly nonsensical. Sure, the plot is somewhat peripheral when it comes to Bond. We’re here for the action, the stunning locations and the plethora of superficial embellishments that the series excels in, but between those moments my mind begins to wander; I feel lost, and not in a good way. I’ve still seen the movie a dozen times and I’ll no doubt see it a dozen more. Half the time it’s so harebrained it’s actually quite charming, but other times it loses me completely. I’m sure Moonraker is a favourite of many and I can fully understand why. A View to a Kill is one of the most criticised of all 007 outings, and yet it’s one of my absolute favourites. That’s the beauty of Bond: there is something for everyone.

Ultimately, Moonraker loses me by trying to be something it’s not, and this is James Bond we’re talking about. Adapting to the times is one thing, but such an innovative series shouldn’t have to ape commercial trends so transparently — it just doesn’t need to. Star Wars is Star Wars and Bond is Bond. A crossover, albeit a one-sided one, only serves to cheapen the Bond franchise. Most others would have been killed by such antics, but Bond is too ingrained in our culture, too universally beloved. In may ways, they really shot themselves in the foot with the final act of this one, a metaphor that belongs nowhere near a deadly assassin like 007. All I can say is, thank God for John Glen’s hard-edged For Your Eyes Only. Of all the movies for an actor of Moore’s tongue-in-cheek persuasion to go out on, Moonraker certainly wasn’t it.

Director: Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay: Christopher Wood
Music: John Barry
Cinematography: Jean Tournier
Editing: John Glen

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