Moonraker (1979) Director: Lewis Gilbert
“First there was the dream, now there is reality. Here in the untainted cradle of the heavens will be created a new super race, a race of perfect physical specimens. You have been selected as its progenitors. Like gods, your offspring will return to Earth and shape it in their image.”
Heavily influenced by the rise of popular science fiction movies like Star Wars, the eleventh Eon James Bond film takes 007 on a wild and campy adventure from California to Venice to Rio, and finally into outer space, while chasing a megalomaniacal magnate. Moonraker is the fourth to star Roger Moore, and the third film in the series directed by Lewis Gilbert: You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and Moonraker (1979). Moonraker was the third Bond novel published by Ian Fleming, initially released in 1954. The producers originally intended to create For Your Eyes Only (as originally shown in the closing credits of the previous film, The Spy Who Loved Me), however with the rise of the recent Star Wars mania, they decided to go with the space theme for James Bond.
At the outset of the film, a Moonraker space shuttle –on loan from the Americans– is suddenly hijacked while midair over England. M (Bernard Lee) summons James Bond to investigate, but while on the plane en route back to England, James Bond’s plane is hijacked by Jaws (Richard Kiel), the towering henchman from the previous 007 film (The Spy Who Loved Me). Bond narrowly survives the attack by free-jumping out of an airplane. Immediately, we get a sense of how goofy this film will be when Bond steals a parachute midair from a falling assassin, and Jaws falls, not to his death, but gently onto a comical circus tent. Cue the opening credits with Shirley Bassey’s third of three James Bond theme songs (this was the least memorable of the three in my view). James Bond is then sent to California, to the headquarters of Drax Industries which is the manufacturer of the Moonraker space shuttle. Bond meets the sinister head of the company, Hugo Drax (played by Michael Lonsdale –a role for which he is best known today). Along the way, we also meet his Samurai henchman, Chang (Toshiro Suga), and NASA scientist Dr. Holly Goodhead (played by Lois Chiles -the role for which she is best known). While taking a tour of the facility, Bond tests the centrifuge chamber, but when Dr. Goodhead is called away, Chang disrupts the test, nearly killing Bond as he spins around in circles. The sheer force nearly kills him. That evening, Bond sleeps with Drax’s pilot Corinne Dufour (Corinne Cléry) who reluctantly offers Bond information hidden in Drax’s study of a blueprint via a glass vial company in Venice. The next day, Bond goes hunting with Drax for some odd reason, and Bond deliberately shoots a marksman out of a tree –apparently he has whimsically killed the man! As Bond departs, Drax sends his attack dogs after his traitorous pilot. We are led to believe she is hunted and killed by the dogs –a rather dark and grisly demise for a Bond film.
At any rate, based on the information Bond has learned from Drax’s study, he heads to Venice where he, once again, encounters Dr. Goodhead, and he soon realizes that she is a spy, as well. They learn that the Venetian glass vials are being designed to distribute toxic nerve gas. We are then treated to an utterly ridiculous gondola boat chase scene through the canals of Venice –a street pigeon gives a double-take as Bond cruises overland in a gondola through St. Mark’s Square. Later while investigating the vials, Bond is attacked by a masked Chang who is brandishing a samurai sword, and in the course of the fight he kills Chang by tossing him through the clocktower over St. Mark’s Square, sending him crashing onto opera performance as Bond mutters “play it again, Sam.” Bond makes one slip-up with MI6 as Drax manages to conceal his laboratory, and Bond is forced to take a “leave of absence” (though he secretly continues to pursue the case). Bond and Goodhead then follow Drax’s business to Rio de Janeiro, Bond meets up with his local contact Manuela (Emily Bolton). Jaws reappears in Rio in the midst of a street festival, and nearly kills Bond and Goodhead while suspended high above ground in a cable car. After Bond escapes, Jaws amusingly falls in love with a woman and we see Bond riding up to a secret rendezvous with Q (Desmond Llewelyn) donning a poncho while the theme for The Magnificent Seven plays. Bond travels down the Amazon River in a pontoon toward Drax’s base, having been fully equipped with gadgets by Q, before hang-gliding over a giant waterfall while escaping Jaws. He is led into Drax’s lair by a cohort of women before being dropped into a pond with an enormous python that nearly strangles him to death. Bond and Goodhead then avoid being burnt alive and somehow manage to sneak aboard a rocket ship before takeoff. The last portion of the film takes place aboard a vast space station where Drax has been constructing a futuristic city in an attempt to create a master race of humans (a space version of Karl Stromberg’s vision for an underwater civilization) –however, Drax’s eugenics view of humanity offends Jaws, who realizes he is an oddball/outsider in society along with his new girlfriend, so he turns on Drax. Bond initiates an emergency stop sequence which sends the station into zero gravity. This is followed by an absurd space laser battle, concluding with Bond launching Drax into space. Bond and Goodhead escape in a pod as the space station is destroyed, while Jaws and his new girlfriend, Dolly (Blanche Ravalec), also manage to escape.
Moonraker was created with an astronomical budget (pun intended) of $34M, approximately twice the budget for The Spy Who Loved Me. And the heavy funding worked, at least from a financial perspective, because Moonraker became the highest grossing James Bond film up to that point –a feat that was only later upstaged when Goldeneye was released.
Whereas in the early days, Sean Connery’s James Bond had sophistication and wit, Roger Moore’s portrayal of the character in the ’70s was more like a silly uncle, always making uncouth jokes and winking at the audience as if to sheepishly say: “I didn’t do it.” Aside from being a visually impressive film, Moonraker is a pretty terrible movie. It is almost like a parody of a James Bond film. Roger Moore starts to show his age, and the once dynamic and intense James Bond chase scenes feel slapstick and cartoonish. Perhaps the biggest eye-roll of the movie comes when Jaws, the menacing and fearsome henchman from The Spy Who Loved Me, falls in love with an awkward young girl and suddenly has a change of heart. The introduction of space travel is something new for Bond, but it is an obvious nod to the popularity of Star Wars at the time. I enjoyed Moonraker more than I anticipated after watching it through this time around, however it still ranks among the worst of the James Bond movies for me.
Unfortunately, the film and the novel have almost nothing in common. Whereas the film is an over-the-top grab bag of James Bond cliches, Ian Fleming’s original novel is highly coveted by fans. In it, Hugo Drax is a celebrated British patriot who is secretly a German Nazi constructing a rocket set to destroy London as revenge for World War II. Mi6 is first suspicious of Drax when he cheats during a card game at a popular men’s club. The only similarities between the book and the film include the name “Hugo Drax,” the existence of a Moonraker rocket, and a brief nod by M in the movie to playing cards with Drax: “I hope you know what you’re doing, Bond, I play bridge with this fellow, Drax.” In my view, the original novel drastically overshadows this rather mediocre film.
Click here to read my review of Ian Fleming’s novel Moonraker.