James Bond rankings often put Moonraker near or at the bottom of all 23 films, sometimes declaring it the worst of the lot. It’s not. It’s one of Moore’s better films and a solid effort in the series. It’s accused of perverting the James Bond tone in its efforts to create a Star Wars ripoff aimed at 12-year-old boys. In reality, it doesn’t so much pervert the tone as it amps it up to 11, pushing the entertainment envelope of Moore’s films to near bursting. As well, it has as much to do with fringe theories regarding the colonization of space as it has to do with George Lucas’s fantasy phenomenon. Moonraker is a solid global thriller that turns into a silly sci-fi extravaganza. It’s a quintessential Roger Moore Bond film: exciting but also swollen to bloated proportions.
It’s no secret that Star Wars had some influence on the producers’ decision to film Moonraker as their next project after The Spy Who Loved Me. It originally wasn’t their choice for the next project as TSWLM ends with the title card: “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only.” However, after the massive success of Star Wars, the producers changed their minds and greenlit an adaptation of Moonraker, as the science fiction genre was perceived to be very popular. Perhaps the word adaptation is being generous as Christopher Wood only takes the characters and rocket plot of the Fleming novel and puts them into a globetrotting sci-fi thriller whereas the novel is a contained exercise in tension set entirely in England. The final screenplay is so different than the original Fleming work that the producers even allowed Wood to write a novelization of the film, a film ostensibly based on a novel. The producers cast Michael Lonsdale as the villain Hugo Drax due to the film’s French co-production status after having originally considered James Mason. Then they went to work on an adventure that would take Bond from London to California, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, and even to space, in his attempts to track down a missing space shuttle.
However much I would’ve loved to see James Mason as a Bond villain, Lonsdale’s performance as Drax offers one of the film’s main pleasures. If Roger Moore is the unflappable Bond, Lonsdale’s Drax is the unflappable villain. He’s perpetually unimpressed with Bond. Not even Bond reappearing on his space station after his apparent incineration is enough to raise Drax’s eyebrow. He’ll only allow Bond the pleasure of inconveniencing him—nothing more serious. If other Bond villains are defined by how they overplay their characters, relishing the sadism and peculiarity of their villainy, Lonsdale’s Drax is defined by how he underplays it. He’s more similar to Joseph Wiseman’s Dr. No than Javier Bardem’s Silva in this regard. You could almost make the argument that Lonsdale’s performance is flat if it weren’t for Bond’s later discovery of Drax’s plans for genetic supremacy. This revelation reveals Lonsdale’s stoicism as barely masked contempt for the mass of humanity Drax deems genetically inferior, including Bond and all the other simpletons he leaves back on Earth when he escapes to his space station.
The film’s early scenes are as exciting as anything in Moore’s entire run of films. Much of this is due to Drax’s sinister presence. Take for instance the horrifying scene after Bond leaves Drax’s estate and Drax sends his dogs to hunt down and kill the girl that betrayed him, the camera tilting up to the treetops just as the dogs pounce on her. It’s chilling, especially in contrast to Moonraker’s lighter moments. The stunt coordinators and location producers deserve their credits as well. The first half of the film excels at action and pace. Where The Spy Who Loved Me drags, Moonraker races forward from exotic location to exotic location, from the opening teaser showdown with Jaws (Richard Kiel reprising his most famous role) while free falling to Earth from an airplane to a cable-car fight in Rio de Janeiro. If anything, Moonraker races by too fast, but the relentless pace and inventive action scenes do much to distract from some comedic blunders. For instance, Jaws flapping his arms like a bird while falling to Earth after his parachute fails is ludicrous, made much more so for the circus music that accompanies it, but it doesn’t undo the sheer impressiveness of the opening stunt which sees Bond fight Jaws while falling to the earth at 120mph.
Moonraker is full of many such memorable moments, as well as a few comic missteps. The pigeon double-take during Bond’s Venetian gondola chase is baffling, but the chase through the canals is inarguably thrilling, highlighting nifty inventions like the drivable gondola and the knife-thrower’s casket. As well, the fight between Bond and Chang (Toshiro Suga) in the glass museum is one of the best fights of the 70s run of Bond films. It relishes the wanton destruction of the entire glass collection, best embodied by the brilliant moment where Bond contemplates throwing a million dollar vase but decides not to only to have Chang smash it immediately afterwards. There’s also the chilling shot in the Rio de Janeiro section of the film where Manuela (Emily Bolton) waits in an alley while Bond investigates a shipping warehouse and a Carnival mascot leaves the main street and wanders down towards Manuela. We hold on the wide shot of the alley as Manuela becomes more nervous, wondering whether the mascot is coming for her or if it’s just going to pass by. When the mascot gets close, it takes off its mask, revealing Jaws underneath, and he gives Manuela a chilling smile with his metal teeth. Alongside the scene at the pyramids in TSWLM, it’s the scariest Jaws ever gets.
Director Lewis Gilbert repeats much of the structure of his two previous efforts, You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me. He starts with the hijacking of the Moonraker shuttle, just as the space orbiter is absorbed in YOLT and the nuclear submarine is captured in TSWLM. He then follows Bond around the globe as he discovers who’s behind the crime, before leading to an explosive climax where Bond and dozens of commandos do combat in the expansive fortress of the villain. It’s this climax that attracts most of the derision towards Moonraker. I can understand why, even if I don’t agree with it.
When James Bond leaves the planet Earth to battle Drax and his minions aboard his space station, the franchise appears to leave the realm of reality. Bond floats through zero gravity and ejects Drax out an airlock. U.S. marines do battle with Drax’s soldiers, using lasers to blast each other into space. This isn’t believable at all, but neither is a diamond-encrusted death satellite believable, or a solar-powered laser gun. The Bond franchise, especially the Moore films, have always flirted with the ludicrous and highlighted the outlandish, and so Bond going to space is only an extension of the amplified spectacle as opposed to a violation of the series’ own built-in rules. As well, there is much to recommend the space climax. Ken Adam’s design has never been better. The design of the space station itself is fantastic, drawing on 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1950s sci-fi magazines as much as the Death Star. It even has a whiff of the O’Neill cylinders that fascinated Americans during the 1970s. The action scene between the marines and Drax’s minions is ridiculous, but it also affords the pleasures of seeing men blasting each other with lasers and being blown away into the endless abyss of space. It’s a silly moment, but undeniably entertaining.
As for the complaints of the finale being a Star Wars rip-off, the space fight between the marines and Drax’s men is admittedly inspired by the final dogfight in A New Hope. In each, the good guys must invade and destroy the enemy’s space station. But such charges of being an unimaginative rip-off have no bearing beyond the broad strokes and the Bond producers’ obvious economic incentives to do a sci-fi film. In fact, Drax’s eugenically-aided plan to start a new, perfect human race gives Moonraker its most potent thematic interest.
Much of the scientific and social discussion regarding space colonies in the 1970s focused on how they would become havens for the rich and wealthy, leaving the poor and vulnerable to rot on an economically and environmentally devastated Earth. (It’s the kind of thinking that inspired the entire plot of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium.) Although space colonies were envisioned by futurists as social utopias, critics labeled them elitist colonies that would divide the human race between the rich and the poor. Even the famous O’Neill cylinder was criticized as being another elitist colony for the rich and wealthy to escape the trappings of poverty and disease on earth. Drax buys into this sinister vision of space colonization and intends on starting a new human race in space, choosing only perfect human specimens to breed and start anew. Instead of being an unoriginal rip-off of Star Wars, the space plot of Moonraker is actually another example of the Bond franchise tapping into social anxieties in their villains’ plans.
Moonraker is entertainment first and foremost, but it’s not mindless. It takes the dominant qualities of the Roger Moore Bond films and amplifies them to the breaking point, but it does so with ingenuity and a clever sense of fun. Pound for pound, Moonraker may have the silliest moments in any Bond film—the moments with Jaws and his girlfriend Dolly (Blanche Ravalec) are bizarrely off-tone. But it’s also home to some of the most entertaining stunts and set-pieces in the entire franchise. Moonraker may have been an encapsulation of much that would run the Bond franchise off the rails in the early 1980s, but as a solitary film, it’s exceptional entertainment.
7 out of 10
Moonraker (1979, UK/France)
Directed by Lewis Gilbert; written by Christopher Wood based on the novel by Ian Fleming; starring Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Toshiro Suga, Corinne Cléry, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewelyn, Lois Maxwell, Emily Bolton, Michael Marshall, Walter Gotell, Blanche Ravalec.