Here are some of the things I already knew about James Bond before starting this marathon [deep breath]: British, spy, loves his women, booze, gadgets and women some more, created by Ian Fleming, popularized by Sean Connery, played by Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan when I was a kid, starred in a movie that is for some reason called Octopussy, inspired one of the most important video games of all time, and has been completely redefined by Daniel Craig for our modern era [gasp for air].
Oh, also, apparently there’s some Bond movie where he goes to space, and a lot of people really hate it.
Too Silly to Hate?
That brings us to 1979’s Moonraker, which reteamed The Spy Who Loved Me’s director (Lewis Gilbert) and writer (Christopher Wood) with some uncredited assistance from prior Bond writer Tom Mankiewicz (Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun). I do not hate this movie. I don’t love it either. Frankly, I don’t totally know what to do with Moonraker. Yes, this is the film where Cubby Broccoli and his team called upon their many years of Hollywood experience and decided: Super spy James Bond (Roger Moore, returning for a 4th adventure) will now defend space as well as Britain, and, hey, if he can maybe sneak in some zero gravity sex once he’s saved the Earth, well that’s just grazy. What, why should Luke Skywalker and Han Solo have all the fun?
That – the “Bond in Space” thing – isn’t entirely what throws me about this movie, though. It’s not exactly like he’s in space the whole time. A good chunk of Moonraker is just like any other Bond action adventure, sending the well-traveled spy around the world.
They filmed in four studios, seven countries, three continents, and the whole thing cost more than the first six 007 movies combined. All that money and globe-trotting is clearly up there on the screen. Some of you might be using your COVID-19 quarantine time to peruse virtual tours of famous locations; I watch James Bond movies because they are, if nothing else, incredibly enticing traveloques.
Plus, once Moonraker lifts off toward the stars and fits Bond and undercover CIA agent Holly Goodhead (a trying-her-best-to-be-serious-even-though-no-one-else-is Lois Chiles) inside rather unflattering yellow spacesuits, Ken Adams’ ornane set design for the villain’s space station and Derek Medding’s Oscar-nominated visual effects are a combined treat for the eyes. Granted, Moonraker’s version of space travel looks dated today and certainly less-than when compared to the original Star Wars, but have you ever seen Disney’s Black Hole, a fellow 1979 Lucas wannabe? With all due respect to those who would defend that film, at least Moonraker doesn’t offer up a janky RD-D2 and C-3P0.
By 1979 standards – a year that also included Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Moonraker’s space sequences are quite respectable. NASA was impressed enough that it asked to use some footage from the film to help with advertising for its space shuttle Columbia – an irony since Moonraker was in part inspired by the Columbia, which had at one pointed targeted ’79 as a launch year before pushing it back to ’81.
Plus, I can’t hate on a Bond movie that includes what was to-that-point the largest simulated weightless scene ever – a scene that was itself filmed on the largest indoor set ever built in France.
The fact that James and Holly somehow manage to execute some judo moves while their feet are supposed to be in mid-air adds to the “well, this is just pure fantasy” of it all.
James Bond Meets the Acme Corporation
I can take all of that in, respect it, and file it away as it was the 70s, everyone was chasing Star Wars, just deal with it. Instead, it’s Moonraker’s overall tone that has me truly flummoxed. The 007 movies were incredibly popular with kids, but this is the first one I’ve seen where it feels like someone’s grandson was shouting orders from behind the camera. You see this from the start.
In Moonraker’s all-time thriller of an opener, Bond is attacked on an airplane by the Spy Who Loved Me’s mute henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel) – a returnee due to the thousands of kids who wrote to Eon demanding to see the metal-mouthed giant haunt Bond one more time. In the kerfuffle, Bond ends up pushed out of the airplane without a parachute, initiating a free fall to a splattery death unless he somehow steals Jaws’ parachute mid-air.
It’s old-fashioned, death-defying, holy-shit filmmaking, the result of weeks of work with the second unit and around 100 different jumps, with the height and rate of descent limiting them to just 2 seconds of usable footage per jump. Beyond that, they had to use an experimental camera and special harness to prevent the camera operator’s neck from breaking every time he pulled his parachute. All worth it though because it gave us epic, edge-of-your seat material.
Aaaaand then Jaws flaps his arms like wings in a desperate attempt to fly before ultimately falling on top of a circus tent, which somehow cushions his fall and allows him to walk away without a scratch.
The title song hasn’t even played yet, and Moonraker is already warning: this is a cartoon – a thrilling cartoon with double entendres throughout, don’t get us wrong, but a cartoon nonetheless.
Jaws – working for an insane millionaire with a pressing need for Mr. Bond to suffer a “tragic accident” – returns multiple times throughout the rest of the film. There are moments of genuine menace, such as when James and his female assistant of the moment (Emily Bolton) narrowly escape Jaws’s ginormous grip during the annual Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Most of the time, however, Jaws plays like the Wile E. Coyote to Bond’s Roadrunner.
Later, Jaws gets the most random character turn – boils down to “this really short, pigtailed woman smiled at me, and we’re in love now” – I’ve seen since Grace Jones’ “And I thought that creep loved me!” in A View to a Kill. You either go with it or you don’t. A lot of Bond fans think it’s adorable, like something out of a Chaplin picture. I was more left asking: what the heck did I just watch?
There’s A Story Here, I Swear
The plot involves the theft of an American space shuttle Moonraker on loan to the British government. Ever so pissed, the Americans want answers. So, MI6 sends 007 to investigate. The trail leads straight to Hugo Drax (Michael Londsdale, partially cast because they needed a French actor to meet the film’s tax obligations as a UK-French co-production), the egomaniacal owner of the vast industrial complex that built the shuttle in the first place.
Bond’s been there all of 10 minutes when a masked assassin (Toshiro Suga, who got the part because he was Michael Wilson’s aikido instructor) tinkers with some control room knobs and exposes poor Roger Moore’s cheeks to the effects of an out-of-control centrifuge chamber.
Eventually, Bond discovers Drax fancies himself judge, jury, and executioner of all humankind. “One must preserve the balance of nature,” he says of his plan to wipe out everyone on Earth from the safe confines of his space station, which is packed to the brim with his photogenic followers who look like they stepped right out of the pages of Playboy. To paraphrase Rachel Green, it might be the end of the Earth, but they’re going to have a hell of a time at the wake.
Actually, if you’ve seen The Spy Who Loved Me, this is basically the same bad guy and end-of-the-world scheme but with a space theme instead of underwater. It’s also borrowed somewhat from You Only Live Twice (1967). Also, Bond’s whole love story with Holly – a rival spy from a different agency/country? Kind of Spy Who Loved Me all over again.
Pay little attention to all that, the Moonraker filmmakers seem to be saying. Instead, just escape into the adventure of a film that includes a free-fall without a parachute, a jumbo plane blown up in midair, a gondola chase in Venice that improbably jumps from the canals and onto the city streets, a fight with a ninja which set a new record for the most breakaway glass used in a single scene, a fight atop a sabotaged trolley car, a speedboat chase down the Amazon, and an ill fated encounter with an anaconda.
It’s…bananas, but also harmless. James Bond returned back to his Ian Fleming roots two years later in For Your Eyes Only, and before Moonraker, he’d starred in the fan favorite Spy Who Loved Me. In 1979, though, Star Wars mania got the better of the Bond machine, and with Jaws they were playing to the little kids in the audience. The same could be said of the scene where The Magnificent Seven theme plays as an audio joke to go with Bond on horseback, but the truth is they just put that in there to amuse themselves and never took it out.
The result is a film that plays in 2020 as insanely schizophrenic – stretches of intensely edited action punctuated by Looney Tunes humor. No Bond movie in this marathon, save maybe Die Another Day, has left me saying “WTF?” as often as Moonraker.
This film brazenly recycles its plot from prior Bond adventures, shamelessly chases the sci-fi trends of the moment, and neuters an iconic villain like Jaws into a buffoonish Tramp. Yet, God help me, I kind of liked it. I’ve rarely seen a once-grounded franchise go this impossibly big and still manage to at least kind of entertain through sheer audacity alone.
Thoughts on the Bond Women: Director Lewis Gilbert once said of Moonraker that it “presented us with the biggest challenge the series has faced so far: portraying intellectual qualities, while presenting Playboy visuals.” That quote popped to mind while pondering the women of this film because, wow, there are so, so many and most of them wear next to nothing thanks to Hugo Drax’s army of scantily-clad assistants.
While most of the women here never get a single line of dialogue let alone a name, Lois Chiles, Corinne Clery, and Emily Bolton put in solid work as the CIA agent, Hugo’s doomed personal pilot, and Bond’s Rio contact, respectively. However, Chiles later admitted, “I needed the work, I needed the money, and I needed the experience.”
Ian Fleming Connection: There is an Ian Fleming novel called Moonraker. In it, there is a villain called Hugo Drax. That’s just about the end of the similarities between book and screen.
Bond Song Thoughts: Shirley Bassey recorded the vocals for the title track as a favor to John Barry after sessions with their original choice, Johnny Mathis, didn’t work out. (And their original original choice, Frank Sinatra, changed his mind.) It all happened very fast, and it kind of shows. Bassey’s unmistakable voice is as strong as ever and the melody is pretty enough, but something about a lyric like “just like the Moonraker goes in search of his dream of gold/I search for love, for someone to have and hold” strikes me as “man, that title did them no favors.”
Coolest Scene: Free fallin’ with Bond and Jaws.
Favorite Line: “His name is Jaws. He kills people.”
Biggest regret: That I watched this sober.
Little Known Fact: There was a $2 million line item in the budget for “special location facilities.” When United Artists kept asking what that was about, they were finally told the truth: it was a slush fund for bribes. According to Associate producer William P. Cartlidge, “Well they nearly fell off their bloody chairs. ‘SHIT! BRIBES? It’s illegal!’ I said, ‘First of all it may be illegal in America but it ain’t in the UK and this is an Anglo-French co-production. How do you think we shoot some of these sequences? In the script we’ve got a gondola doing 65-70mph down the Grand Canal. Do you know what the speed limit is there? Six knots.”
Sampling of Critical Response From the Time: Lawrence O’Toole of Maclean’s squealed, “Moonraker is an example of why some people love movies instead of liking them.” Cinefantastique, while expressing some reservations, concluded Moonraker was “one of the best action comedies of the year.” Disheartened by the long ago death of the Connery era, former studio publicist and The James Bond Films author Steven Jay Rubin lamented, “The early Bond films tended to create fashion; the later ones reflect it.”
Box Office: $210.3m worldwide ($744.4m inflation-adjusted), making it the highest-grossing Roger Moore Bond adventure and ninth-highest in franchise history.
Sources: Nobody Does it Better, The Ultimate Guide to Bond, Some Kind of Hero, Cinefantastique, Maclean‘s, The James Bond Films
TOMORROW: The Spy Who Loved Me