What I’ve Been Watching: Moonraker (1979).
Who’s Responsible: Lewis Gilbert (director), Christopher Wood (screenwriter), Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, and Michael Lonsdale (stars).
Why I Watched It: Research.
Seen It Before? Several times, including on its release.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8 (it is Bond, after all).
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 4.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 4.
And? From the ludicrous teaser, in which sadly returning 007 heavy Jaws (Richard Kiel) flaps his arms—yes, you read that right—when his parachute doesn’t open and survives a freefall into a circus tent, to the horrific “Disco Bond” end-title theme, this is one of the most misconceived entries in the entire series. Moonraker was considered as a film as far back as a script version Ian Fleming toyed with before writing his 1955 novel, and again as Moore’s debut, but it took the success of Star Wars to make it actually happen. Like Tom Mankiewicz before him, Wood scripted his freshman entry, The Spy Who Loved Me, with series mainstay Richard Maibaum, and then graduated to his first Bond solo credit.
Moonraker is far from Fleming’s best novel, but at least features a straightforward story (which is more than can be said of the film), and is set entirely in England, where Bond, it is noted, would not normally be allowed to operate. Both versions feature a fabulously wealthy and powerful man named Hugo Drax, whose highly vaunted Moonraker poses a secret threat, and a woman operating undercover in his organization, but the similarities pretty much end there. Fleming’s Drax is a Nazi spy posing as an Englishman, who has a London-bound Soviet warhead inside the rocket scheduled for a “practice” launch, while the film’s is a Frenchman (!) based in California, manufacturing a fleet of space shuttles.
The Macguffin is the theft of a Moonraker lent by Drax (Lonsdale) to the British, which he later offhandedly explains by saying, in effect, “Yeah, I need it for my nefarious plan, so I stole it back myself.” This flimsy pretext enables the filmmakers to send Bond to a series of exotic locales in search of clues, and inspires Drax to launch a gamut of failed and far-fetched attempts on his life, many of which end with an “oh, crap” expression and a miraculous survival by Jaws. These commence as soon as Bond arrives at Drax’s H.Q. (“See that some harm comes to him”)—not, of course, that anyone is going to smell a rat if the agent sent to investigate his outfit is suddenly and conspicuously rubbed out, right?
It is beyond the scope of this post to enumerate the movie’s manifold failings, but let’s hit a few highlights, starting with Chiles as NASA-trained Dr. Holly Goodhead, one of those female CIA agents the cinematic Bond, uh, bumps into from time to time. Okay, I know, Fleming started the whole “Pussy Galore” thing, but that was after Moonraker, in which the heroine is Policewoman Gala Brand of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch (with whom Bond never gets to score, as Moore does with Chiles in the film’s teeth-grinding zero-g fadeout). Like every Bond girl, Chiles is beautiful, yet since she displays all the charisma and emotive skills of an avocado, Dr. Goodhead must, alas, be written off as an epic fail.
Next on Bond’s itinerary is Venice, where a glassworks that he trashes in battle (which I guess is supposed to be funny) turns out to be the cover for a lab manufacturing a powerful nerve gas. A strong candidate for the Highly Unlikely Award is the sequence in which Bond’s boss, M (Bernard Lee), and his boss, Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen), personally come to check out said lab, which by then has been completely removed. Interestingly, Gray’s warning that Bond had better be sure of his facts because Gray plays bridge with Drax is one of the few actual ties to the novel; the entire first section is a Casino Royale redux in which M asks Bond to dissuade Drax from cheating at bridge in his club, Blades.
Following a trip to Rio, Bond probes the Amazon jungle, the source of a rare orchid used in the nerve gas, and locates the base from which Drax begins ferrying his perfect genetic specimens into space. We’re told that a radar jammer conceals his space station, ignoring the fact that it would take a ship the size of Pittsburgh to transport the materials there, and after surviving the thrust of one Moonraker by hiding in a ventilation shaft (another detail from the novel), Bond and Holly supplant the crew of another…completely unnoticed by Drax’s cohorts. Knocking out the jammer allows them and a platoon of space Marines—who knew we had those?—to foil Drax’s plan to poison us all and then repopulate Earth.
Among the more offensive touches are hooking Jaws up with a petite blonde chick, Dolly (Blanche Ravalec), with whom he reforms and aids Bond at the end, and “comic” musical homages to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Romeo and Juliet, and The Magnificent Seven. Aptly, both composer John Barry and production designer Ken Adam seem to be off their games, with the former providing a fairly forgettable theme song (the third and least sung by Goldfinger showstopper Shirley Bassey), plus a lumbering rendition of his own “007” theme, and the latter a space-station set that is huge, arid, and boring, rather like the film itself. Moore, in his fourth of seven Bond films, proffers frequent double-entendres and exudes sexism.
For all of you statisticians out there, this film marked the end of the 007 line for Gilbert (who, with Terence Young and Guy Hamilton, directed ten of the first eleven entries), Wood, Adam, Bassey, Kiel, and Lee. Only Lee and Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny) had appeared in every film to date; soldiering on with Maxwell in their usual capacities were Keen, Desmond Llewelyn as Q, Walter Gotell as General Gogol, Barry, and title designer Maurice Binder. Michael G. Wilson herewith joined his stepfather, Albert R. Broccoli, as a producer, in which capacity he continues today, and John Glen earned his third credit as editor before directing the next five films, all of which Wilson co-wrote.
Addendum: The vast gulf between the Fleming and Wood incarnations of Moonraker resulted in that curious phenomenon of a novelization (adapted by Wood, as was The Spy Who Loved Me) based on a screenplay based on a novel, and imaginatively entitled James Bond and Moonraker. That’s showbiz…
Go to From Russia with Love.