Moonraker (1979)

Director: Lewis Gilbert

Starring: Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Richard Kiel, Michael Lonsdale, Corinne Clery

When I think of “Moonraker,” I am often reminded of the first time I ever saw “Superman III.” Jumping into it already in progress, I watched as Richard Pryor adequately performed a slapstick routine and thought, ‘This seems harmless enough.’ Then, all of a sudden, Christopher Reeve’s Superman shows up. Needless to say, I was horrified. I had a similar experience the first time I caught “Moonraker.” It was well into the final act when I clicked past it one day, thinking it to be decent enough B-movie sci-fi fare. Then I noticed Roger Moore.”Moonraker” is simultaneously the most ambitious and the most bewildering Bond film ever made. Yet, while there’s not a damn thing that could have saved “Superman III,” the best thing that could have ever happened to “Moonraker” was for it to become totally unrecognizable as a James Bond movie.

The UK, looking to make its own mark in the space race, has acquired a space shuttle from Drax Industries. Unfortunately, said shuttle is hijacked and then stolen, resulting in the destruction of the aircraft on which it was perched and the deaths of all crewmen aboard said plane. MI6 puts Bond on the assignment after his own brush with death from being pushed out of an airplane by Jaws (Richard Kiel). At Drax Industries in California, Bond meets with Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), a mustache-twirling villain if ever there was one. Sensing the true purpose for Bond’s visit, Drax quietly orders 007 to be killed. Bond also meets with aspiring female astronaut Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), who offers to demonstrate the centrifuge chamber used by astronauts in training for their outer space flights. Why no one second-guesses Drax’s shifty-looking bodyguard Chang being at the controls beats the hell out of me. Before the growing intensity of the centrifuge becomes lethal, Bond is able to terminate the procedure using one of his handy gadgets. Drax tries to kill Bond a second time at a rifle range, but Bond nails Drax’s sniper perched up in the trees.

Traveling with some useful information to Venice, Italy, Bond learns one half of Drax’s plot when he discovers a hidden laboratory in the process of developing a deadly, plant-based nerve gas. There, Bond finally kills Drax’s henchman Chang. It is while in Venice that Bond compeltely eschews any pretense of being a ‘secret agent’ when, while dodging more of Drax’s redshirts, he drives a motorized gondola up out of the water and onto the streets of Venice. Yeah, I’ll bet that doesn’t make the evening news! Bond also encounters Dr. Goodhead again, and correctly presumes her to be a CIA agent assigned to gain intel on Drax. It’s good that Bond managed to swipe a vial of the nerve gas from the lab as evidence because, when he returns with M, it’s been made to look like the lab never existed.

Because Drax still wants Bond eliminated, he hires Jaws to finish the job. The steel-toothed monster catches up to Bond and Goodhead on a cable car. Though Bond and Goodhead escape and Jaws’ car eventually crashes, the seemingly immortal giant finds love at first sight in the form of the bespectacled blonde Dolly. Aww, how nauseating! But it doesn’t stop Jaws from giving chase to Bond once again, this time by speedboat. Because we haven’t had nearly enough speedboat chases in these movies. After seeing Jaws making a fool of himself yet again by comically going over a waterfall, I had become positively bored by this point.

Surviving a close encounter with a snake, Bond is caught by Jaws (who has also captured Ms. Goodhead) and taken to Drax, who is sending his Moonraker shuttles up to his space station. He’ll be piloting the fifth shuttle. Bond and Goodhead escape certain death one more time, commandeer the sixth and final shuttle, and blast off into space to rendezvous with the space station. Drax’s plan is as evil as evil gets: He means to unleash his gas onto the population of the Earth, saving only his privileged few to repopulate the species and start things over again in his image. How very Third Reich of him. He’s also got a cloaking device preventing radar detection of the station. Bond disables this, allowing for a troop of U.S. Marines to fly up and attack, resulting in the latest massive battle between two armies in a Bond film. I sure wish someone would explain how everyone got hold of their fancy laser rifles, because the film never says a damn thing about it. It’d be one thing if just the Moonraker guys had ’em… but no! The Marines are fully equipped with the same rapid-fire futuristic weaponry. Whatever. Anyway, it looks great.

When it appears as though Drax has the upper hand, Bond has one last trick up his sleeve. He convinces the easily-manipulated Jaws to switch sides by getting Drax to admit that his “master race” would have no room for those lacking optimal physical standards. Drax’s army is totally annihilated, his space station is destroyed, and he himself is ejected out into space by Bond. But three globes containing Drax’s deadly gas are nearing Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a tense situation, especially with the third and final one, but Bond and Goodhead get the job done and save humanity, thanking Jaws and Dolly for their help.

The 11th James Bond feature was originally slated to be “For Your Eyes Only,” but the massive popularity of “Star Wars” pretty much made the concept of Bond in space inevitable. Other sci-fi is referenced, including the first few notes of the theme to “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the rifle range and the usage of the infamous five-note tune from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as the dial tone on the laboratory keypad entry code. Both of these draw an immediate “Oh, come on!” reaction out of me. Music also plays a key role in the outer space sequence, with the John Barry track “Flight Into Space” being one of the film’s highlights.

Shirley Bassey returns for the third and final time to sing the movie’s title tune, with “Moonraker” being the least of her contributions… although the disco version (played during the end credits) is pretty good. No, seriously. Also returning for the final time was “M” actor Bernard Lee, who passed away in 1981. In a role originally written for James Mason, Michael Lonsdale is a terrific Bond villain caught up in a weird-as-hell movie. I could see him as a pretty decent Blofeld had he ever been asked to handle the role of Bond’s greatest nemesis.

I can only imagine the shock that James Bond purists must have gone into after seeing this theatrically in 1979 (if the previous three Roger Moore films hadn’t already numbed their senses). I find it’s actually a very complicated one to grade. The first two-thirds, a typical paint-by-numbers Roger Moore Bond farce, are as stale as the series has ever been. The last third… a completely different movie… no longer looks, feels, or even sounds like a Bond movie. Now more akin to a cheesy late 70’s B-movie with a bigger budget, it can be enjoyable on a so-bad-it’s-good level. Moore is the only Bond actor who could’ve made this part of the movie work. Can you imagine Connery’s or Lazenby’s Bonds trying their hand at this? Well, at least you can with Connery (“Outland” is pretty lame), but not the Connery Bond. Makes my head hurt to even think about it.

Had this been a Roger Moore-headlined outer space movie independent from the Bond franchise, I could see it being pretty damn decent so long as the plot remained simplified. Perhaps something along the lines of a “Starcrash” (which starred Bond girl Caroline Munro). What can I say? I dig late 70’s/early 80’s sci-fi. Were it not for the perverse enjoyment I get out of the climax of “Moonraker,” this would easily be the worst James Bond movie of all-time. As it stands, it’s two parts total dreck, one part out of this world.

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Comments
  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Good assessment of a really long and complicated plot. When this movie came out, I remember thinking it was just too over the top and ridiculous to continue watching the films. I didn’t begin to enjoy them again until Daniel Craig became Bond. I’ve enjoyed all of his except for “A Quantum of Solace.” I had forgotten about Jaws’ girlfriend Dolly! Made me laugh just thinking about it!

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