00 Saturdays Week #21 – Moonraker Movie Review

“James Bond.  You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.” – Hugo Drax

Welcome back to 00 Saturdays here at Film Seizure.  This is our weekly walk through the Bond films.  We continue on this journey with 1979’s Moonraker, a film that was most certainly of its time after science fiction began ruling the entertainment world.

Oh, Moonraker.  How I have such the soft spot in my heart for thee.

Last we saw James Bond, he was doing his best to create strong, stiff relations with the USSR and one of their top agents, Triple X (Barbara Bach).  As the movie concludes, we receive our typical tease that “James Bond Will Return” and, as was customary in the days prior to Roger Moore’s retirement from the series in 1985, we were also teased the title of the next film.  So, seeing the below image was not a surprise at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me.

There we have it…  The next film in the storied James Bond Franchise will be For Your Eyes Only.  Done and done!

Then 1977 happened.  By the time The Spy Who Loved Me got to theaters on 7/7/77, 007 was seeing a changed world.  The past six weeks leading up to the release had seen the cultural phenomenon that was Star Wars.  By the end of 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind would solidify the return of Science Fiction in a major way.  Both films would rack up Oscar nominations and dollars at the box office.

I imagine that producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli sat back, thought about what could be done for Bond to chase the science fiction trend that was about to come blasting out from these two films’ massive successes.  The third Ian Fleming novel, Moonraker, had all Cubby needed to throw Bond’s hat into the ring…  Or out into space as it were.  The novel was about a business man named Hugo Drax who was thought to be building Britain’s first nuclear missile program, code name Moonraker.  Drax, though, turned out to be a secret Nazi and planned to score big with the stock market just before using Moonraker to create a nuclear disaster.

But the title had Moon in it so let’s send Bond to space!

Plans to make For Your Eyes Only were temporarily put on hold, and the time was right to bring Moonraker to the big screen.  To me, the world is a better place for it too.

The Bond series was always known for not being shy to either follow a rigid set of traditions, or flat out copy things that worked in the past.  In fact, the reason why so many films in the series could be cranked out between 1962 and 1989 was largely due to borrowing, flat out copying, or rearranging action and plot ideas from one movie over to another and the quickness in which a script could be turned in because most action scenes were simply NOT scripted and figured out in the pre-production stage.  Moonraker, for being completely different what with Bond going to space and what have you, does borrow from its predecessors.

Again, Lewis Gilbert returns to direct.  You can see right away, that he’s borrowing from his two previous films in the series – You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me.  Much like with You Only Live Twice, the film has stuff happening in space.  The end goal is different, but space stuff.  Like The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond is paired with another spy (Holly Goodhead, played by Lois Chiles) and she’s seen and treated as Bond’s equal.  Much like BOTH films, there is kidnapping of technology by the villain, Drax (played by Michael Lonsdale).

That brings me to one of my favorite Bond villains of all time, Hugo Drax.  If you know me personally, you know that I constantly reference the character when I talk about real world insanely rich dude Elon Musk.  Drax is seen as a good guy by the world.  He has a particular way of talking that makes you think that this dude is on the up and up.  However, he wants to take some people, and by people I mean pretty people, to space to live for a little bit while back on Earth, he’s gassed out the joint, killing off all the people so his Moonraker peeps can return to a new Garden of Eden.

Personally, I’m waiting for Elon Musk to rename Space X to Moonraker and for us to find out he plans to do the same to us.

Why I feel Drax is a particularly great Bond villain is that Michael Lonsdale is a really good actor.  I also feel like he was have a great deal of fun with the role and his dialog.  They waste zero time revealing he is the antagonist.  There are lines like him telling one of his goons to take care of Mr. Bond and “see to it that some harm comes to him.”  Or, as I used at the top of this article, where he refers to Bond as an unloved season.  He curses Bond for defying all his attempts to plan an amusing death for him.  Almost every line spoken by Lonsdale is out of this world.

Yes. I totally meant that pun.

I think it is almost impossible to discuss Moonraker without the elephant in the room – outer space.  Most people think this movie is having a laugh at the audience by having our very grounded 007 get launched into orbit to fight the bad guy with lasers on a space station, but, it actually takes itself pretty seriously.  There was a legitimate partnership with NASA over the Moonraker shuttles.  NASA wanted to have the space shuttle ready for flight to coincide with the release of the film.  It was close with the Enterprise having begun test flights in 1977 and the Columbia, the first fully functional, mission-ready shuttle making its inaugural flight in 1981.  The point being, production crews worked closely to understand the capabilities and design of the shuttle to make the movie accurate.

There are action scenes constructed around some of this scientific accuracy too.  Great care was put into design work by Ken Adam.  I could write an entire article on his sets alone for this movie, including how details were poured over to give the exact look he desired.  His main achievement was the design of Drax’s space station which was his take on a mobile version of Kubrick’s wheel station in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The exterior looks like something that could be a functioning space station.  The interiors are rigged with wires so the largest simulated weightless sequence could be shot.  When the space station blows up at the end, the effects people knew the vacuum of space does not allow for fire to burn so the explosions had to be done a different way.  The solution was to destroy the model with shotguns so it could be filmed blowing apart without flames.

I will concede that the premise is the most bizarre of any film yet.  That said, the film is cheeky when it is appropriate and as it fits with the tone of the Bond series.  At other times, it is deadly serious.  One of the many very pretty women in this film, Corinne (played by Corinne Cléry), is an employee of Drax and reveals to Bond a secret safe in Drax’s office.  Drax learns of this and doesn’t terminate her employment, but her life… by way doberman pinschers.  It’s a brutal scene and shows this movie isn’t just being a goofball space adventure of Agent 007.

Our main Bond Girl, as stated earlier, is Dr. Holly Goodhead.  This was an original character, not having previously appeared in a Fleming novel.  Her name, though, is Fleming inspired.  Actress Lois Chiles always said she loved having one of the more raunchy names in the series.  What’s especially nice about it is that the name is raunchy but her character is even keeled and pretty damn smart.  While she is posing as an asset on loan from NASA, she’s really a CIA agent.  As I mentioned, this character is here to capitalize on the chemistry in The Spy Who Loved Me.  However, here, it takes considerably longer for them to finally work together.  Instead, they remain less willing to pool resources outside of a nice romp in bed.

Dr. Goodhead is one of my more favorite Bond Girls.  She may not be quite as dynamic as Bach’s Triple X, or as sympathetic as Domino, or as innocent as Solitaire, but she feels modern.  She’s very nearly as tall as Roger Moore.  She’s much more serious.  She’s got that cool demeanor.  She’s definitely not a bimbo.  It feels more like an attempt to be mindful of the feminist movement and the fact that the series was headed into the 80s.  The thought of a woman being a doctor or a capable spy herself was no longer quaint.  Nor was the idea of a woman being tested and approved for space missions.  It soon was going to be a very real scenario.

It also probably doesn’t hurt that she’s a very attractive woman.

A fan favorite character returns in Moonraker – Richard Kiel’s Jaws.  After The Spy Who Loved Me, Jaws soon became one of the most recognizable characters of a newer generation of fans.  Those fans were children.  The idea of a giant with scary teeth didn’t scare those kids.  Instead, they wanted him to be a good guy.  They wrote fan mail to EON Productions and to Lewis Gilbert asking why he had to be a bad guy and if they could make him good.  So…  They do.  Drax hires Jaws to do some hench work.  That work is to basically kill Bond.  After Bond and Goodhead escape from Jaws in a really awesome stunt sequence on top of a cable car 2,000 feet off the ground in Brazil, he meets a bespectacled girl named Dolly with blonde braids and huge boobs.  They instantly fall in love with each other and Jaws grows a heart, and a change of perspective before the end of the movie.

There is something charming and very cute about Jaws and Dolly’s relationship.  While she does get aboard Drax’s space station because, you know, Jaws does nefarious stuff for Drax, she’s not a bad girl.  She seems legitimately into Jaws as this kind of Beauty and Beast story.  It’s kind of humanizing for the Jaws character because I had to guess he’s had trouble getting dates up to this point, and Dolly is really, really cute.  There is a question left at the end of the movie that is kind of bittersweet.  Jaws eventually helps Bond and Goodhead blow up the space station and defeat Drax.  This is mostly due to Dolly’s influence over the big lug.  Holly and James take off in a Moonraker shuttle while the space station blows up.  Jaws and Dolly are still on board the space shuttle sharing a bottle of champagne together.  Seemingly resigned to either dying aboard the station or dying in a horrible burn up in the atmosphere, Jaws gives the toast, “Well, here’s to us.”

While there is a line prior to the very end in which the British government mentions a capsule from Drax’s station was recovered with a man and woman inside it, but I kind of feel like Jaws really didn’t know they were going to survive.  That helps the moment toasting each other while the space station they are on is breaking up around them all that more bittersweet.

There is another element to this movie that does kind of bum me out when I think about some of the third act reveals and shots.  When Bond and Holly sneak aboard one of the Moonraker crafts to get to the space station they don’t know exists until it is revealed in the sunlight (it is explained that it is able to cloak itself from sensors), Bond decides to check out the cargo they are carrying into space.  Seeing it is men and women, he realizes this is nothing more than Noah’s Ark for humans.  When they dock, there is a shot of two of the passengers engaging in a tender kiss, so happy they are finally where they dreamed of being.

Drax, speaking to his “flock” reveals the big plan.  Wipe out human life, return to Earth as veritable gods, and their offspring will inherit a paradise.  He’s a combination of a great scientist with a little bit of insanity over how to deal with terrestrial problems of people, pollution, auto accidents, you name it, with a big helping of cult leader, and a dash of ol’ fashioned Nazi ideology of a master race.  In some ways, I don’t feel like everyone on board is fully on board with this idea.  Jaws, after finding out what the plan is himself, is dismayed by the revelation.  The members of Drax’s flock must not all be super duper willing to kill everything else on Earth for their paradise.  It’s sad to me that some of these people, like that couple on one of the Moonrakers kissing and being so happy to finally be in space, have maybe been lied to… for years.  It’s sad to me that a guy who has the ability to build neat space stuff is also a complete madman.  Oh, and almost all of his followers die horribly in the coldness of space.

As I suspect will happen if we don’t keep enough of an eye on that Elon Musk character.

I could go on for another several days about how pretty I think the movie is, the methods used for the special effects (running film backwards and forwards to include new elements and composite all the various things in the frame together), how I think the acting is really fairly well done and not letting anything be done too self-aware or not allowing it to be taken seriously, and how this movie does deserve some serious re-evaluation.  That leads me to wonder if why this movie often gets a little derision is from years past.  Up to this point, Bond was generally grounded in some sort of fact.  Sure there were wild ideas from some of the villains, but there was some plausibility in the plan.  At least there was some opportunity to suspend your disbelief. Maybe space was one bridge too far for some.  However, the film is reminiscent of a time in which, to me, it feels possible for a man of ridiculous resources like Drax, to build all of this stuff outside the knowledge of governments.  I feel like that while some elements of this wilder story premise is more possible today, the overarching idea of a man like a Drax, or Elon Musk for that matter, would be able to suddenly reveal all of the plan just moments before executing it without being discovered is even less likely than the idea would have been 40 years ago.

But what do I know?  I am just a guy who really finds a great deal of unironic enjoyment from this entry in the series.

Join me next week for a look at the music of Moonraker.  In two weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the underrated twelfth Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.

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