James Bond Retrospective: Moonraker

She packed my bags last night, pre-flight. Zero hour. Nine AM.

I think it’s gonna be a long long time until Moonraker brings me back again to find, this was not the James Bond movies I have back home. No… No, this is a rocket Bond film. Burning out its fuse up here, alone.

And it sucks.

Moonraker (1979)

With all the G-force of a… Wait, what unit is “suck” measured in?

In the future they’ll make Bond films just like everything else: with an algorithm. Moonraker suffers from what I call movie envy. After the success of The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) everybody behind the Bond franchise realized camp was where Bond was most profitable. It could appeal to children and adults alike, but the late seventies brought about films that made money comparable to Bond. Blockbusters were becoming normal in Hollywood, and popular culture was becoming obsessed with Luke Skywalkers and shark movies, and Bond had its foot in the past.

So Moonraker does what other Bond films have done before, only this time there’s an identity crisis boiling up under the fun and it’s so prevalent it detracts from the spectacle, which would otherwise have been unrivaled for its time. It wants to be like other films of the era, and it wants to appeal to the same audiences. It turns great villains into mediocre heroes and its cliché characters into their worst versions so far.

It looks really good though, let’s get into the plot.

The Plot

Oh my gosh I hope nothing breaks in this priceless glass museum!

The Moonraker spaceship has been stolen and the launch plane is a wreck. Bond is sent to the private company responsible for building the project: Drax Industries, owned by the fabulously wealthy Hugo Drax.

There he meets NASA scientist and trained astronaut Holly Goodhead, almost gets killed twice by Drax’s Asian henchman Chang (yeah, that’s pretty bad), and leaves with some plans that point towards Drax Industries making a serum in Venice.

Bond finds Goodhead in Venice and discovers she’s actually CIA, and one step ahead of him. He finds out they’re utilizing a toxin that murders people, made from an orchid and he pockets the sample. Chang attacks him again and Bond kills him. Drax hires Jaws –the henchman from the last film and played by Richard Kiel– to be his new number one.

Bond travels around and tracks the orchid location to the Amazon. Goodhead has been held hostage there, and Drax is preparing for his master race to fly up to the Moonraker space station, use the orchid serum to kill everyone on Earth and start a new world with that master race and he as their space God. Bond and Goodhead sneak onboard the station and are caught, but just before they’re sentenced to death Bond convinces Jaws that master races suck and he should help stop them. Drax dies by a dart to the heart and is then shot out into space. The day is saved, Jaws and his girlfriend live happily, and Bond and Goodhead prepare for re-entry… In front of both American and British officials.

A Closer Look

See? This looks cool.

This is a type of movie I could see some liking, or even loving. This was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who was responsible for the problematic yet insanely fun You Only Live Twice (1967) and The Spy Who Loved Me. Gilbert seems to me to be a great director that seems to only work with poor material. This film has a huge list of fantastic and varied action scenes that are completely different from each other and feature great effects and stunt-work for their time. Even some of the more conventional action scenes do a really good job of either being visually interesting or even incorporating actual appropriate amounts of humor (the gondola scene in particular comes to mind).

Everything else seems to check the typical Bond quota. Bond as a character is probably at his flattest so far. We don’t see a glimpse into his personal life or attitudes. We don’t see very human reactions or weaknesses. We mainly just see Moore try to sell really bad quips.

Yet again, this film has a serious case of movie envy. This is easily seen too, the laser fight near the end feels totally out of place and feels like it was only done for the Star Wars (1977) crowd. Not to get too analytical here, but I think it’s telling that at this particular moment a major antagonist in the Bond series has the name of one of the biggest cultural blockbusters of the seventies. It might just be coincidence, but I think there’s an ongoing thread in Bond films about Bond being the sort of cinematic action center that holds all other action films in check. This definitely isn’t the case any more, but there was a time when Bond was the first name on the list, so him duking it out with a physical manifestation of new cinema I think is a potent image.

They also incorporate visual elements reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (but way worse), and even use a sound cue from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)For what thematic purpose? Spaaaaace.

If you have any doubts going forward there’s like ten minutes where Bond wears a poncho and hat that feels right out of the Leone trilogy, and that visual whiplash is emblematic of the film.

Cowboy iconography and spy movies. Two great tastes that taste terrible together.

What’s Good?

I’ve been mentioning it, but the action is really well done. I could’ve just listed all the moments Bond was in danger for the plot section and it would’ve sold you on the film way more. There’s a sky diving sequence! He wrestles an anaconda! He fights Jaws on a gondola and it’s really cool! Visually, even just standing around there’s always something to look at and appreciate. I think Gilbert knew audience’s minds would start to rot away watching the film, so he just packed it full of little bits of visual candy for people.

Goodhead, despite her absolutely terrible name, isn’t a bad Bond girl. The other Bond girls in the film are absolutely terrible, but Goodhead seems remarkably competent and unwilling to budge to Bond’s own misogynistic expectations of women. She definitely falls for him in the latter portion of the film, but that will always happen.

I’ve been making poor comments about it, but Kiel’s Jaws remains a highlight. Sure, making him into a hero at the last possible moment due to a really dumb character moment for him definitely feels cheap, but functionally he remains a potent villain for a bulk of the film. The girlfriend isn’t even the biggest problem with him, it’s all Drax, which we’ll get to.

And last, it’s a matter of debate between Bond fans… I quite like the theme song. It feels better as an end to the Shirley Bassey song trilogy than it does a companion to the film, but it’s calm and cold. It has a little psychedelia to it, but Bassey brings an air of class and haunting spirit in contrast to the more pop efforts of the other Moore films. Either way, Bassey is the queen of Bond. No heresy will be spoken against her in this church.

This entire sequence is really funny. Look for the visually edited shot where they had a pigeon do a double take. It looks so stupid.

What’s Bad?

Last time I’ll say it: this film should stick with something. Bond goes to probably three too many exotic locations. Four if you count the space station twice, which you should because it’s space. The most exotic of locations. The visual whiplash probably hits its peak at the very end with the 2001 suit stuff and Star Wars laser fight. I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible for Bond to go to space, but I think Jason X (2001) was more tasteful than this.

Moore is getting old and he’s starting to phone it in already. We’ve still got a lot of movies with him left, and I worry that Moore never truly gave an amazing performance. Perhaps it was just the curse of his era, but you can already tell Moore is getting tired. To be fair to him, Bond is given so little to work with as a character here. He doesn’t even have a fair contrast that he was given in other outings. Here it’s all Moore with no thematic juxtaposition to chase him down.

And holy crap can I complain about how stupid Drax’s plan is? First of all, why murder James Bond to start with? Bond literally just visited you because you were the guy that made the ship that was stolen. Yeah, he might find out you did something bad later on, but if you immediately send your visually distinct henchman to accidentally murder him and he sees that guy, he’s gonna be suspicious. If you try to kill him a second time before he leaves, he’ll for sure know you’re a bad dude. It’s like Bond always says, try to kill me once shame on you, try to kill me twice… You only live twice?

And the master race plan is also terrible. I’m seeing all of the space employees just do it, and that’s fine hey they’re getting a paycheck… But Drax, what happens when everybody dies and there’s only like a couple dozen people left? Does your billions of dollars matter in an economy that doesn’t exist? I suppose you could threaten your survivors for slave labor, but why would they do that? Who’s gonna activate the orchid poison thing again? You? Who’s gonna pay them to activate it? With what?

Yep, this is still a Bond review. Why do you ask?

And Jaws realizing at the last minute that being physically different from the norm means he and the ones he loves are going to be threatened too is so dumb. Bond is so unsubtle with that persuasion, and Drax’s response of “You obey me!” is equally dumb. Everyone in this movie is dumb, and I can’t like a movie’s plot if nobody in the film thinks like a real human being.

Looking Forward

We have two more Moore films left, and the next one will be For Your Eyes Only (1981). After space, there’s nowhere to go but down. It’ll probably be way better.

What I Drank

I can’t drink a lot of vodka guys. So instead we’re going to go with a Rosé wine with dry vermouth. You’re going to want two ounces of the wine and at least an ounce of vermouth. I’ve been wanting to mention for a long time since my first review, martinis need vermouth, but vermouth doesn’t actually taste good. It’s usually just a companion for flavor profile, and by the time you drink enough martinis you basically just want cold liquor with a garnish and the vermouth can be a rinse or something. So tinker with the ratios to your liking, but I think the vermouth pairs nicely with the Rosé, so I did a half ounce.

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