For various reasons, I haven’t been feeling so well lately. And when I feel like shit I like to take it out on bad movies. So I am very glad to be reviewing a Bond film I honestly despise, considered by some people to be The Worst James Bond Movie Ever Made. Of course, things would be pretty boring if it weren’t also acclaimed by almost-as-many people as the quintessential representation of everything this series is, was, or should be. It’s the Bond movie parents think they can safely pass down to their children…especially if their children have a pre-existing interest in sci-fi films, like some of us.
Because of that, it’s the first James Bond movie a lot of people (who aren’t me) see, forever coloring their expectations of the franchise. I’ll admit I’m predisposed to enjoy some of the elements you Normals may find the most ludicrous. But even for me, Moonraker goes right off the rails, abandoning any pretensions of being a spy-fi thriller made for people with functioning brains. In that, and one more area, it is the quintessential Bond movie: things start off well, but get steadily worse as they go on…and this movie does go on. At length. So at least it’s in good company, eh?
Made as a conscious cash-in on the Space Craze that gripped Hollywood in the wake of Star Wars, this film got a lot of love when it came out for exactly the same reasons most people now choose to crucify it. It was safe, bland, predictable, and exactly what studios thought audiences wanted. And they were right: Moonraker made more money than any previous Bond film. (Not adjusting for inflation, because who has time to do math these days?) Somebody must’ve loved it. As I hadn’t seen it in years, I was honestly curious to see how this film stacked up against its own notoriety. Is it, in fact, the Worst Thing with Bond’s Name On It?
Well, no. Not now that Die Another Day exists. But the inescapable fact is Moonraker has sequlitis in the worst way. Its plot is a wholesale recycling of The Spy Who Loved Me…which in itself was just a bigger-budget retread of You Only Live Twice. In fact, the three form a pretty devastating little trilogy I officially dare you to sit through sometime. See if you’re still a Bond fan when you come out the other end of that. They’re all the same movie, shifted to slightly different locations, with Bond regenerating between entries from a bored-looking Sean Connery to an arrogant prick-looking Roger Moore. In all three, Bond seeks to stop a mad industrialist from annihilating most of Earth’s population and declaring themselves ruler of the resulting radioactive wasteland.
Now, there’s a quote from someone who may or may not have been Albert Enstein. Most of my target demographic’s probably encountered it while playing the first-person shooter video game series Call of Duty. It shows up every fourth or fifth time you die while the game reloads your previous save, and it goes a little something like this:
“I don’t know what weapons World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Apparently, none of Bond’s classical supervillains ever came across this quote during their educational lives. At least their end games have improved over time…I’m still not sure Blofeld had one back in ’67, and Stromburg failed to consider how global nuclear winter might effect his beloved sea life. At least this year’s Villain has his own space station safely in orbit, high above the initial conflagration. But I’m still foggy on why anyone ever considered starting WWIII a good idea. Even Jaws (still Richard Kiel) – the apparently ruthless international henchman-for-hire – greets this plan with an unmistakeable “What the fuck?” face.
Because trying to start World War III is crazy. I mean, we’re all agreed on that, right? Not even Reagan was that crazy. You need to be an entirely different type of crazy to head a major shipping firm…or the aerospace company in charge of building space shuttles. Ruthless Business Tycoon crazy is not Try To Take Over the World crazy unless your name is Lex Luthor. You need to be…let’s call it “Goldfinger crazy.” Most of Bond’s post-Goldfinger villains have been plain ol’ stark raving mad.
With Moonraker the series officially Godwins itself. Our Villain, Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), is an ex-Nazi in all but name – secretly hiding out in South America, planning to scare up some lebensraum for his new space-based Master Race by nerve gassing the rest of us from orbit. Nevermind you’d need way more gas than Drax has manufactured to do the job right – I’ve got battered fish to fry. If I were in this movie, I’d ask Drax, “What happens when Russian and America engage the ‘lob nukes first, ask questions later’ fail-safe policies we know they both have, since its 1979 and detente’s about to go the way of the dinosaurs? Your Master Race won’t get too far if the Earth sterilizes them on contact, smart guy.” But what do my mongrel brain and I know?
Well, I know space shuttles aren’t usually transported with full fuel tanks. Yet, here’s the “Moonraker” shuttle, being hijacked in flight by random stowaways. So once again Bond (still Roger Moore) gets to track down a piece of military/industrial hardware you’d think would be big enough to find with satellites, the trail of which leads him around the world, into various run-ins with some manner of female counterpart – in this case CIA Agent Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) – a seemingly-indestructible henchmen (Jaws) and a series of vehicle chases (through Venice and the Upper Amazon). Eventually, Bond confronts the villain, wins, says a quip, and winds up shagging his female counterpart on some exotic means of transportation as the credits roll.
We and everyone involved at Eon productions already knew this going in. And during the Lewis Gilbert era Eon used this knowledge as an excuse. They got sloppy, and this is the sloppiest Bond film to date. We know Drax is a villain by his beard and by the bored, Stock Villain performance Lonsdale turns in. Hard to believe this is the same guy who played the priest in Orson Welles’ The Trial…but then again, he’s a Serious Actor obviously slumming in a “Hollywood” production (payed for by tax-dodging Brits, but details, details).
There was a lot of “slumming” going on at the time. Why, just the year before this movie came out, back on the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios, Marlon Brando was getting $19 million to read his lines off cue cards. That, and tax avoidance, prompted this production to move to France, so there are lots of Anglo-French actors all over this picture, standing in for Drax’s supposedly-Californian staff. That’s probably why so few people actually speak, save Drax’s personal pilot, Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery). What’s this? The villain has a hot babe helicopter pilot? And Bond’s seducing her? Well, she’s obviously Not Long For This World. After all, the villain has to kill someone so we all know how bad he is…other than by Evil Beard, of course.
With Corinne’s death, the entire tone of the film takes a hard right turn. As before, with the various shark- and piranha-based Unreliable Henchpeople Disposal Systems, Gilbert’s camera pans away before we see anything good and gory. But in contrast to those over-designed death traps, this is a simple scene of a woman being run down by hunting dogs for helping a spy snoop through her boss’ stuff. There’s nothing wrong with it (besides the pan away) – in fact, it made me sit up and think I’d misjudged this entire flick. But now that I’ve watched it twice I can see Corinne’s death for the desperate plea it really is. This movie’s leading female character’s name is “Goodhead” and yet with this it begs us to take it seriously. Corrine’s death scene exists to let us know actions have real consequences in this universe…a universe where supervillains manage to construct massive space stations with no one noticing the hundreds of shuttle launches necessary for such a thing. Space stations where the artificial gravity’s strongest in the core and weakest out by edges, exactly the reverse of how it should be…and was in “serious” sci-fi movies ten years older than this one. One dead girl can’t make up for all that. And besides, by now we know the first girl Bond sleeps with in a film is doomed – doomed! That’s been true for over ten years as well, by this point.
So seventy-five percent of Moonraker is a route, mechanical exercise in sending the Third Bond through the same Formula the producers once gave Roald Dahl. From California and Corrine, Bond goes to Venice and a glass factory…with a secret nerve gas lab in the back. Protected by a door that can only be opened by playing the tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind on its keypad. (This is how the Bond theme wound up in The Goonies – FYI.) Yeah, I can take this movie seriously, no problem…or I could, if the next scene weren’t so stupid.
Bond steals a vial of liquid from the secret lab, then contacts MI6 to…drag M (still Bernard Lee) and the British Minister of Defense, Sir Gray (Geoffrey Keen), down to Venice, the better to expose the secret lab to them in person. Of course, by this point, Drax has cleaned the whole place up and moved the lab out to Brazil. So Bond called M and Sir Gray down there just to embarrass them with his incompetence. At least this sets up yet another scene of M suggesting Bond take “a leave of absence” and deal with the problem on the sly. Then he gives M the vial of nerve agent for Q to analyze.
If he’d just called Q first, there’d be no need for him to go “on leave” and the pace of the film would be greatly improved. But there’s a Formula and it must be followed to the letter! These trains have to run on time, by God, no matter what it takes to make that happen.
Except the train’s derailed for tension-free chase sequences with strong family resemblances to chases from Live and Let Die and Man with the Golden Gun. There are some decent action beats in each…and I especially like the coffin-based, knife throwing assassin who shows up in Venice for…like…a second…but as set-pieces they stop the story instead of aiding its progression. The chase through the canals, with Bond on a motorized gondola vs. henchmen in more conventional boats, is well-directed…until the very end, when we get another flagrant tone shift with the literal flip of a switch.
This is the movie where Bond’s motorgondola becomes a hovergondola, allowing him to scoot through the plazas at…a brisk, walking pace. This is accompanied by not one, not two, not three, not four…but five “comedic” reaction shots. Including one from the infamous Double-Take Pigeon.
I swear, Special Agent Jinx Johnson is more popular than this bird, making him/her the most universally despised character in the Bond franchise. As if pigeons do double takes naturally. Don’t blame the poor bird, you guys. Blame the guy who ran this shot backward, creating the (transparent) illusion of a double take. Was it you, Gilbert? Or you, editor John Glen-no-relation-to-the-famous-astronaut? I hold you both accountable…but considering how much time we’ll be spending together very shortly, I’m gonna keep a special eye on you, John.
Bond follows the trail to Rio and the destruction of any menace Jaws once possessed. The fight on top of the cable cars is still nice, though less nice now that I’m watching these things in HD and the rear screen projection can stand out so much. The thing about Jaws is, I understand what happened: the producers listened to their fans, which is something movie producers should never, ever do. It doesn’t help. All it does in this case is reduce a once-genuine threat to the Odious Comic Relief. What can I say that hasn’t been said before? Why didn’t I just do this review as a series of questions?
Why is Jaws so indestructible? It didn’t matter back in Spy, when he was just that movie’s Oddjob…but here Jaws lives through shit that would make Daffy Duck shake his head in disbelief. How much rum did he bribe Baron Samadi with, anyway? I guess he can afford it, being an international people-killer. Scaramanga bought himself that sweet island, complete with personalized funhouse, so why shouldn’t Jaws be able to afford his own neigh-invulnerability? Even Jack Warner’s old short cartoons had higher dramatic stakes than this…though both used the Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet in the pretty much the same way, so maybe the parallels are intentional.
No surprise, after years of toys, comic books and TV showings, quite a few children became Bond fans throughout the 60s and 70s. And for a variety of reasons (“he’s awesome” “he’s indestructible “he don’t take no shit from no one”) children loved Jaws. I don’t know if that would’ve amused Fleming or horrified him. He was an elitist…but he wrote an original treatment for Moonraker: The Movie back in the mid-50s and spent the middle period of his career trying to bring Bond out to as wide an audience as possible. Full of contradictions, that man. Like his protagonist…He always seemed to hate it when people called Bond a “hero.”
Dr. Agent Goodhead, though, actually is a hero, thanks to her remaining somewhat competent throughout the entire adventure…despite her inevitable kidnapping. (At least it occurs off-screen…meaning Bond is the second “secret” agent Drax captured that day. Sweet Jesus, there’s nothing “secret” about these people.) Props to her for not getting knocked out in a single punch and for going upside people’s heads with gas cans when the need arises. Plus her day job’s at NASA, so she can be the pilot when Bond stows away on one of Drax’s space shuttles, an hour and a half into the two hour movie. Because Bond can rattle on and on about military hardware, fine dining, games of chance, international super assassins, the “proper” ways to make or consume booze, and obscure poisonous orchids from the depths of the rainforest…but fly a space shuttle? All by himself? That would be just plain damn unrealistic.
Besides, the shuttle gets to Drax’s station on autopilot, so that’s convenient…I guess Agent Dr. Goodhead’s pretty superfluous, really…until the very end, when she files the shuttle so Bond can shoot down the few nerve gas pods Drax managed to eject. It’s all I can do not to scream, “Use the Force, James!” during this scene, as his targeting computer tries and fails to lock on to the final bomb. What would Fleming have thought of James Skywalker?
Actually, with all the grandiose music and zero-gravity wirework, it plays more like a 2001 cash-in than a Star Wars cash-in…until the climactic “laser” battle. Because the U.S. of this universe totally had space-based Marine Corps units with laser cannons and rocket packs. In 1979! Why not? The British Intelligence Service has exploding bandoleers and wrist-mounted dart guns. Aerospace billionaires have space stations and radar jamming devices. Why not end on a big laser battle? It’s certainly paced better than the underwater fight from Thunderball.
I’m not saying I can’t take any of this seriously. The film has to meet me half way by either picking a consistent tone or being really, really clever with its tone shifts. Moonraker fails on both counts where every previous Bond film succeeded to at least some degree. Even the worst of them were consistent, taking themselves and their overall badness too damn seriously. Moonraker can’t even decide what it wants us to take seriously within the same damn scene.
Example: after sneaking out of the secret lab with a shirt pocket full of Insta-Kill, Bond has a fight with international akido instructor Toshiro Suga (playing Drax’s chief bodyguard, Chang) in the lobby of that Venetian glass factory…which is also a glassware museum. It’s a well-staged fight, well-shot and well-executed…if you can ignore Chang’s monumentally stupid decision to attack Bond with a kendo sword (possibly the least-lethal sword in existence, next to a toy lightsaber). Or his decision to swing for the glassware, rather than the superspy he’s supposed to be killin’. The fight moves up into a clock tower (because European buildings have those) and Bond tosses Chang through the clock-face. Since there’s a full dinner concert going on in the street below, Chang takes a header into a grand piano. Instead of cracking the thing (and himself) in half, Chang’s head punches through the piano, exiting the other side in a shower of wires and sawdust. Hey, just like a cartoon, right? Bond tops all this off by misquoting Casablanca (where no on ever said, “Play it again, Sam”), endangering his Classic Film Lover’s street cred.
You see what I mean? The problem isn’t that Bond goes into space. That doesn’t even happen until the last act and, frankly, the space stuff is stronger than the Earth-bound adventure that set it up. This movie’s problems are systematic, almost as if Eon assembled everything weak about their previous efforts. Once again, the boring, one-note villains are overwhelmed by Ken Adam’s glorious sets, the self-conscious-humor-to-self-conscious-thrills mix is all out of whack, and the overall movie’s a limp repeat of at least two previous films.
So yes, it is one of the worst Bond movies ever made, though not for the superficial reasons most people pick out. If this is the kind of thing screenwriter Christopher Wood turns in when he’s flying solo, it’s no wonder Richard Maibaum returned two years later, attempting to salvage what was left of Bond as the series jumped feet-first into that darkest of Dark Times: the 1980s.