Published on October 22nd, 2015 | by Greg Payne0
Moonraker: Shuttle Disaster
Multizillionaire aerospace industrialist Hugo Drax plans to exterminate humankind with nerve gas from space, then repopulate the planet with a few dozen underwear models, because of course he does. Bond, originally sent to track down a missing space shuttle, teams up with CIA agent-slash-astronaut Holly Goodhead to foil his plans.
Title Sequence & Bond Theme
After the completion of a mission in Africa, Bond is homeward bound on a private plane and rounding third base with a flight attendant, when she and the captain reveal themselves to be holdover enemy agents. Chucked out of the plane, Bond wrestles a parachute away from the pilot only to be set upon by Jaws, the towering henchman from the last movie who’d been apparently hiding in the toilet since the plane took off. The aerial acrobatics make up what is inarguably the best stunt sequence in the movie, undercut by goofy sound effects and endless gurning by the actors.
For the eponymous title track, the producers brought back Shirley Bassey for her third go-round, though this easy-listening theme song can’t come close to the brassy power of the iconic “Goldfinger,” no matter how much they try. Even “Diamonds Are Forever” packs more punch than this drone.
The Villain And Their Plan
Retaining the name and nationality but not much else from the Fleming novel, our main baddie is Hugo Drax, played with bored banality by Anglo/French actor Michael Lonsdale, who couldn’t muster up the energy to maintain a French accent while playing a Frenchman. Rich beyond belief, Drax transported a French château brick by brick to California so he could live in comfort near his aerospace plant, and has extensive holdings in Venice and Rio, amongst other places. Contracted to build the space shuttle for NASA, Drax has been assembling six more for himself on the side, as well as a space station hidden in orbit by its radar jamming capabilities. From there, he plans to fire fifty globes of toxic nerve gas derived from a rare Amazonian orchid at the Earth, wiping out all human life and leaving the planet an empty Eden in which he can breed his master race. (I hope you’re taking notes, because this is where it gets weird…)
Even considering that Drax is presented as an industrialist and not a super genius, the degree to which inane plotting requires him to sabotage his own plans is sort of astounding. He might well have succeeded with his plot, if he hadn’t ordered one of his shuttles stolen from the RAF and drawn MI-6 into an investigation. When Bond asks him why, Drax replies simply that one of his own “had developed a fault.” I would have loved to hear that conversation between Drax and his underlings:
“Smithers? When the shuttle is being piggypacked on the 747 from California to England via Yukon airspace [yes, really], it’s fully loaded with fuel, right?”
“Yes sir, though that makes no sense at all from a transport standpoint, it is. Why?”
“I need to steal it back.”
“Really? You’ve got all these others…”
“Well, one of them has developed a fault.”
“A fault? How big? Can it be repaired? Are we looking at buggered avionics or a cracked drinks holder? Are you sure this isn’t something you can just, you know, fix?”
“Does it matter? Just set it up, would you? We’ve got a couple of leather-jacketed Mafioso thug types who can fly the most complex aircraft known to man on standby, right?”
“Sigh. I’ll get on it. It’s gonna bring the Secret Service down on us, but fine. If you don’t want to replace that one circuit board, I guess we have no choice.”
When MI-6 sends Bond to “investigate” the loss of the shuttle, Drax puts on a menacing show with his Doberman Pinschers then immediately orders him killed, because nothing gets intelligence agencies to conclude that nothing’s amiss like violently killing one of their agents on your property. For this he dispatches his manservant Chang, who in typical sensitive seventies cinema style is a Chinese assassin played by a Japanese actor with the Johnny Ramone haircut so beloved by hapkido movies of the era. Which leads to the movie’s Weirdest Moment (see below).
California, although except for an establishing shot at LAX, the California scenes were largely shot in France (see Château, relocation of in the Villain section above). In fact, much of the soundstage work was done across the Channel on the largest sets ever constructed in the country at that point, due to a prohibitively high tax situation in England, making Moonraker the first of two Bond films (the other was License to Kill) with little to no filming done at Pinewood Studios. Then Venice, then Rio and the Amazon jungle. And outer space, I guess.
Now being issued as standard equipment is a wristwatch gun activated Spider-Man web shooter style by nerve impulses. It has a huge and not-easily concealable barrel and fires either explosive-tipped or cyanide-tipped darts, apparently at random as we’re never shown Bond adjusting the settings, though he always seems to get the one he needs. He’s somehow apparently wearing two wristwatches throughout the film, as he later escapes from one hot situation using a remote plastique detonator hidden in his regular Seiko. There’s also a hang-glider that’s concealed in the structure of a speedboat, almost as if Q Branch fully expects the Amazon chase to run into a waterfall at some point.
Most Inappropriate/Politically incorrect Moment
Bond checks into his hotel in Rio, and already shaking a martini at the in-room bar (it may be an age of austerity back in the Motherland, but 007 has been put up in a hotel where, on a clear day, you can almost see the bedroom from the door, so of course it’s got its own bar) is Manuela, field agent from Station VH. She feeds Bond one clue, then sits next to him on the couch and smiles slyly as he undoes her belt. Probably the fastest seduction in the franchise, and simultaneously one of the creepiest, as one has to wonder what special requests MI-6 made of their Brazilian sister organization for a welcoming party.
After Bond pitches Chang out a window in Venice, there is actually a scene where Drax is on the phone to, one presumes, a fellow member of the Royal Megalomaniac Society, asking if he’s got any suggestions for a replacement henchman, and is glad to hear that Jaws is on the market. The sequence suggests a bizarre community of psychotic billionaires who share a mimeographed phone list of gimmicky hired killers, and none of whom are bothered by the fact that their buddies are probably plotting to eliminate them in a nuclear genocide. That Drax has heard of Jaws implies that he knows about Stromberg’s plan from the previous movie and not only is he not terribly perturbed (perhaps that’s where he got his own inspiration) he’s also willing to hire the hulking lug who was so ineffective the last time around. And it’s a winning choice, as Jaws goes on to completely not kill Bond a few more times before the climax.
“Look after Mister Bond. See that some harm comes to him.” Followed by a slight sigh.
How Good Is It Really?
I should have great sentimental attachment to Moonraker for one simple reason: it was my first Bond film. It was actually a pretty grand occasion, as I was being allowed to stay up until 11:30PM that Saturday night, back when the Bond flicks got fairly regular play on American network TV. I’d heard of the movie, but I’m sure I thought it was just another space-based actioner. Had to be, right? It even inspired a trading card series, of which I had a handful (“DRAX’S DREAM…UP IN SMOKE!” breathlessly read one caption, if memory serves), just like Star Wars had. I’m pretty sure I loved it, and why not? It had skydiving and a screaming martial artist, a wrist-shooter and laser guns, and the climax involves a huge battle in space and the bad guy getting sucked out of an airlock. Face it: to an eight year old, Moonraker is the tits.
Any older than that though, especially if you’ve voraciously consumed the rest of the series and done more than your share of outside homework as any self-respecting Bond adept has, Roger Moore’s fourth outing seems more and more like the utter nadir of the franchise, especially when considering the concurrent arc of behind the scenes drama. Moore’s second outing, The Man With The Golden Gun, had underperformed, and even at the time seemed cheap-looking and ill-conceived. There then followed the longest gap ever in the series up to that point, a three year lull in which Harry Saltzman sold his ownership in the property and Cubby Broccoli realized that it was time to go big or go home. And resulting film, The Spy Who Loved Me, was worth the wait box-office wise. It held its own against Star Wars in the summer of 1977, found a better balance between sadism and humour and for the first time in the series really felt like an epic adventure. Never mind the fact that plot-wise it was essentially a remake of You Only Live Twice, helmed by the same director, only with a duller villain.
For Your Eyes Only was meant to the be the next film down the pike, but the bonanza of the aforementioned George Lucas epic turned Broccoli’s head enough that he decided that Bond would be heading into space next. And that’s where, apparently, the effort stopped, because if Goldfinger had been the film in which the pieces of the Bond formula all fell into place, Moonraker is where they absolutely ossified.
The screenplay by Christopher Wood hits every formulaic beat with a dull thud, and its stunning laziness is matched by Lewis Gilbert’s slack direction. Bond is given his mission, then some Q Branch goodies, then flies to Location Number One to meet the guy that everyone in the audience has already sussed is the villain. And so on. Let’s not overlook the fact that as ugh as the seventies were from a fashion standpoint, the bland earth tones, mustards and beiges that make up this film’s colour palette must have seemed like a bait-and-switch for an audience expecting sleek science fiction blacks and silvers. Thus, scene after scene consists of our leathery lead actor meandering across a room wearing tan slacks and a navy blazer, finding one clue, being attacked by an ineffective henchman and then jetting to the next location. In 1987, Time magazine described the latter part of Moore’s tenure in the role as “a travelogue with a smirk,” and the description was never more apropos than it is here.
That is, if anyone could even get up the effort to smirk. A View To A Kill is equally inane, but at least the actors in that one are swinging for the fences, which at least lends it some goofball watchability. Moonraker is steeped in the feeling of a production just going through the motions, and taking its audience for granted, and the performances play like shrugging afterthoughts. As Drax, Michael Lonsdale has been described charitably as understated, though he more accurately borders on catatonia. This year’s ridiculously monikered Bond girl, barely played by Lois Chiles, smiles blandly a lot and substitutes mild bemusement for any kind of required emotion. For a story ostensibly about stopping the possible extermination of the human race, virtually nobody in the film ever seems to really give a crap. As he’s heading towards the cockpit of one of the Moonraker shuttles to blast into space, at no point does Bond seem to recognize the fact that he’s going into effing orbit! His entire journey to Drax’s orbiting station evinces the exact same facial expressions that emerge when he’s surreptitiously trailing someone in his car. There’s sang froid, and then there’s phoning it in.
It literally took me four evenings to slog through my Moonraker rewatch for the purposes of this article; any more than half an hour at a time made me start to nod off (or I’d get to the scene in Venice with the tricked out gondola and the pigeon that does the double take, and I’d have to resist the urge to throw the remote at the screen). When I’m marathoning the series, as I do every couple of years, there’s always one bright spot to this misbegotten space epic. Realizing that, despite the record-breaking box office of the movie, they had perhaps strayed a bit too far into fantastical silliness, the production team reined it in for the next movie and finally gave Roger Moore a genuinely thrilling spy adventure in which to strut his stuff as 007. For Your Eyes Only works, partly because Broccoli and co. brought things back down to earth, but possibly also because they seemed to care again.
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