AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 121 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A Drax Industries Moonraker space shuttle on loan to the UK is hijacked in mid-air and agent 007 is assigned to investigate. He proceeds to the Drax Industries shuttle-manufacturing complex in California where he meets the owner of the company, Hugo Drax, as well as Dr. Holly Goodhead, an astronaut. Bond is later aided by Drax’s personal pilot, Corinne Dufour, as he finds blueprints for a glass vial made in Venice, but Drax has her killed. Bond again encounters Goodhead in Venice where he discovers a secret biological laboratory, and by accidentally poisoning the scientists there, learns that the glass vials are to hold a nerve gas deadly to humans, but harmless to animals….
I’ve always said that the sillier, fantastical Bonds have as much right to exist as the serious, realistic ones, and I’m going to go further than that: Moonraker, which for many years was regarded by many as the worst film in the series but seems to have slightly grown in reputation [it’s now Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With The Golden Gun, Octopussy and A View To A Kill which folk tend to express more dislike for] is one of Roger Moore’s best 007 films. I even feel it improves on The Spy Who Loved Me. That film was basically a remake of You Only Live Twice, and most don’t seem to mind that, yet Moonraker is often criticised for rehashing The Spy Who Loved Me. That film, while often ridiculous, still seemed to be a little restrained by common sense: Moonraker just bursts free and takes off in a glorious haze of silliness and excess. Indeed excess is perhaps the best word to describe the film: excess of action, excess of goofiness, excess of spectacle, excess of locations etc. As with most of Moore’s Bonds, there are a few jokey moments which go too far, but some things which even in – say – Live And Let Die may have seemed too stupid, seem more at home in the world of Moonraker. It’s meant to be nothing than great glossy escapism on an enormous scale – and it certainly succeeds in being that. While even I will admit it still doesn’t quite measure up to most of the 60’s Bonds in quality, it’s possibly the Bond film I’ve watched most. Of course it’s not Ian Fleming’s Bond, but neither really was Dr. No.
Fleming actually based his England-set 1954 novel about a maniac out to destroy London with a rocket on a screenplay he wrote, but attempts to set it up failed. For Your Eyes Only was intended to follow The Spy Who Loved Me until Star Wars came out. Tom Mankiewicz and director Lewis Gilbert wrote a story which totally ignored Fleming [ though bits made their way into Die Another Day and Quantum Of Solace] except for the villain’s name and Bond imprisoned under a rocket. Christopher Wood’s script discarded two action scenes: a jet escape pre-credits sequence and an Eiffel Tower chase which later turned up in Octopussy and A View To A Kill respectively, though he resurrected a museum fight cut from The Spy Who Loved Me. A few jokes were also cut, notably Barbara Bach’s Anya appearing in bed with KGB head General Gogol. James Mason was considered for Hugo Drax until punitive taxes forced Eon to base Moonraker in France’s Épinay and Boulogne-Billancourt studios near Paris, thereby requiring more use of French actors, Pinewood being used only for a few effects shots. The huge production was also shot in Venice, California, Rio De Janiero, Guatemala, and Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre where the space battle holds the world record for the largest number of zero gravity wires in one scene. During the first four takes of the scene in which the gondola converts into a hovercraft and elevates out of the water, Moore fell into the water and had to have his silk suit replaced for each take. It was fortunate that the stunt worked during the fifth take because he was wearing the last available suit. Stuntman Richard Graydon nearly fell to his death whilst filming the cable car scene. Some hasty re-writing was required when it was decided that Jaws would become a good guy due to huge fan mail from kids, while some scenes set in Drax’s Amazon jungle base and space station were cut. Moonraker is still the highest grossing Bond film ignoring inflation.
The sheer idiocy [and impossibility] of having a fully fuelled space shuttle on the back of a Boeing plane is evident, but then you can’t say that Moonraker doesn’t warn you right from the offset what it’s going to be like. The sky-diving fight that follows, a scene which required 88 jumps because only a few seconds of film could be shot per jump, and originally planned to climax The Spy Who Loved Me’s opening teaser, has perhaps been bested by later films, notably Point Break, and Moore is oddly stiff throughout, but it’s still an eye-popping, vertiginous sequence. Some of Maurice Binder’s classiest titles: parachuted women rain down in lines, nude tumblers vault the moon, a flying girl turns into a plane – are accompanied by one of the most beautiful of Bond theme songs, a lovely romantic John Barry melody sung in more restrained fashion than normal by Shirley Bassey. After the usual mission setting, here given a sad twist because Bernard Lee, whose last film this was, is visibly ill, Bond first goes to Drax’s factory and chateau in California, and for a while Moonraker really is one classic scene after another: Bond’s vague double entendres [his sexist, smutty attitude to every woman he meets is hilarious though wouldn’t fly today] made so by Moore’s delivery and expression [love him or loath him, he’s so good at this], Bond in the centrifuge [astronaut training spinner] which may be Thunderball’s traction machine reworked but ends with Moore’s Bond really shaken for a change, Bond at a pigeon-shooting gallery killing a sniper [“You missed Mr. Bond”. “Did I”?], Corinne Dufour, Drax’s pilot who’s seduced by Bond, chased and killed by Dobermans in the most disturbing kill in a Moore Bond, made oddly more so by the lush filming and Corinne’s white dress.
Over to Venice and it’s here things slip a bit. While Bond showing M and the Minister of Defence into Drax’s Venetian lab only to find it completely changed [Drax’s brilliant line to his gas mask wearing visitors: “You must excuse me gentlemen, not being English I find your sense of humour rather difficult to follow”] is hilarious, the gondola [which becomes a speedboat and a hovercraft] chase quickly degenerates into gooning and surely breaks a rule in us not being told it has certain modifications, and the double-taking pigeon as the hovercraft chugs through St. Mark’s square is too much, yet I always laugh at these scenes so I can’t complain too much. Action scene follows scene [could this be the most action packed Bond?], and if one doesn’t quite work than the next one probably does. Bond darts about from place to place discovering a clue which will tell him where next to go, and he does rely too much on gadgets [dart firing wrist watch, handglider coming out of speedboat, etc] to get him out of tight spots, but at least he does some proper spying for once, and when everything switches to space, the point where many feel the film really loses it [and to be fair Albert R. Broccoli’s claim about it being not science fiction but “science fact” is quite daft – for example the space station may have a radar jamming system but how did Drax get it up there without it being noticed in the first place?], but the flight into space is an incredible scene with Barry’s incredible music, evoking the awe, mystery and beauty of outer space, adding greatly to the still striking visuals [the revealing of the station is magnificent]. The space laser battle is disappointingly short [and how the hell did the American astronauts get there so quickly], and Bond’s chasing of the nerve gas capsules just isn’t exciting enough – but all is forgiven with the best Bond double entendre ever, Q explaining: “I think he’s attempting re-entry sir” as pictures of Bond and Holly are beamed to the White House and Buckingham Palace.
Perhaps the most disappointing set piece is the cable car fight with Jaws. The similar scene in Where Eagles Dare shows how thrilling such a scene can be, but here it’s over in a few seconds and burdened further by terrible back projection, glaring examples of which also exist elsewhere in a film which otherwise is technically superb, the model space craft especially looking impressive even in these days of endless CGI. The whole film is generally magnificent to look at, Jean Tournier often tending to lens the locales in slight soft focus which adds to the feeling of glamour and is totally appropriate to the slightly unreal feel and approach of this decidedly non hard-edged Bond film. Gilbert constantly pulls back from the mayhem, emphasising the scale and the spectacle. Drax’s lair inside a Mayan temple is a wonderful conceit, though perhaps the only time when Ken Adam’s interiors aren’t unbelievably plush and ornate. Meanwhile the plot, if hard to focus on due to the constant chases, fights [the best taking place in a museum and ending with a line from Bond which certainly wouldn’t make it in a modern Bond film: “Play it again San”, as his opponent, Drax’s kendo assistant Chang, crashes through a clock and into the piano at a concert being performed below], does progress satisfyingly, the various clues all fitting together nicely. Yes, Drac’s plan to kill all humans with a nerve gas made from a flower, and then re-populate Earth with a master race is outlandish, but this is Moonraker, not From Russia With Love. I blow hot and cold on Jaws finding a girlfriend and changing sides. Their first meeting set to part of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo And Juliet [The Magnificent Seven and even the first five notes of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind are heard elsewhere] is just mawkish, but their final scene is genuinely cute.
Moore never gets to show Bond’s dark side here, though he does get to do possibly Bond’s quickest seduction ever [three notches on his bedpost here and it would have been four if that air hostess hadn’t pulled out a gun]. He’s generally fine in his comedy Bond mode. Chiles projects both intelligence and sexiness as astronaut/CIA agent Holly though her relationship with Bond is a weak rehash of Bond and Anya [though probably the only instance where The Spy Who Loved Me is better]. Michael Lonsdale is a magnificent villain, exuding arrogance yet also class, and delivering his often wonderful lines [“Your country’s one indisputable contribution to western civilisation, afternoon tea”, “Look after Me. Bond, see that some harm comes to him”] in a chillingly precise fashion. Barry scored Moonraker when his music was becoming more sedate and string heavy, but his laid-back approach – which completely ignores the humour – works when set against the lush look of the picture. With little reliance on the James Bond theme, and not much use of his gorgeous Moonraker theme, he composed a diverse score with different themes for most of the scenes. 007 returns in a slow arrangement for the Amazon boat chase but then the sequence is hardly thrilling anyway. Likewise the space battle gets a slow march backing, but due to its setting it’s a mostly leisurely sequence in the first place. A wordless chorus is nicely used for the space flight and the atmospheric, haunting ‘siren’ scene where Bond is lured to the Mayan pyramid. A non-stop parade of gorgeous locations, crazy stunts, unbelievable gadgets, lovely women, funny quips; Moonraker is big, bold and often actually rather beautiful. It’s a fine James Bond film. Honestly.