Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Not That Bad: 

Moonraker

 

The Movie:

Up until the release of License to Kill in 1989, it was universally accepted that the worst James Bond movie was Moonraker (Die Another Day holds that title now and if you’ve seen the movie you don’t need me to explain why). Moonraker was a movie that was certainly a product of its era. Some James Bond movies are that way and don’t hold up as well as others (License to Kill and Live and Let Die probably a couple others I can cite as examples of being dated as well) and in the case of Moonraker it reflects the space-obsessed 1970s. Star Wars was out, space exploration was becoming pretty popular, the space shuttle program with NASA was underway, people loved that stuff so the Bond producers set out to make their own “James Bond space movie” as a result. It quickly became known as the worst of the bunch.

Also, before you say Never Say Never again is also the worst, you can read this old article I wrote last year (and the thing that inspired this new series). It’s not. It’s pretty awesome, actually, but this is about another notorious Bond movie, not that one.

Even before the internet existed and we all kind of culled opinions on this, I always remember hearing how Moonraker was just awful when I was in my teens - the ripe age to get into anything James Bond. There were always James Bond movie marathons on television growing up and people rolled their eyes at Moonraker, the late Moore-era Bond movies and anything Timothy Dalton. By that point the franchise was renewed with Goldeneye and I guess people started to talk about the series again. Moonraker and License to Kill were anointed the worst of the worst.

Bond movies are reactionary in their design, sometimes to the trends of whatever decade they came from, sometimes to other Bond movies, but in the case of Moonraker the intent to “cash in” on a popular 70s sentiment feels incredibly obvious but producers being opportunistic is nothing new. But it paid off, released in June of 1979 the movie grossed over 200 million worldwide despite mixed reviews from critics, some enjoying it and its absurdity, others feeling that absurdity was taken a step or two or three too far and James Bond spiraled into just being “goofy." We'll get to terminology at the end of all this.

I’ve marathoned (not a word) the James Bond movies numerous times, and I’ve always enjoyed reading people’s opinions on them. I love the series greatly because there's not a lot of films like them. Many imitators, few duplicators. I feel that, in general, most people love most James Bond movies and the differences are pretty negligible in their views. The best include about five or six movies, the best themes about three and the worst only one. Again, Die Another Day - a movie that won’t get looked at on this series because I can’t find a reason to have a discussion about it other than "hey, that swordfight was kind of neat."

When it came to Moonraker, I never really sat down to just take it in for what it is. I’ve always just assumed it was one of the bad ones and actually put off watching it for years until I bought the DVD set a decade ago, then rewatched it again when I bought the BluRay collection just this past year. I started to see it in context to the other Bond movies, but also just as a movie on its own and how it goes up against other movies of its era, other action spy thrillers and how it was all crafted together from a filmmaking standpoint. After all, this Bond movie was directed by Lewis Gilberg who also did You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me - two extremely good Bond movies, and was written by Christopher Wood who also wrote The Spy Who Loved Me - considered Roger Moore’s best Bond movie and I probably wouldn’t argue that.

The fact this movie came off of Spy Who Loved Me flick probably didn’t help matters either, it too made a ton of money but was highly praised and, mostly, pretty grounded with little fantasy spy stuff happening (and why it also has aged pretty well, similar to a From Russia With Love or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Moonraker was the antithesis of that. Well, except the money part because it Moonraked in the dough. "Moonraked"...ungh, I already hate myself.

 

 

Then again, some of the puns in this movie are about as good of quality.

 

So Moonraker had the players involved. It was a financial success. It had ok reviews. Yet for decades I always heard it was one of the worst and people seem to stick by that. Is it? Let’s look at what is often said about it first:


 

The Common Complaints:

What are the common things people bring up when they sit around and talk about the movie? From my experience and research, these are:

 

It’s Outlandish and Absurd and way too Comedic

There’s a certain threshold when it comes to James Bond movies on how far in either direction people will accept - too serious isn't always welcome and too light and fluffy isn't either. The series ranges from the very straightforward and serious thrillers to something pretty cartoonish. In the case of Moonraker, it’s pretty cartoonish. There are rather silly, pun-filled moments in a good chunk of Bond movies, especially during the Roger Moore era of Bond with Moonraker coming out at the height of his and Bond's popularity. Most of the time, we’re able to accept it. A self-reference here, a meta-joke there, a ridiculous gadget or unrealistic stunt at the time…it was the way the series was. Not all the time, mind you, but by the late 70s it was what it was known for.

However in the case of Moonraker, many feel it goes overboard even by Moore-era Bond standards - something so ridiculous, light-hearted and often cartoony of it all that it takes you right out of it. I would add in that with such a light tone that it ends up hurting the sense of risk and overshadowing the threat at hand in situations Bond finds himself in and undermines the villain, Drax, and his plot to pretty much kill of the planet and begin a new civilization. Who cares when you have comedy, right?

 

 

Well, you’re going to care after a while when we have a movie full of a ton of sight gags, double takes (including this pigeon), one-liners and out-of-place music cues. This movie was built on the idea of being a farce first, Bond movie second.


Moonraker does go overboard with it. There’s no denying that. But does it hurt the movie as a result? I suppose it depends on what you want to take out of it. If you go into Moonraker understanding its intentional (an important term here) tone and approach to the material, then you’ll probably leave satisfied. But if you’re wanting something with a little more gravitas or, at the very least, a little bit of balance to the Bond formula where we have that comedy and absurdity but leveled nicely against drama and character, you’re not going to really get that. This isn’t From Russia With Love. It’s not even For Yours Eye Only where Bond picks up a wheelchair-bound Blofeld with a helicopter and drops him into a smokestack while Blofeld essentially screams “Curses to you, James Bond!" It’s a silly script full of silly even by silly James Bond standards.

But it's not "dumb." That's the thing. It's simply cartoonish and silly. There's a difference between something being "dumb" and not caring about its own material, story or characters and something that  does care and simply has a good time with it. You don't need to approach Moonraker with "well it's stupid so I have to treat it like a stupid movie." The storytelling, action and overall plot, as cartoonish as it is, isn't that. This movie knows what it's doing and just runs with it. People say "dumb" as an excuse a lot of times to say "it's a dumb movie, just have fun" but that's not really making a point - it's saying "lower your standards." Moonraker isn't that - it's kind of proof that a movie can be totally fun and you may not have to think a lot about it, but it doesn't have to be dumb while doing so.

So yeah, it’s 100% ridiculous, but if you’re game and understand its approach, then you’ll have a good time. If not, and believe me I understand why you don’t want to see a goofy Bond movie because you might want a little more than that, then you won’t. Yes, it's hard to take seriously, but it's not trying to be serious in the first place. So this complaint is kind of a push for me as I've found myself on both sides of that fence across countless films. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a Moonraker, sometimes I’m not and will pop in a Living Daylights  or a Casino Royale.

Ok...puppet snake was pretty dumb in that "insulting the audience" kind of way, though. More on that soon.

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Jaws Has a Love Interest. Wait, what?

Jaws is, I believe, the only recurring villain outside of Blofeld in the Bond movies and he wasn’t even really a villain. He was a henchman, showing up in the previous film, The Spy Who Loved Me, and re-employed by the new villain, Drax, for Moonraker. Jaws is immediately recognizable, played by giant-character-actor Richard Kiel, with metal teeth that can bite through anything. I mean, he killed a lot of people just by biting them and, it’s implied, he rips their throats out like some gargantuan metal-tooth vampire. He says nothing, his presence says it all.

In Moonraker, Jaws starts up as that henchman again…but then he meets Dolly and falls in love with her about mid-way through the movie after he is foiled by Bond yet again. When the two of them are in their final moments at the end of the film, Jaws is magically reformed as a good guy and helps Bond beat the bad guys because he actually wants to save Dolly. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, or something like that, and…

…you know what, that’s all I have to say. Essentially Moonraker took this menace of a man and made him into a bit of a goof. Then again, that’s Moonraker - a big goofy Bond movie. Bond himself changes from film to film at times, but this is pretty drastic in terms of what makes the character identifiable, and Jaws is no longer that mean indestructible guy, he’s a puppy dog that lost his way. Is it bad that Moonraker gave him an “arc” and tried to make him a good guy?

No. It’s not. What Moonraker screwed up is that they didn’t just go with a new henchman in the first place that can fit the role and, instead, shoehorned Jaws back into the mix. Bond can change, we kind of expect that, but to see another character change is kind of jarring. M never changes Q never changes. Moneypenny never changes. Jaws changed big time.

If you’re going to bring Jaws back to just do Jaws stuff, then all you’re doing is retreading the previous film. So, naturally, the writers wanted to give him more to do.  They simply shouldn’t have brought the guy back and start from scratch, that way you can get away with some big goon just being a big goon. No love interest. No arc. Nothing, just serves his purpose.

 

 

 Actually he doesn't kill anyone in this movie...also great line, James. Great line.

 

So what we have is a supporting character now that, quite honestly, takes away from the rest of the plot. You're no longer paying attention to Bond or Drax really, because now you're invested in Jaws and you shouldn't be invested in Jaws. I love Jaws. I love Richard Kiel. But for the sake of what this movie needed to focus on and achieve, it’s entirely unnecessary and was probably best to just leave it all behind.

But we're not done with Jaws just yet because...

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Jaws is Essentially Wile E Coyote

He falls from a plane, crashes from a gondola, gets repeatedly punched and shot, falls off a waterfall from a speeding boat and eventually crashes onto planet earth from an escape pod (we assume). All this while throwing in various puns and spit-takes and silly music cues. I half expected Jaws, at some point, to run off a cliff, linger in mid-air for a brief second, hold up a sign that said "Help!" then fall. As if tossing in the love interest wasn't enough…

Jaws went from a formidable presence in The Spy Who Loved Me to the most cartoonish thing in a movie kind of full of cartoonish things. He appears in the opening, he's in an alley in Rio (a great, menacing scene, actually), he's on a gondola fighting, he's on the river, he's in Drax's secret lair and eventually in space where he has a change of heart and ends up siding with Bond. He's in the movie almost as much as Bond is it seems. Hell, he's damn sure in it more than Drax is and Drax is the main villain. 

 


Yet every time it's just played for comedy. There's some exciting action sequences here, but they often end with Jaws just failing at his task, this supposed "great" henchman/hitman character, and Bond getting away. It's repetitive and tiring and I have a damn hard time thinking of anything good to say about it because, if anything, it undermines that "notorious Jaws" mystique that this movie and the previous movie spun. If he's so good...why is he constantly failing?

If Jaws was in, say, one or two of the those moments and the others just straightforward action sequences then I'd be alright on it. Let's look at the speedboat sequence, for example. You have boats. You have a river. You have Bond being chased and a lot of explosions. More importantly is you have Moore in the scene an don location.

Kiel isn't on location. Insert shots of Jaws on the boat are put in with Kiel up against a rear-projection. It looks bad. Really, really bad. It looks bad because everything else is on location, Moore is shot while on the boat speeding away with the river banks in the background. Kiel is in a shot head-on bouncing around and having water tossed in his face. It's utterly jarring and ruins the whole scenario. Don't bother with Jaws here, and you have something great rather than just pretty good.

But they did add him in. They needed the gag at the end, and if all you're going to do is make Jaws a gag at the end of a scene, then you need to rethink having the character in the movie in the first place. That's a sign of not trusting your material but I feel the material would probably have been stronger without Jaws in the first place in many of these sequences. You keep him menacing, you keep the movie moving, you don't have to play it for a laugh every time...it just sounds better.

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Space!

When someone says “Moonraker” that’s usually followed by “you know, the one in space.” That’s the living legacy of the movie - it jumped that shark and sent James Bond into space. Now we’ve established why: the producers saw Star Wars make bank and wanted that Star Money, but the bigger question is whether or not it hurt it in the form of a Bond movie. For most, that answer is either "yes" or "fuck yes." There’s a certain level of suspension of disbelief in the Bond movies, but shooting Bond into space is one that’s hard to swallow.

Yet, Bond going into space only occurs in the final 20 minutes of the movie. Is it fair to write-off the entire flick because they jump that shark at the end?

This is a hard one to figure out because I both agree and disagree with it. So, for here in this section at least, let’s say that I don’t agree with the complaint. The movie is going along as just a regular Bond flick for the most part up until it launches into the stratosphere but only until the final 20-25 minutes. It’s a little goofier and sillier than most Bond movies up to that point already, but it’s still on Earth with Bond fighting, boating and globetrotting to some superb locations (On-location Venice and Rio set pieces are no joke). Suddenly having your climatic set piece in space does give you a bit of whiplash. That doesn’t bother me too much, to be quite honest. It is the finale of the movie, not the whole movie and you can’t write off what is a pretty entertaining and enjoyable movie with just its finale being a sloggy, messy and poorly done sequence.

But should Bond even be in space at all? Even with the constant sense of escalation, should we shoot him up there?

Well, honestly, no. He probably shouldn’t. Underwater? Sure. Top of a mountain? Why not? But there’s something about space that just isn’t right and, let’s face it, presenting anything space-related in any realistic fashion in the 1970s isn’t going to be all that engaging. It kind of dates it almost immediately. 2001 had the luxury of being set in the “future.” Same with Star Trek. Star Wars was pure fantasy. So you needed to somehow reinterpret a way for Bond to have something in space and it feels incredibly shoehorned into the whole thing and screams cash-in.

Which it did. Remember…this thing made a ton of money. We joke now, but those producers knew what they were doing.


 

My Complaints:

It's one thing to just be snarky and hate on the movie, but let's dig a little deeper and take notice of some of the more egregious faults.

 

No Satisfactory End to the Villain

Drax is everything you want a Bond villain to be. He has an absurd plan. He has an awesome name (it has an “X” in it and everything). He has a cool estate and HQ and a bunch of guys working for him. He has Jaws. He puts Bond in peril a ton of times. He has some awesome lines and one great monologue along the way…

…and he goes out like a little bitch.

Talk about uneventful, Drax dies with a whimper. There's no glory here. There's no "gotcha" moment with Bond. It all falls a little flat. This is the type of villain you want to see get blown up in a fiery crash or melted in acid or electrocuted with giant Tesla coils. Instead, Bond opens a door, Drax floats off to space, and we’re done. They couldn’t even shoot a laser at the guy to blow him up.

The lead up goes well to his death scene, though. We get a nice minute, some great lines from Drax and Bond (“Take a giant step back for mankind”) but then he just gently shoves Drax into an airlock and pushes a button. That’s it. That’s kind of boring and there just doesn’t seem to be that sense of “yeah!” like there was in The Man With the Golden Gun’s showdown or the table scene against Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved me. A simple dart to the chest, a shove through a door and a flip of a switch.

 

 

Great line but...eh...


I think it comes down to the whole context of it all not being handled all that well. There’s no real set up or sense of urgency or even threat because it's all taking place during a chaotic space scene with lasers and explosions and we're just given a brief moment in a space hallway with our main villain. It's a juxtaposition that kind of diminishes the part we should really be invested in and pay attention to. It kind of just goes through the motions and doesn’t land those tense beats with that “how is James gonna get out of this one?” question you have in the back of your head. You know he’s going to, sure, but it’s all in how…and the how in Moonraker just sucks.

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Space! Again!

I know, we kind of already covered this, and I argued that the finale and climax is all that it really is, it’s not the entire film. The common argument is that it “jumps the shark” with it, and I can kind of see that.

But my problem isn’t the movie overextending itself to do something silly and absurd, it’s that it’s so damn clunky, slow and messy while doing it.

It’s strange, you have this big battle happening in space, but it lumbers along in a desperate attempt to actually have something interesting happen. Now some of that might have to do with how we lose track of what’s actually happening, then leading up to that lack of satisfaction of the death of the villain as I mentioned, but I think it’s really this:

Space is kind of boring.

 

 

Seriously, what is going on here? It's either a mess of an action sequence or a slow "everybody walk around in slow motion" in the final 20 minutes.

 

Things move slow in space. Seeing as this isn’t quite Star Wars, and they can’t have fast space ships and warp speed, they have to somehow make the action seem interesting. So all we get is that slow pace, a lot of people floating around shooting at each other and…

Wait….ah….it just hit me. This is  “Space Thunderball.”

Ok, a sidebar here. I’m not a fan of Thunderball. I like it fine, I suppose, it’s a good movie for the most part, but the reason why I don’t put it in a top-tier Bond movie is that slow-as-shit action that happens underwater. Space is kind of like being underwater: there’s only so much you can do to make it interesting and “action packed.” People forgive Thunderball for a number of reasons despite that same problem - one that it’s all done practically and isn’t over-the-top, the other being you kind of like Connery more and want to see him kick Largo’s ass. But for me, it’s a problem. I’m not going to lie, every time I watch Thunderball I fast-forward through those underwater scene. They’re dull and boring and move at a snail’s pace. I admire the practicality of it more than actually watching it, shooting underwater is tough, but it doesn’t change the fact it slows the entire picture down.

 

 

"Attention, we're all going to push a button so everybody acts like they just took some tranquilizers. Drax out."

 

The same goes for Moonraker, only in space. It’s moving along nicely then it gets to space it it’s like someone threw a lever that said “let’s screw up this movie” and everyone slowed down to do a bad action scene for the climax. Even when gravity is back, it's a mess of an action sequences. It's hard to know who is where and what is going on. On top of it all it looks dated even for its time. I mean this was 1979. Special effects dealing with space reached a new bar by that point, this was a series trying to latch on to that but just not doing it as well.

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Great Pace, Bad Structure

Moonraker, up until that last scene that I detail just above, moves at a brilliant pace. It never slows down and is incredibly exciting. Lots of Bond doing Bond stuff, sneaking around, solving mysteries, and all strung together with action scene after action scene. I don't know a lot of Bond movies that cram in as much action as Moonraker does, or at least does it as well.

But that comes at a cost: there's no character material whatsoever, no act structure, no sense of purpose to our journey and no suspenseful reveals. The only way they can escalate anything is literally going into outer space and throw lasers into the mix. Not because that feels right but probably because they wrote themselves into a corner and said "Screw it, we're going to space.”

Moonraker is all about escalation, hence why you have littler character stuff for Moore to work with, even littler for the supporting roles and villain, and no second act. It has exposition and action, that's about it and it alternates between the two until it realizes it can't top itself any further and we all kill a bunch of people in space (some of whom, I might point out, weren't "henchmen" or bad guys but simply people Drax thought would be used to repopulate the earth - I don't think any of them picked up a gun or fought back now that I think about it...shit, add another thing to list).

When you have a movie that does nothing but move in one ascending direction, it all kind of whirs together like an osculating fan that drowns everything else out. Now, again, the action is so good you don't notice for the most part, but from a storytelling standpoint you kind of realized that nothing really came as a surprise, you never worried that Bond wouldn't achieve his goal and, thanks to the light tone as well, you never get that sense of risk that some of the best Bond movies have.

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Everyone Else is Secondary to Bond and Jaws

Moonraker is not only Space Thunderball and a Wile E Coyote cartoon, it also doesn't give any moment for any other character. Why bother when you have the Road Runner getting the best of Wile E all the time and play for laughs, right? This is another reason why the structure of the movie is so poor.

Moonraker takes the Jaws V Bond device and treats it as one long-ass joke, getting dumber and dumber as the movie goes on. Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a problem if any other character was at least propped up a little more or made a bit more relevant. Moonraker turns into a movie about these two guys and absolutely nothing else. Drax? Goodhead? M? That lady who’s name I can’t remember and is in it for about five seconds? That other lady that seemed important but got eaten by dogs (We'll get to how this movie treats its women in a moment)? Forget it, because the movie is propped up to be structured around these two guys and events around them and literally nothing else.

It hurts the movie. Not everyone in a Bond movie is going to be memorable or important, naturally, but you at least have a couple more character given a bit more time - especially your lead villain. Oh, Drax has some good moments and some good lines, but he’s far from the memorable type of villain the series is known for and a lot of that is because we spend more time with Bond v Jaws than anything else in the entire film. As cool as the mystery is that Bond is on, it all is an excuse to get a scene with him and Richard Kiel somehow.

No other relationship is developed, making the “beating the bad guy” feel uneventful or “getting the girl” feel out of left field. There’s no time spent with other characters that should be a bigger part of Bond’s story. Bond is often alone, isolated, and Drax and Goodhead kind of show up here and there, but Jaws shows up every other scene almost and he’s not even the coolest henchman in the movie (that would go to Chang, played by Toshiro Suga, and his awesome kendo stick and aikido fight scene with Bond)

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Two quick things...

I need to digress just a moment on two small things that bug me...

1) Bond Fights a Giant Snake

Wait, what?

Ok, Bond has taken on animals in movies before. Hell, in Skyfall, the most recent film as of this writing, he had to deal with a bunch of Komodo dragons that were pets for a casino, so the fact he has to single-handedly take on a puppet snake isn't a big deal, but it's the fact that the movie doesn't even need it.

Moonraker is full of pretty awesome action sequences and Bond fighting a giant snake takes place right after a big boat sequence and right before Drax shows up in the hall where said snake is fought and pretty much says a line about his pet snake only to have Bond through in a one-liner "I thought he had a crush on me."

Ok...I might normally forgive it if all it was there for was to get a Bond-quote quota up, but even then...

So for me, this is kind of a small thing that bugs me only because it's hurting the flow of a damn entertaining movie and feels so unnecessary on top of it looking bad. They could have easily just gone into Drax appearing when Bond arrived and show off the cool Drax HQ. 

 

2) Bond Killed a lot of people By Association

Bond killed some scientists in a lab and those "uber race" folks in space without a lot of cause to...and I'm not sure what to think about that. Usually he takes out obvious bad people but in these two scenes I kind of wonder his line of thinking. I can maybe write off the space people as ambiguous - maybe they made it out. But those scientists flat-out died. No judo-chop knock-outs like he usually does. They were unarmed and he set them up to die what looked like a pretty nasty death.

It was totally unnecessary. Bond finds Drax's lab and the scientists in it and manages to steal a vial of MacGuffin. All he had to do was take that vial and give it to Q for analysis which he TOTALLY DOES RIGHT AFTER. So why set up another vial on a ledge for a scientist to knock over and break? This scene still bothers the holy hell out of me, if not the unnecessary death but the fact that Bond kind of gives himself away that he found out about the lab which leads to Drax moving the lab. 

Again, two small things that just irk me. Sorry...let's get back to those supporting characters

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The Female Characters are Not Only Expendable, but Outright Bad

Moonraker came out a time when the Bond movies weren’t entirely sure what to do with with its female characters. The 60s got away with a lot of male chauvinism because, well, it was the 60s. It just came with the territory. Dated if not outright cringe-worthy now, set in the time it’s typical of a lot of things of that era.

But then along came the 70s. Newsflash: women are people to. How about we stop treating them like shit at every turn? The Bond movies had to change along with it. Sure, you can still have that sexy femme fatale but we need to make sure we aren’t degrading while doing so. Unfortunately, The Bond movies sometimes did that and sometimes didn’t. They were kind of inconsistent, but here’s the thing: even those chauvinistic Bond movies at least gave us memorable female characters. Some strong and empowered while doing so. Some complex. Some tragic. You would think by 1979 that there might have been a little more progress.

 

 ...who the hell were these girls? They constantl crop up but, going by the poster and the promos, you would think they were important. They aren't. They're eye-candy. Again, this was 79, the movie already felt dated in its approach to women.

 

So what we have first off is Holly Goodhead. Yes, those puns are still here. She’s a scientist, don’t you know. She’s smart. Pretty self-reliant. Then the movie just decides to have Bond have sex with her a and her relevance is gone quicker than you can say STD. She’s a CIA operative in secret, yet there’s nothing done with that plot device. Goodhead is our main "Bond Girl" and the movie just seems to forget that she really doesn't need Bond, but instead of playing her up as her own character she just becomes another conquest for Bond to pursue. It's not horrible, she's given some decent things to do, but we also literally know nothing about her.

Then we have two other female characters of note. One is Corinne who Bond seduces rather quickly. But guess what? She’s ripped to shreds by Drax’s dogs for betraying him. Who she was. Whether or not Bond cared she died. The way her whole death scene was handled…boy it’s rough and just uncomfortable as it tosses her into the trash. If this was 1969 I’d say “well…there it is.” But this is 79. We should be past that.

 

 "Hi there. I was propped up as important, but then I got mauled to death by dogs."

 

I can get having a character like Corinne enter the story just to be killed rather early on. It's not unusual for a Bond movie to have that happen and if shows the awfulness of our villain and truth be told her running through the forest being chased by those dogs is hauntingly beautiful. But the way she's treated in the movie just doesn't sit well with me. Her death is unusually cruel and Bond seems to not give a damn. He knows her life is in danger but doesn't really give it a thought.

The other is Manuela, who Bond meets in Rio as his Brazilian contact. It’s too bad that the writers seemed to realize that Goodhead should also be here instead and…well I guess Manuela just had to go away to make room for that. Seriously, the film acts like she’s going to be important in her first few scenes, then she just vanished from the story completely. What the hell happened? Where did she go? At least she wasn’t just another conquest for Bond, but at the same time she might as well been fed to dogs because that’s how well she’s treated as a character.

 

"Hi there. I was also supposedly important but then I...um...had to leave. I guess".

 

It’s astonishing to me how dismissive Moonraker is of every female character, even the “main” one that just decides to have sex with Bond because reasons. It’s bad writing through and through and outright insulting to women, especially as the movie props up Goodhead as a strong person only to have her fall to Bond’s charms so he can gain re-entry. She didn't really need saving, she was strong up to a point but was treated as a piece of meat in the end and by 1979 that’s just inexcusable.

Thankfully the Bond movies after probably realized how dated the whole thing seemed because I can’t think of one that treated its female characters quite as poorly. Hell, the film after this, For Your Eyes Only, had one of the strongest female characters in the franchise - again a sign of how reactionary each Bond film is to the previous Bond film.


 

The Awesome Stuff

It's not all bad, you know...here's some things that people should consider or even re-consider.

 

Those Set Pieces

Moonraker plays itself fast and loose. This isn’t some deeper look into Bond like some of his other movies - it’s essentially a plot strung together by a lot of action sequences, and dare I say it…they’re spectacular and probably some of the best the series ever had.

Except that last one, which we’ve covered. It’s awful.

Let’s start off with with the opening. Bond movies love their action set piece openings, they’re sometimes even better than the rest of the film, and Moonraker has a damn fantastic one with stuntmen jumping out of a plane and fighting over parachutes. Then Jaws shows up, his parachute doesn’t open and he lands on top of a circus tent (setting the tone of the movie along with it).

Then you have a Venice canal chase sequence full of gags and silliness, but all extremely well shot and ends with a canal gondola turning into a hovercraft. It’s a dumb sequence, but fits into the tone of the movie and still well done. Plus it makes a point to show that it's actually Roger Moore in the boat, which is nice.

It occurred to me that we don’t see Bond in an awesome fancy car this go around, which is rare for a Bond movie. He has a fight scene in an ambulance but that’s the closest you get. Everything else is on-foot or in boats.

Then there’s a nicely choreographed fight sequence full of breaking stuff in a museum leading up to a clock tower and ends with one of Bond’s best lines. I read somewhere that it holds the record for most glass objects broken in a film. Fake glass, mind you, but still glass and it seems to balance the slapstick comedic aspect of that glass breaking with Bond in peril against an assassin. 

 

An assassin that got his own somewhat-racist looking trading card, I might add. Another names him "The Savage One" so...there's that too.

 

But the best one takes place in Rio de Janeiro and Sugarloaf Mountain where it’s Bond versus Jaws atop of a couple of cable cars. This whole sequence is incredibly well done and well shot with some damn impressive stuntwork as the cars meet in mid-air. Sure, Kiel and Moore are against a rear-projection, but those far-off shots are real dudes on top of those things choreographing a fight all against the skyline of Rio. It looks gorgeous, at least the on-location stuff. Those rear-projections haven’t aged well, but it’s a tense and very well done scene that unfortunately gets a little undermined at the end when the movie veers into a cartoonish finale.

Then we have another boat sequence on a river. Again, those rear-projects (pretty much just the ones of Richard Kiel because Moore appears to actually be on that river) stand out like a sore thumb, but it’s a pretty cool chase sequence with lots of explosions and a great reveal as Bond turns his boat into a hang glider and takes off pretty much saying “I’m out” as Kiel and company head over a bit waterfall. I love this sequence, also well shot and well edited and seems to go just the right amount of length for what it is.

 

Oops

 

I mean, this movie is jam-packed of action sequences and these are just the big ones. There’s various fight scenes, Bond takes on a python as mentioned, a few with Jaws and lots of judo-chops going on, then there’s some shootouts as well and the final moments which, even though I’m not a big fan of, still count towards all the stuff that’s packed into this thing. What it lacks in a story or plot, which is all bare bones, the movie absolutely delivers in action and presentation and is just a ton of fun.

Director Lewis Gilbert made a splash with the also-well-directed The Spy Who Loved Me (actually he made a splash with Alfie a decade before but that’s such a different film it’s not worth bringing up), but Moonraker just felt elevated in its execution. It also was elevated in its look because….

 ____________________________________

It looks Bloody Gorgeous

Cinematographer Jean Tournier is someone I have to give note to. This guy came from nowhere (again, a French co-production so they used a lot of French crew) with his best known work, like Lonsdale, The Day of the Jackal. Here's this guy who never did anything of this scale, nailed it, then went off into obscurity. Moonraker is one of the best looking Bond movies shot by a complete unknown cinematographer, so I want to give the man props because the movie looks gorgeous from its vistas in Rio to its elaborate sets designed by long-time Bond production designer Ken Adam (Dr. No was Adam's first Bond movie, Moonraker was his last. He also did Dr. Strangelove...but no time for that now).

Here’s just a few select screencaps. Having great locations helps, obviously, but the production value to getting some of these shots and unique angles, Tournier using wide-angled lenses quite a bit from what I can tell, is just fantastic.

 

 


I might say that Moonraker, up through the Moore era at least, is the best shot Bond movie. Going through the others in my head, I can’t think of many that I’d put at that top level. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is up there certainly. I might put Live and Let Die there and Thunderball just for the underwater photography alone. Octopussy wasn’t bad either. But there’s something about Moonraker that just was incredibly striking. Great shots, lighting and smart choices to get it all looking good.

I know I need to give credit to director Lewis Gilbert as well for the look. If anything because he has such little of a script to work with and has to make all these action sequences make sense, but what sets it all apart, and what keeps me coming back for Moonraker, is that photography. Gilbert directed The Spy Who Loved Me as well and it didn’t look as good as Moonraker other than some great shots on-location in Egypt (though I found those kind of flat as well), which lends me to believe that this little unknown French cinematographer should get a big round of applause for taking on such a task and working with Gilbert to make it look as good as it did.

____________________________________  

Moore is At the Top of his Game

Roger Moore slid into the role of James Bond pretty seamlessly. He seemed comfortable as Bond, even putting his own turn and twist as the character, from the very start with Live and Let Die and though he was showing his age by A View to a Kill, he was still on board to give it his all. He’s always had fun with the character but also managed some range as well. Moonraker doesn’t really allow him to showcase that range, you can look to the previous film for a more dramatic take (The Spy Who Loved Me is legitimately one of the best Bond films because of Moore's acting), he’s totally having a blast here and we hadn’t yet reached the “boy he’s old to be doing this” phase of his career.

Here he’s constantly being “cool.” He’s kicking ass. Doing some stunts. Delivering those cocky one-liners like nobody else. He has a knack for kind of waiting a beat or two in a scene as well, ramping up the tension or the comedy as the scene dictates. He just has a natural way of doing it, probably better than any other actor that played Bond quite honestly. Moore isn’t my favorite Bond…but he’s my favorite for this kind of Bond. Incredibly charming, full of dry wit and, if given a better supporting cast to play off of, this might have been that much better of a performance and movie.

I guess what I'm saying is that Moonraker may not have the story, but it has Bond ready and game. It has him do a ton of things and do it well. Moore shines with the limited and one-note material he has, which makes you wish the script was better so we could love it even more.

 ____________________________________

Drax is an Incredibly Memorable Villain

I don’t know who OK’d Michael Lonsdale to play Hugo Drax, but it’s some fantastic casting and the man or woman that gave the go-ahead totally deserves props for getting him. Lonsdale was a relative obscure French actor that, at the time, was probably best known for The Day of the Jackal. He worked his ass off in the 70s from small bit roles to leads and because Moonraker turned into a French co-production, they went with him. And he nailed it. Completely nailed it.

I say that because, in all honestly, there’s not a ton of Drax in this thing yet he's still great despite that. He’s in a handful of scenes and really only has a couple of shining moments. Put that up against a Goldfinger or a Blofeld and it’s certainly lacking because those are guys that chewed more scenery and got more screentime. But Lonsdale makes him shine in those scant moments - making every line feel important and delivered in an accent that's not quite American (which Drax is) making him feel just slightly "off" to cause a bit of discomfort.

My two favorite moments seems relatively minor. One is Drax’s introduction scene. Bond is escorted through Drax’s lavish home and hears a piano playing. They enter a large elegant room and see two women sitting near a piano where a man, his back to us, sits at the grand piano. We assume that this is Drax and we assume it is him playing.

Yet we get closer to Drax, and it’s revealed to us, not to Bond, that Drax isn’t actually playing that piano. He’s pretending to as his back is to Bond. He mimes a few movements on the keys but isn’t actually pressing them. The camera movement suggests that we are absolutely supposed to know this while Bond is not.

This is a great, subtle moment as it tells us that Drax is putting a show for his guest - lavish home, beautiful women, talent at the piano - none of which is actually real (his home is imported from France and the women only tools for him). He’s not as intelligent, talented or clever as he pretends to be, which is something that comes up again later as Drax is outed by Bond on this. Here we have this guy saying that they will rebuild the world with a perfect race, but he himself isn’t perfect.

My second favorite moment isn’t as cool, but it’s a great reveal. While in Venice, a great location for any Bond movie, Bond discovers a secret lab. Through circumstance he has to get out of dodge fast, but contacts HQ to tell them that some bad stuff is going down and he has proof. They send their men (for some reason I’m not sure why the higher-ups are here and not some SWAT team or Special Forces) and Bond goes to show them the lab.

He enters the same door as before only to find an elegant Venetian office and, standing at the desk, is Hugo Drax. Bond is totally caught off guard and utterly embarrassed, a rarity especially during the Moore era where Bond was pretty flawless in anything he did. His higher ups feel disgusted and Drax gives a wry smile as he says “You must excuse me, gentlemen, not being English, I sometimes find your sense of humor rather difficult to follow."

 

And now I will glare at you, never blinking, as I sip my tea because I'm totally not evil.

 

In fact, Drax has some very nice lines such as "At least I shall have the pleasure of putting you out of my misery.” and "Mr. Bond, you persist in defying my efforts to provide an amusing death for you.” He's every bit as quotable as Bond in this thing.

Ah, if only he had a better exit, it would have been perfectly poetic. Still, he's a damn good Bond villain I've grown incredibly fond of over the years. 


 

So…Is It Really That Bad?

Here’s a question: is being “silly” and “cartoonish” bad? What inherently makes an approach to a film’s tone bad in that regard? We can say “well it’s subjective” but when someone says “it’s too dumb and absurd” how is being dumb and absurd a negative, when dumb and absurd is intended? Probably too much of a conversation to have on a one-sided blog, but it's one of those film-critique questions I like to just throw out there because I'm legitimately curious and I don't know everything. "Ok, you found it dumb, what is dumb?"

There’s a lot of phrases and terms put out there that kind of aren’t all that constructive - just some pejorative way to say things to make it sound like you're saying something smart but really aren't (like using the word pejorative). Saying something is “dumb” doesn’t mean much just as saying something is “boring,” “outlandish” or “dull” doesn’t mean much. You have to explain context. You have to dive into the “why” of it all and the “why” is where a lot of people get hung up. It’s where you separate someone who is analyzing something to be critical to explain why that something is good or bad with someone who is just throwing out an opinion and calling it a day.

I like to have a conversation about it, that's where we get into the fun things and really can talk about a movie.

So, I ask again, is being cartoonish a bad thing when it’s intended? There’s plenty of Bond movies that are cartoonish when not intended (Die Another Day comes to mind) but in the case of Moonraker, it looks to set out that tone from the get go. It literally says in the opening that this is a circus. A cartoon. Jaws falls thousands of feet and lands safely on a circus tent and we turn into a circus-themed opening credit sequence. It’s not trying to hide it. It's literally upfront with it.

"Ah," you may say, "but should Bond be about levity and humor?" I say Bond can be whatever Bond wants to be as long as its done well…and folks…Moonraker is done well. Damn well, in fact. Not only is it an immensely entertaining movie,  pound for pound it’s one of the best from the Moore era and maybe the franchise as a whole (maybe not Top 10 but still…there's a lot of James Bond movies). Moore is so damn good and charming here, the set pieces so exquisitely executed and with such a sense of variety that it’s just flat-out a well done action movie and a Bond movie all the same.

 

 

 So long answer now short...Moonraker is just awesome. It tells us exactly what it's going to be from the beginning and sees it all the way through. It's not perfect, of course, but it sets out to make a fun and entertaining movie with a great hero and villain and nails it. BTW this is a pic of Ian Fleming on set.

 

You know what I don’t like? A Bond movie that doesn't try to be inventive and just goes through the motions. If you're considered the standard of the genre, you can't do that. Whether it's for the character or the action or just trying to push the film along with some elaboration, a Bond movie should always entertain and offer something new. Whether it be a more dramatic, serious take or a more action-oriented one, a Bond movie should be a well crafted and unique experience that balances traditional tropes of the series with whatever the style is of its time. Yes, this is a silly 70s spy thriller but it’s a good silly 70s spy thriller that seems to understand exactly what it is. Though it dives into comedy a bit too often and some of it falling flat, and it may lose the pace in terms of developing its villain and climax, it doesn’t just toss it out there to wrap it up and call it a day. It’s giving us its all with that tone in mind and doesn’t try to hide it.

I'm a big James Bond fan no matter what approach or characterization Bond takes. If serious, great. Give me a serious Bond movie. If camp, great, give me a campy Bond. There's not a ton of "criteria" in terms what I expect - Bond globetrotting and uncovering a big plot, an enigmatic villain, lavish set pieces and great production design...I think that's about it. I don't need to see an Aston Martin or have him order a martini, I don't need Bond girls or some slightly-racist henchman. I need a hero that I can get behind, a villain with an idea and entertainment, whether it be tonally light or heavy, along the way. I guess I just want a consistent, well made film when it comes right down to it. If you sell me on the characters and world, say "it's James Bond," chances are I'm going to be on board.

Moonraker chooses that light and rather insincere Bond, and from what I've seen over the years I'm thinking most people don't like the light Bond. Then again, I say that and nobody talks about The Living Daylights all that much and that's as grounded/serious of a Bond movie as you could ask for. Maybe people don't know what they want from a Bond movie. Maybe it's some sort of ambiguous thing that you just get a knee-jerk reaction of and maybe, when something goes too far in one direction, it just doesn't "feel" right. Bond movies have a "feel" certainly, and usually they balance the action and humor and romance and drama.

Moonraker is almost all humor and action, and it may not be the most even in all that other stuff, but it does what it sets out to do pretty damn well and unabashedly says "we're going to have some fun with is." I like fun, and I like Moonraker and I think it's a damn good movie, Bond or otherwise.

 

 

PS, this won't be the last Bond movie in this series, but we're months away from that other one.

 


 Note: I put comments here for people to discuss, but if you want to connect directly with me, twitter and facebook are the best and where I usually am (links on the left). This whole site is ran by one person and I can't monitor comments all the time so please keep it civil.

  

  

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