Moonraker is possibly the best novel
from the initial quintet, but
this extravagant, imaginatively undernourished film
bears little resemblance to it ....
- The Guardian (June 1979)
Film: 1979 (#11)
Book: 1955 (#3)
A space shuttle (improbably fully fueled) is stolen right off the back of the 747 that's transporting it. Bond investigates, and comes to believe that the shuttle was stolen by the man who built it: eccentric magnate Hugo Drax. Also investigating Drax is scientist and CIA agent Holly Goodhead; when she and Bond realize they are chasing the same fish, they join forces. Drax needs the shuttle because one of his own is faulty; he has built a secret space station and he plans to bring a chosen set of perfect human specimens up there, then kill all the humans on the planet with poison gas, then inherit the Earth.
To quote Smith and Lavington in Bond Films: "Sounds a bit like The Spy Who Loved Me, doesn't it? It is. Almost everything in this film is like The Spy Who Loved Me, except not actually good."
Book vs. Film
Unfortunately (for the film), I agree with the Guardian quote above. This is the best book of the initial quintet, and I'd be willing to make a personal case that it's the best of the books altogether. It's a good enough book that, unlike all the others, I hesitate to spoil it for you.
The first part, at the club Blades, while not very important to the real action of the book, shows Bond's character on a job more clearly than anything Fleming ever had him do in the field. Blades itself is a fascinating invention that the films have never used (there is invisible lip service to it in Die Another Day), and Bond's relationship with M - this is not an MI6 job, it's a favor Bond is doing for M informally - is shown to great effect.
The second part is a domestic operation, unusual for Bond (and because MI6, like the CIA, cannot operate domestically, he has to be temporarily seconded to the CID - that is, Scotland Yard). The diabolical plot is still scary and relevant today. The woman, Gala Brand, is probably Fleming's best female character. The book's sole weakness is a large infodump at the very beginning, as Bond brings us up to speed on the history of Hugo Drax.
Fleming based the book on an earlier screenplay of his own; a good decision to change formats, as Fleming was a lousy screenwriter (judging based on his proto-Thunderball drafts). The book would make a fine film, but a film more in the close, gritty school - a working procedural, not a flashy thing full of big action and setpieces. This may be one of the reasons it was not adapted, but there is another, much bigger reason - which I'll discuss below.
This is the same Bond as the previous film, but aware that he's been thrust into a second-rate clone of it. He thus can hardly be blamed for using his detachment as an ironic shield throughout. In fact, he barely engages, but some of that is the script's fault - as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang notes, he "does remarkably little other than flit from location to location, breaking into somewhere to discover a label which will tell him where to go next." Also, everyone seems to know who he is on sight (a frequent problem of all Bond films after OHMSS, but possibly at its worst during the Moore era), which destroys the point of a secret agent.
There are only three women of note in the film, and the most interesting one - Corinne Dufour - is killed off way too soon. Interestingly, Bond treats her fairly well. Yes, he seduces her for information, but he makes no pretense about it, and it's clear she is extremely cooperative from the beginning; he's also aware he's asking her to compromise herself and shows actual concern for her safety. If he'd been around when Drax kills her, it might have been a very short film, as Bond would likely have eviscerated Drax on the spot. He is also just fine with agent Manuela in Rio, whom he treats with his version of professional courtesy, such as it is.
Whether you find Bond's contemptuous conduct toward Holly Goodhead tolerable, then, depends entirely on how you feel about the character and Lois Chiles' portrayal. I dislike both. I find Goodhead an even less believable scientist than Christmas Jones (yes - strong words, I know). Chiles manages to be vapid and annoying while simultaneously being talentless; quite a hat trick! The character is not engaging, and whatever acting school Chiles tried to sharpen up at (see previous film), it didn't take. Her character is also clearly incompetent at her job (either Drax managed to build all that stuff without her noticing, or she's got a lot of explaining to do).
Her one charming asset is harrassing Bond with a smile every chance she gets (and heaven knows he can use more pushback whenever possible). It's good, and it makes her occasionally endearing, but it isn't enough to save the character for me. In all other respects, she is a liability.
"Come on, Mr. Bond. A 70-year-old can take three Gs."
"The problem is there's never a 70-year-old around when you need one."
The Spy Who Loved Me was the last of Moore's three-picture contract. He was approached by Broccoli at the premiere and signed on readily for another. He may have regretted that before filming was done - the 51-year-old reportedly had only three days off in a rough 28-week shooting schedule, and was recovering from a bout of kidney stones as he arrived for principal photography. He was no fan of the promotional schedule either - in 1984 he said that, by his count, he had done 388 interviews in support of Moonraker.
In keeping with the general "retread" aspect, all the key crew from the previous film - Lewis Gilbert, Christopher Wood, John Glen, and Ken Adam - returned for this one. There probably would have been more brought back, but this was impossible because the soundstage work on this film (save one special-effects unit) was done not at Pinewood, but in France. (You will note Les Productions Artistes Associés gets a co-production credit.) This was the first departure from Pinewood for the series (although far from the last) and it was done because of the prohibitive taxes of the Callaghan government. Moore himself was a temporary exile from the UK at the time. (On the other hand, it did mean John Barry could come back for the score.)
This was Lewis Gilbert's last Bond film. I can't say I'm sorry to see him go. To quote Bond Films, "his version of the character - a superman repeatedly quipping bad puns and innuendoes as he saves the world from stateless, sexless maniacs hell-bent on Armageddon - is the one most easily recognized by the public," and I do not readily forgive him that sin. My ideal Bond is a suave, ruthless-when-needed, determined proceduralist who Always Gets His Man - and the Gilbert high-spectacle-and-bad-jokes version is one the franchise took a long, long time to fully recover from.
A much sadder disappearance is that of Bernard Lee, who was visibly in poor health. I haven't mentioned him much here, but I consider his M crucial to the success of the franchise. Moonraker was his last film; he died of stomach cancer in 1981.
"Is 007 back from that African job?"
So why exactly is this film such a monument to squandered potential? There are two main answers which most commentators seem to agree upon.
The first is plain old conservatism - or, if you prefer, timidity. Having successfully rescuscitated the franchise with The Spy Who Loved Me, EON decided the safe strategy was to try to do it all over again. When Moonraker isn't trying to be a clone of that film, it is stealing from Thunderball (slow-motion battle of armies, albeit in space rather than underwater; centrifuge for traction machine; chase through Carnival crowds). Everything of significance is brought back (including Jaws, a mistake) and even some minor bits (the double-taking man at the beach is now a tourist in Venice) - but also amped up to the point of ridiculousness (e.g. giving Jaws a girlfriend and playing him at least half for comic effect).
Under the circumstances, there was never a hope that the gripping-but-low-key action of the book Moonraker was going to make it to the script stage. The formula here is gadgets, big bangs, and wretched excess all the way.
But there is a second answer. In 1977 a little film came out called Star Wars, and the action-film segment of the industry was turned upside down. (One of my sources points out that many of the films which came out to try to cash in on the big-action boom owed a spiritual debt to the Bond films, but the Bond films themselves suffered by comparison.) By 1979 there was a "space race" in the movies. Everybody had to cram in some sort of outer-space theme, and Bond was no exception - so much so that EON pushed the planned next film, For Your Eyes Only, out of the way, grabbed the title of Moonraker (hey, that sounds like something that goes into space, right?) and very little else except the name of Hugo Drax, and proceeded to make a film whose absolute worst bits are the "space" scenes.
Actually, we're reaching the point in the films where, for a while, it is useful to point out the good bits. We're entering the fast-forward era of Bond watching, where we grab an ever-dwindling highlight reel and ignore the rest. Here, then, are the good bits of Moonraker:
Hugo Drax, as played by Michel Lonsdale. Lonsdale reportedly took the role because his French cinema career never offered him parts like this. Other actors might have taken that as an opportunity to chew scenery, but Lonsdale succeeds in making his calm delivery seem sinister. Drax is like Stromberg but dangerous.
Corinne Dufour, as played by Corinne Cléry; her death scene actually stings. The whole pheasant-shooting sequence, and Drax's expression when Bond picks off the sniper. The very rough fight - so rough that the comedy is a relief rather than an annoyance - with Chang through the antique glass museum and the clockworks. The switchout of the Venetian lab and Bond's humiliation. The Rio carnival/alley sequence, and agent Manuela. Bond and Jaws' brief exchange of smiles before their fights. The Amazonian boat chase, until the slapstick ending. The Moonraker launch and orbit sequence, which is handled with quiet grandeur, right through the point where we see the space station slowly emerge from darkness. After that, it gets ridiculous fast.
(Space Marines? Really? The US couldn't even get the space shuttle off the ground as planned, the same year as this film. As others have noted, it's not that I object to SF elements in my Bond films; it's that it's not very good SF.)
People who are the kind of people who love Bond films can spot Michel Lonsdale in The Name of the Rose and alongside Sean Bean and Jonathan Pryce (Bond villain roll call!) in Ronin. People who wouldn't be caught dead at a Bond film are referred to his appearance in Chariots of Fire. Most of his other work is in French.
Reportedly, James Mason was originally considered for Drax.
Roger Moore does not care for blood sports. His distaste in the hunting scene is genuine. By the way, this is apparently the only time in the entire film he actually fires a firearm (the wrist darts don't count).
It was intended, right up until the beginning of filming, that Barbara Bach would return for a cameo as Major Amasova. Reportedly, she was to have been seen in bed with General Gogol as his "problem."
"Problems, problems, problems."
Kate Bush was reportedly the original choice to sing the theme song, but she declined.
Corinne Cléry has the unusual distinction of being the only significant Bond part (to date) to share a first name with her character. The character was originally named Trudi Parker and was a valley-girl type, but when the production moved to France and a French actress was cast, the part was reworked. She was dubbed by Nikki van der Zyl.
The skydiving stunt in the pre-credits sequence was apparently the idea of Broccoli's stepson Michael G. Wilson, and had been considered for the previous film. Are you tired of seeing Wilson's name yet? I haven't tracked his previous cameos, but he is apparently seen three times in this film. We'll get a good look at him later.
The product placement in this movie crosses a line for everyone whose commentary on the film I have ever read - an all-time low.
Most commentators also single out the bluescreen in the cable-car sequence for special venom, but that doesn't bother me; I wonder sometimes why people pick on this so much when the bluescreen in Dr. No or the ski sequence in The Spy Who Loved Me are both, to me, far more intrusive.
The line "I play bridge with this fellow Drax" is the film's one real nod to the book, where M's suspicions of Drax are based solely on one tangential fact: He cheats at cards. He enlists Bond, who has trained in cardsharpery, to come to Blades with him and play bridge with Drax and prove it.
There is no sound in space. There is no sound in space. Say it with me again: There is no sound in space. Anyone who says, "Well, yes, but you can't very well have a movie scene with that long a silence," is instructed to notice the extremely effective use of silence when the cable is cut during the space-capture at the beginning of You Only Live Twice - or the effectiveness of nothing but a little background music during the revealing of the space station earlier in this same film.
Reportedly, the producers had envisioned the part of Jaws' girlfriend for some giantess who could match Richard Kiel's 7'2". They were worried the audience wouldn't buy the casting of 5'1" Blanche Ravalec as Dolly ... until Kiel pointed out that his actual wife was that height.
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