Starring: Roger Moore, Michael Lonsdale, Lois Chiles, Richard Kiel
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Writer(s): Ian Fleming (novel/story), Christopher Wood (screenplay)
Runtime: 126 min
Hello everyone and welcome to the eleventh edition in my series of reviews chronicling the James Bond film franchise. Tonight the picture we will be paying some extra special attention to is none other than 1979’s ‘Moonraker’ starring Roger Moore in this his fourth outing as Ian Fleming’s noted super spy, Agent 007, James Bond. Like its predecessor ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ this film was directed by Lewis Gilbert, and for sure, it features a lot of the same over the top attributes that endeared me to the last film, the difference being here, that this film takes that aforementioned “over the top-ness” to the next level. To say this film is over the top in fact is a remarkable understatement actually. I mean, seriously, picture this; at some point or another in the pre-production stage of this movie, some people all got together behind closed doors, and one of them had the temerity to shoot forth the idea “Hey, why don’t we send James Bond into outer space?” and apparently, not only was this man not laughed out of said room, but his idea was given serious consideration, which lead to this film actually being made. It’s truly mind boggling if you run it through your head a few times.
Say what you will though about the wackiness of the idea of James Bond in space, the numbers here produced cannot be argued with, as this movie in 1979, became the first Bond picture to gross over two-hundred million dollars at the international box office, and would reign supreme as the highest earning Bond film until the Pierce Brosnan era made an even bigger splash with ‘GoldenEye’ in 1995. With this kind of serious bank coming in, it was safe to say that James Bond had officially entered full force into the age of the blockbuster, kick started by Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ and further propelled by George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’, of which this film was of course, a blatant and unrepentant rip off of in order to cash in on its gargantuan success at the time. This was the era when big level B-movies really began to take over, a trend which, for better or worse, still continues to this day for the most part. It is an era in which plot and story is primarily secondary to being able to produce an appealing trailer, complete with plenty of explosions and witty catch phrases, both of which, are elements with which James Bond films had already long since been familiarized with. This movie of course, like many others before and after it, derives its title from one of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels from the 1950s.
The tone and story of the movie though, is pure Hollywood. Roger Moore, who at this time was pretty much cemented into the role of James Bond in fans’ eyes, received (and receives) a lot of after the fact flack for his Bond films, and his performances, the reason being that they are so far removed from the original darker Bond character penned by Fleming, and perfected on screen by Connery. And while there is an element of justifiability to all that, I for one choose to stand back and accept the Roger Moore era of James Bond on its own terms. His Bond was not strictly speaking, the Fleming Bond, (and neither was Connery’s Bond really in later years), his Bond was the James Bond of the cinema, the quick-witted, double breasted suit wearing, martini sipping super hero who could always be counted on to save the day and get the girl. True there wasn’t a whole lot of complexity to this version of James Bond, but there didn’t need to be either. For all its silly faults and over the top excesses, this era of Bond films still added much to the overall Bond mythos, and made a very substantial and lasting contribution to the perception of James Bond in popular culture in general as well.
All that being said though, and as much leniency as I feel you have to give the Bond films of this era in particular, there was still a point at which this movie I felt, went way over the line in terms of the aforementioned wackiness factor. James Bond in space is a strange enough idea generally speaking, and a very hard sell on top of that, although, I will personally say that I was still fine with it for the most part, until the moment came when, during the finale, they had to add the straw that broke the camel’s back, that being the giant laser gun battle between a platoon of special forces astronauts and Hugo Drax’s space suit wearing henchmen, both of whom were floating around outside Drax’s big spinning space station fortress. Not that what had already went down in this movie beforehand wasn’t detached from any semblance of reality whatsoever in itself, but there is a fine line that has to be walked in order to maintain that suspension of disbelief that is so vital to being able to enjoy any movie, and for me, the sight of that big laser duel in the aforementioned finale was when I just flat out called this movie on its bullshit, and thought to myself “What in the hell am I watching here?”…
Up until then, I was able to enjoy without question nearly everything I had seen in the typical larger than life and camped up world that is your average James Bond film, but it was at that point, that I felt the blatant ripping off of ‘Star Wars’ became way too prominent and in your face obvious for my liking. Again though, it’s not so much that it was too unbelievable as that it just felt so completely random and forced in, like a scene from another movie almost. Before then there were several events from back down on earth that involved feats that in no way would be possible within the confines of any of the known laws of physics, but they were at least in keeping with the generally accepted parameters of your average James Bond films. The laser gun fight however, seemed to me, to not only defy those parameters (which it takes a lot to do I might add) but also served as both a distraction and detraction from my enjoyment of the movie in general. I guess in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t really that big a deal, and I should just be able to sit back and smile at it, along with the rest of the oddball farcical nonsense included here, but for some reason, that little bit was where my mind decided to draw the line.
I mentioned Hugo Drax up above there, who is the principle villain in this film, and as is customary, this is the part of the review where we will spend a little bit of time discussing him. The Hugo Drax character is very much a retread in many ways of the Karl Stromberg character from the previous movie, the only difference being really that Stromberg sought to destroy all of humanity with nukes and start anew, under the sea, while Drax, who is a billionaire space tycoon you see, seeks to wipe us out via toxic nerve gas from outer space, and then, after said gas has settled down, return to earth and repopulate it with his own perfect male and female specimens selected beforehand. The main point being, that they both sought to create a new world, as it were, in which they would become tantamount to living breathing deity. Far from being satisfied with personal riches, as other criminals are want to do, these men dreamed big, and really reached out for that brass prize, unfortunately for them though, they happened to plan their evil schemes in a time and place in which one Mr. James Bond happened to be on the case. That being said, I thought Hugo Drax was for the most part a very capable Bond villain. I’m not sure that I’d put him up there in that same pantheon as Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but he more than held his own here.
He is of course though, and delightfully so, a complete cliché from beginning to end. Hugo Drax is the kind of villain that you never really hate, even though he does despicable things, because it is evidently apparent from the very beginning, that he is little more than a comic book character manifested in the flesh somehow, by the magic of Hollywood. The first time we see him he is tickling the ivories of a piano awaiting the arrival of James Bond for a visit concerning the recently misplaced Moonraker space ship which was entrusted to the care of the British government, and which Bond suspects may have been stolen by Drax Corporations itself, which also happens to be the entity responsible for building said craft to begin with. I mentioned Auric Goldfinger above, and, if I had to pick a former villain that Drax shares the most similarities with besides Stromberg, ostensibly at least, it would be him. Aside from both of them having their own private personal fortresses and vast criminal empires, as all self respecting Bond adversaries do, they both are in the habit of employing very attractive females in key positions within their set up, and they both also have as their main sidekick, a deadly Asian henchman. I am convinced that the scene early on in the film of James Bond flying over a group of Hugo Drax’s scantily clad space babes doing synchronized exercises in his front yard, had to be a deliberate wink to the film ‘Goldfinger’ itself.
As far as Henchmen goes, this movie is quite strong I must say, as it has not only the returning Jaws character from the last picture, who unlike any other villain in Bond’s history actually gets both a sympathetic love interest and a shot at redemption before all is said and done here, but also the aforementioned Asian henchman and martial arts expert Chang, with whom Bond has a particularly expensive and brutal battle with inside an art gallery display filled with rare and fragile artifacts, which predictably, all get obliterated. And then you have the other main staple of any Bond picture, that being, the women, and this movie also delivers in spades in that category here as well. First we have the main female lead of this movie; Dr. Holly Goodhead (read into that name whatever you will) played by Lois Chiles, who, while nowhere near in the same league as Agent Triple X from last time around, is still a strong female presence throughout the film. The very sexy Corinne Clery graces us here with her performance as ‘Corinne Dufour’, Drax’s personal pilot, until she makes the fatal mistake of being seduced by James Bond and is then disposed of in a most brutal manner by Drax. On top of that eye candy we also have the lovely Manuela, played here by Emily Bolton, who is 007’s special contact in Rio, and who I’ll also say, looks absolutely at home in a rather revealing night gown held together as it were by a single string.
And of course, there is also the matter of Hugo Drax’s private army of genetically perfected female specimens which just may put this Bond film over the top as the all in all, most fully packed, in terms of eye candy, of any Bond movie in history. Aside from those lovely ladies, Bond is also given all his usual allies, including the flirtatious Miss Moneypenney, the ever brilliant Q, and of course the legendary M, played here for the last time before his death, by the incomparable Bernard Lee. Speaking of Q, we also have the customary scene in which he displays his latest wares to James, and as far as gadgets in general go, once again, this movie delivers and then some. Particularly memorable and useful here is a special dart firing watch designed by Q, that gets Commander Bond out of more than one sticky situation over the course of this film. And while there is no custom built Bond car here unfortunately, there is no shortage of vehicles that Bond finds himself at the helm of here, including a couple different specially designed boats used in two very entertaining chase scenes during the movie. And you want exotic locations? This movie’s got them to spare, including, London, Southern California, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, and finally, space itself! There is beautiful and interesting scenery from beginning to end, so, even if the plot leaves you flat, visually anyway, the film is one of the more appealing entries in the entire franchise.
In closing, I will say that, while far from my favorite Bond film, Moonraker I think is still a worthy piece of afternoon entertainment in the end, and a movie that I enjoyed much more than I expected to going in with the foreknowledge of what exactly I was getting myself into. With that in mind, I’m still not sure whether I’m underrating or overrating this movie as far as the actual star rating I have assigned to it. Yes, there’s an element to this film that I think goes way above and beyond where any James Bond film should be allowed to go in terms of the whole excursion into outer space thing, and thankfully that has proven to be a one time exception rather than the new standard for the James Bond films that were made and released after this one. In fact, the backlash from a certain segment of fans over the pure ridiculous levels of outlandish camp and cheese featured in both this movie and its predecessor must have finally registered with the film’s producers, as the next Bond movie, released just two years after this one, was without a doubt the most ‘grounded’ and dare I say, routine James Bond movie that Roger Moore ever made.
Moreover that movie also comes closer to embodying the original Ian Fleming characterization of Bond than any movie of Roger Moore’s lengthy stay in the role as well, but now we are getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? Still though, if you set aside the final parts of this film that take place in outer space, complete with laser guns, poison spewing death balls, and gravity simulation devices, up until then what you have is in my estimation a modestly above average Bond offering complete with tons of attractive Bong Girls, a memorable villain, more one liners and assorted witticisms than you can shake a stick at, plus plenty of action. So really, you can’t go wrong up until that point. So to wrap this up, I would like to thank you all for reading, and issue what I feel is a very fitting final salutation of “live long and prosper” to each and every one of you out there who are going through this whole series of reviews with me. This concludes my review of 1979’s Moonraker feature, but fear not folks, for James Bond will indeed return, next time around in my review of 1981’s astonishingly dialed down “For Your Eyes Only”.