Moonraker Movie Review

by Casimir Harlow
Movies & TV Shows Review
Moonraker Movie Review

“His dream will come true someday”

After the undeniable commercial (and critical) success of The Spy Who Loved Me – the highest grossing Bond thus far – the filmmakers discarded the loose back-up plan to reboot the franchise with a new actor. It was, after all, the end of Moore’s 3-film contract, and, if his third film had been as disappointing as The Man with the Golden Gun, they’d have probably gone with a new Bond, using the more back-to-basics For Your Eyes Only as an introductory vehicle (as tentatively promised in the credits of The Spy Who Loved Me). However, instead of just proceeding with For Your Eyes Only with Moore still in-place, they decided to go in another direction.

The monumental, unprecedented success of 1977’s Star Wars had made them realise that the future of Bond lay out of this world. Putting together a fresh script that had little to do with the original Moonraker novel – and which was essentially a rehash of the story to The Spy Who Loved Me – they kept the recognised current Bond favourite in position as they took the world’s greatest secret agent to a place he had never been before (and hasn’t been since). Space.

Audiences loved it. For over 15 years it remained the highest grossing Bond film of the series (until Goldeneye). And you know what? It’s actually really good. In the years since I last saw it I’d convinced myself that it was one of Moore’s silliest, most campy and extravagant outings. A death knell to Bond which was so over-the-top that it prompted a new era of down-to-earth Bonds to follow. Yet it has proved to be, without a doubt, the single most enjoyable film in the series to revisit this time around.

Despite the potentially credibility-damaging ramifications of taking Bond quite so far into the realm of Sci-fi, and despite the ostensibly recycle script, Moonraker – as a Bond film itself – is a whole lot of fun, bringing us almost the same perfect mix of ingredients that made Moore’s The Spy Who Loved Me his best Bond entry. Easily ranking in Moore’s top 3 efforts in the role, Moonraker is therefore also actually one of the best Bond movies of all time. So why do we remember such bad things about it? Well, if you don’t trust me enough to give it another shot, then read on to find out exactly what you’re missing.

What he doesn’t own, he doesn’t want.

After one of their space shuttles is stolen, mid-flight, Bond is dispatched to investigate the billionaire industrialist Hugo Drax, whose company built the shuttle. Travelling across the world he uncovers a nefarious plot to exterminate all human life on earth and then repopulate it with a master race of ‘perfect specimens’ living off-world in a space-station. Assisted by a US CIA counterpart spy – female no less – it’s up to Bond to stop Drax, no matter how far he has to go to do it: even into space.

Whilst written by the same scribe who penned the non-Fleming-book-based The Spy Who Loved Me, and who used an early draft of The Spy Who Loved Me – written by Gerry “Thunderbirds” Anderson, no less – as the foundation for the Moonraker plot, the similarities between the two films were largely forgotten because of the vastly different space settings, which were the substitute for Stromberg’s underwater ‘repopulation of the earth’ plans in The Spy Who Love Me (by happenstance, the script ended up inadvertently drawing parallels with Fleming’s original novel, which promoted the same notion of finding a ‘master race’, only through overtly Nazi antagonists). Further forgiving the similarities, there’s an argument that Bond villains always have a plan which runs something like this, so the trick was not to be original, but to seem original and – above all – deliver a memorable new villain who stands apart. Moonraker had accomplished the first part just by the introduction of the space theme, and would be successful on the second count by giving us Hugo Drax, arguably one of the franchise’s absolute best villains.

“First there was the dream, now there is reality. Here in the untainted cradle of the heavens will be created a new super race, a race of perfect physical specimens. You have been selected as its progenitors. Like gods, your offspring will return to Earth and shape it in their image. You have all served in public capacities in my terrestrial empire. Your seed, like yourselves, will pay deference to the ultimate dynasty which I alone have created. From their first day on Earth they will be able to look up and know that there is law and order in the heavens.”

There’s no doubt that Moonraker went further than ever before in its quest to take Bond into the beyond, and threatened to jump the shark in its closing laser-gun space-battle – so desperate to cash-in on the success of Star Wars that it lost sight of just how far it took the franchise from the realms of plausible super-spy thrills. The damage it did, however, was arguably only in hindsight – damage done to the franchise itself, which would struggle to find its feet after the over-the-top excesses of this chapter. At the time, Moonraker was 2+ hours of pure Bond spectacle. At the time, it was the pinnacle of grand sets, epic battles, cutting-edge and futuristic ideas, jaw-dropping stunts and outlandish adventures – topping the similar military skirmishes in both The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice, pushing the scope of the franchise further than ever before, and yet remaining quintessentially Bond from start to finish, a fact you could never escape thanks to the simply perfect use of the classic theme at all the right times throughout the piece.

If fault can be found in the end product – beyond the fact that the franchise struggled to recover after this space-adventure – it’s from the usual corner: light relief and somewhat camp comedy moments that crept in normally at the pleading, almost impossible-to-deny requests of the franchise’s younger fans. The cameo from assistant director Victor Tourjansky in The Spy Who Loved Me (the guy who gazes, aghast, at Bond’s Lotus emerging from the sea, and subsequently questions his consumption of alcohol) had received such a positive response, they decided to replicate the joke here as Bond skates around Venice in a hovercraft-Gondola, only foolishly adding in a wide-eyed puppy and a double-taking pigeon for good measure. Similarly Bond’s nemesis from that film – arguably the franchise’s all-time best henchman, Jaws – would suffer from such overwhelming popularity, particularly from younger audience members, that he would be drafted back in here and, shamefully, eventually turned good. Beyond these thankfully rather infrequent moments, however, this still remains one of the most refined, big-budget-used-perfectly, action-packed outings in the Bond oeuvre – let alone in Moore’s tour of duty – and thus also one of the best.

Moore had hit 50 by the time the film went into production, and yet he looked considerably better than Connery did eight years earlier (and thus ten years younger, because Connery is – unbelievably – younger than Moore) in Diamonds Are Forever, and was on fantastic form in this chapter, pulling off many of the action scenes with surprising aplomb, and ushering his now-iconic dapper English gentleman version of the superspy into a new space era. Sure, you’ll find yourself face-to-face with his stunt-double for the grand sky-diving pre-credits-sequence, but what did you expect? (These days it’d all be done in CG – at least here it was a real stunt, and a remarkably impressive one too! Back in ‘79 mass audiences were blown away by the skydiving sequence, it was unlike anything they’d ever seen before. And that was just the start of it!)

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

For the later confrontations, whether it’s the fight against the Kendo ninja or the skirmishes with Jaws, Moore still did a surprising amount of the well-choreographed work himself. Whether spinning him wildly in a G-simulating centrifuge, sending him gliding off the Iguazu Falls, having him tussle with a giant Boa Constrictor, or dodge the lunges of the giant Jaws whilst dancing around on two parallel cable-car roofs – or even blasting him into space – Moore was still a consummate professional in the role, bringing his impeccably-dressed dapper gentleman-spy A-game in every single scene.

It simply doesn’t get any better – or any more classic in terms of Bond – than the moment where he faces off against Jaws in the dark alley way in Rio; Jaws grins to reveal his teeth and Moore, instinctively, just grins back. No other Bond actor could have pulled that off so effectively. Connery would have been too busy sweating and throwing himself at the man-mountain; Dalton would be looking for an escape route; and Brosnan would be looking for something to stab the guy with – all great options, but Moore, he had perfected his version of Bond: cool, calm, collected at all times, even when faced with a 7ft guy with metal teeth. Yes, Moore, he would just grin right back.

Of course he still revelled in that rampant wit in more obvious ways – it was definitely his forte – but, as with The Spy Who Loved Me, this was again nicely tempered here by the presence of a female counterpart who was similarly his equal in every respect and, similarly, largely immune to his trademark charms; only allowing herself to be seduced by him for the purposes of throwing him off the scent, with plans to actually go off on the mission by herself, and little interest in Bond beyond what use he can be. It was a nice role-reversal to incorporate into these 70s outings, a far cry from the more overtly misogynistic, and often even sadistic, brute force of the Connery 60s, and their often flagrant disregard for creating well-rounded female counterparts for Bond.

Ironically Moonraker’s leading lady, Lois Chiles, had originally been up for the role of Major Amasova in The Spy Who Loved Me, refusing to commit due to a decision to take a brief hiatus from work, and thus replaced at the last minute by Barbara Bach. Here she would finally get her chance to play a Bond girl, taking on very similar duties to the Soviet female version of Bond in the last film, with her role as Holly Goodhead, undercover CIA agent and, again, an ostensible Bond equal. Although she was not quite the strong-but-sexy female presence that Bach brought to bear in The Spy Who Loved Me, she carried over some similar elements – most notably a welcome resistance to Bond’s persistent charms. She also played a character who brought an interesting counterpoint to the Moore-era vision of Bond – the fairly outgoing, wearing-my-spy-hat-on-my-sleeve persona (arguably wholly unsuitable for a covert operative), who, whilst Bond was off getting targeted on every corner for assassination, was blissfully able to blend in using her undercover persona.

“Allow me to introduce you to the airlock chamber. Observe, Mr. Bond, your route from this world to the next. And you, Dr. Goodhead, your desire to become America’s first woman in space will shortly be fulfilled.”

Whilst not striking enough to be regarded as one of the all-time most memorable Bond girls – perhaps due to the fact that she wore less revealing outfits; a win in the respect-towards-women department, but a no-no in the ranks of classic Bond girls – she retained the sense of equality that was non-existent in the Connery era, had been started in the last Moore outing, and would persist all the way through to 1985’s A View to a Kill. Bond may have still been an irrepressibly cheeky chappie, but at least his leading ladies were finally being shown some respect within the franchise (of course beautiful French actress Corinne Clery – most famous for her notorious lead role in ‘O’ – would not get anywhere near the same treatment in her secondary Bond girl role, although she would stand out during one particularly traumatic scene involving a haunting run through a forest and two vicious Dobermans).

French actor Michel Lonsdale secured the part of lead villain, Hugo Drax, and brought us a suitably elegant, aristocratic nemesis in same the vein as Curd Jergens’s Stromberg from The Spy Who Loved Me. Indeed Lonsdale – perhaps due to having more dialogue, and some truly classic one-liners, or perhaps just because he had more presence – resounds as one of the best Bond villains, not just of the Moore era, but within the entire franchise. His persistent quips to, and against, Bond are amidst the most memorable lines in the entire series. With a suitably nefarious, grandstanding plan (wiping out mankind and repopulating with a master race he personally selected and bred), and a whole (space-)army at his disposal, Lonsdale certainly had a great character to play with.

It’s not just the big speeches that worked for him but actually the little moments where he truly stood out from some of his counterparts in the other Bond films – like the scene where Bond, M and the Minister of Defence, all wearing gas-masks, pay a visit to what they expect to be one of Drax’s laboratories, a place where Bond had previously discovered Drax’s cultivation of a virus specifically deadly to humans. Of course they all expect to find a lab, test-tubes, air-tight doors, and scientists; instead they get a lavish, ornately-decorated hall, complete with tableaux across the walls and ceilings, and Hugo Drax standing besides a large mahogany table at the end. Perfectly going along with the ruse – which certainly fools both M and the Minister of Defence (to the point where they berate Bond for embarrassing them) – Lonsdale’s Drax, upon seeing the three enter wearing gas-masks, enquires as to whether this is some kind of British joke, apologising for the fact that he has not quite mastered our sense of humour. It’s a classic scene, perfectly played, and a small, often unnoticed moment where the right actor can do so much in a role. Indeed it’s so well-played it’ll have you doubting what you saw with your own eyes just a few minutes earlier.

Then there’s Richard Kiel’s Jaws. Arguably the greatest villain of the entire franchise – certainly the one with the most screentime (lead or henchman, he’s the only one to participate in two films, getting about a dozen scenes across them, most of which involved direct confrontation with Bond himself) – he had been originally written to be a Bond villain to the bitter end. Yet, as already noted, younger audience-members wrote-in begging for him to be turned into a good guy and so, against all odds, the filmmakers did just that. Sure, I would have preferred if they had not gone down this route – he was a deadly killing-machine in The Spy Who Loved Me, with demonic, terminator-like relentlessness and unstoppability, almost straight out of a horror film – but it wasn’t quite the disaster that most critics retrospectively label it as being. Moonraker was clearly intended, in many respects, to be even less dark than The Spy Who Loved Me – to appeal to those same wide-eyed children who’d just flocked to see the Millennium Falcon whizz around in space – and thus they tempered the more horror-inspired elements of the Jaws character, seeking to take the edge off so that he wouldn’t be quite as potentially terrifying as he had been first time around.

His popularity was such that they even re-wrote the pre-credits sequence to involve him: previously it was set to be the Acrostar microjet scene which was pushed back to Octopussy (similarly the scripted Eiffel Tower set-piece was postponed until A View to a Kill), but instead they came up with the simple but staggeringly effective sky-dive chase stunt in order to bring the franchise’s best-loved villain back to the screen as soon as possible. It was yet another pre-credits sequence which would have audiences at the premiere cheering.

“You know him?”
“Not socially. His name’s Jaws. He kills people.”

Indeed we would see Jaws skydiving down to grab Bond, seeking to sink his metal teeth into the suave super-spy’s leg, but the tension and any ensuing horror undertones would soon be alleviated by the subsequent more comic moment of Jaws accidently tearing off his parachute rip-cord, and promptly landing in a circus big-top. Cue title-music. Similarly we’d then encounter Jaws in Rio, at the Carnivale, where he would somewhat disturbingly dress up as arguably the scariest giant clown ever, and stalk Bond’s young female friend in a dark alley. Again, the brooding menace and potential pseudo-vampiric attack on the paralysed-with-fright girl would soon be diffused by the ensuing ‘Jaws getting caught up in a crowd of Carnivale-partygoers’. Watch closely, and you’ll even see that he eventually gives up and actually joins in the party!! This was not the Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me. Alas, (older) fans would struggle most with his changing sides during in the film’s final act, and subsequent saving of Bond when the spy’s shuttle won’t detach from the damaged space station.

Honestly, I can see why it’s tough to fully accept this drastic change of heart in the character, and the change in tone with respect to how they treat him in the movie in general, but the end result is still undeniably entertaining. Bond didn’t require Jaws to go around actually biting chunks out of people for him to still be menacing (see the above clown sequence) and, whilst they did go a little too far in the more light-hearted conclusions to these scenes, that was arguably a better decision than going in the opposite direction (c.f. GoldenEye, where the lead female henchman, Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp actually has an orgasm whilst killing people – is that something you really want to watch with younger children? Or at all?).

Returning director Lewis Gilbert, who filmed one of Connery’s weakest chapters – 1967’s make-Bond-asian-by-tweaking-his-eyelids You Only Live Twice (though not his worst, that would fall to 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever) – as well as Moore’s best, the preceding The Spy Who Loved Me, certainly had a fixation on grand-scale epic battles and full-on world-toppling villainous schemes. Moonraker was arguably the pinnacle for him in this regard, honing his talents on the rather limited budget of You Only Live Twice, upping the ante for The Spy Who Loved Me, and then taking things to the next level with his epic space battle in Moonraker.

For some, the nadir of the entire franchise, the reality is it really wasn’t that bad – forgiving the now-cheap-looking laser effects, and sheer insanity of the space-shuttles-full-of-space-soldiers, this was all a logical progression which we had been building up to. You Only Live Twice saw space rockets being swallowed up by other space rockets and a final confrontation in secret rocket silo; The Spy Who Loved Me saw submarines being eaten up by a giant oil tanker and a massive battle within (both using very similar ideas of sheet metal shielding with gunners behind it); and Moonraker saw a massive joint British-US initiative to take down Drax’s space station. The space battle involved the building of one of the biggest film sets ever made in France, and broke the record for the number of zero-gravity harnesses ever required for a film. Silly as it may seem in hindsight, it’s still very easy to get caught up in the grand scale of the whole confrontation and, whatever damage it may have done to the series as a whole, it was Bond at his absolute biggest. If anything – and in retrospect – this kind of development in the series was only inevitable at the time, and was certainly a whole lot better than returning back for another underwater skirmish where you have no idea who is on which side and whether the actor playing the lead hero is even involved in the set-piece (Thunderball).

Gilbert had thankfully worked on more than just his ever-grander plans for world domination; he honed his talents at telling a decent story – something not always that forthcoming in a Bond movie – with The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker both remaining clever, involving and really quite taut spy thrillers. There was logical progression from location to location, rather than just a flimsy plot tying together numerous random action set-pieces (The Man with the Golden Gun).

“It’s time to put you out of my misery, Mr. Bond.”

The course of the narrative sees Bond first investigate Drax in US, taking a helicopter tour over the industrial complex where Drax had the stolen Moonraker shuttle built (the clearly miniature set still looks fantastically imaginative – displaying a very Gerry “Thunderbirds” Anderson style in its futuristic design) before stopping off at the Drax estate, a lavish Chateau fictionally ‘replicated’ in California for the story but actually located just south of Paris. Bond discovers blueprints there which send him to Venice for a little gondola action, and there he investigates the above-mentioned laboratory and finds the poison that Drax is brewing, and clues that the evidence is being transferred to Rio to complete Drax’s operation there. Jetting off to Rio, just in time for Carnivale and a bit of tension between cable cars and it’s not long before he needs to go into the jungle – after Q examines the toxin he found and discovers it comes from deep in the Amazon. A great speedboat chase off the magnificent Iguazu falls and he finds the secret shuttle launch pad where Drax is hiding. Et voila, it’s off into space! There was a certain beauty in following Bond from clue to clue, rather than just from action set-piece to action set-piece, with Gilbert – as all the best Bond directors did – masterfully making the most of every single location along the way.

Of course, he wasn’t alone in creating this, his Bond opus – a certain Mr John Glen was working with him (on not only Moonraker but also The Spy Who Loved Me) as second unit director and also editor. Glen, of course, would replace Gilbert for directorial duties on the next five consecutive instalments – the most Bond films for any one director – returning the series back down to earth with a bang, but also getting to the heart of the character in several of these instalments (whether it was Moore’s darker turn in For Your Eyes Only, or Dalton’s more edgy characterisation in his short-lived tenure in the role). Glen was certainly as good an editor as he was a director, as the two Moore chapters that he edited proved to be some of the tightest, most action-packed but also story-driven features in the series. And they weren’t short either – both hitting the 125 minute mark.

They weren’t small scale either. As the Bond budgets grew, so did set designer Ken Adam’s ideas. The veteran who had worked on the films ever since Dr. No, Adam’s sets would get bigger and bigger with every chapter – in The Spy Who Loved Me they had to build a whole new set at Pinewood to cope with the scale of the film; in Moonraker the set ideas were so grand they’d have to shoot the damn thing in France! Check out the centrifuge set, built specifically for that one brief but highly effective sequences; or the underground shuttle conference room (an idea which was actually carried across from the novel – where Bond was trapped with the Bond girl about to die from the rocket blast); or Drax’s Amazon-jungle hideout; or the fantastic space sets. Throw in some space shuttles – which, these days, are ten-a-penny, but back in 1979 had never been seen before on the Big Screen – and you have some grand, cutting-edge designs and ideas, pushing Bond forward with every step. I mean, people complain about Moonraker being silly and goofy and cashing-in on Star Wars but it wasn’t until 1981 that we got the first Space Shuttle test flight – seeing a shuttle on screen back in 1979 must have been absolutely mind-blowing.

One thing that has become evident over revisiting the Bond series – particularly in light of some of the reboots attempted across the years – is the importance of the score, and, notably, the use of the Bond themes themselves. Given that GoldenEye suffered immensely for not feeling like a Bond film purely because they practically avoided any signs of the score whatsoever for almost the entire duration of the movie, it’s clear that the music was as integral as anything else to a successful Bond entry. Sure, several different composers could be brought in who would do competent efforts – Beatles producer George Martin would milk the excellent Live and Let Die title track (by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney) for all it was worth for Moore’s first outing; Marvin Hamilisch would create a suitably aquatic and tremendously effective disco-based accompaniment for The Spy Who Loved Me, and Bill Conti would do an almost-as-effective, but slightly too out-of-place disco effort for For Your Eyes Only too – but, over the course of the surrounding 11 Bond movies, there was only really one man who you could depend on for a top class Bond score: John Barry.

Indeed Barry has become such a familiar entity in the Bond universe that you find it hard to watch many of his non-Bond thrillers and not think that the score is reminiscent of the classic themes he created here (c.f. Mercury Rising and The Specialist). Here, however, I think that he was at the absolute height of his Bond career, and, although he did some wonderful efforts for both of his latter-end contributions – A View to a Kill and The Living Daylights – through blending in the excellent pop title tracks recorded respectively for each one, back doing Moonraker, it was just Bond motif perfection from scene to scene. The film would have been nowhere near as much fun without his perfectly-timed cues over the course of the story, providing each scene with the precise accompaniment required to enhance the tone within.

Even the smaller scenes – whether the terrifying threat of the dogs chasing down the desperately fleeing girl in the woods, or the looming overtones as Bond investigates the poison being cultivated by the short-lived scientists – had superbly emotive scoring which prepared you, and carried you, through the proceedings. Hell, I suspect that this score was so good that it could be listened to by itself and you’d still be able to figure out exactly what Barry intended to convey without even having to see the corresponding scenes. Throw in a very healthy dose of those classic Bond themes and what you have here is aural bliss. Over the course of the Moore years – perhaps more so than for any other actor in the role – one thing that few people can argue with is the fact that they knew how to use the Bond theme, and this was perhaps never more evident than with this entry.

“Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him.”

Remember Moonraker for the still jaw-dropping pre-credits skydiving sequence; the surprisingly tense centrifugal G-simulator scene (which, rather adventurously, used flash imagery to convey Bond’s flashing memory as he loses consciousness); and for the Venetian Gondola chase. Remember it for Lois Chiles being the second most interesting Bond-equal female counterpart (after The Spy Who Loved Me’s Barbara Bach), a refreshing habit that the Moore series would slip into; for Moore being on top form despite his age, and delivering in every single scene – still the suave super-spy from the depths of the jungle to the abyss of outer space.

Remember it for the remarkably gentle and well-spoken Michel Lonsdale, bringing us one of the all-time best Bond villains in Hugo Drax – who actually had a well-conceived, suitably globally-destructive scheme up his nefarious sleeve, as well as some of the best lines in the entire series. Remember the franchise’s best henchman, Jaws, whether skydiving after Bond, stalking women in down dark alleys dressed as quite a scary-looking giant clown, or gnawing his way through a metal cable just so he can challenge Bond during the standout, excellent, cable-car confrontation.

Remember the glorious speedboat chase down the Amazon river to the Iguazu Falls, where John Barry’s score – a work of perfection over the entire movie – beautifully blends in that classic Bond trumpet theme that’s been used ever since the days of From Russia with Love for all the best action sequences (you’ll know it when you watch the scene), and, even as things start to go out of this world during the finale, you’ll find it hard not to enjoy the epic space battles and, in particular, the ensuing, tense race as Bond desperately hunts down the last few bombs before they enter Earth’s atmosphere. Above all, remember Moonraker for far more than just the over-the-top space battle that clouds your memories and your retrospective judgment – for truly being the awesome spectacle that it was at the time. This was Bond at its biggest and, for the most part, actually also at its best.

Where to watch Moonraker

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