I’m a NASA junkie and have been since before I can remember. My family took me to Cape Canaveral when I was eight, and my most treasured acquisition from that trip was a plastic model of the space shuttle Discovery that my father and I built and painted together. When Moonraker’s iconic gunbarrel opened to the sight of a space shuttle being carried on the back of a 747, my younger self was utterly enthralled. The funny thing about James Bond for me is that I look at them with two sets of eyes – the kid who can be wowed by anything, for whom watching Bond was a way of bonding with his dad, and the older, more cynical bastard who always notices the wires dangling from the spaceship. Everything critics say about Moonraker is true: it’s silly, it’s out-there space fantasy, it’s the worst of every excess the Bond series ever suffered, and it’s fundamentally a transparent attempt to leech off the success of Star Wars. But damn if I don’t still dig it. I can acknowledge its flaws, I can shrug at the ludicrous spectacle of lasers flying left and right and the outright goofiness of the entire endeavour. But I can still load it up on a rainy Sunday afternoon and groove on it. Perhaps it’s just that the brand of James Bond is so enduring that even the lesser movies contain something of value – perhaps its “wow factor” continues to appeal to our inner kid.
Ian Fleming’s original novel, which takes place entirely in England, revolved around an English industrialist named Hugo Drax who has built a giant rocket to be deployed as part of Britain’s defense system. Bond discovers that Drax is actually a German consumed with loathing for all things English who intends to aim his rocket at the heart of London instead. For the movie however, trying to top the spectacle that was The Spy Who Loved Me, and seeking to cash in on the late 70’s cinematic space craze, anchoring the plot to earth was not even in question. When the aforementioned space shuttle is hijacked in midair, and after a breathtaking opening freefall fight that required 88 separate jumps to capture on film, 007 travels to California to investigate the shuttle’s disappearance and match wits with Drax (Michael Lonsdale), rewritten here as the billionaire private contractor behind America’s space program. Pursuing the trail from a glass factory in Venice to the carnival-filled streets of Rio de Janeiro and finally deep into the Amazon jungle, Bond and CIA agent Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) discover Drax’s plan to wipe out the human race using a nerve gas developed from rare orchids, prior to repopulating the planet with his version of a master race of perfect physical specimens. Rocketing into orbit, and with assistance at a timely juncture by U.S. space marines, the two agents lead a battle aboard Drax’s space station to destroy the gas and save humanity. The kid thinks “This is the most awesome thing ever!” The old guy grumbles “Good grief. Where’s my copy of From Russia with Love?”
But there are a couple of things both sides of me can agree on. Ken Adam, in his 007 swan song, does a masterful job. He takes clunky real-life NASA equipment like the centrifuge trainer and gives it a polished, futuristic look. Drax’s Amazon base, which combines modern, almost German expressionist vertical lines with the crumbling limestone of an Incan temple, would be a suitable enough locale for a Bond film finale. But even it pales next to the space station, for which Adam’s challenge was to differentiate it substantially from the Death Star and the rotating wheel of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a modular creation (described as a mobile in space) and its interiors are a perfect balance of practical function based on extrapolation from then-current NASA technology, and a sleek designer’s touch. With all respect to Adam’s successors, no Bond villain’s lair would ever look like this again, or make such a lasting impression on first view. It had to, really, given the images throughout the movie that precede its grand reveal. The visual effects throughout the climactic battle, supervised by Bond veteran Derek Meddings, still hold up extremely well today, and credit must be given to Meddings’ team for a reasonably accurate depiction of the space shuttle’s takeoff and flight in 1979 given that the shuttle did not launch in real life until 1981. The action beats are solid, with the opening fall from the sky, a gondola chase through the canals of Venice and a fistfight aboard the cable cars of Rio standing out as highlights (spoiled somewhat by being punctuated with misguided attempts at comedy, but more on that later). One of the most haunting deaths ever depicted in a Bond movie occurs when Drax’s assistant Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery) is hunted down through a forest by killer dogs. John Barry returns and abandons the electric guitar and swinging percussion that characterized his early Bond work in favour of a more mature sound that uses sweeping strings and a choir to depict the vast emptiness of outer space.
Now, to the elements that the older man can’t forgive so easily. As I indicated yesterday, I love the spectacle of Bond, but I want that spectacle to have some meat behind it, otherwise it becomes, as Shakespeare would put it, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Bond himself really has no character arc here, no personal journey to fulfill other than serving as the wrench which jams the engine of Drax’s master plan, nor is his relationship with the underwritten Holly Goodhead anything more than a happenstance of proximity – that is, she’s the only “good girl” in range. As sinister as Michael Lonsdale is, with his refined French accent draping itself lovingly around lines like “You defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you,” he, like Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, is too straightforwardly evil to be a truly compelling foe for our hero – there are no layers to his villainy, no motivation other than the usual line about civilization having become corrupt and needing a reset. In fact, the only character who has any kind of growth in the movie is Jaws (Richard Kiel), who finds love and morphs from remorseless killer-for-hire into a just-in-time good guy (apparently a request made by director Lewis Gilbert’s grandson). Instead of character beats, we get comedy, and a regrettable trend toward silent movie era slapstick that will only grow over the next few films. Jaws himself is portrayed as too much of a bumbling oaf to ever represent any kind of threat to Bond, and as a result the first two thirds of the movie are devoid of any serious suspense. Even in Live and Let Die, Bond had to occasionally use only his wits to extricate himself from danger, but in this movie he always has the right gadget at the right time. (A couple of machine-gun toting thugs oblige Bond by simply watching agape as his gondola transforms itself – verrrrrry slowly, mind you – into a car for an escape across the Venice piazzas.) We need to have at least some sense that Bond might be in over his head to invest ourselves in his surviving, and unfortunately it doesn’t happen in this movie.
But there come moments, however, when you simply say the heck with all of that, and let the kid take over and get lost in the fantasy. Moonraker is such a strongly designed film that the visual elements forgive the flaws in performance and narrative choices, and is worth a look by the older, more discriminating you for that reason if nothing more. The kid will be wowed by the laser beams and the explosions and the half-naked gorgeous women, and whether we want to admit or not, sometimes, especially with James Bond, that’s enough.
Tomorrow: For Your Eyes Only comes down to earth but brings the wrong luggage with it.