Reel Talk

Moonraker and Star Wars

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Hey, wait a minute. Yesterday the movie said that James Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only! This is most certainly not For Your Eyes Only! Well, I guess that isn’t a bad thing, because (spoiler alert), I actually like this movie more than For Your Eyes Only. Which I think it kind of blasphemous for me to say that, because it seems like most people hold that one in very high regards, and Moonraker with a bit of disdain. Which I get. Moonraker is a mess of a movie. But, similar to Diamonds Are Forever, there’s just something about this film that I can’t help but really enjoy. It’s incredibly stupid, has a whole score of problems, and is certainly one of the most reactionary entries to the whole franchise. Which is really saying something, since James Bond sure does love to chase trends. But maybe none more than this film. And yet, there’s something oddly endearing I find about this movie. It’s certainly one of the weaker films from the franchise, but I can’t help but watch this movie with a smile plastered on my face the entire time.

Now, I’m going to get into this more later on in the article, but the elephant in the room with Moonraker is obviously Star Wars. After The Spy Who Loved Me came out they fully intended to make the next film in the series For Your Eyes Only. They weren’t really planning on doing much with the plot of the short story that shares its name, primarily because it was a very short story. But then Star Wars came out, obliterated basically every box office record, and the producers of the Bond series realized there was a trend to chase. They needed to get Bond into space. And since at this point in the franchise they were still mining everything they possibly could from the Fleming stories there was only one possible choice. Moonraker. Even though the novel of Moonraker is radically different from the movie that we ended up getting. Because James Bond sure doesn’t go into space in that book. Hell, the book came out several years before Sputnik had been launched, let alone manned space-travel. The book was all about an insane weapon’s developer who was creating a series of ICBM’s for Britain called Moonrakers. And of course, he turns out to be a Nazi who wants to fire missiles at Britain. So, suffice it to say, they had to do some tweaking to that plot to get Bond into orbit.

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Moonraker opens up with a complicated little pre-credits sequence that first shows the theft of a Moonraker space-shuttle. It’s being transported while on loan to the British government, and is seemingly destroyed in a crash, while actually being stolen. Meanwhile, James Bond is at the end of some other adventure, fighting off a villain in an airplane before having a crazy mid-air battle with Jaws, returning from the Spy Who Loved Me, that leads us into the title sequence where we get another Shirley Bassey classic. Once that’s over though it’s straight to business, with Bond meeting with M and being told about the theft of the rocket. Because it was in British control at the time of the theft, there’s a lot of pressure for Bond to figure out what happened. Because when examining the wreckage it sure doesn’t look like the rocket was destroyed. And the first step of that investigation is for Bond to head to California and meet with Hugo Drax, the creator of the Moonraker. He flies out to America and gets shown around the Drax compound, meeting the odd billionaire himself, and being introduced to a visiting NASA scientist named Dr. Holly Goodhead. However, we immediately learn that Drax is up to no good, and as soon as Bond goes off to hit on Goodhead he orders his henchman Chang to kill Bond. Which of course means that Chang is going to speed up a centrifuge chamber to try and kill him. Bond barely escapes though, and gets to spend the night in Drax’s mansion so he can get some sneaking in. And he actually hits some pay-dirt, finding some blueprints in Drax’s office, including some mysterious glass tubes that are being crafted in Venice. So it’s off to Italy!

Bond arrives in Venice and heads straight to the glass-factory, which is some sort of store/factory/museum, and sure enough he finds the peculiar vials that Drax has ordered. And while leaving the factory he happens to run into Holly Goodhead, who claims to be in Venice for a conference. The two agree to meet up later that night, and Bond then hops in a gondola and starts getting attacking by more of Drax’s assassins. But once they’re taken care of Bond makes his way back to the factory, and finds a hidden laboratory inside. And inside the laboratory are some scientists creating dozens of vials of a very potent nerve agent using those glass tubes. Bond steals one of the tubes, and ends up getting in a fight with Chang, who was waiting for him. The two battle in the factory, destroying basically everything in that museum, until they make their way to a clocktower that’s doubling as storage for the vials. Bond notices that the crates are going to Rio de Janeiro, so after he kills Chang he knows what his next stop is. But first he meets up with Goodhead, and learns something surprising. She’s not only a NASA trained scientist, but she’s also a CIA agent tasked with investigating Drax. So, Bond has a partner now, and the two head to Brazil to continue hunting Drax. And once Bond gets to Brazil he finds someone surprising waiting for him. Jaws. Drax has hired him to take care of Bond, and he attacks both Bond and Goodhead on a cable-car, before meeting a woman named Dolly that he instantly falls in love with. But Drax has some other operatives in the area, and the succeed in kidnapping Holly, leaving Bond on his own again. And after a quick visit with some MI6 folks, Q deduces that the nerve agent is made from a particular kind of orchid.

So Bond gets in a boat-chase with Jaws, and ends up launching himself off a waterfall in a hang-glider so he can fly right to the part of the Amazon where the orchids are. And when he gets there, the movie starts to get insane. Because hidden in an ancient temple is a secret base belonging to Drax. Bond is reunited with Goodhead, and learns that Drax and a whole army of people are getting ready to board a secret fleet of Moonraker rockets and head into space. And to add insult to injury, Drax is going to kill Bond and Goodhead by sticking them in the exhaust of the rocket that will take him to the stars. Bond and Goodhead barely manage to escape, and end up hijacking one of the Moonraker rockets, and heading into space with a ship full of weird young people. The rocket flies on a predetermined path, and takes them to a hidden space station that Drax has built. Holly realizes that it must have some sort of radar jamming device, and they make that their top priority. After learning that Drax is planning on dropping satellites with the nerve agent down on the earth, killing everyone so he can repopulate it with his new society of beautiful people. Bond and Goodhead manage to destroy the jamming device, allowing the United States to finally see the station and send up a group of space marines, while Bond and Goodhead get captured. They’re brought before Drax, who orders Jaws to kill them. But Bond is able to convince Jaws that Drax’s weird obsession with beauty doesn’t include Jaws or his girlfriend, and that they’re going to be killed, so Jaws switches sides. Which is right when the space marines show up, and war breaks out. Drax’s army fights the space marines and Bond chases Drax around the space station. Bond is able to kill Drax, but several of the nerve gas satellites had already been launched. So Bond and Goodhead get in a rocket and chase down the satellites, destroying them with lasers. They then of course have to have sex in space, while MI6 and the CIA accidentally watch.

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Moonraker is not a very good movie. But, to me, it’s kind of delightfully bad. There are some really terrible moments, like James Bond riding around in a hover gondola in the middle of Venice while we get a bunch of goofy reaction-shots from people, but there’s something about the movie that endears itself to me. Roger Moore is quippy as all hell, and has probably reached the point where he’s stopped giving a crap about these movies, but he’s still charming and a lot of fun. Michael Lonsdale is kind of hilariously evil as Hugo Drax, basically dropping all pretense at not being the villain immediately, and just reveling it being the bad guy and dropping as many ridiculous evil lines as he can. Lois Chiles is just kind of fine as Holly Goodhead, but it’s not really her fault that she isn’t given much to do other than stand there and take it while James Bond acts incredulous that a woman can be a scientist. And then there’s Jaws. Richard Kiel is great, and I think it’s hilarious that they brought him back for this movie just so that he could have a face turn and become a good guy at the end. Really, I think the movie’s biggest flaw is just how utterly off the rails it goes at the end. James Bond movies are not frequently known for their realism, but nothing had ever gone even close to having James Bond and an army of space marines get in a laser-gun fight in space.

And it’s that climax that becomes the most notable thing about Moonraker. The Bond franchise has always chased trends, it’s one of the things that it’s known for, but I don’t think there’s ever been such a drastic example of them desperately trying to remain relevant. The producers of this franchise saw the absolutely monumental success of Star Wars and were apparently terrified that they were going to be left behind. So they completely dropped For Your Eyes Only and raced off on a mission to get Bond into space. Apparently whatever the cost, because this movie ended up costing more than twice what the Spy Who Loved Me did, and you can tell that they took a lot of time to get their special effects ready. What they didn’t take a lot of time on was the plot. Because you may have noticed that his movie feels a little familiar. Maybe like something we’ve already discussed? And that would probably be because this movie is basically the exact same as The Spy Who Loved Me. Both feature a megalomaniac billionaire who wants humanity to be destroyed so that they can live in some uninhabitable place. They accomplish this by having stealing vehicles, and bringing them to their gigantic bases. And when the authorities find out they get in a giant fight where two armies fight each other. They’re the same movie. Hell, it’s also basically the plot of You Only Live Twice as well. And, wouldn’t you know it, all three of these movies were directed by Lewis Gilbert, which is a little odd. This movie was desperately trying to be something it wasn’t. They even have James Bond turn off a computer-guided laser at the end so he can basically use the Force and shoot down the final satellite by himself. It actually shows tremendous restraint that they didn’t try to have Q make a goddamn lightsaber in this movie. The franchise had never tried this hard to ape another movie, and maybe never would again, and at the end of the day that’s probably Moonraker’s greatest strength and weakness. It’s so strange, and becomes such an outlier to the rest of the franchise, but that’s also kind of why I like it so much. It’s weird. It’s really weird. But it’s also kind of great that there’s a weird sci-fi Bond movie hidden in the franchise that completely feels unlike any of the other movies. It had to do something to differentiate itself from the other films in the franchise it was copying.

Moonraker was written by Christopher Wood, directed by Lewis Gilbert, and released by United Artists, 1979.

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