Serial, Super Serial: Moonraker

Moonraker

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

I don’t know who writes the Netflix plot summaries for movies, but please sign me up. The entries for James Bond films have been particularly amazing. I don’t think I can do much better than them setting up Moonraker: “Agent 007 (Roger Moore) blasts into orbit in this action-packed adventure that takes him to Venice, Rio de Janeiro … and outer space.”

Yes, this is the film where Bond official goes where no Bond has gone before. The series hasn’t shied away from aping popular film genres — from blaxploitation (Live and Let Die) to martial arts (The Man with the Golden Gun) — but this one takes the cake. Released only two years after the great success of Star Wars, Moonraker quite unsuccessfully captures the magic of that series while cashing in on its coattails, becoming the biggest hit in the whole franchise until the Pierce Brosnan films of the late ’90s.

After a Moonraker space shuttle on loan to England is hijacked mid-flight, MI6 must investigate the crime. This takes Bond on another whirlwind trip to California, Venice and Rio (note: three places Bond hasn’t been) and on the trail of the uber-villainous Sir Hugo Drax, who just so happens to run the company that builds said space ships. Eventually, Bond uncovers Drax’s sinister plot and follows him to a space station, where they have their final showdown.

To say that Moonraker is my least favorite film of the series so far is an understatement. I can’t find much to like here. The premise is obviously very campy, but the tone never feels silly enough to enjoy. The villains and Bond Girls are more uninteresting here than in any of the previous films. The film even goes so far as to reintroduce one of my favorite characters of the series and make him a total punchline. It looks and feels like a Bond film, but this one is certainly a step below.

[Bond, James Bond]

There isn’t much new to report on Bond, but one thing I’m starting to notice is that Roger Moore is getting a little long in the tooth. I still find him a reliable and believable Bond (as long as there isn’t too much simple action for him without a stunt double), but he’s starting to show his age. In 1979, Moore was 52 years old, 11 years older than Connery was in his last film, Diamonds Are Forever — and you can remember how noticeable his age was at that time. Strange that I had never noticed Moore is actually three years older than Connery; I just imagined that producers would cast younger when replacing an actor in a franchise role. This could prove badly for the next few films, with Moore still having three films to go (he will be the ripe old age of 58 during his last Bond picture). I just hope a future mission doesn’t involve Bond needing to be in bed by 8 pm.

[The Mission]

In Moonraker, the mission objectives are fairly clear — a space ship has been hijacked and needs to be recovered. The problem with the plot, though, is that there seems to be no real mystery. From the first steps Bond takes, it’s absolutely clear who’s evil and involved with the space heist, so I’m not sure why Bond has to gallivant across the world. Although enemy objectives become more defined by the end of the film, there are no real twists in the plot, so Bond could have easily taken the information he gained from day one and turned certain parties over to the authorities. To combat such a simple solution, there’s a minor subplot wherein British government agents don’t believe Bond’s claims of the villain’s identity, but the film makes it so clear from the get-go of the bad guy’s complete evilness that attempts to say otherwise are laughable. Of course, if Bond doesn’t travel the world, we don’t have a Bond movie, and I get that — but at least make the locales and the side missions interesting enough to carry the film. Moonraker just seems like a lot of waiting around for the climax.

[The Villains]

The main villain of the film, Sir Hugo Drax, is played by veteran French actor Michael Lonsdale. Before we meet Drax, we’re told that he operates Drax Industries, which constructs the Moonraker space shuttles. Bond mentions that Drax is “obsessed with the conquest of space.” If this isn’t enough obvious reason to know he’s a baddie, here are a few more: he is incredibly rich and lives a secluded life; he has beautiful women all around him for no reason, as well as a Japanese servant who dresses in traditional Japanese garb; he owns man-eating dogs; and he proudly bears a devilish goatee. From the first few moments of Bond’s arrival at Drax’s compound, his life is already in danger, yet he goes about his business as if nothing has happened.

Drax is not only inexplicably evil, but also an elitist. He has a very classical European vibe to him — very properly dressed, plays classic piano, hunts pheasants, etc. Once we understand the extent of his plot, destroying Earth and re-populating it with a master race of blond-haired beauties, his roots mirror many real European villains before him.

Jaws makes a return, making him the only henchman to enter into multiple films. It obviously doesn’t make much sense for him to be working with Drax, but I was happy to see him come back. Sadly, though, the character is completely stripped of all threat and played completely for comedy. Scene after scene with Jaws puts him in slapstick performances of him getting injured and surviving — similar to The Spy Who Loved Me, but without the menacing edge. The film has him fall from an airplane without the use of a parachute, and it dresses him up in a clown suit during Carnivale. Instead of Michael Myers he’s much more Wile-e-Coyote, a big old doofus who doesn’t know when to quit.

According to Lewis Gilbert (as heard on the DVD’s commentary track), Jaws was intended to be a bad guy throughout the film, but he received so much fan mail from young children wanting him to be a good guy that they decided to switch the ending scenes. Ugh. Because of this, there’s a tacked-on subplot where Jaws falls in love with a tiny blond. Sure, they make quite the odd couple, but they destroy an interesting character in the process — akin to some of the tougher Bond Girls giving in to the title character’s sexual advances by the end.

[The Bond Girl]

Moonraker bucks the trend of previous films and settles on one major Bond Girl instead of two. There are a few very minor girls that Bond interacts with, but only for one or two scenes, not giving us any substantial information about them. Holly Goodhead is an American scientist and CIA agent who spends most of the mission with Bond. She’s a decent foil for Bond, as he just can’t believe that she has a doctorate and is a bonafide scientist, even though she is far more competent than many of the professional girls he has worked with previously. Unfortunately, her seriousness provides few other interesting features. It seems like there isn’t much to say about a Bond Girl who isn’t a ditz or a bimbo.

[The Gadgets]

Bond’s main gadget is a wristwatch that contains a cyanide dart, triggered by the wrist, which comes in handy on multiple occasions. The more spectacular gadgets, though, are laser guns, introduced during a gadget-testing montage and employed in the space battle scenes at the end of the film. To this point, most of Q’s gadgets have been minorly outlandish, but reinforced by actual science. That’s thrown out the window here, with Star Wars-style weapons drawing more from fantasy than science.

[The Song]

“Moonraker” is a mellow ballad that isn’t a particularly memorable song, but it’s harmless enough. I think I was mostly transfixed by the fact that this is Shirley Bassey’s third theme, with the previous two being probably the brashest songs yet (“Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever”). During the closing credits there is a peppier version of the song, drawing from disco roots, which is less digestible.

“Where are you? Why do you hide?
Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side?
Just like the moonraker goes in search of his dream of gold,
I search for love, for someone to have and hold,
I’ve seen your smile in a thousand dreams,
Felt your touch and it always seems,
You love me,
You love me.”

As you can gather from the lyrics, the song is fairly nonsensical in terms of the plot of the film, a slight departure from recent title songs. I guess writing a love song about a spaceship doesn’t exactly work.

[Random Thoughts]

- In most of the films now, Bond is being pulled off of another mission to go on the mission of the film. I wonder what his other missions are like. Well, probably very similar, actually.

- MI6 must be getting pretty annoyed with all of these expensive vehicles going missing. It seems like at some point they would just buff up security for prevention.

- How did Bond not realize Jaws was on board the tiny personal plane he was taking? A man that big tends to stick out.

- At the beginning of the film, there is an extensive skydiving stunt that actually works pretty well. It is probably the most impressive stunt of the series so far, especially since it looks genuine and avoids close-ups of Moore with obvious green screen.

- Why would MI6 be so surprised by a space shuttle being hijacked mid-flight? It has happened before, people!

- Drax employs pilots that are very scantily clad — they must have been rejected from PAN-AM.

- When in Venice, do as Venetians do: canal boat chases.

- Bond’s canal taxi just so happens to also be a hovercraft. When he propels out of the water and onto the street birds literally do double-takes and Italians wonder if they have had too much wine.

- The British Minister of Defense is a close friend of Drax and plays bridge with him — he apparently isn’t a very good judge of character.

- If I’ve ever learned one thing, it’s never trust a man in a clown suit.

- The 7-Up product placement(s) in Rio don’t quite work as well as the Red Stripe placement in Jamaica.

- This film totally wastes using California as a setting — they don’t use it for anything but Drax’s home base. There isn’t a beach scene or anything! And could you imagine Bond in Hollywood?

- The fight Bond has with Jaws on the cable car is one of the worst — slow and preposterous.

- We get to have killer dogs and a killer snake, so what’s next? Mosquitos? Porcupines? We’re running out of dangerous nature.

- I’m pretty sure people can’t float around space shooting each other. But as we’ve already established, I’m no scientist.

- Why are the suits so surprised at the end when they see Bond and Goodhead hooking up? Don’t they know it’s the conclusion to all his missions?

- A nice ending line for Q upon seeing Bond and Goodhead hooking up: “He must be attempting re-entry.” And here I thought Q was just a stuffy old man.

SERIAL, SUPER SERIAL will return in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY

tags: james bond, lewis gilbert, moonraker, super serial

  • Anonymous

    The Star Wars connection is interesting. Even the promo poster for Moonraker has a very SW feel, with Bond and Holly in a Luke/Leia pose aped from early Star Wars promotional art. The tagline of the film, too, has a vague Star Trek feel, which is interesting at 1979 is the year Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out. 

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