Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Screenplay by Christopher Wood
Original Release Date: 27th June, 1979 (U.K), 29th June, 1979 (U.S)
James Bond very nearly did make it to space one time. If it hadn’t been for getting into a space rocket incorrectly, Sean Connery’s Bond might just have made it to the cosmos, but the character would have to wait twelve years and a different face before blast off.
The Spy Who Loved Me had been a tremendously successful film, but it wasn’t the biggest hit of 1977. That honour belonged to Star Wars, taking the template established by the merchandisable nature of 007 from the 60s and making it into something else entirely, one inspired by Flash Gordon.
The success of the film meant that many wanted a piece of that outer space pie, and Bond wasn’t above aiming for it itself.
The Bond series had always touched upon the precipice of fantasy and science fiction, even if it never quite went too far with it to the point it could never come back from. It might have seemed that would still be the case given that Cubby Broccoli insisted that Moonraker wouldn’t be ‘science fiction but science fact’ and yet this would become a Bond film that features a massive battle in space between heroes and villains blasting themselves away with laser guns.
It seems apt that the Bond series would leave the 70s trying to imitate another type of film, because if truth be told, a lot of Bond in the 70s had been doing that anyway.
Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun cherry picked elements from 70s filmmaking fashions, with the use of blaxploitation elements and martial arts film dotted throughout Roger Moore’s first two films. While The Spy Who Loved Me turned to an influx of fantasy that was becoming a popular thing in the latter part of the decade, it did so while recycling elements from its own franchise. For all intents and purposes, the tenth film in the series was You Only Live Twice in the ocean.
Strangely, Moonraker would try to apply the space setting to a screenplay remarkably similar to the last film but go even further by taking its lead character out of Earth’s orbit. Essentially Moonraker takes a villain with similar villainous philosophies, applies it to an outer space setting and throws in a plethora of similar moments from the last film, even down to structuring the pre-title sequence not only in a similar way, but also in the manner in which Lewis Gilbert films it.
Instead of a submarine being stolen, we have a space shuttle. We cut to M getting word, asking where 007 is, an inadvertent piece of innuendo from Moneypenny and then cut to Bond getting caught up in a brilliantly spectacular action sequence with breath-taking stunt work.
The action sequence in question is wonderful and it’s here we must credit second unit director John Glen for pulling this off. As silly and preposterous as some of it is, there is a wonderful sense of scale and spectacle to some of the proceedings that is breath-taking. Certainly, if you look close enough you can tell it’s not Roger Moore doing most of it and you can just about make out the parachute underneath the clothing, but it’s still a superlative piece of action cinema.
Arguably, the tone of the film is set by the return of Jaws. Massively popular with audiences in the last film, Richard Kiel returns and for many is indicative of the issues with the film’s tone. The biggest criticism thrown at the Moore-era is how it frequently turned toward comedy and Moonraker is a prime example of the series turning more towards a more overt and broader brand of humour.
Make no mistake, the film could very much be labelled a comedy adventure film, because it’s awash with jokes and slapstick. It can rub some audiences up the wrong way, while others embrace it.
For the life of me, I know I should complain and be more critical, but maybe because this was one of the first films in the series I remember watching (I seem to recall renting the VHS from my local video shop) but I’ve always had a soft spot for it, mainly because you can see the wood through the (rottweiler chasing) trees.
Its reliance on more overt comedy means that the film maybe doesn’t have the verisimilitude that even The Spy Who Loved Me had, and there’s a lack of even the dramatic focus of some of the last film’s more interesting scenes. Lois Chiles is actually good fun as Holly Goodhead, but the tension between herself and Bond comes down to Bond’s casual misogyny than anything else hardwired into the story or narrative. There’s none of the dramatic drive that came from Anya learning that 007 killed her lover or the sense of suspense that came from knowing that information ahead of the characters.
There is one moment of genuine suspense to be had when Goodhead gets Bond onto a subterfuge where Drax’s henchman then tries to kill our hero. It’s a rare moment of genuine terror for Moore’s Bond and his slightly shaken nature is perhaps the only time in the film when the screenplay calls for him to show a sense of vulnerability. For the majority of the running time, Moore is very much in suave superhero mode, passing of any danger with a joke, smiling knowingly at Jaws, and being for the most part inflapable.
It’s very much peak Lewis Gilbert-Bond. Taken as a trilogy, Gilbert’s films were very much the most fantasy laden films, with two of them making use of some genuinely grandiose John Barry scores that suited the imagery spectacularly (and Moonraker features some of the composer’s best ever compositions), and that imagery being brought to live vividly and imaginatively by Ken Adam’s astonishing production design, this film marking his last time designing sets for a Bond film and doing so in spectacular fashion. They are also the most epic in terms of plot, with the world frequently in danger, and with villains planning genuinely apocalyptic scenarios.
While Donald Pleasance’s performance as Blofeld is perhaps the most iconic, Michael Lonsdale’s performance as Drax is the best of Gilbert’s villains. Drolly delivering one line liners as if they are going out of fashion, Lonsdale’s way around a witty retort or threat makes him on the most enjoyable of the Moore-era’s villains, a funny and grounded character instigating epic chaos around him.
Gilbert’s depiction of Bond himself is perhaps the most purely entertaining. All three of his films feature Bond in a very cocky mode, frequently laughing off danger with a one-liner and almost greeting it with indifference. The Spy Who Loved Me is perhaps the outlier in this regards because it does feature moments of genuine drama, such as when Moore’s Bond tells Anya that he killed her lover and which Moore performs in an appropriately serious manner with little humour that for once it’s easy to believe that he is genuinely Ian Fleming’s character. While Moonraker does feature the subterfuge sequence, it’s a rare moment of genuine danger for the character and is very quickly brushed aside.
As much fun as the film is, and it is a lot of fun if in the right mood, anything resembling subtlety is thrown out a very tall window. The humour is overt, Jaws falls in love, there’s a double taking pigeon, Bond rides a gondola that turns into a hovercraft and the use of product placement isn’t even subtle, with 7up and British Airways logos being positively thrown into the action sequences at one point.
It’s an easy film to roll your eyes to and yet sometimes resistance can be futile. It can be very easy to be cynical about the whole endeavour. Like The Spy Who Loved Me (and You Only Live Twice), the title was used and little else. The only reason the title Moonraker was utilised here was because it was the closest Fleming title that could be used in a space setting manner.
Fleming’s novel may only have featured a rocket, but it was one of his most entertaining reads, beginning as if it was going to be a replay of sorts of Casino Royale with Bond engaging in a battle over a game of cards, before turning into something grander and more entertaining with a superlative second half set amongst the cliffs of Dover and a rocket that poses a massive threat to the city of London.
Elements and ideas from Fleming’s novel would end up being utilised in Goldeneye and Die Another Day (not least the initial idea to have Gala Brand be a character before changing the name to Miranda Frost), but it might have made a fine film in itself before being stripped for parts (the name) and little else.
Once again, this wasn’t the first time that had happened, but it’s interesting to note the direction the Bond series would go in during the 80s and how the relationship with the Fleming source materials would become more tangible.
Moonraker represented a peak for the Bond series in terms of box office, but also in terms of incredible spectacle. The series wasn’t the only piece of movie making going on that was trying to replicate the incredible success of Star Wars, but it was arguably the one that was really going for it with big budget gusto.
As well as Eon, there was the likes of Starcrash, which starred Caroline Munroe from The Spy Who Loved Me, as well as boasting a music score from John Barry, not to mention the Roger Corman-produced Battle Beyond the Stars, both of which weren’t exactly big budget productions. Paramount Pictures, meanwhile, were getting ready to bring back Star Trek as a movie franchise with Robert Wise’s lush relaunch of the franchise, something that was having a lot of money thrown at it.
Fantasy and spectacle were very fashionable as the 70s came to a close and if Bond were to close the decade out with For Your Eyes Only, it may not have worked, although it does beg the question; if Eon had pushed ahead with it, how might it have looked in 1979? For all the complaints that many have with Moonraker, it was a massive success and until Goldeneye in 1995, it would remain the highest grossing film of the series.
The coming decade would be an interesting time for the series. While Broccoli had predicted a course towards fantasy very successfully with The Spy Who Loved Me, it was hard for many to shake the feeling that Bond had gone as far into the realm of spectacle as he could go and to try and top Moonraker would see the series become ever more far-fetched, even if it was a film the public appeared to enjoy.
The history of Bond has always been littered with these moments and history would repeat itself again come the end of the Brosnan-era and the onslaught of fantasy and CGI in Die Another Day. Entering a new decade, the series would see itself looking away from fantasy and would literally head back down to Earth.
While the series had frequently discarded many elements from Fleming’s stories and basically borrow his titles and nothing more, the series was going to spend the next decade grasping the work of Bond’s creator more fully, not to mention the next Bond himself, and with it a decade of movies that would run the gamut of silly one minute and gritty the next.
The era of John Glen was arriving, and it was doing so during a period when action cinema itself would be turning towards new stories, new stars, and a new style of action hero.
Bond, James Bond will return with…For Your Eyes Only.