Today, we’re launching the James Bond Project with what I believe to be the least successful Bond film to date. It’s Bond’s 11th adventure…
SETUP: A specialized US space shuttle called the Moonraker is loaned to the British Government, but then hijacked en route over the Atlantic Ocean. MI6 dispatches secret agent James Bond to locate the craft.
BUT IN REALITY: The shuttle’s billionaire developer, Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), is a madman with a private city floating in orbit and an entire fleet of Moonrakers. Drax stole his own shuttle when one of his private ships developed a flaw, leading to complications in his master plan. Drax schemes to wipe out the human race with a deadly nerve gas, and then repopulate with a select group of genetically perfect specimens. Bond objects and destroys Drax’s space city, taking the time to send Drax out an airlock without a suit.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: Drax is free from the scars or mutations typically found on a Bond villain, although with his short, lumpy frame, if his plan had succeeded, he would have instantly become the ugliest man in the world.
THE MUSCLE: Drax briefly employs Chang, a dim-witted Chinese manservant who tries to kill Bond with kendo stick in a glass museum. When Bond rightly dispatches him, Drax puts out an ad for a new henchman and hires Jaws (Richard Kiel), making his second and final appearance in this film after surviving The Spy Who Loved Me.
The story of Jaws is one of Moonraker‘s more memorable bits. Fans loved the guy and drowned the producers with mail, prompting a decision that Jaws should fall in love and have a change of heart. By the end of the movie, Jaws is solidly on the good team.
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: Bond hooks up with Dr. Holly Goodhead (oof), a research scientist with Drax industries, who also cashes secret paychecks from the CIA. While searching for information on Drax, Bond also briefly dallies with Corinne Dufour, the billionaire’s personal pilot. Drax turns her into kibble for his dobermans when he discovers her double-cross.
Arguably the most famous of the ladies in the film is Blanche Ravelec as Dolly, the Swiss Miss tourist who falls for Jaws in Rio and gives him a reason to switch sides and join Bond.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: Q supplies Bond with a wrist launcher using an assortment of armor piercing and poison tipped darts. The gadget comes in handy when Bond needs to escape a deathtrap in a centrifuge chamber and later when coaxing Drax into a waiting airlock.
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: The film exists solely to cash in on the success of another star-bound franchise. A different Bond movie was in preparation when Star Wars struck oil at the box office. Producer Cubby Broccoli scrapped the original project and pushed Moonraker into production to jump on board the space craze.
BOND’S BEST ONE-LINER: “Play it again, Sam!” He delivers it after putting Chang through a piano.
WORTH MENTIONING: Bond strangely goes the entire film without firing his signature Walther PPK. . . . The only line Jaws gets to speak in either of his Bond movies comes near the end of this film – “Well, here’s to us.”. . . . The movie shares almost nothing in common with the original Ian Fleming novel, leaving plot and character names free to be lifted for the Pierce Brosnan entry, Die Another Day.
OVERALL: Moonraker is a prime example of a movie that rocked my socks when I was a kid, but just doesn’t work for me anymore. James Bond movies are fantasy films. There is no realism here, by definition, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Bond can literally do anything and go anywhere. He’s a superman, and that’s a large part of his lasting appeal. But then, somehow, in Moonraker he went too far. The sight of Bond brandishing a laser beam may have been exciting for 1979 audiences – the film was the all-time Bond box office champion until Goldeneye – but Moonraker lost its grip on Bond’s reality and the franchise had to work overtime to get the character’s credibility back, downshifting next to the straight-faced For Your Eyes Only.
The real problem with Moonraker is that when it isn’t indulging in outright absurdity, it’s aggressively dull. Bond takes his time putting together a case on Drax, and even the film’s few highlights (such as the entertaining glass museum fight between Bond and Chang) aren’t enough to give the story the momentum it needs. For the most part, the movie just sits there on the screen, as if the very presence of both science and fiction is enough to generate a great science-fiction film. Worst of all, several key action sequences are stolen from other, much better, films. The final space battle between Drax’s army and the marines is nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the underwater climax in Thunderball, and a sequence where Bond uses a shuttle laser to destroy rogue satellites feels like a direct lift from the Death Star escape in Star Wars. There’s no inspiration here, no enjoyment, and it absolutely feels like a paycheck film for everyone involved. Bond has had his fumbles, but he’s rarely been this dead in the water.
Thankfully, Roger Moore’s best Bond films were still ahead of him.
The James Bond Project