Moonraker (1979)

The Principals: Director:
Lewis Gilbert.  Starring Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Corinne Clery, Bernard lee, Desmond Llewelyn, Lois Maxwell, Richard Kiel, Toshiro Suga, Walter Gotell, Emily Bolton.

The Premise: James Bond is on the case when one of the Moonrakers, the brand new reusable space vehicle (we know them as space shuttles) is hijacked in mid flight.  The trail takes him to the estate of Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), the multi-billionaire businessman whose company made the Moonraker.  Bond works with Drax employee, astronaut and undercover CIA agent, Dr. Holly Goodhead (Chiles), to try to uncover Drax’s plan for the shuttle, which includes a deadly toxin derived from an extinct orchid, as well as a hidden space station.  All the while, Bond is doggedly pursued by the metal-mouthed, hulking assassin and favorite playmate, Jaws (Kiel).

Is It Good: Moonraker is not one of the more highly-acclaimed Bond films.  Bond purists have long railed against its campiness, cheesiness, humor and the gelding of one of the most memorable Bond villains in the entire series.  It sold out to the Star Wars fad.  The entire third act is an exercise in pure space fantasy, when the Bond series (at least mostly) is rooted in realism and intrigue.  So egregious were the liberties taken with this film (like flying fueled shuttle off the back of a plane), that Bond had to go cold turkey on gadgets in his next outing, For Your Eyes Only. Those who dislike the lighter Roger Moore take on Bond will probably point to this film first for its faults.  I’m not one of those.  I love Moonraker; specifically for its faults, specifically for Roger Moore’s lighter take, specifically for the camp factor.

But I also love Moonraker because it still does have much of what the great Bond films had.  This includes utterly fantastic sets by production designer Ken Adam, a bigger scale not matched by many of the other films, and a fun villain in Michael Lonsdale.  Not every Bond film had to be as gritty as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or Casino Royale (both of which are fantastic Bond outings, particularly the latter).  Roger Moore tried the Connery take on Bond; didn’t quite work.  It took him until The Spy Who Loved Me, which was his best outing in the role, to put his own signature take on the franchise.  And that film is one of the better Bonds: grand in scale, great henchman in Jaws, and Barbara Bach was one of the sexiest women ever to appear in the series.  Moore made the lighter take work in that movie, and he continued it in Moonraker, to the next level even. 

Look at what Moonrakerr managed to pull off when compared to Spy.  The opening sequence is more impressive: an exciting skydiving sequence that took over 80 jumps to film.  Moonraker went from the U.S. (although most of the first act Drax castle stuff was shot in France) to Venice to Brazil.  The action was as good, including a ridiculous chase in the Venice canals to Piazza San Marco…in a hovercraft gondola of all things.  There’s a pretty good fight between Moore and Toshiro Suga’s Chang in a room full of glass.  Also, although it wasn’t Live and Let Die, the Amazon River boat chase was still pretty good.  Always love the dummy bodies that fly up out of the boats when they explode.  And a hang glider in the boat?  Nifty.  Garish as the third act space stuff was, it still nabbed the film a Best Visual Effects Oscar nom for frequent Bond effects artist, Derek Meddings.

Michael Lonsdale was memorable as the always-unexcitable Drax.  His monotone reaction to anything and everything was distinctive and fun.  Even Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld lost his cool once or twice.  Drax though?  This guy’s heart rate probably never got above 50 during sex.  And his delivery on some great one-liners was choice:

  • “James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.” 
  • “Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him.”
  • “Jaws, Mr. Bond must be cold after his swim. Place him where he can be assured of warmth.” 
  • “Allow me to introduce you to the airlock chamber. Observe, Mr. Bond, your route from this world to the next.   And you, Dr. Goodhead, your desire to become America’s first woman in space will shortly be fulfilled.” 
  • “Mr. Bond, you persist in defying my efforts to provide an amusing death for you.” 

And who the hell was Drax talking to when he ordered up Jaws as a replacement for Chang?  Dial-A-Hench?  Great stuff. 

As for other elements in the film, Lois Chiles wasn’t one of the more memorable Bond Girls, but was serviceable (and still quite sexy).  Ken Adam did his final, and still great, work on Moonraker.  As ludicrous as the third act was, you can’t fault his design of the Drax space station, which was fantastic and grand, and very representative of his work on the Bond series overall.  Also great were his launching room for the Moonrakers and the “lobby” of Drax’s Amazon hideaway.   As for Jaws, yeah, he did become a caricature here; there’s no arguing that.  Still, I was happy to see Richard Kiel back in the role again.  To continue the depiction of Jaws from Spy would have been repetitive and out of place here.  And there wasn’t going to be any outdoing the train scene from the previous film (although it was attempted on the gondolas).  All I can say is that Jaws’ transformation fit into what this movie was trying to do: be gaudy, high camp and adventurous humor. 

Is It Worth A Look: Moonraker is basically James Bond junk food.  I just happen to have a sweet tooth for it, though.  But the production value is still high and I think the movie is a romp.  Lewis Gilbert also directed Spy and You Only Live Twice.  Although he was more used to smaller fare, he knew how to handle the scale of these larger production Bond films well.  At the time, it was the most expensive Bond movie ever made (reportedly twice the budget of Spy).  It also became the highest grossing Bond until GoldenEye at $210,300,000 (FYI, that’s $613.4 million today) worldwide.  Moonraker was also the last appearance of Bernard Lee as M. 

Random Anecdotes: Several (via Wikipedia):

  • This is the third and final Bond film to feature a Shirley Bassey-sung theme song.  Johnny Mathis was originally slated to do it, but dropped out.
  • Lois Chiles got the role after she sat next to Lewis Gilbert on a flight.  She had been offered Barbara Bach’s role of Anya in Spy, but turned it down.
  • James Mason was originally considered for Drax.
  • Michael G. Wilson recommended Toshiro Suga for the role of Chang because he was one of Suga’s students.
  • Producers thought that the audience would have trouble accepting the height difference between Richard Kiel and Blanche Ravalec’s Dolly, until Kiel informed him that his real life wife was the same height.
  • Lois Maxwell’s 22-year-old daughter, Melinda, was cast as one of Drax’s master race chicks.
  • The space station set held a record for most zero-gravity wires in one scene.

Cinematic Soulmates: The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, A View To A Kill, Star Wars.