Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Twelve: Moonraker (1979)

The 1970s was a strange decade.  The era produced (or popularised) so many of the most lauded US filmmaking auteurs: Friedkin, Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma et al.  It was also the decade that seeded, however, the modern, blockbuster-driven market we have today.  Consider that in 1972 The Godfather sat atop the list of the highest grossing films of all time.  Then take a moment to consider whether that type of film could ever lead such a list today.  1975’s Jaws is often credited with creating the modern blockbuster; but there is little doubt that the more pervasive impact on the industry came with 1977’s Star Wars.

In the aftermath of Star Wars the industry changed overnight.  The ability to sit through multiple screenings of the same film – consecutively – disappeared, as ticketing practices tightened – due to the audience demand leading to disproportionate instances of people staying all day.  The principle of cinemas and studios sharing revenues equally disappeared, as Lucasfilm and Fox were able to demand minimum durations for the films to be shown, with initially, for cinemas, eye watering terms, and revenues evening out only later in a film’s run.  This led, in many cases, to the actual film becoming a loss leader for cinemas – and directly on to the cost being loaded onto concessions.  So, George Lucas may well be the reason popcorn is so expensive!

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The on-screen effect was equally dramatic.  The Star Trek franchise – previously working on a revival of the TV Series (to have been named Star Trek: Phase II) – suddenly had its plans changed as Paramount saw dollar signs.  Space was big business – we got Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and a big screen version of the franchise that has since run to 13 films.  On TV Battlestar Galactica appeared within a couple of years.  Surely this couldn’t affect a British gentleman spy with a penchant for lounge suits and dinner jackets?

At the end of The Spy Who Loved Me, the credits finished with the announcement that James Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only.  Post-Star Wars (a film released close to that previous Bond entry), however, the Bond producers made the decision to cash-in by taking Bond to space.  As, inexplicably, Ian Fleming hadn’t considered sending James Bond into space in his novels, it would have to be an original story.  The book – truly one the best of the series – deals with an attempt to attack London (“Moonraker” is a nuclear missile).  Although the villain retains the same name, it is a character different in conception, and nothing else remains from the story.  It appears to have been chosen for the presence of the word ‘Moon’.

Roger Moore returned for his fourth outing.  Originally signing a three-film deal, with an option for a fourth, this was the last time EON would be able to call on his services, without first having to renegotiate.  In the film the space shuttle, “Moonraker”, belonging to Drax Industries, headed by Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), is hijacked.  MI6 assign Bond to investigate.  Meeting Drax in California (due to tax incentives, much of this film was shot in France – even the London scenes), Bond is introduced to Dr Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles – two years on from declining a role in The Spy Who Loved Me).  Surviving a couple of assassination attempts, Bond is able to access blueprints to a glass vial being produced in Venice, Italy.

Once in Venice, Bond discovers Drax’s laboratory, and that the vials are to hold a deadly nerve gas.  Bond follows Drax’s operation to Rio de Janeiro, where there are further attempts on his life by Drax’s henchman Jaws (a returning Richard Kiel).  Bond learns the toxin hails from an Amazon orchid.  Once in the jungle, Bond locates the base of operations, where four shuttles are about to take off.  Posing as pilots, Bond and Goodhead head to space, where they have to stop Drax using the nerve gas to kill humanity, in order that he can utilise the perfect young men and women Drax has assembled to create a new master race.

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Moonraker represented the third time in the director’s chair for Lewis Gilbert.  It has been argued that he made the same film three times.  Well, the hijacking sequence to start the film appeared – in variants – in both You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me; a master race plot was in Spy, and the whole tone of this film is closer than those two entries than anything else in the series.  In reality, the first two feel extremely similar – replace spacecraft with submarines, and it’s much the same plot; whereas Moonraker is most like Spy in that master race angle.

Moonraker has the reputation of being something of a punchline in the Bond series. So, before discussing that, it is worth noting the film has strong positives.  It marks Christopher Wood’s second (and final) screenplay in a row.  As with the previous film, the dialogue is sharp; the lines funnier than anything Tom Mankiewicz produced in the early-70s, and streets ahead of the tired quips from the last couple of Moore entries.  Moore himself looks better than last time out: his hair is neater, and he looks like he has lost weight since Spy.  This is aided by wardrobe choices, as Bond is dressed in a lot of black in this film.  His wardrobe had been very beige last time.  This is the last time Moore won’t look too old in the role… more on that next time.

The film looks and sounds wonderful, with Jean Tournier’s sole outing as cinematographer yielding beautiful scenes, some of which carry a dreamlike quality (Drax’s home, in particular).  John Barry’s work in this era was getting ever more melodic and romantic (check out his score to Somewhere in Time for a beautiful example), and his score here is, arguably, in the top-five of all of his Bond entries.  Finally, this is the final appearance of Bernard Lee as M.  Although close to appearing in the 1981 entry (again, more next time), this ends up being an unexpected swansong.  Despite looking pale (Lee suffered from alcoholism), this is one of the best Bond-M exchanges, with the character having to make a decision in Venice as to whether to trust his agent, in the face of strong, embarrassing evidence that Bond has simply got it wrong this time.  It is fitting that EON made no attempt to replace Lee until 1983.  He remains the definitive M.

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Moonraker is nowhere near as bad as its reputation.  It is the weakest of the Lewis Gilbert entries (even allowing for the personal view that the gulf in quality between this and The Spy Who Loved Me is nowhere near as big as believed; this being a more tonally consistent work, if derivative and daft).  The film pushes the series a too far into the realms of safe and silly, with Jaws.. er.. defanged?  Schoolchildren had written to EON in large numbers asking if he could be a ‘goody’, and EON obliged them!  This ruins a character iconic in series history; and providing him with a love interest was just twee.  Bond’s interactions with women are more misjudged than usual: his meeting with Goodhead staggering for his surprise that females have doctorates, and his engagement with a female in Rio leading to the thought that this Bond is literally only ever thinking about sex.  In the best of all worlds, The Spy Who Loved Me would look and sound this good (though without losing the wonderful “Bond 77” theme from that film), and Michael Lonsdale would grace that film instead of Curd Jürgens.  In all other regards, Spy is, comfortably, the superior film; but the ludicrousness of the space-angle aside, much of Moonraker plays as a solid, if silly, Bond film (just don’t get us on to the double-taking pigeon).

Moonraker took $210 million at the Worldwide box office.  This remained a series high until GoldenEye in 1995.  Commercially, the decision to follow the Star Wars craze had paid off in spades.  Artistically, though, EON must have realised that there was nowhere else to go.  There is no “bigger” after Bond has been put in space.  Critics – though not hateful – simply laughed at the tone of the film.  Not for the last time, the series was at the end of the bloat phase, and it was time to get smaller.  Bond was ready for a return to that Fleming-esque tone.  The question was, would Roger Moore be there to play him?

The Road to Bond 25 will return with For Your Eyes Only (1981).

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