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Non-Review Review: Moonraker

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

James Bond has always been susceptible to trends. Be it a nod to the kung-fu craze of the late seventies in The Man With The Golden Gun or the more modern focus on the Bourne film series in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the film series has always been aware of popular tastes. While certain unions might seem a little eccentric (the fusion of the series with Miami Vice to produce Licence to Kill), there’s probably not a more bizarre blend than the attempt to emulate the success of the original Star Wars films within the framework of a film franchise based around a suave British spy.

Roger Moore’s hanging on in there…

I know that most film fans point to Licence to Kill or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as divisive Bond films. In fairness, those two have earned the title, remaining hotly debated to this day (just take a look at some of the blogger reviews!). Still, there’s a divide between Bond fans over Moonraker, the film which earned Roger Moore the self-appointed title of “the first Bond in space”. Very few fans will argue that it’s a classic or essential Bond film, but those critics will typically be divided on whether the film is a camp fiasco or an endearingly quirky effort.

Truth be told, I find myself more in the former camp that the latter. Despite the sense of humour and the ridiculous idea of putting Britain’s top secret agent in space, I just can’t ignore the fact that the movie makes absolutely no sense, from the opening scene straight through to the final sequence. On the other hand, it does over Q perhaps one of the wittiest one-liners in the entire history of the franchise (and in a “PG” film too, no less).

“Lower the space periscope!”

Seriously though, just think about the movie for a moment. In the opening scene, Bond finds himself the target of a random assassination attempt on the flight home. What, is he flying commercial? Surely MI6 does some sort of background check on these people – but both the flight attendant and pilot are in on it. This despite the fact that, later in the film, he knows the freakin’ gondola driver enough to phone for him! And then, in the same action sequence, there’s Jaws for some reason. Who hired him to kill Bond? Since Bond was supposed to die in the plane (and only escaped by fluke), why is Jaws parachuting through the air? Did somebody hire Jaws just to fly behind Bond’s plane in case Bond jumped out in mid-air and just needed to be pursued?

Of course, the stunt work is impressive throughout the film – but especially during that opening sequence. That said, I could have done without the ridiculously corny image of the pilot shaking his fists at Bond in frustration as he falls to his death (I like to think his final words were “… and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for that meddling spy”). The circus landing is an especially awkward piece of visual humour which kinda falls flat (pardon the pun). Were they foreshadowing Octopussy by any chance?

A role he can sink his teeth into…

And that’s before the credits role. Just think about the movie’s plot for a moment. A rich guy who builds shuttles and plans to wipe out the human race from his secret orbital base decides to steal back one of his own shuttles from the US and British governments while trying to avoid creating any suspicion. We’re informed earlier on that he is a man of nearly infinite means (“what doesn’t own, he doesn’t want”) and that he builds the shuttles himself, so why does he steal a shuttle – thus sparking an international incident and investigation? “Because I needed it,” he explains to Bond. “One of my own Moonrakers developed a fault during assembly.” Dude, you build the freakin’ things and you’re a billionaire! If you can wait a few months, you can complete your plan without stealing back something with your name on it from under the noses of two major world governments. If you’re trying to avoid drawing attention to yourself, that ain’t how you do it.

And then he manages to organise the most ridiculously inefficient assassination attempts on Bond I’ve ever seen. Even Christopher Walken’s “horse racing course… of doom” is more impressive than this selection of brain-dead death traps. Never mind the fact that killing the British secret agent will immediately draw attention to you, which is exactly what you want to avoid. He tries to kill him in a centrifuge, which is an odd means of assassination as “centrifuge accident” is exactly the kind of thing that’s going to draw a lot of publicity. Then he tries to kill Bond while out hunting. Despite standing behind Bond with a shotgun, he instead places his shooter in Bond’s line of sight, and is amazed when the guy ends up dead. If I’m going to rig a fake funeral through Venice with a hitman in the coffin, I’m going to give him something a bit more powerful than lots and lots of throwing knives, but that’s just me.

I’m not sure Bond is suited to this sort of adventure…

Maybe it’s a problem with the staff, to be honest. His assassins don’t seem especially competent. Not even during the chase, but on the ride home, one of the bad guys manages to fall out of a turning boat. I hope he got his pay docked and put on a water safety course. It’s no wonder that when an akido-themed henchman shows up he’s wearing the full safety gear. Because you can’t be too careful. Or conspicuous. It’s no surprise that Drax has to hire outside his organisation in order to deal with Bond.

Drax himself makes for an interesting villain – at least in the early stages of the film. Towards the climax, he’s just another genocidal madman – perhaps too soon following the previous film – but early on he shows some interesting traits. He’s a man essentially without nationality – with a French accent, living in California, pretending to be British. It’s a very Ian Fleming villain (perhaps the most faithful part of the film, and – even then – more to the general themes than the specific story). He very clearly strives to be upper-class British (with the pheasant hunting, playing bridge with government ministers and quoting of Wilde), while his ambitions reflect that he knows he ultimately never will be.

Spaced out?

In fact, the first thing the character does to establish himself as a villain is to belittle the British contribution to world culture, despite his clear attempts to emulate the English. “You have arrived at a propitious moment,” he explains to Bond, “considered to be your country’s one indisputable contribution to Western Civilization: Afternoon tea.” Indeed, Drax’s ambitions in space at first seem like some sort of imperial fantasy playing out, perhaps reflecting his British influences. Hugo Drax talks about “the conquest of space” and “the untainted cradle of the heavens” as if he aspires to empire, reflecting the weird fusion of the franchise’s nostalgic leanings and this instalment’s futuristic setting.

Indeed, the villain is ultimately defined by how distinctly non-British he is. After all, although he seems focused on reaching the stars, his true fascination is with eugenics and genocide – two concepts which, when linked, form all manner of unpleasant associations. This is quite disappointing – perhaps as disappointing as the flat performance by Michael Lonsdale. It seems almost like he’s meditating as he makes his way through the film, which is probably a more artistic choice – but doesn’t fit the movie’s aesthetic.

Goodhead by name…

The other villain of the piece is a returning one. “His name’s Jaws,” Bond introduces him at one point. “He kills people.” Of course, over the course of the story, the massive brute finds love and romance – even earning a happy ever after and perhaps redemption. this makes me distinctly uncomfortable. Not because of the hackneyed use of the Romeo and Juliet Overture, nor because Jaws makes a better bad guy. The simple fact is that we have seen the character brutally murder people without a hint of remorse in The Spy Who Loved Me (here they make sure to minimise his casualties so it doesn’t seem quite so bad). I’m not sure giving the monster complete redemption because he likes a small young woman is the best way to deal with him in a family-friendly franchise. By the way, you can add “why do his testicles clang?” to the list of questions that I didn’t need to come out of this film asking.

In fairness, the move does have one reasonably creepy sequence with the character (even if it isn’t half as terrifying as his debut), as he stalks Bond through Carnival. The streets are noisy and there’s a sense that the background and foreground could somehow merge while something horrible is hidden out there. It almost makes Jaws scary again. Similarly, the scene where Bond figures out what Drax is doing is wonderfully effective, even though it’s so blatantly manipulative. A beautiful young couple kissing as the space shuttle flies and the music soars is certainly powerful stuff.

Losing Drax of time…

However, for every moment like this there are several painful ones. I have, for example, two words for you: “hover gondola”. It’s so terrifyingly corny that even the pigeons do a poorly-edited “double take”. Similarly, the fact that Bond has a branded 007 spy camera is awkward, given he’s supposed to be a secret agent.

The movie consciously apes all forms of popular culture. Neverminding the references to Star Wars or the aforementioned “borrowing” of the Romeo and Juliet Overture, the film includes the five-note motif that was used to great effect in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while the film actually uses The Magnificent Seven theme as Bond rides into a monastery. I suppose it is, at least fitting – space is the one last frontier to be tamed, so it suits the cowboy theme.

I wonder how the chemicals are Bonded?

The film is awkwardly sexist, but not quite as bad as some of the earlier Roger Moore film. Seriously though, I can’t believe that the character is so surprised by the gender of a character identified as “Dr. Goodhead” in one of his adventures. “A woman?” Bond asks, incredulous – as if surprised women can do science stuff. Later on, after he fights Jaws, he patronisingly suggests to a female colleague, “I think you need some rest.” (And not in a suggestive way, either.) When Bond wanders into his tour guide’s room, he assures her that “that’s not what I came for.” And yet he’s trying to get into her nightie within the next thirty seconds. Even Goodhead, a CIA spy with an awful codename and a fistful of gadgets, has little more to do than bat her eyelids at men as Bond figures out an escape plan. She does throw a punch or two towards the end of the film, but he’s still a fairly banal Bond girl.

Moore himself is showing signs of his age. I really noticed it here for the first time. “The trouble is that there’s never a seventy-year old around when you need one,” he remarks at one stage, an ironic statement given how long he’d stay in the role. Moore is charming and affable, but he’s also somewhat awkward. Bond looks a bit square when he wears his tuxedo – formal evening wear – to a Carnival populated with women in bikinis. I did spot one other older person wearing one, but I get the sense the that old guy meant it ironically. There’s also a fairly low ebb in Bond’s fluctuating competence as he guides a government minister and the head of British Intelligence into a chemical lab with lethal toxins that hasn’t even been examined yet, merely handing them each a gas mask and warning them, “We can’t afford to take any chances, Minister.”

By the by, before I wrap things up, did anyone else notice the copious amounts of product placement scattered throughout the film? Man, I need a 7up.

7up: “Don’t you want to drink the only soft drink which can survive an attack by Jaws?”

Shirley Bassey returns to sing the opening song. It’s nice to have her back. Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever are two of the best Bond themes, so there’s a lot of pressure on her to perform – but it’s certainly a solid piece of music. It’s one of the last really “classic sounding” Bond themes – the ones that would follow would all sound very much like the product of their times.

Moonraker is a mess of film. it just doesn’t make sense. There are some good moments, but there’s just too much crazy and disappointing stuff going on for me to really sit through it. Ah well, For Your Eyes Only next, though.

We have complete reviews of all of the Roger Moore films available, if you are interested:

The following bloggers have reviews of this film as part of James Bond January:

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2 Responses

  1. I must concede that the film had nice sets and absolutely gorgeous natural scenery, wish I had allowed more words in my review to include that note. For me, the these surroundings and the crazy tangents were the only thing that kept me awake through this snoozer.

    • I must confess, it wasn’t as bad as I remember (unlike Octopussy, which was worse), but it’s not a great Bond film. Just too much humour, no sense of stakes and no real sense of fun. Michael Lonsdale looks like he reealy doesn’t want to be there (and only wants to kill Bond because it will end the movie quicker).

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