The Curious Inevitability of an Unloved Season
Nov 22, 2005 (Updated Dec 12, 2005)
Review by metalluk
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Elaborate action sequences and special effects; Jaws; good outing by Roger Moore
Cons:Drama and character badly subordinated to special effects and slapstick; mediocre villain and Bond girl
The Bottom Line: Although this is not one of the better Bond films, there is still plenty of entertainment value.
The eleventh film in the Bond series, Moonraker, may not be the worst of the entire lot but it is at least competitive for that title. I rank it in the bottom quarter of the films, notwithstanding the fact that it was the highest grossing of the films right up until GoldenEye (1995). This film was just the second produced by Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli after he bought out his former partner, Harry Saltzman. Broccoli had originally planned to make For Your Eyes Only after The Spy Who Loved Me. The post-film credits of the latter film indicate as much. Broccoli decided, however, to take advantage of the Star Wars craze and produce a Bond film with a segment in space orbit and it proved to be a profitable decision. Broccoli turned once again to director Lewis Gilbert, for his third and last Bond film.
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Historical Background: English director Lewis Gilbert was born on March 6th, 1920, in London. Gilbert's debut film was The Little Ballerina (1947), a children's film. In the fifties, Gilbert made mainly war dramas, such as Sink the Bismarck! (1960). He had his first major commercial success with Alfie (1966). That earned him the opportunity for three big-budget James Bond films: You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and Moonraker (1979). Later, he made the excellent Educating Rita (1983). Gilbert found the $70 million budget he was allotted for Moonraker heady stuff indeed and later commented that he could have made several films for just the cost of the phone bill for Moonraker!
The Story: There are actually two pre-credit sequences in this film. The first is the hijacking of the Moonraker shuttlecraft that sets up the film's story. The second one is among the best pre-credit scenes for the entire series of Bond films. James Bond (Roger Moore) is aboard a private jet, running his hand up the thigh of a comely hostess (Leila Shenna), when suddenly it becomes apparent that she and the pilot plan to disable the plane, bail out, and leave James to his fate. Bond manages to overcome the pilot and boot him out of the plane, but moments later is himself ousted by a previously unseen Jaws (Richard Kiel), the man-monster henchman returning from The Spy Who Loved Me. Bond has no parachute! Gliding through the air in freefall, Bond overtakes the pilot and separates the unlucky man from his chute. Jaws is close behind, however, planning to take a bite out of Bond's momentary success. Bond breaks free from Jaws's grip on his leg by the expedient of opening his chute. Jaws then discovers that his own chute is defective and seems headed for a splattering on the ground, but encounters a friendly circus canopy to break his fall.
Bond makes his way to London, where M (Bernard Lee) and Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen), the Minister of Defense, brief Bond on the Moonraker situation. After being fitted by Q (Desmond Llewelyn) with a wrist-activated dart gun and exchanging quips with Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), Bond is on his way to California where an eccentric industrialist, Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), builds the Moonraker shuttles. Bond is ferried from the airport to Drax's establishment in a helicopter piloted by the gorgeous Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery). Bond meets with the menacing and aloof Drax in the drawing room of a chateau, which the fanatical villain has had relocated brick by brick from France. Drax has a pair of pet Doberman Pincers, which he controls with a snap of his fingers. Realizing that Bond is a threat, Drax instructs one of his henchmen, Chang (Toshirô Suga), "Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm come to him."
Bond is taken to meet with Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), who is on loan to Drax Corporation from NASA. The two get off to a bad start when Bond's chauvinistic and sexist remarks don't sit well with the brainy scientist. Dr. Goodhead arranges for Bond to try out the G-force training apparatus, but when she is called away, Chang takes control of the apparatus and cranks it up to a level that would soon be fatal. Bond is able to use his wrist-activated dart gun to shut the thing down in the nick of time.
Bond's suspicions are now keenly awoken. He seduces Corinne Dufour and entices her to help him riffle Drax's office and safe. There he discovers documents suggesting a connection between Drax's nefarious activities and a glass supplier in Venice, Italy. Before departing, Bond is invited by Drax to join in a pheasant shoot, but Bond instead calmly picks off a sniper hiding in a tree. After Bond departs, Dufour pays dearly for abetting his snooping when Drax sends his dogs after her.
In Venice, Bond snoops around and soon encounters the standoffish Dr. Goodhead at a glass museum. She claims to be attending a scientific conference and dismisses him coldly. Hopping a nearby gondola, Bond is soon being pursued through the canals by more Drax henchmen, some masquerading in a funeral gondola and others aboard a speedboat. Bond's gondola turns out to be a Q-supplied speedboat, capable of transforming into a hovercraft for land travel. Bond manages his escape, while a succession of on-lookers, including a dog and a pigeon, provide double takes.
Bond discovers a Drax laboratory where lethal venom is being tested and perfected. He observes its immediate fatal effect on two of the lab technicians when a vial is inadvertently dropped. The venom does not, however, affect the lab rats housed nearby. Bond pockets one vial of the substance but, after leaving the laboratory, is accosted by Chang. Their hand-to-hand combat takes them into a bell tower from where Bond is finally able to heave his assailant out the stained glass window of the Torre d'Orological, where he plummets several stories into the piano belonging to a group of street minstrels performing the famous aria from I Pagliacci, in the Piazza San Marco. Bond calls in M and Minister Gray, but by then Drax has emptied the lab and set up an innocent looking drawing room. Gray is embarrassed and quite put out with Bond. After a brief tryst with Dr. Goodhead reveals that she is a CIA agent, Bond is off to Rio.
In Rio, Bond gets a new aide, Manuela (Emily Bolton), from the local branch of the British Secret Service. With the famous Rio Carnival in progress and Manuela standing lookout, Bond breaks into the Drax warehouse in Rio. Later, he emerges just in time to save Manuela from a fatal love bite to the neck by Jaws. Bond next reencounters Dr. Goodhead at an overlook equipped with telescopes, where she is monitoring the outgoing flights of Drax's fleet of airplanes. The two decide they'll work together. They hop a cable car for a better view of things, but are soon accosted by Jaws, in an exciting encounter atop a cable car, suspended hundreds of feet above the ground. Bond and Goodhead are able to effect an escape by sliding down the cable using a towel looped over it. Jaws, by his overly intent pursuit in the cable car, slams into the base station, demolishing it, but, as always, merely brushes himself off and emerges none the worse for wear. There, Jaws encounters a Heidi-like Alpine blond with pigtails and its love at first sight. Goodhead and Bond, meanwhile, celebrate their narrow escape with a roll in the grass, which leads immediately to both of them being abducted by more henchmen disguised as medics. In the ambulance, Bond and Goodhead team up well enough to enable Bond to get away, but Goodhead has no such luck.
Bond makes his way to a secret British spy-service base nearby and confers with M and Q. Q has analyzed the toxin and found it to be a modified extract from a rare orchid found only in the upper regions of the Amazon River Valley. Q equips Bond with a special boat to get him to the upper reaches of the Tiparape. There, Bond encounters more speedboats operated by Drax henchmen, with Jaws aboard one. With mines and heat-seeking missiles, Bond is able to dispatch most of the speedboats, but the one with Jaws remains in pursuit. Bond flees in the direction of the magnificent and awe-inspiring Iguazu Falls. The powerful current draws his boat and the pursing one over the falls. Bond is conveniently equipped with a glider while Jaws plummets unceremoniously over the falls. Naturally, however, Jaws emerges uninjured.
On foot in the jungle, Bond now spots a mysterious and beautiful woman at some distance. As he tries to catch up with her, she leads him into a magnificent jungle hideout, looking something like a Mayan temple. There, Bond discovers a bevy of gorgeous young women, but almost immediately, he is catapulted into a pool housing a giant Anaconda. Bond manages to inject the mammoth snake with poison from a fake pen before being squeezed to death in the reptile's coils. Bond is yanked from the pool by Jaws and is greeted disapprovingly by Drax, who scolds Bond for breaking off the encounter with the snake.
Bond is reunited with Dr. Goodhead in a chamber where Drax anticipates the pair will be fried by the tail flame of one of the shuttles, as it takes flight. Drax's nefarious plan is about to culminate. Bond and Goodhead escape the death chamber and are able to board one of the Moonraker shuttles in place of the intended pilots. The Moonraker shuttles are on their way to Drax's secret space station, which is orbiting above Earth's atmosphere. The passengers aboard the shuttle are all gorgeous young men and women, representing "perfect physical specimens" from each race and ethnic group. Jaws and Dolly stand out as striking exceptions. Goodhead and Bond are able to piece two and two together and realize that Drax's plan is to eradicate humankind using his potent toxin and then repopulate the planet with a master race of his engineering. Goodhead and Bond will, of course, foil his plan.
Production Values: Critics and viewers are sharply split on how they rate this film. What's at issue in that disparity of opinion comes down to the balance between three broad kinds of elements that often occur in Bond films:
(1) Dramatic components: tense, creative, fresh, and credible storyline; traditional hard-nosed spy thriller intrigue; Bond's suave but tough-guy character; and the chemistry between Bond and the Bond girl(s), villains, and henchmen.
(2) Action and special effects components: exciting action scenes and stunts; cool toys; and impressive special effects.
(3) Comedic aspects: Bond's witty one-liners and double entendres; farcical treatment of the spy thriller genre; and slapstick and general silly business.
Basically, reviewers and viewers vary in their appreciation for or distaste for those three elements in Bond films. For me personally, the dramatic component is most important in how I rate a Bond film. The second and third elements, in my view, can add to the merits of the film if they are subordinated to advancing the story, the tension, the chemistry, and the other dramatic components. If, on the other hand, either the action or comedic elements begin to exist for their own sake or to dominate the film, they become detrimental. The two raps against Moonraker are, first, that the production values (special effects and action sequences) were allowed to become the reason for the film's existence and, second, that the farcical and slapstick elements were so overdone as to destroy the dramatic tension of several of the best action sequences. I fully concur with the first of those two criticisms and partly concur with the second. I don't expect every Bond film to have the same tone or balance between the three major elements. I'm flexible, to an extent, about how far a particular film can go with the farcical treatment of the genre and still be effective. I am inflexible, however, when it comes to the film having high quality dramatic elements and keeping the drama uppermost among the three components.
Moonraker does not succeed as well as many Bond film because the dramatic elements are extremely weak. The story seems to exist merely to string together the various action scenes. Bond's character is almost lost amidst the special effects. The chemistry between Bond and Dr. Goodhead is also not very well developed. Then, adding to those difficulties, the farcical elements are carried to such an extreme that it undermines whatever dramatic tension begins to emerge.
Scriptwriter Christopher Wood, returning from his success with The Spy Who Loved Me, has to take a fair share of the responsibility for the failings. The story lacks credibility. Although there was a Fleming novel entitled Moonraker, Wood's script really only took from the novel the name of the villain and his identity as an industrialist. Wood's script includes too many circumstances that require suspension of disbelief. Bond stories need to have some basic credibility, even if one or two elements are fanciful. Why, for example, does Bond have a souped-up Gondola waiting for him in Vienna for no better purpose than to be chased by a bunch of thugs? How is it that Dr. Goodhead's training as an astronaut enables her to engage in an intricate docking procedure with the Moonraker without her having any knowledge of the space station? Why does a story set in present time incorporate futuristic technology (e.g., space marines) way beyond current capabilities? Why do the space marines have the same weapons and mobility capabilities as Drax's troops, if Drax's technology developed independently? Then, on top of those credibility problems, Wood overdoes the silliness with too many feeble one-liners, infantile double-entendres, and inane slapstick. He should have settled for a smaller number of the best comedy bits.
I differ a bit with hard-line Bond purists in relation to the comedic elements in Bond films. The films starring Roger Moore took a more satirical direction precisely because Moore had less dramatic charisma than Sean Connery but more of a flair for comedy. Within Moore's set of films, this one, A View to a Kill, and The Man with the Golden Gun take the farcical element the furthest. For Your Eyes Only and The Spy Who Loved Me are least farcical and the other two are intermediate. Obviously, none of the films take the farcical treatment of the material as far as Mike Myers does in his Austin Powers spoofs. I enjoy campy humor and slapstick elements, especially the gimmicks that recur in several films. I like, for example, the bit about the wino who checks the label or tosses his bottle away when he sees Bond doing something that he assumes must be an hallucination. In the present film, I enjoy the escalating joke relating to Jaws's Wily E. Cayote-like indestructibility. I even get a kick out of the cloying romance between Jaws and Dolly, the Swiss blond. If every Bond film took the farce to that extent, it wouldn't be funny, but it is precisely because some Bond films take themselves so seriously that satirizing the genre works. My only problem with the humorous element in Moonraker is that there's so much of it that it undermines the dramatic component. Too much lame humor reduces a Bond film to the status of a Saturday morning cartoon.
The action sequences, taken individually, are mostly well done. The pursuit of Bond's motorized gondola by assassins in a powerboat is exciting, although the tension is dissipated by too many slapstick elements. The chase down the Tiparape River in the Amazon is exciting as well, although it too culminates in absurdity. The confrontation on the cable car, pitting Bond and Dr. Goodhead against Jaws, is superb, though it too turns into farce as it concludes. The computer graphics of the laser battle in space are pitiful by modern standards, but the sequence involving the destruction of the space station achieves a high level of special effects quality. It's obvious that what Broccoli and Gilbert had in mind for this film was to carry the special effects and action sequences to the highest level that the series had ever known, but, in doing so, they allowed the action elements to become the essence of the film rather than serving the dramatic values. One famous reviewer states that "the stars of this movie are Ken Adam, the art director, and Derek Meddings, in charge of special effects." That's true but unfortunate.
The theme song, "Moonraker," the third one provided by Shirley Bassy, is not one of the better ones of the series. Everything else about the musical score, however, is superlative. John Barry very nicely interweaves the theme song with the standard James Bond themes as well as some effective mood music. There are even some apt musical allusions, such as the love song from Doctor Zhivago springing up when Jaws meets Dolly and the final set of notes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind used as the security code for Drax's toxin laboratory in Venice.
Roger Moore does a pretty good job as Bond, given the limitations of the script. He continues to show the suave self-assurance in the role that he first exhibited in the preceding film. Moore is especially effective in the G-force simulator scene. It's not his fault that Bond was otherwise subordinated to the special effects. Lois Chiles (Speed 2) is not one of the better Bond girls in the series. I have nothing against smart, educated women, but Chiles lacks any sensual quality. Corinne Clery, as Corinne Dufour, has sensuousness to spare, but, unfortunately, her character goes to the dogs. Leila Shenna, in a small part as an airline hostess, was quite sensual as well and could have provided Chiles with some lessons. I've enjoyed Michael Lonsdale in some other films, such as Stolen Kisses (1968), Murmur of the Heart (1971), and The Remains of the Day (1993), but, as Drax, he's not one of the better Bond villains. Although he has the proper sinister demeanor, he's too wooden and lacking in energy. The gigantic Richard Kiel, 7'2" tall, was more truly menacing in the predecessor film, but still remains one of the most memorable henchmen of the series, with his patented metallic incisors. Toshirô Suga, another henchman, is okay, but not unusually effective.
The Bond regulars get relatively little screen time in this film, but it is worth noting that this was the final appearance of Bernard Lee as M. He died shortly before the next film was shot. In retrospect, it became clear just how effective Lee had been in the role, giving it weight and credibility.
Bottom-Line: If you purchase the film on DVD, you'll get a variety of solid extras. The commentary track features director Lewis Gilbert, executive producer Michael Wilson, associate producer William P. Cartlidge, and screenwriter Christopher Wood. There's also a nifty 42-minute documentary entitled "Inside Moonraker." Another 20-minute documentary highlights the film's special effects created by Derek Meddings and John Stearns, both now deceased. Also provided are a gallery of stills and the theatrical trailer. Every Bond film has at least some value to me as a viewer. I will be giving only one of the twenty-two films less than a three-star rating. This one gets three. Here is my Overall Certified Gold Bond Rating for this film, using my system that facilitates comparisons across the series:
Bond: Roger Moore at his peak Rating: 4/5
Villain: Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) Rating: 2/5
Henchmen: Jaws (Richard Kiel) 5/5, Chang (Toshirô Suga) 3/5 Average Rating: 4/5
Primary Bond Girl: Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) Rating: 2/5
Secondary Bond Girls: Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery) 5/5, Manuela (Emily Bolton) 4/5, Hostess (Leila Shenna) 4/5 Average Rating: 4/5
Colleagues: M (Bernard Lee final appearance) 5/5; Q (Desmond Llewellyn) 5/5; Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) 5/5; Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen) 5/5; Gen. Antol Gogol (Walter Gotell) 5/5 Average Rating: 5/5
Storyline: Space city, rare orchids, perfect human specimens Rating: 1/5
Action: centrifugal force chamber 5/5, gondola chase with excess slapstick 4/5, cable-car sequence 5/5, Amazon river chase 5/5, laser battle in space 1/5, destruction of space station 5/5 Average Rating: 5/5
Toys: Wrist-activated pellet gun 5/5, ridiculous gondola/hover craft 3/5, rigged boat with glider 4/5, space marines 1/5 Rating: 4/5
Drama/Character Development: Drama and characters badly subordinated to action, special effects, and excess silliness Rating: 1/5
Music: "Moonraker" theme song, allusion to Dr. Zhivago theme song and final notes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, excellent soundtrack overall Rating: 4/5
Locales: London, California, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, Earth orbit Rating: 5/5
Overall Certified Gold Bond Rating: 41/60
You may also enjoy my other reviews for 007 films:
Casino Royale (1954), non-series, television
Dr. No (1962)
From Russia with Love (1963)
You Only Live Twice (1967)
Casino Royale (1967), non-series
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Live and Let Die (1973)
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Never Say Never Again (1983), non-series
A View to a Kill (1985)
The Living Daylights (1987)
Licence to Kill (1989)
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Die Another Day (2002)
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