My bond with… Bond: Moonraker (1979)

By Christian DiMartino

I’m not sure if I’ve ever discussed this on this page, but for the last 15 years, I have been a big fan of the James Bond series. I started watching them as a nine year old and even though some aren’t so great, they are usually at least pretty entertaining. I remember how proud I was of myself when I memorized each of the movies in chronological order… again, I’m a dork. So with the arrival of Bond’s next outing, No Time to Die, finally hitting theatres next month (as a Bond-aholic, November is a more fitting month, but it’s whatever), it seemed like an ample time to stroll down memory lane.

Alright, so this one might ruffle a few feathers.

Moonraker, the 11th James Bond movie, was the highest grossing at the time. It is also considered to be the Batman & Robin of the franchise by many. Well… I like it. But make no mistake: it’s pretty darn stupid, and a complete guilty pleasure. After the often euphoric heights and charm of The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker might’ve been a giant step for mankind, but it is something of a step backwards for Roger Moore’s Bond. The movie is in a whole other Milky Way of silly… but it’s also one of those movies in which you get the sense that there wasn’t an idea they didn’t try. They made this movie as if it was the last Bond movie they were ever going to make. The result is one of the much maligned and mocked (Moore even apparently poked fun at it), but… it’s undeniably entertaining and colorful. Just leave your brain at the door.

Before revisiting Moonraker, I was pretty aware of how goofy it all is. And… yeah, no, it’s pretty goofy. It doesn’t begin goofy, but by the time you reach about the halfway mark, you sense that director Lewis Gilbert (The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice) and the technical wizards were throwing all their chips in. The movie is a product, to be sure, cashing in on the hype behind Star Wars (and then some). But I’ll be damned if it isn’t a big, expensive, cheerfully absurd product. If I had seen this as a kid on the big screen, I would’ve passed out from hype. Even watching it as an adult, there are moments here in which you know the filmmakers spared no expense, and honestly… knock the movie all you want, but it at least holds up well visually.

The film opens with a spacecraft being hijacked and stolen in the air. We then cut to Bond (Moore, for the fourth time) aboard a plane. He is, once again, dooped by a woman (keep it in your pants, man) and he throws a henchman or two out of the plane before being knocked out of the plane by Jaws (Richard Kiel), returning from the abyss. My thing is: how did nobody notice that that humongous man was aboard the plane? No matter, because this sequence, in which Bond and Jaws free fall, is pretty awesome. Particularly when you realize that it’s all real, and it apparently took about 80 jumps to film it. Anyways, the sequence ends with Jaws landing in a circus tent… and believe it or not, that’s one of the more plausible moments in Moonraker.

We then get the opening title song, this time by Shirley Bassey, who also sang “Diamonds are Forever” and “Goldfinger.” This is a decent ditty, and as good as any song called “Moonraker” could possibly be, but I’ll be honest: I have no idea how it goes. I will say though, the sequence itself is pretty neat, as we see the silhouettes of the naked women in zero gravity. Anyways, the plot. So basically there’s a guy named Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale, looking like the lovechild of Peter Dinklage and Oliver Platt) who is wanting to take over the world or something. You know, I’ve written about 10 of these movies now, and after a while, the plots of these sorta mesh together. Drax is a substitute for Goldfinger, the plots to destroy earth are always dastardly. This could’ve easily have been copied and pasted, with details changed. What separates the majority of the Bond films though is those details: the situations in which Bond finds himself, the women he finds himself with, and the places they find themselves and the action they find themselves in. On this account, like it or not, Moonraker burns in the memory.

In trying to find the missing spacecraft, Bond meets a scientist named (in the grand tradition of Pussy Galore, Plenty O’Toole and Mary Goodnight) Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles). While she doesn’t get to prove her last name on screen (filthy joke, but c’mon), Ms. Goodhead is indeed a beauty, but she has brains to match. Bond must race against the clock to uncover Drax’s plan and stop him. Bond finds himself traveling to Venice, where he has a cool chase sequence aboard a gondola that turns into a car (yes that’s right). He then finds himself in Rio, where Jaws makes his return. First in an alleyway at night time, the next time aboard a trolley cart in another one of the film’s sensational set-pieces. It is here though that, if it wasn’t already, the film begins turning into a live-action cartoon.

The ante is up, the stakes are high, and the movie is so cheerfully silly and cartoonish that I felt as if I should’ve been taking notes… but I’ll do my best. Jaws survives the trolley crash, and along the way finds a love interest… and then he’s in a car chase with Bond (they also happen to drive by at least seven very subtle 7-Up ads). The scenes between Bond and Jaws feel like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon brought to life, and you either go with it or you don’t. After this chase, Bond is dressed like Clint Eastwood from The Dollars Trilogy, uh, for some reason, before being in a boat chase with Jaws that ultimately ends with Jaws falling down a waterfall, and Bond ends up in Drax’s Amazon lair with Amazon women and ends up in a grotto battling an anaconda and, and, and… I’m not making this up.

Moonraker is everything, and the kitchen sink. It’s as if the filmmakers had ideas for multiple movies, and they threw them all into this big, silly, nutty movie. There is a Key & Peele sketch that makes fun of the writer’s room for Gremlins 2, and sheesh, they could’ve easily done that with this movie. “Yeah yeah, let’s have Bond drive a gondola car, and fight a ninja, and an anaconda, and a shark man. And let’s give the shark man a love interest. And, and…” Well, I haven’t even dove into the perhaps the nuttiest aspect of all: the finale. Bond begins the movie in the air, ends up in Venice, ends up in Rio… and believe it or not, Bond and Goodhead end up in outer space, where a group of agents face off against Drax’s henchmen- not aboard a spaceship, but in space, shooting laser guns at one another. I… yeah. For Your Eyes Only was actually slated to be the follow-up to The Spy Who Loved Me, but after the obvious explosion of Star Wars, they needed to get Bond to space, pronto.

For many, Moonraker was more than just jumping the shark. Even re-watching it a few nights ago, I considered docking the movie a point or two because at the end of the day, does nostalgia triumph over quality? It depends. I cannot, with a straight face, say that Moonraker is a good movie. Yet… I will admit that I like it, with a chuckle. This is the series at its most unabashed, shamelessly silly. But I also think there’s something kind of admirable in its shoot-the-works goofiness. Sure, even taking Bond to space can’t reach the heights of Goldfinger and From Russia with Love. Yet… I think it’s a lot of fun. It’s not good fun, but it’s fun fun. It’s like cinematic cotton candy.

Some of the set pieces are obviously stupid, and some of them are pretty remarkable, and even the stupid ones manage to be remarkable at times. The movie is bouncy and light- it’s one that almost never comes up for air, but it all moves at such a brisk pace that I didn’t care. By this one, Moore is starting to sort of look his age, but it occurred to me that he kind of acts as if he’s in a comedy. Which, a Bond movie isn’t a comedy, but it’s not necessarily something that needs to be taken totally serious, either (they sure didn’t here). Like The Spy Who Loved Me though, the main villain is kind of disposable, mostly because Jaws does the real heavy lifting. Seriously, why does this guy sell himself short as a henchman? He could easily scare the hell out of anyone into working for him. The move to have him cute and cuddly and have a pigtailed girlfriend is a bit on the goofy side too, but like the rest of the movie… it’s a pleasure of the guilty variety.

Also like The Spy Who Loved Me, the film is not just super entertaining, but also visually rich. The film was nominated for the Best Visual Effects Oscar, and with good reason. Sure, at the time we’d already had 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, but… this looks better than some movies today. Though credit should also be paid to Ken Adam’s production design, which, also like with the previous film, is a knockout. Moonraker ain’t great Bond- no no, far from it. But it’s one I’ve always had trouble resisting. Sue me.

James Bond, and I, will return with For Your Eyes Only.

One thought on “My bond with… Bond: Moonraker (1979)

  1. Moonraker is the type of movie you need time to realize what you just watched. I didn’t think much of it watching it but now I’m like “Wow that was a lot they put into the movie.” I knew going in that it was attempting to capitalize on the Star Wars phenomenon and honestly I would probably like it more if it had done more with the space setting instead of pushing it to the end. Overall, it’s still a fun adventure even if it gets too silly at times and does look like a clear cash grab on an of the moment pop culture phenomenon. It’s not an all time Bond movie but one that like Live and Let Die is definitely interesting just in the ideas they tried out. And the Shirley Bassey theme is pretty good though certainly not as memorable as her previous two themes.

    Liked by 1 person

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