Tuesday, November 03, 2015

007 Week: Moonraker (1979)

This may be the most schizophrenic review I’ve ever written, and I would like to apologize in advance.

But for this space-kid of the 1970s -- and also long-time fan of the James Bond films -- the 1979 film Moonraker represents a serious difficulty.

On one hand, the film is undeniably one of the silliest of all the 007 pictures made in the franchise’s fifty years.

The epic comes replete with hover-craft gondolas, pigeons performing double-takes, and other really cheesy comedic shtick, like Jaws (Richard Kiel) flapping his arms -- trying to fly -- when his parachute cord breaks at 35,000 feet.

On the other hand, Moonraker arises from that magical year of my youth: 1979.

This was the stellar season of Alien, The Black Hole, the theatrical release of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In other words, 1979 was the first full year of the post-Star Wars (1977) boom, and thus a great time to be a kid. All the aforementioned films were set in space, visually-dazzling, and adventurous and imaginative to boot.

Moonraker fits right in. I will forever associate the film (positively) with that time in my life.

There are non-nostalgia reasons to praise the film as well.The film’s special visual effects by Derek Medding are astonishingly good, even today.

And the final battle in space -- while undeniably a re-imagining of the infantry battles in such Bond classics as You Only Live Twice (1967) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) -- seems dazzlingly original in its execution. Two teams of astronaut soldiers pour forth from open space shuttle cargo-bay doors, wielding blue-light lasers that zip across the heavens.

To a nine year old kid -- not to mention a 44 year old adult -- that finale is, simply, outer space nirvana.

Yet, my biases established, Moonraker today doesn’t seem a particularly strong entry in the James Bond film canon.

I don’t count it among the very worst of the franchise (a position I reserve for Die Another Day [2002], Diamonds are Forever [1971], and A View to a Kill [1985]).

But Moonraker isn’t in the series’ top tier.

And maybe it isn’t even in the middle tier, either.

I grew up with Roger Moore as James Bond, so I bear no dislike for him, or his films. He was my “first” Bond, and so I can’t even complain about his arch, knowing, borderline-parody approach to the material.

It was 1983 -- when I saw at Cinema 23 in New Jersey a double-feature of From Russia with Love (1963) and Never Say Never Again (1983) -- that I was introduced to Sean Connery, and his Bond-ian style. After that, From Russia with Love became my all-time favorite Bond film, and it has not yet been knocked from its perch (though Casino Royale [2006] and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service [1969] have come close…)

But back to Moonraker: the film is still spectacular and exciting, even if it doesn’t represent the best of the Bond brand. 

Furthermore, there’s much evidence to suggest the film achieved precisely what it set to do. That mission, simply, was to appeal to the kids who loved Star Wars. 

Writing in the St. Petersburg Times, for instance, critic Roy Peter Clark wrote that Moonraker was “designed to please children….” and that the film would “appeal to the generation of Luke Skywalker.” (July 30, 1979, page 5B).

The Miami News put it another way: “Roger Moore is suave, the villains are treacherous, the women are gorgeous, and the special effects outstanding.  The formula never changes, and neither does the result. James Bond is as delightful as ever.”
So what’s my beef? The film was a huge hit! In fact, Moonraker quickly became the highest-grossing Bond film of all time immediately following its release.

From a certain 1970s perspective, I can really buy into The Miami News’ positive description of the film. That’s certainly how I experienced Moonraker as a nine year old kid. It has only been in adulthood -- and with the rest of the Bond franchise as comparative context -- that reservations about this 1979 film have crystallized.

Long story short: Moonraker is a helluva lot of fun in a post-Star Wars context, but not a great Bond film, in almost any context. The movie is entertaining as hell, but it turns the serious world of Bond into a place for silly laughs. 

And, finally, when you get down to the film’s narrative terms, Moonraker is also just a thinly-disguised remake of The Spy Who Loved Me, with space shuttles replacing submarines, Drax replacing Stromberg, and space replacing the bottom of the sea.

When the high-tech Moonraker space shuttle is stolen from British custody, agent 007, James Bond (Roger Moore) is assigned by his superior, M (Bernard Lee) to recover it.

Bond’s mission commences at the headquarters for Drax Industries, the manufacturer of the shuttle in California.  The company is owned by a man named Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) who is “obsessed with the conquest of space.” 

Soon, Bond teams up with a beautiful C.I.A. agent, Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) to investigate Drax, further, and the globe-hopping adventures leads them to Venice, Rio De Janeiro, and finally to the final frontier itself.  In each of those locations, the Drax Organization seems to be manufacturing elements for…something.

Soon Bond learns the horrifying truth: Drax has prepared a space shuttle fleet for a space rendezvous with his secret space station. 

From there, he intends to eliminate the Earth’s population with several globes containing deadly nerve gas.  His scheme is to re-seed the Earth with his hand-picked, genetically superior men and women, and create “the ultimate dynasty,” one in which man will look to the Heavens and see not anarchy, but “law and order.” 

Bond must now prevent Drax’s deadly plan from coming to fruition, but three of the toxic globes -- each capable of killing millions of people -- have already been launched from the station. With the help of a former enemy, Jaws (Kiel), Bond races to save the Earth before it’s too late.

As I note above, Moonraker is a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me, which in turn was a remake of 1967’s You Only Live Twice.  

Here, the unflappable James Bond confronts a megalomaniac bent on destroying the Earth’s population and then becoming the ruler of his own carefully-selected population. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Stromberg was obsessed with the sea, and planned to rule from the underwater complex called Atlantis.

In Moonraker, Drax (Lonsdale) is obsessed with the realm of outer space, and plans to rule his New Earth from his orbiting space station. 

The soldier villain in both films is Jaws (Kiel), the assassin with sharp metal teeth.

Unlike The Spy Who Loved Me, however, Moonraker goes rather far down the path of comedy, evidencing a campy sense of humor that comes to dominate -- and then destroy -- much of the proceedings. 

Here, potentially great action sequences take a twist not towards excitement, but cheap laughs.

The film’s stunning (and then risible…) pre-title sequence finds Bond being pushed out of a plane without a parachute.  He struggles to survive, battling a parachute out of the hands of a committed nemesis. 

But then Jaws shows up out of the blue on the tiny plane -- where was he hiding? -- and transforms the whole sequence into a living cartoon, a live-action version of Wily Coyote and Road-Runner. 

When his parachute cord rips, Jaws flaps his arms like a giant bird, and then plummets downwards into a circus tent.  Frankly, the circus tent is an apt destination for him since Moonraker often returns to a kind of circus atmosphere in its sense of humor.

Why do I find this sequence bothersome?

Perhaps it is because greatness was just within reach. In my opinion, the pre-title sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me is the very best in Bond history. It features a chase on skis, and Bond plunging over a mountainside, only to open his Union Jack parachute at the last possible moment.  The stunt is surprising, and jaw-dropping.

It would be difficult, I think, to devise a more deadly predicament for Bond, but Moonraker manages that feat. 

The film sees him tossed out of a plane with no chute, and thus with precious few options for survival. As I noted above, he must steal a parachute from another skydiver, battling in mid-air for possession of it.  This deadly fight is stunningly achieved in terms of visuals. The skydiving stunts are amazing, and there is a minimum of fakery involved. The stunt-man is a pretty good double for Moore, too.

Had the sequence played matters straight -- with Bond getting the parachute at the last minute, and then soaring to safety -- it might have been legitimately comparable to Spy’s opener. 

Perhaps even better.

Instead, we get a great villain – Jaws – turned into a figure of fun. We see him flap his wings like an idiot, and on the soundtrack, the song we associate with the circus plays, thereby completely deflating the character’s sense of menace. 

More than that, the-flapping-his-arms, falling-into-a-circus-tent Jaws absolutely deflates the entire threat of the sequence.

Well, Jaws survives, unharmed, from his fall.  So Bond could have too.  He might have also landed on a circus tent and walked away…

The jokey finale to this pre-title sequence robs Moonraker of its sense of danger. Worse, it’s a mistake the movie keeps making.

Later in the film, for instance, Bond is in Venice when attacked by assassins. Surprisingly, his gondola transforms into a land vehicle -- a hovercraft -- and the film then cuts to a ludicrous series of reaction shots.

A pigeon does a double take.

A waiter spills food on a customer.

A dog does a double take.

A sailor stares, open-mouthed, at Bond.

And a man looks at his bottle of wine, convinced he must be drunk.

One such reaction shot might have been sufficient. 

There are literally half-a-dozen of them here. So Moonraker tells a joke, comments on the joke, and then pounds the joke into your head until you beg for mercy.

Name just one other Bond film that edits so desperately for laughs.

The film’s barometer of tone is way off, and the jokey moments are notably at odds with the genuinely suspenseful ones, such as Bond’s near fatal “ride” in a centrifuge, or his last-minute attempt to destroy a nerve-gas bearing globe as it re-enters Earth orbit. 

Those moments represent two of Roger Moore’s best, in my opinion, as I wrote in an Anorak article, “Shaken,not Stirred.”

In the case of the centrifuge sequence, I love how a wounded, off-center Bond pushes away Goodhead’s entreaties for help. He’s pissed as hell, and he doesn’t want to talk about it. He just wants to be left alone.  I love that Moore’s typical suave composure as Bond is undercut here, and we see him get mad.  It’s clear he’s grappling with his pain.

In terms of the denouement, I love the moment when Bond must activate the Moonraker’s manual controls to shoot-down Drax’s final nerve-gas globe.  So many times during the Bond franchise, 007 must save the world with his actions, it seems. 

This is that idea taken to the nth degree. 

Bond gets one shot with a laser -- one shot -- and if he misses, a whole population will be wiped out. 

Moore is terrific in this particular sequence, which nicely reminds us of the responsibilities Bond must often face.  The scene is shot well too, with extreme-close-ups of Bond’s sweaty face as he blocks out all other stimuli and attempts to concentrate on his target.  John Barry’s tense score also helps to forge a moment of remarkable suspense.

It’s just too bad that this highly-effective moment follows a scene -- set in maudlin slow-motion -- with Jaws and the diminutive love his life reuniting.

It’s a shame that Moonraker so often goes for the easy laugh when the film clearly could have stretched for a more cerebral brand of humor.

For example, the movie has a lot of fun aping the “space craze” of the 1970s, and it could have stuck, perhaps to that notion.  In one instance, the three-note overture to 2001: A Space Odyssey is sounded (during Drax’s pheasant hunting expedition), and the key code to his secret lab is Close Encounter’s famous five-note “greeting.”  Those are funny -- and quickly passing -- touches, which don’t undercut character or drama.  We get the joke, but they don’t take us out of the film’s reality.

Perhaps the more legitimate gripe against Moonraker is that circus atmosphere I mentioned earlier.

James Bond as a consistent, human character is nearly lost in the film, and he’s much more like a jolly ring-master encountering a series of loosely-related perils and stunts. This epic, cartoon approach is fun and entertaining, to be certain -- and swashbuckling fun was the name of the game in the immediate-post Star Wars film boomlet -- but there’s also the feel that the 007 saga has run too far afield of realism or verisimilitude.

If Moonraker’s tone is wobbly, I can find absolutely nothing negative to say about the film’s stunning production design and visual effects. Everything on these fronts is top-notch.  In fact, Moonraker launched the space shuttle two years before the American space program did, and really nailed the opticals of that event.

There’s not a single moment of Derek Meddings’ work that tips one off that these are models, and not genuine spaceship launches. 

So…I love Moonraker…and I don’t love Moonraker.

It’s a big, fun, spectacular movie, and yet, at the same time, it loses track of the reasons why we like watching James Bond in the first place. It lunges into cheap laughs when, as we see from certain scenes, it could have sought out tremendous suspense instead.

For Your Eyes Only premiered in 1981, and that (excellent) film re-grounded James Bond in wonderful ways, in my opinion. It featured a much more human, rough tone, one much more in keeping with the era of From Russia with Love (1963). That’s my favorite Roger Moore Bond Film.

But there were no space shuttles or laser beams to enjoy, either…

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