Moonraker (1979)


It seems silly to feel sorry for a movie.  It's an inanimate object made by a crew of people that outnumber the population of some of the towns in the state I live.  Sure, they're art, and everyone involved are artists in their own way, from writing the script to building the set.  When it is being made the movie is definitely alive but, once it's done, it's there for all to see.  Sure, some of the people involved sometimes like to try to make it better, but often come up with the equivalent of Monkey Jesus for all their efforts.

So, why do I feel sorry for Moonraker?  I definitely don't feel sorry for Roger Moore, who had a better late-life career than most actor.  Albert Broccoli I'm sure wanted for nothing until the end of his days.  Director Lewis Gilbert had the previous film, The Spy Who Loved Me. also known as the movie that saved the series at that point, to his credit.  Still, I can't help but watch Moonraker and feel pity, as I feel throughout that it is somehow striving to be a good film despite the efforts of everyone involved behind the scenes.

It starts off well enough, with a mid-air fight between James Bond (Moore) and some baddies, and the immediate return of Jaws (Richard Kiel) from the last movie.  The fight in the open door in the plane and the skydiving action is clearly meant to top the opening ski jump from Spy, and does an amazing job; that is, until Jaws, realizing he is is sans parachute, starts flapping his arms like wings before crashing into a circus tent.  Barely five minutes in and we have gone from James Bond to Looney Tunes.

This sequence, I should say, comes after a blast of an opening where a space shuttle is stolen by hijackers right off the back of its transport plane.  The effects hold up, and it's a shocking sequence.  It also forms the basis for the plot.  Bond is called in to find out what happened to the shuttle, as none of the expected wreckage is found where the plane crashed.  The shuttle, called Moonraker, was built and owned by Drax Industries, and they are none-too-happy to have lost it.  Still, while Bond seems to be doing the right thing by offering up the apologies of the British government and investigating the loss Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) himself, everyone in his organization save the beautiful astrophysicist Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) treats Bond with hostility and suspicion.  Drax, for his part, sends his thug Chang (Toshiro Suga) to make sure Bond meets with an accident.

Other attempts to kill Bond fail, and he's off to Venice (where more thugs attempt to do him in).  There he discovers that Drax is working on some kind of poison.  Chang shows up again, but doesn't do any better, so Jaws is brought in to replace him, and tries to get the job done in Rio de Janeiro as Bond continues on the trail.  It turns out that Drax, far from wanting to conquer space as he claims, is more interesting in cleansing the Earth and repopulating it with the people of his choosing.

Throughout there are many classic moments - Bond being locked in an out-of-control centrifuge, a martial arts fight in a glass museum and a gondola chase through Venice's canals are just some of them.  The problem is whenever Moonraker starts really gaining some steam, we get the equivalent of the slide whistle during the corkscrew stunt in The Man with the Golden GunOnly the centrifuge is done right; the glass museum results in a comical death and a cringeworthy quip from Bond, while the gondola chase has a part where first a drunk man, then an entire crowd, then a pigeon, then a dog all do doubletakes.  Keep in mind this is in the same film in which about 20 minutes earlier a woman in Drax's employ is chased down and ripped apart by dogs for his amusement.

I should also say that two words I hate to see appended to any movie series is "IN SPACE."  Leprechaun is a horrible series to begin with, but it proved that the depths could be plunged even lower by sending the little guy off to the final frontier.  Jason X?  I will defend Friday the 13 Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan as one of the better entries in the series, which even dedicated fans of the movies will take umbrage with, but there is no denying that Jason X manages to plumb depths not seen since the fifth installment, which didn't even have Jason to redeem it.  Hellraiser?  Three good movies, but it never recovered from after number four which, you guessed it, was in space.  It's probably a good idea that the original Halloween timeline ended before Michael Meyers got a trip on the space shuttle.

James Bond fares no better.  While on Earth, at least it seems like some good may come from all the nonsense, but instead of giving the world For Your Eyes Only like they promised we instead had Albert Broccoli hop on the Star Wars bandwagon.  I understood Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun trying hop on to popular exploitation genres of the time, but to see the series hop onto a trend and exploit it as if Albert Broccoli was Roger Corman was just embarrassing - especially since Corman's attempts to exploit Star Wars fever were much more enjoyable. 

For his part, Roger Moore plays gamely along, trying his best not to phone it in.  Jaws, the huge, indestructible guy who tears out people's throats with his metal teeth, is now largely comic relief.  He even gets a love interest and somewhat mends his ways.  Lois Chiles dutifully plays Holly Goodhead, but Moore and her have none of the chemistry that he did with Barbara Bach.  Corinne Cléry, known for playing the title role in The Story of O, plays one of the throwaway Bond girls, making Moonraker the closest that the Bond films ever got to hopping on another exploitation bandwagon from the 1970s. 

I think the reason I feel sorry for Moonraker is that it did deserve better.  Michael Lonsdale is a memorable villain, although he isn't given a whole lot to do, while everyone else on screen is giving it the good old college try.  They seem to believe in this movie, so why are Albert Broccoli and Lewis Gilbert doing everything to undercut it?  As silly as the space battles toward the end are they are well-filmed, and the budget isn't wasted.  The set design is on par with everything else Ken Adams has done previously, both in Drax's hidden Amazon base and his secret space station.  It is all here, but so is this misguided attempt to turn James Bond into a cartoon character.  It's pitiful and disheartening.

This is by far not the worst movie in the series; that, for me, will always be Die Another Day.  What it does have going for it is that it is not a movie that one is bound to forget; their is, at its core, an enjoyable campiness, but even this is undercut by a number of brutal sequences that just don't mesh.  If everyone had just agreed that this was going to be a Barbarella style comic-book send-up of the spy and sci-fi genres then this could have been so much better.  Instead, Moonraker isn't given a chance to grow and flourish to be anything that it could have been.  It made money, but it is still a glaring example of how to stall a film series just as it once again began getting on the right track.

Moonraker (1979)
Time: 126 minutes
Starring: Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel
Director: Lewis Gilbert

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