The 007 Collective is a bi-monthly column in which I revisit every official feature in the James Bond franchise and review how they hold up today. Along with a review of each film, each article in this 10-month-long series will dive into the historical place and production of each film in question. It will also feature a dossier i.e. a fact sheet with superlatives, ratings, rankings, best, worsts and other fun stuff in line with the format you’ve seen in my annual Year in Superlatives articles. This project isn’t meant to be the final word on the Bond franchise. It’s merely my take on the series. For previous entries, click here.
After a short hiatus, The 007 Collective returns to look back at one of the most misguided and embarrassing points in the 53 year history of the Bond franchise – Roger Moore’s fourth outing as Bond –the one and only MOONRAKER.
Mission Title: Moonraker
James Bond: Roger Moore
Release Date: June 29, 1979
Source Material: Loosely based on the novel “Moonraker” by Ian Fleming
Tagline: Where all other Bonds end… this one begins!
When a Royal Air Force 747 carrying a space shuttle named Moonraker is hijacked and then destroyed mid-flight, MI6 assigns James Bond to investigate the disaster – in particular, the mysterious disappearance of the Moonraker itself. Bond decides to start with billionaire industrialist Hugo Drax, whose company Drax Industries manufactures the Moonraker shuttles. No sooner has he paid a visit to Drax Industries, Bond finds himself the target of assassins – from mysterious gunmen to Japanese ninjas to the indestructible Jaws. Do you think Drax wants him dead? Hmmm. What Bond uncovers is a bizarre Nazi-esque plot by Drax to destroy the world from space and create a new Aryan race of perfect people.
Moonraker may be one of the most astonishingly asinine and fucking idiotic big budget movies ever conceived and released by a major studio. This isn’t a movie as much as it is a series of sketchily-connected random scenes. Taken at face value i.e. as a James Bond spy thriller, it’s an unholy disaster of Hindenburg proportions and a catastrophe that undoes all the goodwill that The Spy Who Loved Me had earned two years earlier. But watch it as a batshit insane absurdist comedy, or as background noise during a party involving copious amounts of alcohol, and you’ll be just fine. You might even enjoy yourself. In fact, it’s this very campiness and outlandishness that rescues it from the misfortune of being the worst Bond movie ever made. That dishonor still goes to Die Another Day and A View to a Kill. I still can’t decide which one of the two is worse.
Moonraker’s date with destiny began in 1977 after The Spy Who Loved Me resuscitated Roger Moore’s career as Bond, put the franchise creatively back on track after a decade of being lost in the woods, and renewed audience interest in the character. Yes, it was campy but it was also the good sort of camp. But just as The Spy Who Loved Me made waves for Albert Broccoli and company, there was another movie that was sending shockwaves through the industry. George Lucas’ Star Wars wasn’t just a blockbuster but a pop cultural atomic bomb that changed the face of cinema, ushering a new craze of science fiction filmmaking. Wanting to cash in on the sci-fi mania, Broccoli decided to put For Your Eyes Only, the next scheduled film in the Bond pipeline, on hold and instead fast-track the production of Moonraker.
Joining the returning Moore on this 11th entry in the series were director Lewis Gilbert and screenwriter Christopher Wood – the two men who were most responsible for the grand success of The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977. Since their last collaboration worked so well, Broccoli decided that instead of coming up with a new story or adapting Ian Fleming’s source novel, they’d be better off self-plagiarizing and remaking The Spy Who Loved Me because… why not? It’s not like anyone would notice anyway. Among the glaring similarities between the two films: Both feature a billionaire madman hell-bent on starting a new race after destroying the world. One wants to do it under the sea, the other wants to do it out in space. Both villains are passive, overweight, Nehru-suit wearing Europeans who use the imposing Jaws to do their bidding. In both films, Bond’s love interest is a secret agent working for an ally (or at least temporary ally) who is then forced to join forces with Bond. Both films open with a sequence in which a priceless vehicular weapon is hijacked. Both opening sequences also feature Bond escaping henchmen via an outrageous aerial stunt. Both feature a massive stand-off in a finale featuring hundreds of extras. The major difference between the two is that The Spy Who Loved Me is a damn good movie that holds up remarkably well (for a Roger Moore Bond) even today while Moonraker is a camp-fest in which Bond flies off into space to kill bad guys with freaking laser beams.
And that’s just one aspect of this movie’s outrageousness and gleeful stupidity. This is a movie in which Jaws escapes a malfunctioning parachute by flailing his hands like a bird and falling unto a circus tent – and survives without a scratch! This is a movie in which the villain kills a female employee by feeding her to his rabid hounds. This is a movie in which Bond is comically attacked by random henchmen on not one, not two, but three occasions. This is a movie in which Bond fights a python and kills it. This is a movie in which Jaws, the most imposing henchman of the franchise, is reduced to a love-struck puppy when he falls head-over-heels in love at first sight with a diminutive, bespectacled, big breasted mute blonde. If that wasn’t enough, the whole scene is scored to a cheesy rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo & Juliet Overture.” This is a movie in which the scores of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Magnificent Seven are all referenced for no apparent reason than, “You know what would be cool right here? 2001: A Space Odyssey! The kids would love that shit.” This is a movie in which Bond’s gondola transforms into a hovercraft and proceeds to take a joyride on the streets of Venice. This is a movie in which not only a dog but a pigeon does a double-take. A pigeon! I’m not kidding… a Fucking Pigeon does a double take! This is a movie in which Bond goes to outer space and destroys missiles using a joystick controller. Did I mention that a pigeon does a double take? A DAMN PIGEON! No movie in which a pigeon does a double take can be taken all that seriously because once that scene has passed, it becomes blatantly clear that Wood passed on his screenwriting duties on to a group of drunken baboons.
Plot-wise, Moonraker is illogical and riddled with holes. Neither Gilbert, Wood or the group of drunken baboons are capable of drafting anything resembling sense. If you take a shot every time you notice a plot hole, I guarantee you won’t be able to stand up at the night’s end. Essentially, Moonraker is a collection of seemingly unrelated scenes in which Bond and his accomplices are randomly attacked by murderous thugs for no apparent reason than the fact that he’s James Bond and they work for Hugo Drax. Bond and the Bond girl, the atrociously-named Dr. Holly Goodhead (the beautiful but wooden Lois Chiles) randomly bump into each at specific places and times on three different continents. Barely anything is made of these absurd coincidences. Action sequences begin unexpectedly and end just as unexpectedly for no rhyme or reason – without any build up or understanding of how any of the characters got to that location, and why they’re there in the first place. It’s as if Broccoli, Gilbert, Wood and Moore all had different versions of a film in mind and what we got was a fifth – a version in which every one of their bad ideas ended up making it to the screen instead of the good ones. Tonally, Moonraker is a vomit comet. One moment we’re getting pigeons doing double-takes, the very next moment, we’re made privy to scientists slowly chocking to death from toxic gasses. It’s messy, stinky and all over the place.
Just about the only aspects of Moonraker that straight-up work, and by work I mean intentionally work, are its thrilling pre-credits sequence in which Bond and a villain grapple for a single parachute while falling from a plane; a scary scene in which Bond is trapped within a flight training centrifuge that has been rigged by one of Drax’s henchmen; Ken Adam’s extraordinary set design – which may be the best of the series; It’s a crime this man didn’t win an Oscar for his work on this series. Then again, I wouldn’t want an Oscar on my mantle with the word “Moonraker” engraved on it. Moonraker is also surprisingly adept in the visual effects department – save for the hilarious slo-mo sequence meant to simulate zero gravity.
Michael Lonsdale’s hilarious performance as villain Hugo Drax is another one of the few highlights. His hilariously dry and droll performance may arguably be the best thing about the movie. Hugo Drax is without doubt the most passive and unthreatening villain in the history of the series. Indeed, his weapons of choice seem to be the acidic insults and one-liners he spews at Bond. Lines such as, “James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season,” “Mr. Bond, you persist in defying my efforts to provide an amusing death for you,” “Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him,” and “Jaws, Mr. Bond must be cold after his swim. Place him where he can be assured of warmth” had me chuckling – especially at the nonchalant way Lonsdale delivers them.
As for Dapper Dan Roger Moore… although he’s already beginning to look a little long in the tooth—he was 52 at the time—he’s still able to make up for the noticeable age gap between his female costar on the strength of sheer charisma. You get the feeling that he knows he’s stuck in a piece of manure but he goes along for the ride anyway – milking it for every cent, and there were a lot of them. The fact that he’s able to pull off every reaction, smirk and quip on cue without fail is a minor miracle.
Also miraculous was the resounding success of the film. When Moonraker opened in the summer of 1979, it grossed little over $70 million at the U.S. box office, making it the highest grossing film of the franchise until then. Either audiences were in the mood for sci-fi, preferred their Bond campy not gritty, or Broccoli was a marketing genius. Whatever it was, Moonraker was able to hold on to that record all the way until 1995 when GoldenEye overtook it. Adjusted for inflation, it stands as the fifth highest grossing film of the franchise, trailing only Thunderball, Goldfinger, Skyfall, and You Only Live Twice. Still, with the film’s poor critical reception, it became evident to Broccoli that with Bond having breached the realm of science fiction, fantasy and comedy, it was about time to bring him back down to Earth for an adventure that was closer to the earlier films of the series. But that’s an entry for another day.
If only the rest of Moonraker were as exciting and masterfully-crafted as its magnificent pre-credits sequence, the film would have been a worthy successor to The Spy Who Loved Me. Opening with a scene in which a space shuttle is stolen from on top of a flying 747 (let’s ignore how the thieves even managed to get into the shuttle in the first place, or why the shuttle was completely fueled). This is quickly followed by a scene in which M asks Moneypenny for Bond’s whereabouts to which she replies, “He’s on his last leg, sir.” Cut to Bond caressing a woman’s thigh on a private jet. Yes, this is that kind of cheesy movie. Unfortunately, Bond’s female companion is working in cahoots with a Snidely Whiplash-like villain who walks in from the cockpit with a gun pointed straight at Bond. Stating, “This is where I leave you, Mr. Bond,” the villain riddles the plane’s cockpit with bullets and prepares to skydive. But Bond manages to distract him and get into a brawl before he manages to get the upper hand and chuck the parachuted Whiplash off the plane. But just as he does so, Jaws pops out of nowhere (where was the 7 foot giant hiding on this tiny jet anyway?) and pushes Bond out of the plane, sans parachute.
Over the next two-and-a-half minutes, we watch in awe as Bond skydives without a parachute and catches up with Snidely Whiplash, fights with him in free-fall, steals his parachute, puts it on, and then manages to fend off Jaws, who has also skydived from the plane. The sequence, which was filmed without any CGI and using ultra-light cameras under the supervision of editor/second unit director John Glen (who would go on to direct the next five Bond movies), was performed by skydiving champion B. J. Worth and stuntmen Jake Lombard using concealable ultra-thin parachutes. The sequence, which makes a strong case for the greatest stunt of the series, is a breathtaking mesh of magnificent stunt work, meticulous planning and brass balls. In all, it took the team 88 dives to get all the footage required for the sequence. Eighty eight! The only blot on the sequence is its idiotic final moments where Jaws starts wailing like a bird to the tune of circus music when his parachute fails to open. The inane slapstick comedy continues when Jaws falls unto a circus tent, which is where the sequence ends, leading into Shirley Bassey’s flaccid theme song. THAT in a nutshell is Moonraker – it takes something with the potential to be amazing and ruins it with cartoonish hijinks.
Title Designer: Maurice Binder
Title Song: “Moonraker” performed by Shirley Bassey
Famous Quote: “Just like the Moonraker goes in search of his dream of gold/I search for love, for someone to have and hold”
If you wanted to know what Shirley Bassey phoning it in sounds like, look no further than the “Moonraker.” To be fair, it’s hardly Bassey’s fault as she was a last minute replacement after Johnny Mathis, who hated the song, abandoned the project midway. Bassey even stated that she doesn’t consider the song her own because she barely had any creative input on it. Whatever internal drama transpired, it’s clear that “Moonraker” is a forgettable piece of trash that marked one of the lowlights in composer John Barry’s long and decorated career. A more misguided version of the song appears over the end credits as Barry had the wise idea of adding shitty disco beats over the track. At least Barry redeems himself with his wonderful score. The less said about Maurice Binder’s limp credits sequence the better but let’s just say it features a bizarre combo of naked female acrobats, the moon, and a disco ball.
The Big Bad: Fascist French billionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), owner of Drax Industries and the Moonraker space program. Drax is an overweight man with a poor sense of style and expensive tastes who lives in California. Drax adores French architecture (his estate is a recreation of the Palace of Versailles), is almost always surrounded by genetically perfect women, and plans on destroying the world and creating his new master race in space.
The incomparable and near-indestructible Frankenstein-esque killer Jaws (Richard Kiel) who returns to the franchise after his audience-pleasing performance in The Spy Who Loved Me. With his towering 7’1” frame and razor sharp steel teeth, Jaws is easily the most terrifying henchman of the entire series. Alas, he’s mostly reduced to acting like an oaf in this film, victim of a series of slapstick jokes like flailing like a dumbo when his parachute fails to open, being coaxed by a bunch of Brazilians to dance, falling off a waterfall after accidentally breaking off the steering mechanism of his speedboat, and then falling head-over-heels in love with a mute blonde.
Others: The silent Japanese ninja assassin Chang (Toshiro Suga).
Organization: Drax Industries
World Domination Plan: Drax, who is obsessed with perfection, plans on starting a new race of human beings on his gigantic space station. He plans on using his Moonraker shuttles to transport his new genetically-perfect population to the station, after which he will deploy a toxic nerve gas made from a flower in the Amazon into Earth’s atmosphere, thereby eliminating humans off the face of the Earth. He would then repopulate the planet with his master race and rule over them like a God.
The stunningly beautiful but utterly boring Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) who works at Drax Industries as an aeronautics scientist but is also an undercover CIA agent. Goodhead was molded in the vein of Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) from The Spy Who Loved Me – someone who is Bond’s equal instead of being a helpless victim. Unfortunately, former model Chiles is a one-note performer who has a penchant for delivering her lines in the tone of a flight attendant offering snacks and refreshments to passengers. It doesn’t help that she barely has any chemistry with Moore. While Barbara Bach wasn’t Meryl Streep either, at least she had the good fortune of working with a screenplay that gave her character a motivation to hate Bond. It was that motivation that created the friction between the two characters over the course of the movie. There’s nothing of that sought here. It’s up to Moore to overcompensate – but considering his age, it just comes off creepy when he attempts to flirt with her. Goodhead is sexy and great to look at but offers little else. And that name…. Good Lord!
Corinne Defour (Corrine Clery) would have been better suited as the lead Bond girl. She’s Hugo Drax’s personal helicopter pilot who, after being seduced by Bond, helps him steal Drax’s personal information from a safe. Unfortunately, this proves to be her undoing as Drax ruthlessly allows her to be killed by his dogs! Clery, who had previously made her career in erotic dramas, made her jump to Hollywood with Moonraker.
Manuela (Emily Bolton), Bond’s contact in Rio de Janeiro.
M (Bernard Lee): M briefs Bond on the mission, along with Sir Fredrick Gray and Q, and then shows up in Venice upon Bond’s request to show him the covert lab. When Gray demands Bond be fired, M asks Bond to go on “vacation” to Rio as an excuse. This was Bernard Lee’s last appearance as M as he died during the filming of For Your Eyes Only before his scenes had been filmed.
Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen): Gray accompanies M and Bond when Bond informs them of a secret laboratory in Venice containing deathly chemicals. When the lab seems to have vanished into thin air, Gray demands Bond’s resignation and pathetically apologizes to Hugo Drax for his government’s behavior. A spineless bureaucrat.
Colonel Scott (Brian Keith): The U.S. space shuttle commander who assists Bond and Goodhead at the climax of the film when he leads his soldiers into a preposterous space battle with Drax’s army.
Q (Desmond Llewelyn) who gives Bond has arsenal of gadgets during Bond’s mission briefing sessions in London, Rio and Venice.
Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell): A couple of quick dalliances with Bond in which she infers his comments about falling out of an airplane without a parachute, among other things, to be jokes.
Wrist Dart Gun: Which Bond uses to save himself multiple times – when escaping the out of control flight training centrifuge, to kill the python and to kill Drax and shoot him off into space.
Watch with Detonator: Used by Bond to escape a bunker in Drx’s space shuttle
Cigarette Case Safe Opener: Used by Bond to open Drax’s safe.
007 Camera: Tiny camera with the letters 007 engraved on it. Used by Bond to take images of Drax’s secret blueprints of his space station.
Hydrofoil Speedboat: Laden with gadgets like torpedoes, floating mines and a detachable hang glider.
Gondola Hovercraft: Used by Bond to escape from his enemies in Venice. Perhaps the most useless gadget in franchise history.
ODDS & ENDS
Most Memorable Quote:
At the film’s climax, MI6 and CIA are able to connect to the moonraker shuttle containing Bond and Goodhead. When they finally get video, they see Bond and Goodhead having sex in zero gravity. Sir Fredrick Gray, looking furious and embarrassed, shouts out loud.
Sir Frederick Gray: My God, what’s Bond doing?
Q: I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir.
Most Embarrassing Quote:
After having sex with Bond in space.
James Bond: I think it may be time to go home.
Dr. Holly Goodhead: Take me ’round the world one more time.
James Bond: Why not?
Most Memorable Moment:
I briefly considered the scene in which Bond is trapped inside the zero gravity flight training centrifuge and is nearly killed but in the end, no scene in Moonraker compares to the bravura of the opening skydiving sequence. One of the action highlights of the franchise.
Most Cringe-Worthy Moment:
Can it be anything other than the gondola hovercraft scene in Venice in which everyone from drunk Italians to a dog and finally, a fucking pigeon, does a double take. The answer is no, a big bloody NO. This, coupled with Brosnan surfing tidal wave in Die Another Day, may be the worst scene in the 53-year history of the series.
Hugo Drax gets nearly all the best lines in the movie – no doubt elevated by Lonsdale’s droll performance. But of all his lines, I chuckled at this one the hardest.
Hugo Drax: James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.
Most Outrageous Moment:
There are so many things to chose from – the pigeon, the gondola hovercraft, the stupid fight in space between Drax’s men and the U.S. astronauts, Corrine getting mauled by the dogs. I was tempted to go with the pigeon again but I’m going to shake it up with the scene in which Jaws falls in love. Talk about neutering one of the most lethal assassins in the series. And that too with cheesy music!
Best Pun/Double Entendre:
Sir Frederick Gray: My God, what’s Bond doing?
Q: I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir.
Worst Pun/Double Entendre:
Upon seeing Bond escape his python.
Hugo Drax: Why did you break up the encounter with my pet python?
James Bond: I discovered it had a crush on me.
Best Stunt/Action Scene:
The opening skydiving sequence – one of the best stunts of the series.
Most Dated Reference:
The stupid laser fight during the finale. Talk about aging a movie! Also, all the sound effects accompanying the space crafts and space shuttles – you’d think they’d know there’s no sound in space. Then again, this is more a case of stupidity than dated references.
Number of Times Bond Has Sex: 4 (twice with Dr. Holly Goodhead, once with Manuela and once with Corrine).
Number of people Bond kills: 13
Drax has placed a sniper in a tree on his compound with his gun aimed at Bond. Drax then invited Bond to play a game of pheasant hunting with him. Bond sees a pheasant, aims at it and shoots at it… missing.
Hugo Drax: You missed, Mr. Bond.
The sniper falls from the tree, dead
James Bond: (dryly) Did I?
Locations visited (In order of appearance): London, Los Angeles, Venice, Rio De Janeiro, Amazon Jungle, Outer Space!
Misogyny Meter: 7/10
First of all… the name Dr. Holly Goodhead. Bond is also surprised when he finds out the Goodhead is actually a woman, exclaiming, “A woman!” He’s generally dismissive of her and considers her feeble and susceptible to his charms. The other two female characters are grossly dependent on Bond – needing him to rescue him, or being easily wooed by his charms.
Box Office: $70.3 million domestic ($235 million adjusted for inflation; fifth highest overall)
Oscars: 1 nomination (Best Visual Effects)
007 Chronological Listing: 11/24
Running time: 126 minutes
Companies: EON Productions, MGM
The 007 Collective will return in:
DR. NO (1962)
Previous entries in The 007 Collective:
- Goldfinger (1964)
- A View to a Kill (1985)
- Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
- The World is Not Enough (1999)
- Die Another Day (2002)
- Quantum of Solace (2008)
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
- Octopussy (1983)
- Thunderball (1965)
- GoldenEye (1995)
- The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
- The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
- The Living Daylights (1987)
- Skyfall (2012)
- You Only Live Twice (1967)
- Live and Let Die (1973)