James Bond movies are almost never original. They’re purely reactionary, reacting both to the popular trends of the time and to the critical success of the previous film. If one film bombs, critically or financially, the next one is radically different. If a film succeeds, the producers do whatever had worked before, but with MORE. That’s why we got Moonraker. The film before it had been The Spy Who Loved Me, a huge, goofy, over-the-top action epic that was actually pretty entertaining, even for dull old Timothy Dalton fans like me. And with Star Wars having recently popularized big outer space battles, all the momentum pushed the series to the ignominious task of putting James Bond 007, smooth-talking, worldly secret agent, into astronaut gear, firing laser beams against goons in a giant exploding space station. The result was… well, the fact that I’m writing about it might give away my conclusion.
The film opens with a carrier plane transporting a Moonraker space shuttle on its back, taking it to the UK to contribute to the apparently-existent British space program. Excuse me, space programme. And wow, how fast do you need the shuttle that you need to ship it atop another plane, rather than using boats and trains and stuff? But the British “We need a space shuttle on short notice; got one laying around, mate?” approach is very convenient for the plot. There are a couple of bad guys stowed aboard the shuttle; they hit the ignition and fly the shuttle off, destroying the plane in their wake. They head off to God-knows-where, because we know that space shuttles are impossible to track on radar.
So of course James Bond (Roger Moore), returning to the UK from Africa, is assigned to the case, but not before we get the highlight of the film out of the way. He’s caught by bad guys aboard a small plane high in the air, and shortly after he kicks the villain carrying the last parachute out of the plane, he himself gets booted. In one of the most wonderfully audacious action scenes I’ve ever witnessed, Bond intercepts the villain in mid-air, wrestles the parachute off his back, and clasps it onto his own. It’s one of those stunts that’s so outrageous, yet just close enough to theoretically plausible that it’s a treat to behold. Unfortunately, they ruin it by adding Jaws (Richard Kiel), The Spy Who Loved Me’s 7-foot-tall, metal-toothed assassin, who dives after Bond and nearly bites his leg off, but pulls the cord on a defective parachute (guess the props department couldn’t procure an anvil to complete the effect) and yet manages to land safely on a circus tent. Moonraker, I thought you were going to manage to pull off one good full scene there. Think you could try it again later on? Er…
Anyway, the space shuttle’s been stolen, and the British don’t have any leads whatsoever, so Bond decides to go visit the Drax Industries complex in California where the shuttle was made. I guess that a random stab in the dark’s as good an approach as any, and fortunately, Bond’s guess is entirely correct. He goes to meet billionaire industrialist Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale, apparently thinking that “Moonraker” is a sleeping pill and acting the part), and Bond plays himself and everything; there’s no pretense at all of being anything but an agent of the British government out to learn how the Moonraker shuttles are made in the odd event that the secrets to unraveling an international conspiracy lie in a glorified Kennedy Space Center tour. Drax decides that the best way to avert suspicion from himself is to tell his Chinese (for no particular reason) henchman Chang (Toshiro Suga; hey, same continent) to kill Bond. Yeah, because if a British agent were killed five minutes after arriving, it’s not like they have any other spies they could send. Well, actually, judging by these movies, they might not.
So Drax has his people try to kill Bond as he participates in a variety of pointless recreational activities--riding around in a centrifuge chamber, pheasant hunting, Skee ball, Mario Kart--but it’s all in good fun, because even as people are being shot out of trees, neither Bond or Drax decides to drop the pretext and just shoot each other in the back. Bond’s knack for securing undying devotion from buxom females at first sight of his rugged British smirk comes in handy, as he gets some help from Drax helicopter pilot Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery, whom Moore kept calling “Mildred” on the set for some reason). She semi-inadvertently helps him find mysterious blueprints, and for her assistance, Bond leaves her behind and never finds out about her brutal death by Drax’s hounds. But at least Bond was generous enough to sleep with her first. You know what they say to future Bond girls: stay off the Moore. Thank you! I’ll be here all week.
The blueprints are for a glass vial, which Bond traces to a factory in Venice (you know, I wonder if these Bond villains are ever going to get something manufactured in Akron, Ohio). There, Bond once again runs into Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles, apparently on whatever depressants Lonsdale is), a scientist working for Drax, whom he remembers flirting with inanely back in California. Suffice to say she’s clearly not what she seems, but Bond isn’t curious enough at this point to find out. Because who needs detective work when bad guys just keep trying to kill you whenever you follow up on a thin lead? It’s like an international game of Marco Polo. The attack in question comes as Bond is lounging around in a gondola, apparently relaxing after his hard day of walking around a factory for a few minutes and talking to a pretty lady. Villains attack him from speedboats, so Bond reveals that he’s actually in a Q-division gondola, which has a really powerful motor and even turn into a hovercraft to go on land, kind of like a reverse of the far more practical submarine car from The Spy Who Loved Me. You know, I just have to admire Q-division. They must have put millions of dollars into developing a “fully stocked” vehicle that could only possibly be valuable in Venice. In fact, I suspect that the team leader of Q’s Canal Warfare department staged the attack merely to justify funding.
After riding to safety across the square in a floating hovercraft boat, a scene so goofy that a cheaply-edited double-take from a bird is fairly low on the scale of offensive sight gags, Bond skulks back to the factory at night. He finds a laboratory and inadvertently causes two scientists to die after being exposed to some kind of deadly-to-humans-only toxin that’s being transported around in those glass vials. Sneaking out, Bond is confronted by Chang, who attacks him with a giant bamboo stick. And since the glass shop sports a suit of armor (???), Bond gets to pick up a real sword, stunning Chang with the realization that sharp metal tends to be more effective than rounded wood. Bond ends the fight by tossing Chang through the glass face of a clock tower, and he crashes into a piano far below, prompting Bond to unleash the pun, “Play it again, Sam.” Well, maybe it’s not a pun, but it’s a joke. Well, it’s not so much a joke, but it’s definitely a sentence.
Bond confronts Goodhead (God, I hate writing that name) back at her hotel room, and after playing around with her pen and perfume, he finds that they all contain hidden weapons (acid, a flamethrower), which clearly means that she’s a fellow secret agent from the CIA. Because as we all know, there’s nothing that defines you as a secret agent beyond how many goofball weapons you have hidden in pedestrian items. It’s also a good enough pretext for the two to have sex and put off busting Drax’s bio-weapons operation until the morning. Which proves to be Bond’s undoing, because when M and the Defense Minister arrive to inspect the glass shop (showing a hands-on interest in Bond’s affairs for once), they find that the lab no longer exists. There’s only Drax, standing there confused at their arrival in gas masks into his massive ball room… out back of a glass shop. Nope, not at all suspicious. The Defense Minister is humiliated, but M believes Bond and unofficially dispatches him to Rio de Janeiro, where Drax is moving his operation; once again, I’d really like to suggest a place like Peoria, Illinois if Drax is looking for a solid industrial workforce. But he’s more concerned at the moment with finding a good henchman to replace Chang. So he calls eFelony and is thrilled to hear that Jaws is available. Jaws? I can imagine Drax drooling over the guy’s resume:
Objective: To provide killing while expanding my skills as a wacky comic relief antagonist.
- Massive size and strength, which can be used to overpower any opponent who is either incredibly slow or already cornered.
- Excellent disguise skills, so long as I am operating in a circus, European basketball game, or have access to Abraham Lincoln makeup and costume.
- Completely indestructible, so long as attacks are aimed directly at my mouth while it is closed.
- Have come very close to defeating James Bond on several occasions, and would have succeeded if Roger Moore had wasted just a little more time mugging for the camera.
- Have survived more James Bond movies than Oddjob, Scaramanga, Baron Samedi, Red Grant, or George Lazenby.
- Karl Stromberg (1977-1977). Served as chief assassin. Employment terminated when employer was killed by James Bond.
"Come to bed, darling." "Shortly, dear. Just need to finish adding one more boat chase and one more boner joke to the Fleming novel."
Jaws tries to get at Bond again, this time after Bond and Holly meet up and start traveling down from an overlook in a cable car. With the help of an exceptionally compliant operator, Jaws has Bond and Holly’s car stopped, then rides down on his own, banking on Bond having left his Walther PPK on the nightstand so that he doesn’t just shoot the 7-foot-tall target. Which, of course, proves to have been a well-played gambit. Bond and Jaws rassle for a bit, while Holly proves her CIA agent credentials by slapping Jaws’ ankles in the meantime, having also left all of her deadly gadgets on the nightstand. The whole thing ends with Bond and Holly escaping (whew, I was worried there for a second) and Jaws and his car crashing through a building, after which he runs into a 2 ½-foot-tall blonde girl with ponytails, and they fall in love. And then… Then…
I’m sorry, I don’t know how much longer I can take this, so I’m just going to zip through the next several “action” scenes:
- Bond escapes from an ambulance full of Drax thugs. Unlike the guy who attacked Bond 15 seconds beforehand, they apparently do not have orders to kill Bond on sight. Bond escapes, but they get away with Holly.
- In search of the orchid that Q has determined Drax is using in production of the nerve gas, Bond rides up the Amazon in a Q speedboat, and oddly enough, gets attacked by bad guys in other speed boats! Mind you, this is a new speedboat, not the Q speedboat disguised as a gondola. And remember, nothing is certain in life except death, taxes, Cal Ripken, and Jaws ending an action scene with a pratfall and then surviving a horrible crash.
- Bond wrestles with a rubber anaconda. He then stabs it with a pen, which is mightier than a bamboo sword.
- Drax leaves Bond and Holly to die underneath the exhaust port of a Moonraker shuttle as it launches. They, uh, get away.
- Bond and Holly knock out some Moonraker pilots and replace them on a departing shuttle. Fortunately, Bond’s learned how to hold his air conditioner correctly by now, so nobody notices. They head up into space carrying a bunch of beach party bingo rejects.
- They get up to a space station that’s hidden to radar. From here, Drax plans to wipe out the human race with nerve gas orbs and then repopulate the planet with his genetically-perfect supermen and superwomen, ushering in an era of peace or some such crap. He captures Bond and Holly again. He orders them to be thrown out an airlock. They get away. They break the radar jammer.
Now, this is where the film gets really interesting. Because apparently NASA has a team of space marines, armed with laser rifles, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Once they get word that the big thing in space is not the Russians, they decide they need to destroy it, which seems like a bit of backwards logic to me. The shuttle full of space marines heads toward the station, but while NASA was thinking small-scale, figuring that little dudes with ray guns would be enough to tackle anything space threw at them, Drax figured, “Hey, how about I just blow up their ship?” So Bond and Holly have to escape. One. Last. Time. This time, they do it by convincing Jaws that Drax won’t let his Mini-Her girlfriend be a part of his master race. As if he was really going to keep the 7-foot-tall ugly guy in suspenders be a big part of his eugenics program anyway. So Jaws helps them escape and stop Drax from blowing up the shuttle with a big laser, which forces him to send out a bunch of little guys with lasers. The film climaxes with the immortal battle between guys in white space suits with lasers versus guys in yellow space suits with lasers. It’s positively operatic.
The space marines start blowing up the station, and Bond chases Drax down one of the docking tubes, until Drax reaches the air lock and pulls a (non-laser) gun on him. Looks like it’s over for Bond, who didn’t think it necessary to bring one of the ten thousand laser pistols on the station along for this task. That is, until Bond uses a Q-division wrist dart thing (cleverly disguised as a regular wrist thing) to shoot Drax in the heart, before he launches him into space out of the air lock. And since there was clearly no ship out of the air lock, one questions Drax’s logic in choosing to flee there. Maybe he figured he could just hold his breath on his way down to Earth, then try to land atop a circus tent, Jaws-style.
But there’s still the issue of three nerve gas pods that have already been launched towards Earth, each containing enough gas to kill 100 million people. Boy, you must be able to fit a lot of gas in a 6-by-6 foot glass bubble. Bond and Holly take off in Drax’s laser-armed Moonraker to shoot them down before they reach the atmosphere. I wonder if Ian Fleming, long-since passed on by this point, watched from the afterlife and regretted calling his novel Moonraker. Although a synopsis of the book shows that it was hardly understated, involving Bond’s attempt to stop a nuclear missile from destroying London, I can’t imagine that Fleming knew this would lead to a film adaptation in which his clever gentleman-spy would wear a yellow jumpsuit and shoot laser beams at nerve gas pods before sleeping with a CIA agent/astronaut lady named Goodhead. I think that if he was aware of that, he would have called the novel something like A Delightfully Dapper Dust-Up to foil Hollywood’s attempts to turn the novel into a big-screen game of Galaga. Then again, they did eventually manage to take a story called Quantum of Solace and turn it into a movie about people stealing Bolivia’s water, so probably no matter of prophecy could have averted the apocalypse known as Moonraker.
I’ll just leave it to you to imagine Bond’s final victory and the wacky hijinx that ensue when MI-6 accidentally broadcasts footage of him having zero-gravity sex with Holly to Buckingham Palace and the White House.
"The State Department mistranslated it! 'Mir' actually means 'die Yankee buttheads'! We're doomed!"
I’m not going to say that Moonraker could have been a good film if they had done a few things differently, because that’s like saying the Sun could be inhabitable it were just a bit cooler. It’s the silliest Bond movie ever, and it’s not remotely funny. Michael Lonsdale, who’s actually a pretty good actor, delivers a couple of drolly funny lines--“James Bond, you appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season,” “At least I shall have the pleasure of putting you out of my misery,” and the absolutely poetic, “Allow me to introduce you to the airlock chamber”--but looks like a Muppet Baby version of Czar Nicholas II, and is about as threatening as a foam rubber Andy Milonakis doggy chew toy. He even gets upstaged on the quasi-intentionally hilarious, completely unintentionally homoerotic line front when Bond refers to Drax’s space station as a “flying stud farm.” As for Lois Chiles? Well, all I can say is that at least many of the previous Bond girls have had the excuse of not having English as a native language.
"Don't mind me. Just taking a very large step with my mankind. And activating my thrusters. And exploring this lady's angry red planets. After that, I'm going to penetrate her lower atmosphere. Oh, and she's going to stick something in my gas giant, where there are lots of asteroids and Klingons. Let's see, what can I say about Pluto..."
Fortunately, the producers never attempted to one-up their shooting of Bond into outer space by having him battle Galactus or something. No, but even if it took a while to manifest itself, Moonraker did eventually have its spiritual successor, a film that would make this look like Syriana by comparison…