The good, the bad, and the Bond: Re-evaluating 007 – Moonraker

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AFTER a short hiatus,  we’re back with Bond at SCM with Roger Moore’s daftest feature in Moonraker, featuring our first contribution from Sierra Wander Hollow. The space shuttles are rearing to go.

Daniel Abbott: Moonraker is one of the most bizarre, unquantifiably naff pieces of camp rubbish ever made. And it’s wonderful. It’s so daft and weird that it almost defies its status as one of the worst Bond films and one of the strangest, most hilariously ill-judged attempts to branch out within the confines of a huge franchise. It’s a wild, unpredictable and thoroughly insane moment of abandon in a series that has hardly been short of them, throwing caution to the wind in the pursuit of sheer “what the fuck”.

It’s not even that far a cry from the joyous absurdity of The Spy Who Loved Me, a film which revolved around preventing an Atlantis-obsessed fat man creating his very own civilisation from the ashes of thermonuclear war. Moonraker, meanwhile, revolves around a space-obsessed stubby man ruling the world from his orbital space station. Apples and pears.

The film picks up with Bond (the ever trusty Roger Moore) investigating the theft of a Drax Industries space shuttle. Encountering Jaws (Richard Kiel), the imposing steel-jawed henchman from Spy, Bond escapes in a thrilling skydiving segment. When Jaws, in a moment of glorious Wile E. Coyote genius, rips off the cord, he plummets into a circus tent that rapidly deflates.

Moonraker is just that: An enormous lump of human flesh falling into a Big Top. It’s a film of carnival extravagance that justifies its then-series-high budget of $34 million, tapping into such great societal questions like: Who will stop a monotone man from repopulating Earth with Aryan super-people by poisoning everyone with an orchid that kills only humans? Bond will, dammit, by partaking in Venetian gondola chases almost immediately after a female helper (Corinne Cléry) gets torn to pieces by nasty dogs. There’s even a double-taking pigeon (!) to complement this rampant tonal whiplash.

If you can think of it, Moonraker probably has it. Cable car shenanigans? Sure! A luxuriously slow laser battle in the blackness of space? Go for it! Jaws has a girlfriend (the tiny Blanche Ravalec)? Why the fuck not?! Drax even happens to be either the most forgiving or the most incompetent Bond villain ever: Admiring of Bond’s defiance of his “attempts to devise an amusing death”, Lonsdale plays Drax as a slick, remarkably unflappable chap with a sublimely silly beard, his speech never lifting above a single dry note.

Lois Chiles’ Holly Goodhead (yes, really) is a surprisingly capable Bond girl, rarely standing for Bond’s chat-up bullshit (until she does). Kiel’s Jaws is eminently likeable despite his endless stylings of comic relief, and Desmond Llewelyn’s Q provides the finest one-liner in Bond history. As Moore and Chiles return to earth, preparing for coital fulfilment, Llewelyn, without missing a beat, intones: “I think they’re attempting re-entry, sir.”

It’s all so brashly stupid, so brazenly cocksure, that you’d have to be a miserable old sod (or a fan of good cinema) to give anything similar to the critical derision it received upon release. By all sensible accounts it’s rubbish – absolute rubbish – but Moonraker’s joy comes from how much it revels in that rubbish. It’s overflowing with eyebrows, puns and some legitimately impressive stunts – in other words, it’s the definitive Roger Moore film. It even has Shirley Bassey singing the underrated theme song! What more do you want?

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Sierra Wander Hollow: It’s a bit of a cliché in horror franchises that when ideas run out, it’s time to set a sequel in space. Sadly, for the greatest spy franchise, Bond goes the way of Pinhead, Jason Voorhees and the Leprechaun with a lacklustre space entry that’s camp at best and embarrassing at worst.

The pre-credits scene sets the tone for the film: Bond is attacked on a plane by an unnamed henchman and Jaws. Without a parachute of his own, Bond wrestles the parachute from the henchman to rescue himself. Jaws, on the other hand, pulls his own chute unsuccessfully and plummets into a circus in a scene that is only as ludicrous as the “comical” music over-scoring it.

Ludicrous is very much the word for Moonraker. A Venice water-chase sees Bond escape on a motor-powered gondola, complete with wheels that allow for land-based escape; a scene so jarring that even a pigeon does a “double-take” at the sight of Bond riding his gondola on land. Jaws and Bond have something of a Looney Tunes relationship throughout as their conflicts see Jaws fly off of a waterfall and crash a cable-car into a building, complete with wide-eyed Wile E. Coyote stares as he hurtles to what would be certain death had the film possessed even the slightest sense of reality. The Bond series has always had a sense of humour, but for Moonraker that humour has become less tongue-in-cheek and more pie-in-face as slapstick sensibilities take over.

Moonraker pitches Bond against Drax, a man reading from the Nazi playbook of movie villainy with his sights set on wiping out the population of Earth from the safety of his space station, only to return generations later with his own ‘master race’ to repopulate Earth. He’s a very understated villain and sadly that doesn’t gel well with the overall tone of the film. Had the film been more serious, his calm tone might have come across as creepily effective but instead he comes across as dull, his villainous speeches sounding more like a man reading his shopping list.

Surprisingly, it’s when Moonraker finally reaches space the film finally seems to come together. Not that it isn’t without its ludicrous moments: Jaws completes a turn from villain to hero in half a minute and a laser space-battle between two teams of redcoats is spectacular but ridiculous. You get the sense that the movie has just been plodding along trying to get to this point. The space station itself is an impressive set and provides Bond with the opportunity to disrupt Drax’s operation with strategies such as disabling the artificial gravity and, of course, firing Drax out of the airlock.

There are glimpses of a good Bond film in Moonraker. A particularly brutal sequence sees Drax punish an underling (and one of Bond’s sexual conquests) by having her hunted down in the woods by his dogs; a tasteful pan up doing nothing to hide the reality that this woman is being ripped apart. The space sequences are well filmed and no doubt behind its Oscar-nomination for visual effects. But at the end of the day, Moonraker is the kind of film that, if you’re enjoying it, you’re probably laughing at it, not with it; and Bond deserves better than that.

 

 

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