So, not “For Your Eyes Only” then? Thanks to the box office shattering impact of “Star Wars” in 1977, Cubby Broccoli – ever a man with an eye for an opportunity – quickly altered his plans and selected “Moonraker”, the most outer space-sounding of Fleming’s novels as the next movie. With an eye firmly on the science fiction success enjoyed by George Lucas’ space opera and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”, Christopher Wood was tasked with overhauling the plot of the novel and bringing bang up to date for modern, sci-fi hungry audiences.
For someone like me growing up in era of “Star Wars” and the Space Shuttle programme, the marriage of Bond and sci-fi action was a match made in heaven. Even now, I still enjoy the breezily fast paced adventure and world-threatening machinations even if Christopher Wood’s script is an almost beat-for-beat remake of his previous efforts on “The Spy Who Loved Me”.
When a Moonraker Space Shuttle is apparently lost when the 747 it was piggy backing crashes en route to the UK from America, MI6 quickly ascertain the wreckage contains no trace of the shuttle. Bond is dispatched to Drax industries, the manufacturers of the space vehicles, to investigate the theft. His investigations lead him to Hugo Drax and reveal an audacious plot to commit global genocide and establish new master race. That’s right: although it’s perceived as one of the lightest, most frivolous and silly Bond films, the actual plot is incredibly dark.
It starts with a lively pre-credits sequence showing the theft of the shuttle mid-flight (that’ll teach them to carry it fully fuelled!) followed by Bond surviving an attempted assassination following a mission in Africa by jumping out of a jet without a parachute, helping himself to the one taken by the would-be assassin on the way down. Returning henchman Jaws also makes an appearance here but alas his popularity has driven an unwelcome change in his characterisation. He’s now fodder for comic relief and much less of the lumbering, unstoppable ferrous fanged brute force of “The Spy Who Loved Me” and while he still tries to kill Bond a couple of times, his heart doesn’t seem to be in it anymore, foreshadowing his eventual redemption/ wussification.
Despite the money lavished on the production (the budget was the same as the first six Bond movies put together and Maurice Binder’s opening titles alone cost more than “Dr. No”) the theme song ended up being a bit of a last minute job. Originally a song was written for Frank Sinatra (who was also offered the role of Drax) but he turned it down and composer John Barry and lyricist Hal David wrote “Moonraker” for Johnny Mathis only for him to pull out just weeks before the film was due to premiere. Shirley Bassey was drafted in at the last moment, her third and – to date – final Bond theme. It’s a lovely ballad but it’s kind of swamped by the extravaganza it’s attached to and fails to make much of an impact, despite the jazzy disco remix which is used to close out the film.
There’s a giddily indulgent, anything goes attitude to “Moonraker” and while the budget might be overinflated, the money ends up on screen. Ken Adams’ sets are – in some cases literally – out of this world, from Drax’s jungle launch control centre to the gigantic three storey space station interiors and the film happily traverses the globe to find the most glamorous locations in which to play out its set pieces. There’s a brief trip to California but the film sidesteps the usual ‘Bond in America’ pitfalls by artfully explaining that Drax had his palatial mansion exported brick by brick from France. From there the action moves from FranceCalifornia to Venice to Rio de Janeiro to the Amazon rain forest and finally into outer space! In total it was filmed on three continents, in four studios across seven countries. Veteran director Lewis Gilbert keeps the action moving along at such a brisk pace that you don’t have time to catch your breath let alone wonder whether the whole exuberant travelogue actually makes sense.
The action takes another step up in quality, from the opening freefall battle to the showdown on the Sugarloaf Mountain cable cars, the stunts are spectacular. The Venice scenes are great fun, including a devastating fight scene in a Venetian glass museum and, of course the notorious gondola chase. Much maligned, the ‘Bondola’, with its secret motor and hovercraft option might be a weirdly specific gadget for Q to have come up with but it still works within the film. It’s the double-taking pigeon which pushes the whole thing too far. The grand finale – a deadly game of laser tag in orbit – is as impressive as it is over the top. The special effects are superb – and not just the space scenes; even the back projection stuff on the cable cars is much improved on previous films.
Ironically, the thing that keeps the film from simply spiralling out of control into space is that it’s anchored by such a memorable villain in Hugo Drax. Drax is, of course, another proxy Blofeld but Michael Lonsdale plays him so wonderfully well, you wish he was one of the official Blofelds. He may look like David Brent’s weird uncle but Lonsdale’s performance is deliciously, lazily sardonic with a sleepy malevolence that disguises just what a ruthless psychopath he really is. Content to casually try to have Bond killed during a hunting trip or coldly feed his assistant to his dogs, Drax approaches Bond with a weary insouciance, a wit as dry as Bond’s own and a neat line in pithy dialogue.
Lois Chiles is a little less successful as the film’s leading lady, lacking any kind of chemistry with Moore and often coming across a little bit stiff and wooden. It’s not her fault that she’s saddled with the appalling character name of Holly Goodhead, though and at least she’s also a Doctor and a CIA agent so she has more about her than previous Bond girl low point Mary Goodnight. She’s also pretty useful during the space station-based battle although mysteriously none of the bevvy of beautiful lady astronauts that Drax brings to the shuttle seem to participate in the shootout so she has to mix it up with the boys.
It’s a nice touch that the series regulars got to join in the fun being out and about, especially Bernard Lee as M in what would sadly be his final appearance in the role.
It’s all preposterous nonsense, of course, but it’s still very recognizably James Bond nonsense. Where “Goldfinger” defined Sixties-era Bond, “Moonraker” is an exercise in gaudy, glittering Seventies excess, making this film another touchstone for the Austin Powers spoofs. For better or worse, Bond went bigger than ever before and was rewarded with the highest grossing film of the series, cementing the series’ revival from the shaky start to the decade. Moore was the Bond that the Seventies needed and wanted, moving the franchise with the times in a way Connery couldn’t have done (as demonstrated in “Diamonds Are Forever”). But the Seventies were drawing to a close and a new decade beckoned, challenging Bond to adapt once again…