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Moonraker

Moonraker and You Only Live Twice have a lot in common: both are the follow-ups to unprecedented smash hits, both seem to be insecure about that fact, and both try to bury that insecurity with a lot of money and explosions. Moonraker’s insecurity is more damaging, though. For one thing, it doesn’t just push Bond to the side, it also pushes aside any attempts at interesting supporting characters, villains, or storylines.

Perhaps its biggest oversight, however, is Moonraker’s failure to realize that far worse than empty spectacle is unoriginal, empty spectacle. Moonraker is action-packed, but it’s action is derivative and familiar. There’s a carnival chase lifted directly from Thunderball and two seperate boat chases that look a lot like the ones from Moore’s first two outings. The moment when Bond’s gondola turns into a hovercraft and floats through the streets of Venice seems original, at least until you remember that Bond’s submersible car from The Spy Who Loved Me was written and filmed in a nearly identical manner.

The one exception, of course, is the final battle, which takes place entirely in outer space. It, at least, is unlike anything we’ve seen in any past Bond movie. It is an admittedly thrilling fifteen minute conclusion to a two-plus hour film. However, while many of the external special effects are as impressive as those in Star Wars, many of the internal shots — including the attempt to portray “zero gravity” by simply having the actors walk slowly and lift their arms over their heads — are unintentionally funny in their awfulness.

Space Station from Moonraker
Believe it or not, this is a scene from a James Bond movie.

Speaking of Star Wars, Moonraker was often accused of ripping it off, and given that the Bond franchise has spent the majority of Moore’s tenure awkwardly aping hot genres of the moment, Moonraker’s similarities to the biggest movie of all time are probably not coincidental. Moonraker lacks any of Star Wars’ sense of wonder though, and treats outer space as just another gimmicky locale. When Bond himself blasts off into space, his only reaction is to arch his eyebrow and crack a joke. Also, in a development that should embaress the makers of this picture, Moonraker wound up costing more to make than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back combined.

The film is also the most gadget-intensive Bond movie so far, but the equpiment is introduced without wit and used with no sense of timing. With the exception of a wrist-mounted dart gun, Q doesn’t explain any of the gadgets, and we rarely even see them until they’re used. The effect is that it seems no matter what situation Bond is in, he somehow happens to have the exact right device for that moment, which in turns robs the audience of those thrilling moments when your brain clicks, realizing a gadget we saw earlier will do just the trick right about here.

Roger Moore continues to do his thing and vehemently refuse to take anything seriously, but for the third time in four films, the movie’s tone actively works against him. Despite the outlandish story material, the movie feels airless and staid, dragging scenes out past their breaking points and inexplicably filling the most exciting scenes with silence on the soundtrack. That Moonraker and the effortlessly light-footed The Spy Who Love Me share a director boggles the mind.

It makes a bit more sense, though, that Moonraker and You Only Live Twice also share a director. Those movies have one more similarity: by reaching an unprecedented grandiosity and unintended emotional emptiness, they forced the franchise to step back and re-evaluate matters.

D+

VerdictMoonraker is an unexciting adventure devoid of heart or originality, a fact which it unesuccessfully tries to conceal behind an abundance of special effects.

Main Villain

Michael Lonsdale as Hugo Drax in Moonraker
  • NameHugo Drax
  • Played ByMichael Lonsdale
  • Distinguishing Features None.
  • BackgroundOwns Drax Industries, a large aeronautics manufacturer, and trains astronauts for NASA.
  • Sinister PlanKill everyone on earth by launching nerve gas capsules from his space station, then re-populate the planet with a “master race” of hand-picked, physically perfect specimens.
  • Hospitality Towards James BondAlthough he bestows upon Bond a night in his California castle and a spot of pheasant hunting, Drax is otherwise quite inhospitable. He’s constantly attempting to kill Bond, right from their first meeting. Drax takes the cliché of the villain incapable for killing Bond to its absolute extremes — he squanders at least half-a-dozen opportunities to do just shoot him, seemingly obsessed with giving Bond an elaborate death.
  • Psychiatric AssessmentDrax’s thinking is so bizarre and deluded, it seems likely that he is psychotic.
  • DeathShot with a poison dart then blown out into space.
  • VerdictDrax’s plan is pure idiocy (won’t his perfect specimens become terribly inbred a few generations down the line, and wouldn’t the earth now be filled with over five billion rotting corpses?) and totally implausible even by Bond movie standards (how does one launch a massive space station unnoticed, and how much nerve gas, exactly, would one need to kill every single person on the planet?). This would be forgivable if there was some kind of logical, or amusingly illogical, motivations guiding his actions, but Drax has none whatsoever. Almost everything about him seems like an afterthought, as if the fact that he’s a bad guy who wants to kill everyone was all they felt they needed to establish. Performance-wise, Lonsdale portrays the character with a straight face, in the vein of Carl Jurgens in The Spy Who Loved Me, but without anything else going on, his performance comes across as boring as opposed to mysterious.
    D-

Villainous Lair

  • LocationUnderneath a Mayan temple in South America
  • Production DesignerKen Adam (for the 7th of 7 times)
  • VerdictAll criticisms of Drax aside, he does have a wide array of elaborate lairs, each of impeccable calibre. In California he has an enormous aeronautics manufacturing and training facility, complete with flight simulator, which is next door to his own massive mansion built entirely with stones shipped from France. In Venice he has a nerve gas manufacturing facility and glass-blowing studio, each seemingly capable of disappearing entirely if the wrong person comes snooping. And, of course, orbiting planet earth, he has his radar-invisible, laser-equipped space station.

    His “main” lair, though, is located in the Brazilian Amazon forest underneath a Mayan temple (Mayans never actually lived that far south, but never mind). Although there are no impressive shots of the lair as a whole, it seems to be at least as large as Blofeld’s volcanic base in You Only Live Twice. The historic Mayan ruins give way to a retro-futuristic space station with massive control rooms and vast caverns. It doesn’t have its own light-rail transit system, but it does have shuttles color-coded to match his employees’ uniforms. The most inspired touch is a deadly python pool, which is a sound alternative to the increasingly hackneyed presence of a shark tank. Ken Adam’s outstanding (and final) contributions to are among the best parts of the movie.
    A-
Villainous Lair in Moonraker

Top Henchman

Toshiro Suga as Chang in Moonraker
  • NameChang
  • Played ByToshiro Suga
  • BackgroundUnknown
  • SpecialtiesKendo; ninjitsu; canine obedience training.
  • VerdictThe idea of a billionaire businessman accompanied by a perpetually robe-clad ninja is intriguing, but quickly diminished as Chang’s maddening incompetence is slowly revealed. How pathetic of a martial artist does one have to be to repeatedly lose straight-up fist fights with a 50-year-old English man?
    C-

Other Notable Associates

  • JawsThe top henchman from The Spy Who Loved Me returns, this time mostly for comic relief. He’s hired by Drax after the premature demise of Chang, which is probably not a sound business strategy, given how many times Jaws has failed to kill Bond in the past. Jaws has a girlfriend this time around, and betrays his boss to help Bond destroy the space ship when he finds out he won’t be able to help re-populate Drax’s so-called utopia.
Jaws with girlfriend in Moonraker

Lead Bond Girl

Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead in Moonraker
  • NameHolly Goodhead
  • Played ByLois Chiles
  • Seems to BeAn astrophysicist on loan from NASA, currently working for Drax on his space program.
  • Turns Out To BeAn undercover CIA agent embedded in Drax’s company.
  • Frenemy StatusFriend and ally.
  • How Far Does James Get?They have zero-gravity intercourse, which I’m sure was a novel experience even for James Bond.
  • Does James Get Her Killed?No.
  • VerdictUndistinguished performances and childish names are standard issue for Moore’s lead Bond girls, and those dispiriting trends continue here. Outside of those small details, though, Miss Goodhead is a refreshingly semi-developed character. She bridges the gap nicely between the vapid creations of the first three Moore films and the more interesting leading ladies of the final three.
    C+

Supporting Bond Girl #1

Corinne Cléry as Corinne Dufour in Moonraker
  • NameCorinne Dufour
  • Played ByCorinne Cléry
  • Seems to BeBond’s tour guide when he visits Drax’s California manufacturing plant.
  • Turns Out To BeA very friendly tour guide indeed.
  • Frenemy StatusFriend.
  • How Far Does James Get?He drops into her room at night for an extended tour of her private estates.
  • Does James Get Her Killed?Yes. When Drax finds out she’s shown Bond his safe, he releases his massive dobermans who chase her down and tear her to pieces.
  • VerdictAnother vacant character with a pretty face. The only thing distinguishing Ms. Dufour is her off-putting and unnecessarily gruesome death.
    D

Supporting Bond Girl #2

  • NameManuela
  • Played ByEmily Bolton
  • Seems to BeAn MI6 agent assigned to help Bond in Rio.
  • Turns Out To BeWhat she seems.
  • Frenemy StatusEsteemed co-worker.
  • How Far Does James Get?Bond is pulling at her dress’ straps less than 30 seconds after meeting.
  • Does James Get Her Killed?Yes. Bond leaves her behind to investigate a suspicious building and she has a fatal run-in with Jaws’ metal teeth.
Emily Bolton as Manuela in Moonraker

Supporting Bond Girl #3

Airplane girl from Moonraker
  • NameUnknown
  • Played ByUncredited
  • Seems to BeA frisky flight attendant.
  • Turns Out To BeSomeone who wants to kill Bond.
  • Frenemy StatusEnemy.
  • How Far Does James Get?He’s just sliding his hand up her leg before she pulls a gun on him.
  • Does James Get Her Killed?Unclear. Bond jumps out of the airplane before it (presumably) crashes, but her fate is not explained.

Theme Song

Moonraker album cover
  • Title“Moonraker”
  • PerformerShirley Bassey (for the 3rd of 3 times)
  • Rejected AlternativesUnreleased song by Frank Sinatra; unreleased song by Kate Bush.
  • Verdict“Moonraker” borrows bits and pieces from superior John Barry compositions of the recent past: the isolated, mysterious opening notes of “Diamonds are Forever,” the swelling, descending string interludes of “You Only Live Twice,” and, like nearly all of the songs so far, an attempt to turn the movie’s title into some sort of romantic sentiment. Shirley Bassey was brought in at the last minute when other arrangements fell through, and while she can certainly still sing, she doesn’t provide any of the wit or personality she brought to “Goldfinger” or “Diamonds are Forever” (Bassey has reportedly never cared for this song). “Moonraker” is not a terrible track, but it’s burdened with unmemorable lyrics and a lack of feeling.
    C

Main Titles

  • DesignerMaurice Binder (for the 9th of 14 times)
  • VerdictBusiness as usual at the outset, until the unbelievably garish effect of the flying women getting her silhouette filled up with what looks like blue and red LED lights. The part where what looks like static or noise is gradually revealed to be a woman’s hair is cool, though, I guess.
    C-
Wrist-mounted dart gun in Moonraker
  • DeviceWrist-mounted dart gun
  • Outward AppearanceLike a tiny cannon attached to a watch strap.
  • Special FeaturesShoots poison darts that will kill within 30 seconds.
  • UsageBond uses it twice: once to short-circuit a haywire flight-simulator, and then later to kill Drax.
  • DeviceX-Ray Safecracker
  • Outward AppearanceLike a cigarette case.
  • Special FeaturesIt’s actually a bit confusing how it works (Q doesn’t explain it). All that can be said for sure is that Bond applies it to a safe, sees an x-ray of the lock mechanism, and emerges with a detailed copy of some schematics inside.
  • UsageBond extracts Drax’s mysterious aeronautics schematics from a safe in his California mansion.
X-Ray Safecracker in Moonraker
  • DeviceMotorized Gondola Hovercraft
  • Outward AppearanceAt first like a regular gondola, then like a gondola on top of a large balloon.
  • Special FeaturesAs a gondola, it is motorized and extremely fast (and can be steered via a hidden control panel inside the boat). Then it’s a hovercraft that can speed conspicuously across land.
  • UsageBond pretends he’s just another gondola-riding tourist, but then uses this fanciful device to elude Drax’s henchmen in the canals (and then streets) of Venice.
X-Ray Safecracker in Moonraker
X-Ray Safecracker in Moonraker
  • DeviceExploding Bolas
  • Outward AppearanceLike a metal bolas — two metal balls (approximately the size of baseballs) connected by a string.
  • Special FeaturesWhen the two balls hit each other, they explode.
  • UsageThis is still in development at Q’s laboratory.
Sleeping Guy Machine Gun in Moonraker
  • DeviceSleeping Guy/Machine Gun
  • Outward AppearanceLike a Mexican man taking a siesta.
  • Special FeaturesThe man is actually a mannequin who splits apart and reveals a machine gun.
  • UsageThis is still in development at Q’s laboratory.
The laser gun from Moonraker
  • DeviceLaser Gun
  • Outward AppearanceLike a plastic toy gun.
  • Special FeaturesIt has a weird grid-thing out front (not really sure what that does). Sometimes it melts its target, sometimes it blows them up, so maybe there are multiple laser mode settings.
  • UsageThis is first seen in Q’s lab, but later used by American armed forces when they assault Drax’s space station.
  • DeviceMotorboat Hang-Glider
  • Outward AppearanceLike an armored motorboat.
  • Special FeaturesAs a boat, it features a bulletproof rear shield (like Bond’s car in Goldfinger), torpedoes, and water mines. Part of it can also detach and be used as a hang-glider.
  • UsageWhen being chased down a South American river, Bond destroys a few enemies with the weaponry, then drives the boat off a waterfall, gliding to safety in the hang-glider.
Motorboat hang-glider from Moonraker
Exploding watch from Moonraker
  • DeviceExplosive Watch
  • Outward AppearanceLike a regular Seiko digital watch.
  • Special FeaturesContains an explosive charge.
  • UsageBond uses it to blow open a wall in Drax’s base as part of his attempt to escape a fiery death and board a Moonraker shuttle.
  • M: Where’s 007?
    Moneypenny: Returning from Africa, sir. He’s on his last leg.
    [Cut to: James Bond slowly moving his hand up a woman’s leg]
  • [After throwing Chang through a piano]
    “Play it again, Sam.”
  • [Examining Goodhead’s pen]
    “I don’t see the point”
    [He clicks the pen and a hypodermic needle comes out]
    “Ah, now I do.”
  • [Sprays Goodhead’s perfume bottle, which is actually a flamethrower]
    “A trifle overpowering, your scent.”
  • [After falling out of a cable car]
    “Have you broken anything?”
    “Only my tailor’s heart.”
  • [After using an explosive watch]
    “Bang on time.”
  • [Right before throwing Drax off into space]
    “Take a giant step for mankind.”
  • “How’s Drax?”
    “He had to fly.”
  • [MI6 activates the security camera on Bond’s shuttle and see him in bed with Goodhead]
    M: “What’s Bond doing?”
    Q: “I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir.”
Bernard Lee as M in Moonraker
  • Name M
  • Played By Bernard Lee (for the 11th of 11 times)
  • What’s New?Not much. This was not intended to be Lee’s last performance as M, but his passing in 1981 forced it to be so, and as a result, his final appearance is rather unceremonious.
  • Name Moneypenny
  • Played By Lois Maxwell (for the 11th of 14 times)
  • What’s New? Moneypenny visits Bond on location when he wears a truly awful gaucho outfit. As they both progress into their 50s (Moore and Maxwell were actually born only a few months apart), Bond and Moneypenny are hardly the flirty ingenues they once were. They seem more like comfortable old friends now.
Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny in Moonraker
  • NameQ
  • Played By Desmond Llewelyn (for the 9th of 17 times)
  • What’s New?Nothing of note.
  • NameFrederick Gray
  • Played By Geoffrey Keen (for the 2nd of 6 times)
  • What’s New?The Secretary of Defence continues to take a hands-on approach with MI6 and Bond.
Walter Gotell as General Anatol Gogol in Moonraker
  • NameGeneral Anatol Gogol
  • Played By Walter Gotell (for the 2nd of 6 times)
  • What’s New?Gogol makes a brief cameo in his stylish Communist pyjamas to assure MI6 that a rogue space-craft had nothing to do with the Soviet Union.

Main Destination

  • LocationRio, Brazil
  • Local AllyAgent Manuela of MI6 Station VH (see “girls”)
  • Local Ally’s Tragic DemiseBitten by Jaws’ bionic teeth.
  • Cultural SensitivityThey show Drax residing in a Mayan temple in Brazil, although the Mayans actually lived in Central America, which reveals a slight, forgivable lack of understanding of the region’s history. Present-day South Americans get off without any denigration simply because the locals are completely avoided and no one makes so much as a casual remark about the location. The film could have been set in Winnipeg and none of the dialogue would need to be re-written.
  • VerdictIt goes without saying that the Rio Carnival is immediately included, but other than that and a couple of brief, scenic looks at the city from higher altitude, it doesn’t make much use of the Rio, one of the largest and most interesting cities in the world.
    C-
James Bond in Rio

Full Itinerary

Somewhere over Africa London, England Somewhere in California Venice, Italy Rio, Brazil Outer Space

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