MOONRAKER: You Appear with the Tedious Inevitability of an Unwanted Season

Moonraker (1979) – The 11th James Bond Film; The 4th (of 7) Roger Moore Films – Directed by Lewis Gilbert – Starring Roger Moore, Michael Lonsdale, Lois Chiles, Richard Kiel, Desmond Llewelyn, and Bernard Lee.

Have you ever seen a speed skater take one stride off the line and fall down? Because that’s what MOONRAKER is like, as the film gets off to such a truly awful opening that it just makes thinking about the rest of the movie seem a chore.

MOONRAKER opens with the Brits flying a space shuttle on the back of a massive jet. Have you got that visual? A space shuttle on the back of a jet – nothing odd about that, of course, but what comes next isn’t a maneuver (I’m guessing here) that NASA astronauts train to execute. Two bad guys who are hiding out on the shuttle start the beast up and take off. Yeah. That really happens. Let’s say out here in the real world we had cartoonish terrorist organizations. MOONRAKER is the kind of film that henchmen in these groups would go watch just to make fun of Hollywood for not having any idea of how things “really happen.”

While you’re still recovering from that disaster of an action sequence, we drop in on Bond just as he’s starting his foreplay with an airline stewardess. She pulls a gun on him. Some other guy with a parachute shows up. Other Guy falls out of the plane. Bond gets pushed out of the plane by Jaws, who appears from out of nowhere, thus inspiring half of the openings to Monday Night Raw. Bond aims his fall towards the Other Guy and they have a decent tussle during free fall for the chute, but just as Bond gets the chute on, Jaws shows up to try and bite his leg with his shiny metal teeth. Bond pulls his chute to escape and Jaws’ shoot doesn’t open, so he falls … falls … flaps his arms to try and not fall … falls … falls … right onto a circus’ big top tent.

Cut to opening titles.

Which also suck. The Shirley Bassey-sung title track is abysmal (though, admittedly, the bar is set pretty high for Shirley Bassey Bond songs) and the Maurice Binder titles, usually so visually striking and engaging are just sort of blah, even with the seemingly can’t-miss inclusion of the moon in the background. To show how off the film is, the disco-themed version of the title track that gets used over the closing credits is a much superior song, and highlights one of the conundrums with continuing to milk a franchise like Bond: when do you play it classic, when do you make a nod to the conventions of the day, and when do you push forward to new ground?

But hey, we’re past the opening titles now, so let’s sick back, relax and get ready for some hard-hitting espion-

I mean, let’s get ready for heaps and heaps of formula done without much thought or interest.

MOONRAKER is caught in the web of expectations vs. contemporary popularity vs. striking out on new ground, but its biggest crime is that its continually dull. Every time there’s a moment when its gets interesting there’s a moment when it slides backwards into a state of bored malaise.

Bond goes to visit Drax Industries where they make the shuttle and there’s a whole bunch of tired, formulaic bits to get through. Bond flirts with the attractive helicopter pilot. Bond meets Drax, who’s one of these nerdy, understated, megalomaniac villains. Bond meets an attractive female employee of Drax’s named Dr. Goodhead, because 14-year old boys will laugh at that. Drax has an Asian martial arts sidekick because all villains in the ’70s who were anybody had to have an Asian martial arts sidekick. Bond beds the helicopter pilot.

It’s all rather bland and a tremendous disappointment given how good Moore has been in the three Bond movies up to now. Here, though, everything lacks energy and urgency and Bond seduces the Corrine Dufour (the helicopter pilot) and Dr. Goodhead (who’s actually a CIA operative) with all the charm of a bad porn actor. There’s never any question as to whether the women will say yes or not, even though Moore looks like he has bigger eyes on the food cart than the hottie in front of him. The sex doesn’t even come across as business-related. Even though Bond gets something professional out of bedding the two women, he seems less interested in sleeping with them to get the information as he is in bedding them just because, well, why not, right? I’m a man, you’re a woman, we grunt together now.

MOONRAKER finally starts to pick up some steam after Bond leaves the Drax residence. Drax knows about the pilot’s betrayal and sicks his killer dogs on her as she runs through the woods in a vain attempt to escape. Director Lewis Gilbert does a fantastic job with this sequence, giving it an almost dreamy, inevitable quality that works because of the tragedy we know is coming. It’s different from nearly any sequence you’ll find in the Bond franchise and it gives MOONRAKER a bit of uniqueness which is something every film needs. I know the filmmakers probably thought MOONRAKER’s uniqueness would come from all the space stuff – and they’re right that those sequences are what people remember – but it’s this dreamy, sad, hunting sequence that I remember as the film’s highest point.

The action shifts to Venice where we apparently have to have yet another boring boat chase. Honestly, I think half of the boat chase scenes in movie history take place in Bond movies and they’re always the same. They even bring back the “lets have a boat split another boat” bit here. While in Venice, Bond and Goodhead engage in numbingly dull banter. In fact, Bond “undressing” Goodhead’s CIA gadgets is far more interesting than his seduction technique on the female agent.

After Venice it’s off to Brazil, and it’s here you start wondering why this is such a boring movie – all of the elements are here. There’s globe hopping in exotic locations, there’s gorgeous women, an engaging bad guy, a ridiculous threat … again, I think MOONRAKER’s biggest fault is that there’s just no energy here. It’s got so many elements you expect to see that it’s doesn’t give you anything new or fresh and it doesn’t deliver anything tried and true with any kind of passion. It’s the ultimate cookie cutter film. The dull execution is matched by some rather poor pacing; we know the space stuff is coming because it was on the poster, so let’s get to it already. I’ve always liked the Bond movies, even though they didn’t hit my radar until A VIEW TO A KILL, and even though they always seemed derivative of other movies. Like I said during the review of LIVE AND LET DIE, Bond movies are like Bee Gees albums – they combine the resonance of what you expect mixed with whatever’s cool at the moment. Unfortunately for MOONRAKER, this combination isn’t merged, but it’s nearly completely disconnected as we’ve got the pre-space stuff giving us the old and the space stuff giving us the new.

In Brazil, Bond beds his contact because, well, why not, right? He’s there, she’s there, they’ve got time to kill.

When they get to the warehouse, Jaws is back because …

I don’t even care about Jaws. I mean, his deal is he’s an enormous man who bites things with his teeth. Somehow, every time they fight, Bond never thinks, “You know what would work a bit better than a karate chop? A gun!”

I understand that, simply as an opponent, Jaws is the perfect foil for Roger Moore’s Bond: he’s all charm while Jaws is all muscle. It just doesn’t work for me, though. There’s a world’s difference between what works on paper and what works on film.

The best part of the movie takes place in Brazil where a cable car fight takes place. This sequence works because it’s a great visual and it’s the one part of the film where the humor actually works. Bond and Goodhead are taking a cable car down the side of a mountain and Jaws breaks the massively thick cable with his teeth. (That’s not the good part.) Bond and Goodhead escape to the roof of the car and they see Jaws coming up to them on top of another cable car.

“Do you know him?” Goodhead asks.

“Not socially,” Bond drolls. “His name’s Jaws. He kills people.”

Yeah, that’s pretty much all the greatness MOONRAKER contains, actually. Just that little bit, though, shows how conceptually perfect Bond and Jaws are as enemies. It’s a shame the films tend to make Jaws a punch line more often than not. The actual cable car fight is lame because it’s the same Jaws v. Bond fight we’ve seen a handful of times already.

The film dips again until we get to Drax’s Amazon hideaway, where his army of beautiful lady astronauts brings Bond in for a couple more attempts to kill him. It’s a nice visual and perfectly ridiculous in that way that works. As much as I love the Bourne movies (and as much as the Bourne movies are responsible for the Daniel Craig Bond movies), Jason Bourne is never going to walk into a hidden lair deep in the Amazon jungle where he’s confronted by young, gorgeous, scantily clad women who are about to launch into space as part of a villain’s selective breeding project. (If this happened in a Bourne movie, everyone would be throwing around big words like “eugenics” and the villains would all be old Germans working in abandoned factories in Prague and everyone would be headed for Bolivia instead of space.) This is exactly the kind of scene that only a Bond movie can get away with and I fully admit MOONRAKER does it with aplomb. When Bond is brought into a very cool hidden lair that serves as the hub of Drax’s space program, you start to think MOONRAKER is finally going to come together for an explosive finish.

Everyone goes to space and …

Yeah, it’s all so darn dull. They’re in space but there’s no energy to anything that happens. Apparently MOONRAKER has this space angle because of the popularity of Star Wars (and MOONRAKER, in fact, made a ton of money, so good on them) but the space action here is much more Star Trek: The Motion Picture than Star Wars. The final fight sequence is just silly – all laser beams and zero-gravity blahness. Jaws turns into a good guy when he realizes that his physical differences with Drax’s beautiful breeders mean he has no place in the New Drax Order.

The only thing that’s good about the ending is Q’s line about Bond attempting re-entry as the muckity-mucks on Earth watch Bond and Goodhead have sex in space.

MOONRAKER is a long way to go for a smirk, however. Easily the worst of the four Roger Moore films to this point, MOONRAKER isn’t so much awful as it is dull. As good as Michael Lonsdale is as Drax (and he has some really solid lines, including the title of this review), the movie seems to feed of his detached sense of boredom far more than Bond’s lust for life. Even Bond is affected and the result is a movie that just kind of sits there for two hours. More than any Bond movie to date, MOONRAKER is a Bond film designed for teenage boys who know where Daddy keeps the Playboys.

Here’s the dull opening credit sequence. Just because.

5 thoughts on “MOONRAKER: You Appear with the Tedious Inevitability of an Unwanted Season

  1. I wouldn’t call MOONRAKER the worst James Bond movie. I reserve that place of honor for A VIEW TO A KILL. But it’s an excellent runner-up. I actually like the credit sequence and Shirley Bassey’s version of the theme song. Best part of the movie for me.


  2. I think, as bad as this movie is, that it speaks pretty well to the production team that this is in the bottom few movies out of 20-odd movies. Just the kitsch value of seeing Bond in space makes it worth a watch at least once.


  3. They were already in production on For Your Eyes Only when Star Wars hit the jackpot. Presto–they pushed it aside and rehashed the exact same plot from the previous film–but in space!! I hated Moonraker when I first saw it in the theater in ’79. Hated Jaws and how silly it all was. The only redeeming quality for me was the laser battle at the end, with astronauts flying out of the US shuttle with laser guns. That, I thought as an 11 year old, was cool.


  4. I finished watching this on Starz a few minutes ago. Spot on review. Moonraker holds a special place in my heart for nostalgia only. I too, was an 11 year old boy when this was released. I remember seeing it opening night and the next day at a matinee. Gadgets, bad puns, lovely ladies and laser guns. What more could a sci-fi obsessed boy want?

    Drax does have some good lines. You Appear with the Tedious Inevitability of an Unwanted Season-is well written!


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