OK, now that that's out of the way...
As all of you head straight to the comments section to a) tell me how crazy I am or b) log in your own personal nominees for the worst Bond, let me make my case.
Let me start out by saying that I used to be a Moonraker apologist. "Yes, it's bad, " I'd tell my friends, "but it only made the same mistakes as every other movie of its era--trying to jump on the Star Wars bandwagon. If you factor that part out, it's not as bad as you remember."
What can I say? I was young. Sure, the Star Wars me-tooism does hurt the film. But the movie's problems run much deeper and much wider than that. In almost every category, Moonraker is a substandard Bond film.
Which is a crying shame, because after the franchise's "return to glory" with The Spy Who Loved Me, the sky was the limit. Bond was Bond again, and for one brief shining moment in the 70's 007 was cool again. But rather than build upon that success, Moonraker reeks of laziness and trendiness. "This writer and director did great last movie--let's just throw them back out there, regardless of whether or not they have any new ideas! We did boffo box office last time, so we have a big budget--let's just throw lots of money at the screen and everyone will love it!! Everything we did in TSWLM--let's just do it again!!" Which is how one of the better Bond films ends of followed by one of the worst.
And of course, there was the Star Wars bandwagon. As you know, the "James Bond Will Return" in the closing credits of TSWLM called out For Your Eyes Only as the next Bond film. Oops. Wha' happened? Star Wars happened. While TSWLM was in release, so Star Wars (now known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), and it made approximately one gazillion dollars. Across the land, producers saw this and learned one lesson: sci-fi=big bucks. Ignoring the quality part of the equation, TV and movie producers began to churn out ridiculous amounts of knock-offs and rip-offs, trying to hit it big while working cheaply in this "new" genre.
In a perfect world, you would hope a venerable franchise such as James Bond would be beyond such a crass attempt at a cash-in. No such luck. As we've already seen, Eon had already spent half the 1970's trying to mimic "hot" movie trends such as blaxploitation and kung fu. So it should be no surprise that Cubby Broccoli would see the success of Star Wars, realize they had the rights to a Bond book that was sorta kinda related to space, and decide to ride that nag until it dropped. The fact that they had already publicly announced FYEO made that decision to hop the bandwagon a little more embarrassing, but in all honesty the decision itself was no different than that made by a hundred different producers and studios at the time.
And financially, it worked: Moonraker had a healthy 50% box office bump over TSWLM. Of course, the question is how much of that was because people flocked to "Bond in space," and how much was carry over from memories of the quality of TSWLM. But critically, the film was far less successful.
On one level, it's a shame because Moonraker was such a good novel. The movie only took the main villain, Hugo Drax, and the fact that rockets were involved, and left everything else behind.
In the Ian Fleming novel, M calls in Bond for an "off the books" personal mission. Sir Hugo Drax, a supposed WWII hero who has become one of the most prominent industrialists in England as well as the developer of Britain's ballistic missile program, is a member of M's club. M is convinced the Drax has been cheating at bridge. M is concerned about the damage that could be done to Britain's defense program by a public gambling scandal, so he asks James to confirm whether or not Drax is cheating, and to help him put a stop to it before Drax gets caught and publicly humiliated. What follows, and I'm not making this up, is one of the best-written scenes in all of Bond, as James tries to out cheat the cheater without causing a scandal. Tense and exciting, no one can write a bridge scene like Ian Fleming. I'm serious!!
Anyway, Bond ends up infiltrating and investigating other nefarious mysteries surround Drax's business. With the help of Special Branch agent Gala Brand, who is posing as Drax's personal secretary, Bond discovers that Drax and most of his higher-ups are actually ex-Nazi's who escaped at the end of WWII and established new identities (remember, this was 1955, when such a scenario was credible, and not just a spy fiction cliche). With the help of those pesky Soviets, the Moonraker missile that Drax is supposed to test fire into the North Sea is really armed with an atomic warhead and will land in the heart of London, to avenge Germany's loss. After horrific tortures and trials, Bond and Brand manage to redirect the missile so it hits the Soviet submarine Drax and his goons are escaping in (yeah, they used that bit in TSWLM). And Bond doesn't get the girl!! All in all, a terrific read...and not a syllable of it gets used in the movie.
With TSWLM, screenwriter Christopher Wood finessed up Richard Maibaum's synthesis of the 902 versions of the script. Here, in Moonraker, he didn't have that to work with. Given a completely clean slate, with the exception of "give me Drax and space and bring back Jaws," we get a true test of his ability to write a Bond screenplay.
The results of that test? He failed utterly. Even given the constraints the producers gave him, you'd think he could have come up with something with a mild bit of originality. But while TSWLM recycled bunches of You Only Live Twice, hey, that movie was a decade old, and it improves on the original in most ways. For Moonraker, he wrote a carbon copy of THE PREVIOUS Bond movie. All he did was run it through the word processor again and change a few of the nouns. Let's compare, shall we?
TSWLM: Teaser involves ship being mysteriously stolen, the girl Bond is macking with tries to have him killed, and the teaser climaxes with a Bond parachute stunt.
MR: Teaser starts with a ship being mysteriously stolen, the girl Bond is macking with tries to have him killed, and the teaser climaxes with a Bond parachute jump.
TSWLM: The plot involves an insane billionaire who believes humanity has become corrupt; he wants to eliminate all humans and start over from his undersea base.
MR: The plot involves an insane billionaire who believes humanity has become corrupt; he wants to eliminate all humans and start over from his satellite base.
TSWLM: The main henchmen is a mute giant named Jaws.
MR: The main henchmen is a mute giant named Jaws (with added bonus: a mostly mute Japanese henchmen!!)
TSWLM: The Bond girl is a Russian spy.!
MR: The Bond girl is an American spy!
TSWLM: A special Bond vehicles comes out of the water onto dry land, as tourists and animals do double takes.
MR: A special Bond vehicles comes out of the water onto dry land, as tourists and animals do double takes. Except in this one, we get lots more double-takes and reaction shots. lots more.
I mean, if nothing else, you have to admire the size of Wood's cojones, to turn in exactly the same script. And he got paid for it. But the staggeringly mind-numbing lack of originality here is simply unbelievable for a supposedly proud franchise.
The teaser, although it is a bit reminiscent of TSWLM, does feature the great, great,GREAT skydiving sequence. It's well shot, well paced, and thrilling. They made 88 jumps (yes, 88) to get all the shots needed for the sequence.
And then they screw it up and put Jaws in it.
Look, I understand why they wanted to bring Jaws back--they misread the public, who loved TSWLM not just for Jaws, but also for reasons of, you know, quality--but if you're going to bring him back, this was the worst way possible. First, the "comedy" he brings in destroys what was going to be one of the highest-quality teasers. After all the work and care in staging the elaborate suspenseful skydiving sequence, we suddenly have Richard Kiel flapping his arms like a bird and comedy music and a circus and...like the slide whistle and slow motion on the barrel roll jump in TMWTGG, the people making the movie have absolutely NO conception that ridiculous comedy DURING the stunt drains all of the tension out of it.
And then there's Jaws surviving a fall from that height. It's the "Indy nuked in a fridge" problem--once you have a character survive an actual freakin' nuclear explosion in the opening reel, you've told the audience he can't be killed, so there is no more belief by the audience that any of the situations are at all threatening. So when Jaws walks away from the mile-high fall, well, it ruins not just the teaser, but the whole movie...we've moved from half-step-out-of-reality spy action movie to a Road Runner cartoon, and we can't take anything seriously again.
Last week I discussed how having Jaws be so indestructible hurt TSWLM; but this time, they've taken his strength and invulnerability to even greater heights, as the physical rules of the universe no longer apply. He stops a cable car spool with his bare hands?!? A crash that demolishes the whole terminal he just walks away from? He and his cute girlfriend survive the breakup of the space station? Please. With his bare hands he tears up the docking mechanism on the space station? This is now Popeye and Bluto, not Bond and Oddjob. Just as with the re-use of J.W. Pepper, the return of Jaws shows that the filmmakers are so afraid of offending the public by doing new things that they'll torpedo originality and quality for safety. And at least Pepper was back for only about 5 minutes.
And I have to say, Jaws' betrayal of Drax at the end is not at all convincing: there's no foreshadowing, no mistreatment of Jaws or Dolly by Drax, nothing...Bond just gestures with his head and Jaws is converted? And I thought Pussy Galore was an easy conversion...And frankly, Jaws becoming a good guy is also borderline offensive. For the second movie in a row, Jaws was a willing accomplice in the attempted genocide of the human race. In three seconds he and Bond are suddenly best buds? All is forgiven, sorry about all the times I tried to kill you and 4 billion others? Grrrrr...
After the thoroughly mediocre theme song by Shirley Bassey (another reurn!!), we get another clear example of lethargic writing. When Bond is given the mission to find out what happened to the Moonraker, he decides that since Drax Industries made the shuttle, that's where his investigation should begin. Huh? So far there hasn't been a single clue, hint or indication that Drax was involved...so why start your investigation there? Unless there was some evidence, it would be like starting the investigation in TSWLM with the manufacturer of the submarines. In that movie, it took a lengthy investigation, spy work, and the following of clues to get to Stromberg. In this movie, though, Wood clearly has no idea how to lead Bond to Drax, so he has Bond just start out there, on a whim.
So Bond shows up, apparently without a clue (what, he expected to find the missing shuttle hidden under a tarp out back?), and Drax immediately tries to kill him. That was Drax's plan? If anyone shows up to ask about the shuttle, kill them? Seriously? Bond had no clue at that point (and would never have any if you weren't a careless idiot, Hugo)--attempting to kill him just makes him suspicious.
And so Bond follows a trail of bread crumbs that Drax stupidly leaves behind. He leaves a document in his safe that leads to Venice, he leaves boxes laying around in Venice marked Rio, in his warehouse in Rio he leaves behind shipping stickers for Drax Air Freight...jeebus, it's like Drax wants Bond to find his hideout. Of course, most of these clue make no sense, and there's little reason for Bond to follow them. There's nothing innately suspicious, for example, about the blueprints for glass cylinders, and nothing at all to link them to the shuttle. But what the hell, psychic Bond drops everything and rushes off to Venice. And although he and Goodhead say they're going to track all the Drax Air Freight flights leaving from Rio, they never do!! Bond finds the secret HQ because of the orchid nerve toxin...so everything that happened in Rio (except for Goodhead being captured) was completely irrelevant to the plot!! Thanks, Christopher Wood!!
The idiot/rerun plot continues until Bond finds Drax's hidden Amazonian HQ, and we embark on the MOST BORING 40 minutes in the entire Bond canon. Seriously, in a classic case of post-Star Wars syndrome, there is nothing to see here except some great Ken Adam sets on his last Bond movie. The writer/director just assume that "amazing" special effects will enthrall us.
At the end James Bond himself is essentially demoted to an observer. Goodhead flies the shuttle, Goodhead leads him to all the important points on the station and disables the radar-jammer. He turns Jaws to the side of the angels with a glance, but they're captured anyway. He basically just stands around and watches the U.S. military fight Drax's goons, not getting involved until he sees Drax fleeing. Jaws has to free the trapped shuttle. Goodhead flies the shuttle while the auto-target tracks the first two globes. When Bond has to manually shoot down the last one--well, you remember how I complained that at the climax of Stromberg's plot, we might as well have been watching Bond play a video game? Well, that's what we're reduced to here.
The sense of coasting that pervades the script also pervades many of the set pieces. Bond has had boat chases in 2 of the last 3 movies (if you count the underwater Lotus in TSWLM, it's three in a row). So what do we do? I know...let's have a boat chase!! Hey, let's have two!! Sure, the boat chase in Brazil is well done (except for Wile E. Jaws going down the falls), but by that point the audience is going, "Another boat chase?!? What's up with that?" Especially since the one, in Venice, is so terrible. Aside from being an exercise in repeating yourself (water vehicle goes up on land? Check and check...one boat cuts another in two? Check...), the staging is ridiculously poor. When the assassin's "funeral" boat goes by and crashes into the bridge because the coffin makes it too tall--so what, that was their escape plan? Nobody checks the boat's height beforehand? Did this happen to "real" funeral boats? And when Bond turns the gondola into a hovercraft and takes it into the square...
the people chasing him just sit there and watch while he trundles away at two miles per hour. Why didn't he just get out and run? Why didn't they get out of their boat and chase him?? Why are we subjected to a pigeon doing a double take??
When Bond kills the huntsman at Drax's estate, why does Drax let him leave? Why not turn him into the police? Even if they end up dismissing it as a hunting accident it would tie Bond up for awhile. Hell, why not sick the dogs on Bond like you did with Corrine? Or, since you were going to stage a hunting accident anyway, just shoot him yourself?!?!?
It continues...After Bond leaves the virus factory, why does he leave it unwatched? Why not call some of your people from Station V to watch the place while you're making love to Holly, so the bad guys can't empty the place out? Since the person in the centrifuge trainer has his hands tied down, why is there a control panel inside the cockpit, and how would shooting it override the commands from the control room (you'd think the opposite)?
Sadly, almost the entire film is like this. There's no rhyme of reason to why most of the events occur, nothing organic to the story. There's merely a need to get Bond from point A to point B, and no serious effort put into doing so. We want Bond to meet Drax early--who cares if it makes sense. We need Bond to ride a hover gondola through St. Martin's Square--who cares if it is the world's most impractical escape? We need to get Bond to Vienna--sure, the clue makes no sense, but no one will notice.
Going through the motions also describes the direction in this film. While Lewis Gilbert turned in an impressive job in TSWLM, this time around the pacing feels tired and slow. The dogs hunting down poor Corrine is a stellar scene, but it feels like it's from a different movie--there's an urgency and tension there that's simply not in any of the other scenes. The return of the dreaded "speeded up footage to mimic actual action" is quite obvious, and not a sign of a well directed film. Maybe the turn towards camp, or having to work around special effects, threw Gilbert off his game (and lo and behold...Corrine's death has neither Jaws nor lasers). Even the old Gilbert standby--massive climactic battle all over one of Ken Adam's massive sets--is tepid and lifeless and cold.
Speaking of going through the motions, there are our acting performances. Let's start with Drax (Michael Lonsdale). I'll give Wood a little bit of credit here...Drax has some better lines than Stromberg did, a couple of very memorable ones. But he's still not fleshed out in the least--like Stromberg, we have no idea why he thinks the world is corrupt and deserves to be wiped out. Especially given that he's a billionaire with industrial concerns on at least 3 continents and brings French mansions to America "brick by brick," we need some reason to believe why a man who has done so well in the world hates the world so much. Nor is any reason shown why he has such an antipathy to Bond from the first moment they meet, as Bond hasn't done anything to annoy or interfere with Drax yet.
And most of the good lines are buried in "low-key" non-energy of Lonsdale's performance. Someone needed to grab Lonsdale by the lapels and scream to him that droll does not equal lethargic, that menacing does not equal monotone, that wealth and power do not equal somnabulance. It's interesting that both villains in this Gilbert "duology" are both played in such low affect, low personality performances. It's as if the actors both watched Dr. No for prep and took the wrong lessons from Joseph Wiseman's performance (while obviously neglecting to watch even a frame of Goldfinger--now there's an insane billionaire). Drax rises above the level of Stromberg, albeit barely...but neither is a terribly good villain.
And then there's Holly Goodhead. Lois (Voodoo) Chiles performance is straight out of Mannequin--not the parts with Kim Catrall, but the parts where we just see the dummy. She is plasticine, wooden, without a trace of emotion in any of her delivery, her words stiff and robotic. Her performance is out of a 1st grade Christmas pageant. Her timing is almost always off, as her lines are delivered too fast or a beat too late. She's a lovely women, but she's simply not any kind of an actress. It's a shame, too, because it's a decently written role, and Holly is actually a much better spy than Anya from TSWLM--she's a crack shot with a laser, she takes down a couple of goons to turn of the radar blocker (something Anya never did, despite her rep), she knows her way around the station and can fly the shuttle...it's too bad that they gave the role to someone completely incapable of performing it. (Note: fortunately, there's not a scene where Drax and Goodhead both have dialogue, or the entire film, if not the entire universe, would have collapsed into a black hole of ennui and flatness.)
And then there's 007 himself. Upon a careful viewing, I've got to say that this is one of the most atypical roles for Bond ever. Fact #1--Bond doesn't drive any car at all the whole movie. Fact #2--at no point does Bond have a handgun...no Walther, no Beretta, no Magnum, no laser pistol. The only time he has a gun is when Drax forces him to carry the hunting shotgun. James Bond with no cars or guns?!?
Bond is also far too chauvinistic towards Goodhead, making several sexist remarks, which is especially surprising given what happened with Anya last movie...maybe it ended badly, and now he has a sour opinion of female spies? Wood also plays up the most annoying aspect of Roger Moore's Bond, the smug know-it-all who likes to arrogantly interrupt and lecture people. He recognizes the orchid from its chemical make-up, and even though it's extremely rare he knows its scientific name and knows better than Q where it was found. He interrupts Holly several times during her tour of Drax's facilities, eager to show off his superior knowledge of space shuttles. This version of Bond is one you wouldn't want to have a pint with...he's a Cliff Clavin who feels compelled to try and one-up you by showing off knowledge on any and every topic.
And, while it's hard to separate from the writing, Moore's performance feels like a step backwards. He comes across as smug and self-satisfied, too eager to play up the comedy rather than let it flow around him as he plays it seriously. Given that the writer and directors and producers and other actors don't seem to be throwing large amounts of energy into this film, maybe it's no surprise that Moore is coasting a bit, too.
Allow me to applaud Derek Meddings and the rest of the special effects team. No, the visuals aren't as good as Star Wars or 2001. But they did this ALL in-house, without ILM or any other special effects house. No computers, just models and overlays and running a negative through the projector 40 times to get all of the elements on screen. For the time, with what they had to work with, it was fairly amazing stuff.
But the producers forgot one of rules of the franchise: Bond should be set ten minutes into the future, not 10 years. Cool gadgets that are at least feasible if not practical? Sure. The U.S., England, and private armies all armed with laser weapons (never to be seen again)? Too far. A super magnetic watch? That's pushing it, but it's not Bond in Space, so we accept it. The public knew that the first space shuttle mission hadn't even flown yet, yet here was Moonraker asking us to believe fleets of shuttles and a U.S. military space special forces squad ready to blast off in 5 minutes notice. Star Wars and Star Trek could get us to suspend our belief by setting themselves in other galaxies or centuries in the future. Bond was supposed to have one foot in the real world, but in Moonraker they rejected that for a world of pure science fiction fantasy.
So amazingly enough, after the triumph of The Spy Who Loved Me, the franchise crashes to Earth (at least in terms of quality) almost immediately with Moonraker. It's a movie that tales no chances--it copies itself, it copies Star Wars, it plays it safe in every respect. And every time something exciting or original might happen, they immediately undercut it with camp and "audience favorites" and seemingly doing everything possible to avoid stretching themsleves. The cast, the writer, the director, the producers--except for some special effects, Ken Adam's and a glorious skydiving stunt, everyone involved is guilty of coasting.
The 1970's was a particularly fallow decade for the James Bond franchise, and this film was the nadir. Fortunately, the 1980's were around the corner.
**Farewell, Bernard Lee.
**So, when they transport a space shuttle atop a jumbo jet, the space shuttle is fully fueled?? You'd think that wouldn't be so for weight and safety problems, and you'd certainly think the pilot would know. (Bonus huh--the RAF has 747s??) (Oh, and why was Britain borrowing a space shuttle, anyway?)
**If Drax had to have 6 shuttles, why not just make 2 trips with one of the remaining 5 instead of stealing a sixth? If he doesn't steal it, there's no investigation, and we're all dead! Since no one could detect the station (or 6 simultaneous shuttle launches from Brazil!!), why risk exposure with a lame ass theft, when you could just make one more run?
**Speaking of which, sure, the space station was somehow radar shielded...but a U.S. that's capable of launching military strikes into space can't detect a whole bunch of shuttles coming and going (not only at the climax, but all of the launches that must have been necessary to build the station in the first place)? The shuttles weren't radar shielded (Goodhead could see them on radar, but not the station). The U.S. couldn't see six shuttles converging on one point in space??? And let's not ask how the stolen shuttle got from the Yukon to Brazil without being seen on radar...what, they walked it??
**At least Drax thought to include women in his plan to repopulate, unlike Stromberg.
**Another sign of coasting: In Thunderball, the producers paid to stange an out-of-season junkanoo festival, resulting in one of the greatest chase sequences in franchise history. In this movie, they filmed some stock footage of the Carnivale months earlier, and edited that into footage of close-ups of a bunch of extras jumping around Bond and Manuela to make it look as if they're actual at the parade. That's why 97% of the scenes with Bond, Manuela and Jaws take place down a long, dark alley, with no parade in sight.
**Ha ha, this part of the credits is funny because maybe we're supposed to think they were really in space?!?
And using the Close Encounters tones for the door code? And the notes from Also Spach Zarathustra during the hunting scene? These people are really determined to give us clues to how clever they think they are, when they got actually got to this ground after Buck Rogers and Battlestar: Galactica...and don't get me started on the Magnificent Seven theme..
**Moonraker received an Oscar nomination for special effects, but I'm pretty sure that nomination would have been taken away if any of the voters had actually watched the scene with the snake:
**"Drax Enterprise Corporation?" They forget Amalgamated, Company and LLC...
**And also, a farewell to Ken Adams, as this was his last Bond work. If you've been reading this blog, you know how I love the man's work. The unique look he created for these movies is soooo perfect, and such a factor in the feel the franchise had for it's first 2 decades. Like the meeting room/silo:
And the control room, which seems to channeling Jim Steranko's Nick Fury comics:
The pyramid interior:
The space station control room:
Others will follow, and many will do note-worthy work. But for me, nothing says "Bond" like the unique, bizarre, and somehow frightening use of space of Ken Adam's designs. Thank you, sir.
**Those chest-mounted lasers can't be very good for aiming, can they? Plus, not to bring physics into a nonsense situation, but shouldn't the soldiers from each side be propelled backwards each time they fire??
**If "most people" pass out at 7 Gs, and 20 Gs is fatal, why in the world have a centrifuge trainer that goes up to 20Gs? Is there a point to that, other than evil death traps??
**On one of the DVD documentaries, Christopher Wood says that he came up with the name Holly Goodhead, thinking it was a perfect Fleming name.
Two words, Christopher: Gala Brand (short for Galatea!). There already was a perfectly good "Ian Fleming name."
**The Iron Law of Bond Movies: Hotel clerks think Bond is hot!!
**Bond Score: 3. Poor Corrine, Manuela, and Holly. Attempting re-entry, indeed. Cumulative Bond score: 32.
And of course:
Don't worry, this time they mean it...