Moonraker at 40

You’ve doubtless heard this summer marks a major anniversary of mankind’s greatest adventure in space.  That’s right, it’s been 40 years since the theatrical release of the James Bond film, Moonraker.

In 1979, this celluloid masterpiece landed amid a wasteland of lackluster films like Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Alien, The China Syndrome, Breaking Away and Being There to deliver two breathless hours of what producer Cubby Broccoli called “not science fiction, but science fact.” For instance, there’s the little-known scientific fact that human beings can fall from airplanes onto circus tents without injury, or the even lesser known fact that the US government maintains a highly trained force of Space Marines, just in case a rival power ever decides to stage a skirmish in Earth orbit using handheld weapons.

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Marking Roger Moore’s fourth mission as 007, Moonraker launched in the UK on June 26 and splashed down in the States three days later.  I’m not sure how long after that I climbed into a theater seat to watch it, but it couldn’t have been long.  At that point I was at the ultimate peak of my Bond fandom, having devoured Ian Fleming’s novels and rejoiced whenever a vintage Bond film aired on the ABC Sunday Night Movie (which wasn’t nearly often enough).  It’s been said, somewhere, that 14 is the optimum age to be a Bond fan, and while I can’t say if that’s true for the world at large, it certainly was in my case.   For me, the summer of ’79 was all about Bond: Moonraker ads on the TV, bubblegum cards and magazines at the convenience store and the soundtrack album on my stereo.

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I wasn’t alone, either: the film did phenomenal box office in ’79, becoming the biggest money-maker in the franchise’s history to that point and holding the record for a whopping 16 years until dethroned by Goldeneye.  Critics were divided — nothing new for Bonds — but many of them loved it, with some rating it second only to Goldfinger.  Suffice to say the tables turned in the years that followed, with self-appointed Bond “historians” usually denigrating the entire enterprise as a childish, idiotic parody of everything a James Bond movie is supposed to be.  In time, their word would become gospel, and Moonraker took on the mantle of “series low point.”

However, the pendulum of opinion has a way of swinging back again if you live long enough, and the film has come in for a lot of love in recent years.  Partly that could be due to newfound affection for the late great Roger Moore, partly it could be a certain nostalgia for “silly” Bonds after the relentlessly grim Daniel Craig era or it could just be that after all this time we can see the film for what it was: harmless fun.  In 1979, Bond purists saw it not just as a bad movie, but as a disastrous wrong turn for the series that, given its financial success, could have defined the tone of Bonds for years to follow.  As it turns out, four decades later we can see it as just another temporary excursion down an interesting side road.

There’s no denying Moonraker gave us some cringe-worthy moments, like the infamous scene where Bond, in Venice, converts his gondola into a hovercraft and drives it through astonished crowds in St Mark’s Square, pretty effectively torpedoing the very notion of a “secret” agent. And just in case there was any danger of the humor here coming off as too subtle, there’s an insert of a pigeon doing a startled double-take in disbelief.

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Throughout the film, the seemingly invulnerable villain Jaws plays Wile E Coyote to Bond’s Roadrunner, tumbling from airplanes and mountains and waterfalls to seemingly certain death, only to emerge unscathed, brushing himself off to resume the chase…until he finds true love and defects to the side of right and virtue.  And of course, we cap everything off with armies of astronauts shooting lasers at each other while floating  in Earth orbit.  So yeah, it’s not exactly cinema verite.

And yet at the same time, the film has some very suspenseful — and decidedly dark — moments.  The scene where Bond is nearly crushed to paste in a centrifuge offers a rare dose of genuine suspense for this stage of the series, and at one point an ally is chased down and killed by dogs in a scene that’s somehow terrifying and beautiful all at once.

From a technical standpoint, Moonraker remains impressive.  For John Barry, easily the best composer to work on the series, the score marks a turning point between his bombastic, brass-heavy works in the earlier Bonds and the more lush, string-heavy arrangements he’d bring to films like Out of Africa, Somewhere in Time and Body Heat.  Sir Ken Adams’ sets, always phenomenal, are at their biggest and most impressive here, from villain Drax’s “mission control” hidden in a South American pyramid to his orbiting space station.  Derek Meddings’ model work, building on years of experience gained on shows like Thunderbirds and UFO, makes the space shuttle scenes totally convincing (the launch of the real-life shuttle ended up being delayed until a few years later, but Medding’s faux launches still look convincing even after we’ve seen the real thing).  Working together, they take a seemingly ridiculous notion — James Bond in space — and make it almost seem plausible.

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Probably my single favorite promotional art from a series filled with great promotional art is Daniel Gouzee’s teaser poster, showing Roger Moore as Bond orbiting Earth in a space suit in the traditional gun-across-the-chest pose.  Yes, there’s the troublesome matter of Bond going helmet-less in the vacuum of space, but in a way it only adds to the wacky charm of the whole enterprise.  I was lucky enough to score a clean, unfolded version of this poster for a song in the early days of eBay, and it occupies a place of honor on my media room wall.

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Roger himself is at the top of his game here, suave and cool, utterly unflappable and impossibly handsome.  At the halfway point in his tenure as Bond, he’s relaxed and at ease throughout.  If Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead (!) and Michael Lonsdale as Drax aren’t the best Bond girl and villain in the series, they’re also far from the worst.  The “office team” is intact one last time, with Bernard Lee making his last appearance as M before his unfortunate demise.

Anyway, I couldn’t let the anniversary of this epic theater-going experience pass without mention.  Whatever its weaknesses, this was the last of the truly BIG Bonds, with a massive supervillain lair, opulent locations in glorious widescreen vistas, over-the-top stuntwork and the whole nine yards.  The next film, For Your Eyes Only, would deliberately downscale everything in a bid to return to more serious fare (and to save money, no doubt).  The films that followed, whether with Moore or his three successors — and despite ballooning budgets — never felt as grandiose again.

I used to say the Bond films were to moviegoers what Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had been to turn-of-the-century audiences: Every couple of years, and with much fanfare, the big show would roll into sleepy small towns like mine and present sights and sounds we could never see otherwise; a wild parade of larger-than-life characters doing extraordinary things against a fantastic landscape that never really existed, but should have.  It was loud and flashy and exciting with a charismatic ringmaster at center stage as our host and guide. I still enjoy the ongoing Bond series for all sorts of reasons, but that kind of thrill left the proceedings a long time ago, for me.  That’s why as nutty and stupid as it can be in spots, I’ll always come back to enjoy Moonraker, from its amazing pre-credits fight shot in high-altitude freefall to the end credits, which appropriately enough roll past to a disco tune.

This then is my tip of the EVA helmet to Moonraker on its 40th, and to Cubby Broccoli, Lewis Gilbert, Ken Adam, Roger Moore, John Barry, Derek Meddings, Maurice Binder, Richard Kiel, Bob Simmons, Richard Graydon, Desmond Llewelyn, Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee and all the other participants who’ve taken that last giant leap into the Great Beyond.

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