Bond in space! When you just keep getting bigger and bigger going to space has to happen eventually, right? Well, maybe not. Possibly some space restraint could have been applied. After all Moonraker does make it look like blasting off into space is basically something anyone can do whenever the hell they want.
Surprisingly, the best aspect of this film for Xander and I is not anything as grand as outer space, but instead a well scripted villain. Hugo Drax definitely gets some of the best Bond villain lines ever delivered. Read on to see why we put up with the ludicrous notion of Bond going to outer space.
Following the success of Star Wars, the decision was made to send Bond into space in one of his most unabashedly ridiculous movies to date. There’s something inherently exciting about rockets and space travel, but it’s a tough sell for a series like Bond. Yes, the gadgets are frequently overcooked and the villains exaggerated, but there’s something about actually taking the character into outer space feels like a step too far. That said, the same can be said of the Earth-bound sections of the movie too, which feature such eye-rolling sights as Bond driving across Venice square on a gondola-hovercraft hybrid while pigeons do double-takes, then later conveniently landing right outside the villain’s top secret lair whilst abseiling over the Amazon. These are just the worst examples in a movie overflowing with such contrivances (a sexy helicopter pilot is later revealed as illiterate for the sake of a dismal one-liner) and overwrought ‘comic’ situations.
There’s some good stuff in Moonraker, but mostly confined to individual scenes: the spectacular pre-credits stunt, a staple of the Moore era, involves Bond getting thrown out of an aeroplane without a parachute, then freefalling to catch up with an enemy who does have one. It’s a brilliantly filmed sequence, taking two weeks and eighty-eight jumps to get right, and even the dodgy rear-projection work behind any shot of Roger Moore and the unnecessary appearance of Jaws can’t spoil it. The centrifuge sequence is also terrific, managing to create some tension even through the distraction of Roger Moore’s primly composed visage getting ravaged by G-force. The zero-gravity bits on Drax’s space station are pretty cool, because zero gravity always is, and the final scene features one of the all-time great cheesy Bond one-liners: upon activating a direct visual feed to Bond‘s escape shuttle, the Intelligence services get a good eyeful of he and the appropriately named Holly Goodhead going at it. ‘What’s Bond doing?’ M exclaims in outrage. ‘I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir!’ is Q’s immortal reply.
It’s not for those minor pleasures that I have a secret affection for Moonraker, though. It’s really all about Michael Lonsdale’s Hugo Drax. Lonsdale plays the part with a wonderfully condescending sneer, and gets all the movie’s best lines. ‘JamesBond, you appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season’ is a villain line par excellence, and Lonsdale makes every syllable count. Lonsdale’s performance actually adds an extra layer to the character, instigating a theory I’ve long held about Drax: his entire scheme, to poison the earth and later return to repopulate it (fnarr), is motivated by boredom. Think about it: this is a guy rich enough to have an entire palace brought brick by brick from France to California, and only prevented from doing the same with the Eiffel Tower due to being denied an export permit. When Bond appears to apologise for his government losing a Moonraker shuttle, Drax instructs his Generic Asian Henchman to kill him, even though there’s absolutely no reason to consider Bond a danger at that point. Drax is evidently an enormously intelligent man, so why make such an obvious blunder? Answer: he wants Bond to come after him.
Lonsdale gives Drax the countenance of a man for whom life holds no more surprises, whose riches allow him to indulge his every whim, and who is vastly more intellectually gifted than anyone around him. Having Bond on his tail is a challenge, which explains why he persistently refuses – in an even more overt manner than the many villains which have gone before him – to try and kill Bond in anything but the most ridiculously circuitous ways. ‘Mr. Bond, you persist in defying my attempts to create an amusing death for you,’ he states. Poor old Drax. He just wants to be entertained, and if the human race isn’t going to do that for him, he’s going to wipe them off the face of the Earth and spend his remaining days boning hot women to repopulate an entire planet. While never stated directly in the movie, only supported through Lonsdale’s performance and a certain interpretation of the character’s lines and actions, my Moonraker Theory is how I choose to see Drax and his relation to the plot, and is pretty much my favourite villain motivation in any movie, ever. There’s no other logical way of explaining why Drax is doing what he’s doing, and it makes the movie much more entertaining to watch it from that perspective.
Despite the title, the Ian Fleming novel is one of the more grounded, with much of the book closer in tone to detective fiction than the heightened thrillers making up the bulk of the Bond canon. The movie has nothing in common with it except the presence of a villain called Drax, which is par for course for the majority of the Roger Moore era. Interestingly, significant chunks of the novel were later used in heavily altered form for Die Another Day, whose plot also revolves around an entrepreneur’s supposedly altruistic technological venture turning out to have more devious intentions. The movie’s villain, Gustav Graves, also shares a fair bit in common with Fleming’s Hugo Drax. Don’t let that put you off the novel, however: Die Another Day‘s fatuous sci-fi excess are all its own, and there’s no sign of anyone called Jinx.
The plot sees Bond invited to investigate the death of a security officer at the launch site of esteemed scientist Sir Hugo Drax’s Moonraker rocket project, intended as a nuclear deterrent protecting Britain against its Communist enemies. Though Drax is considered above suspicion, Bond and his ally Gala Brand (whose name has never been used in the movies as the producers thought it sounded like a sausage) find strange inconsistencies between his story and that being fed to the government, leading to the grand reveal that Drax isn’t intending to use his rocket to protect Britain, but destroy it. His reasons for wanting to do so are fantastic, but you’ll have to read the novel (or the Wikipedia page, I suppose) to discover them for yourself. As with any of Fleming’s novels, it attracted some controversy, this time for an early scene where Bond drinks a mixture of champagne and benzedrine (speed) to humiliate Drax in a rigged card game. The sequence is one of Fleming’s most memorable, a marvellously executed coup de théâtre where Bond explains the nature of his ploy at the beginning, allowing readers the pleasure of experiencing the trap slowly close on its insufferably arrogant prey. Even without having a clue how Bridge is played, it’s a fantastic sequence, all kicked off by a similar vein of snobbery to From Russia With Love‘s ‘red wine and fish’: despite Drax being a decorated member of high society, M believes he may be a villain because he’s suspected of cheating at cards.
If They Spy Who Loved Me is the perfect execution of the Bond cliche then Moonraker is the reason people hate cliches. The Spy Who Loved Me was obviously a success (because it was awesome), and as Xander pointed out Star Wars was a success too. Logic dictates that putting the two together would also be a success, and that’s exactly what they did. Xander notes the ridiculousness of sending Bond into space, but what is actually ridiculous is that Moonraker is the exact same movie The Spy Who Loved Me… but in space. This is the James Bond equivalent of what happens when they run out of ideas for a horror film series, and enjoyable for almost all the same reasons that the likes of Jason X are.
Please don’t misunderstand. When I say Moonraker is exactly the same movie, but in space I mean it. It’s not just the overarching plot that duplicates TSWLM, it’s almost every aspect. Let’s just do a quick list here: we’ve got the obvious things like Hugo Drax trying to create a new perfect world exactly like Karl Stromberg was trying to do, but underwater; we have an at first standoffish spy from a rival organization in the form of Dr. Holly Goodhead replacing Agent XXX; we’ve got Jaws returning as the main henchman. It goes deeper than just stealing the exact same plot, however. Bond‘s site gags are almost exactly the same, but bigger. Note the aforementioned gondola coming out of the water to drive on land is the exact same gag as the Lotus Esprit doing the same thing in TSWLM. Moonraker doesn’t stop at stealing from its direct predecessor either. In one of the films better non-action segments Bond goes pheasant hunting with Drax, and the scene is fairly reminiscent of Thunderball‘s classic skeet shooting scene. That is until the brilliantly delivered response to Drax’s “You missed.” as Bond has shot the assassin in a tree instead of the bird — another brilliant delivery of a one-liner by Moore. It’s almost as if they took the screenplay for TSWLM sharpened up the villain, put in a rocket ship and hoped no one would notice they made the exact same movie two times in a row. The great thing is that it worked. Moonraker would be the top grossing Bond film until (not accounting for inflation) until GoldenEye landed. People loved it back then and the merchandising must have been insane.
Of course not everything is the stolen. Drax is easily one of the best written Bond villains, and on a great line delivery basis far outstrips even Telly Savalas’ Blofeld. It’s hard to not enjoy almost every scene Drax is in, and the subtle (or not so subtle) word play between him and Bond is some of the best in the series. It’s actually pretty rare that the villain gets to be on par in terms of charm and wit, but it makes for a Bond confrontation that is so much better than the films where the villain is just plain evil. However, I can’t say that Drax makes Moonraker fun enough to become one of my favorites. While the action is stellar and the entire concluding sequence on the crumbling space station a fantastic technical feat I’m always distracted by how insanely ludicrous it all is. I’m a big proponent of ludicrousness in Bond, but launching into space and shooting lasers just crosses whatever made up line I’ve made for myself when it comes to Bond. I’m also not a fan of the Bondgirl here. Dr. Goodhead, despite attending my alma mater, is just too flat for the film. Whereas Agent XXX may have lost her character, Dr. Goodhead never really has one, though Bond and her’s scene in which he discovers all her gadgets is quite fun. Despite having one of the most outlandish names since Pussy Galore the character does almost nothing during the film except get into trouble. Thankfully being dull isn’t as bad as being one of Moore’s idiot Bond girl from previous films. She’s not infuriating, she’s just not that interesting.
Bond in space was an all out bid and pretty damn epic, but it’s almost completely lacking in originality. You may argue that the Bond films do that in general, but that means you haven’t watched enough. One of the great things about the Bondmovies is that they constantly change. For me the thing that most annoys me about Moonraker is that it’s a Bond that changes nothing. Yes, the stunts and special effects are new and stunning, but it doesn’t try to move Bond in any different direction and it doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it isn’t. Not all of Moore’s future films were the most original concepts, but they at least didn’t copy the film directly before them so damn closely.