Page to Screen: Moonraker (1979)

based on the novel by Ian Fleming


I’ve been consulting with my friend Natalya, who inspired my Bondathon with her own, throughout this process. In our conversations, Moonraker has definitely come up. “Oh, Clare,” she told me, shaking her head, “it’s certainly something.” That tone of voice can only mean one thing: prime riffing material. So I’ve been very much looking forward to Moonraker, with both fear of the series hitting its nadir and delight at perhaps finding the silliest Bond movie (after Live and Let Die, of course). I saved it for just the right evening, too. I thought I was going to get the gleeful worst of Bond; instead, I got my favorite Roger Moore Bond film. Thanks, universe!

Moonraker opens with the theft of the Moonraker space shuttle. With the shuttle being on loan to the United Kingdom, James Bond is put on the case. His investigation leads him to Hugo Drax, the shuttle’s sinister manufacturer, and Dr. Holly Goodhead, an American astronaut who isn’t all she seems. As Bond and Goodhead join forces to investigate Drax’s true purpose, their investigation takes them across the world… and out of it.

Watching Moonraker made me realize what the problem with The Spy Who Loved Me was: the tone it takes towards its characters. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond is treated as utterly perfect, although he’s not, and people who aren’t Bond are treated as pitiable. The right tone for a Bond film is quite the reverse: exposing Bond’s flaws and fleshing out the other characters, creating a very human and engaging give and take to hook us through all the action sequences. (Yes, I loved Skyfall, why do you ask?) Moonraker nails it right on the head. Moore’s fussy Bond is immediately rescued from the caricature threatened in The Spy Who Loved Me: a moment where Bond drives a gondola through the Venice streets is pitch perfect, as the bystanders react in amazement and Bond looks primly on. (It also makes Moore’s clear aging sit much better when he’s not portrayed as the ideal.)

And, blissfully, the other characters feel like people. Lois Chiles breathes such natural, earnest life into the unfortunately named but fairly capable Dr. Goodhead that I’m almost okay with her having turned down the role of Anya and dooming any hope for The Spy Who Loved Me. Michael Lonsdale’s Drax is a rather subdued villain, given his outlandish plot, and quite enjoyable as a sort of ur-Bond villain. Even Corinne, the secondary Bond girl marked for death, gets a handful of character development in her interactions with Bond and her natural acting. And Jaws… well, I adored everything about Jaws and Dolly. I loved it so much I almost didn’t even mind not getting nearly enough Moneypenny. Almost. (I just want an entire movie about Moneypenny saving the world with the power of quiet sass.)

It’s also beautiful. Jean Tournier’s only crack at cinematography in the Bond canon remains mostly practical, but there are some shots that are just gorgeous, like Drax retreating into shadow as Bond advances. Corinne’s death is photographed so beautifully and discreetly that it feels like it came out of a different movie entirely, and I mean that in a good way. The focus on practical effects mean that the space sequences only suffer dating by their daft content, not by their lovingly rendered models. I found myself enjoying Moonraker quite seriously until astronauts began shooting lasers at each other in space—then, it transcended into bad movie nirvana. It’s half a film I can respect and half a film I can shamelessly adore for its silliness, which is just the kind of film I can watch over and over again.

While the credits of The Spy Who Loved Me promise that Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only, Moonraker was selected to capitalize on the demand for sci-fi generated by the popularity of Star Wars. As I speculated, the influence of the original blockbuster makes Moonraker a much better paced film than its predecessors. Yes, it still drags somewhat—it apparently can’t be a Roger Moore Bond film without a little drag—but the plot keeps chugging along, changing the setting constantly. It’s hard to get bored when James and Drax’s henchman, Chang, smash up a glassware museum in Venice. Which reminds me, the groan inducing one-liners that animate the franchise like Tibetan prayer wheels remain firmly in place, and Moonraker even features Q getting in on the double innuendo.

It does remain, as all films must, a creature of its time—while Goodhead is a capable woman of action, she occasionally wilts nonsensically, but it is heartening to see her as the first American woman in space, beating reality by four years, and save the world by being awesome at her job. I’ve apparently got my switches flipped when it comes to The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker; the former is supposed to be a contender for the best Moore film. But this is entertaining from beginning to end (even if that enjoyment translates to hysterical laughter at one point), with engaging characters you want to see succeed. Nicely done, Bond. Onto the eighties!

Bottom line: Despite its reputation, Moonraker is a wonderful Bond film—entertaining from beginning to end (even if that enjoyment translates to hysterical laughter at one point) and treating its characters like actual people to wonderful effect. A great deal of fun.

I rented this film on iTunes.

3 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Moonraker (1979)

  1. I watched The Spy Who Loved me on a double bill with the original release of Moonraker, and I remember thinking that the movies had the same basic plot. Mad villain wants to decimate the world, then repopulate it with his super people. Just one took place underwater and the other in space. But I liked them both.
    However, your next Bond, For Your Eyes Only, is my favorite Moore, because they tried to scale things back to a more realistic level, which I liked. After that it’s all down hill for Roger Moore I’m afraid.

  2. Pingback: Saturday Morning Opinions: 2013 in Review | The Literary Omnivore

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