WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: The British government ‘lose’ a Space Shuttle en route to America, so Commander James Bond is sent to retrieve it to avoid a diplomatic incident. The spy pieces together clues in California, Venice and Brazil, where a female acquaintance crosses his path with suspicious regularity and an old adversary rears his extraordinary head. The answers to the mystery, however, lie out of this world.
The disappearance of an American Space Shuttle from the back of a British jumbo causes friction between the countries’ governments. Desperate to avoid a scene, ‘M’ (Bernard Lee, in his final film) tasks Bond (Roger Moore) with discovering who has taken it, and why. The first port of call is at the plush, French-styled Californian home of the shuttle’s maker, Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), where James gets a warm welcome from pilot Corinne (Corinne Dufour), a slightly colder one from NASA scientist Dr Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) and a positively hostile reception from Drax’ assistant Chang (Toshiro Suga). Though Drax makes a dogs’ dinner of Corinne, Bond survives and follows clues to Venice, where he renews his acquaintance with the resourceful Dr Goodhead and discovers that Drax appears to be making a deadly nerve gas – though by the time he alerts the authorities, all the evidence has gone. Bond travels to Rio de Janeiro under strict instructions to be careful, but as he – and Holly, who pops up again – get closer to the truth, they face increasing peril, not least from Chang’s replacement, a large gent named Jaws (Richard Kiel). To discover what Drax plans to do with the nerve gas, several shuttles, some genetically favoured passengers and the planet as a whole, Bond and Goodhead must boldly go where they have never gone before.
Up to a point, Moonraker makes a decent fist of building on the success of 007’s previous adventure, The Spy Who Loved Me. I mean ‘building on’ in the sense of ‘trying to repeat’, you understand; but although the skydiving pre-credits sequence doesn’t quite match the gasp-making parachuting of its predecessor (largely because the stunt divers are quite obviously wearing parachutes), and the model work and sets aren’t quite up to the same standard, and Lois Chiles isn’t quite as pneumatic a companion as Barbara Bach, and Drax is a pale baddie compared to Stromberg, let alone Blofeld (you can tell Drax is the bad guy because he ends every sentence with ‘Mr Bond’), it’s all fairly promising. Bond visits some wonderful locations and finds beautiful women to woo at every turn, Chiles’ Holly Goodhead – not from NASA after all – proving a particularly feisty counterpart. His journey into space is a fascinating new departure, the shuttles giving viewers a glimpse into the future (and now, sadly, past) of space exploration; and there’s the welcome return of Kiel’s Jaws, a marvellous henchman whose gigantic stature and immortality are the stuff of legend.
The point up to which Moonraker works is just before his gondola comes under attack in Venice. That the attack initially comes via a knife-thrower in a coffin, forcing Bond to rev up the boat’s hidden engines, is bad enough; the real movie-killer is when Moore deploys the boat’s (entirely useless) hovercraft mode and sails through the Piazza San Marco, causing people to spill their drinks, rub their eyes, and – I kid you not – making a pigeon do a double-take. This cheap comedy signals that the filmmakers are playing the film for laughs, and most of what follows – the overload on movie themes, for example – confirms that idea. Miserably, Jaws is not only lumbered with a number of jokey non-deaths, then a jokey love interest (again, I kid you not), he also becomes part of the plot in a bigger and entirely unsatisfactory way. These disappointments are plenty enough to sink the film, even without things that are always wrong, or have become tiresome, about Bond: Moore, as chauvinist as ever, expressing genuine surprise that Doctor Goodhead is (eyebrows up) ‘a woman!’; the stunts, filmed at a distance because the star’s too mature to do them convincingly (he even struggles to wrestle a rubber snake into submission); the vehicles, seemingly identical to those from earlier films, just given a respray; 007’s umpteenth speedboat chase (here, with added glider).
The silly parts of Moonraker detract completely from the epic ambition of the potentially strong storyline. Moving Bond into space isn’t a bad idea, because it makes Drax’ dastardly plan all the more plausible; but in execution, it’s not half as exciting as it should be. The film spends six whole minutes being impressed at its own space effects, and when it gets there it struggles to transpose the ‘villain’s lair’ staples to the new location. The customary fight between armies becomes a confused laser battle, while the secondary climax to the film plays out like a primitive, and rather dull, video game. It’s all meant to draw in the Star Wars crowd, of course, but it really doesn’t work in the context of the Bond canon. At least it’s been done now, and Bond need never visit the final frontier again; and at least the whole silly business – zero gravity nookie and all – is paid off superbly by Desmond Llewelyn’s Q in one of the naughtiest lines in the whole franchise.
The James Bond franchise is one of the most frustrating phenomena in film history, Ian Fleming’s spy disappointing as much as he delights, every positive step followed by at least one step backwards. Moonraker was one small step too far for Bond, and MGM reined back on the crazy plotting and humour with the comparatively dour For Your Eyes Only. Unfortunately, while Moore remained in situ, the chances of the spy being taken seriously again were remote.