Wednesday, June 6, 2012

50 Years of 007 - Moonraker


Cody goes into orbit with 007's 11th.


The Spy Who Loved Me had been the biggest and costliest Bond film yet, with a budget of $13 million, and the expense paid off when the movie went on to be a hit. But another film had done even better - the highest grossing movie of 1977 was a little picture from director George Lucas called Star Wars. Another science fiction film, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, had been the second highest grossing film in the U.S.

The plan had been for Eon to follow up TSWLM with a movie called For Your Eyes Only, a title lifted from one of Ian Fleming's short stories. But with science fiction films doing so well at the box office, producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli figured that it would be better to strike while the iron was hot and take Bond into similar territory. (Another of the highest grossing movies of 1977 was Smokey and the Bandit, but if Bond had tried to emulate that it would've just been a repeat of the Louisiana section of Live and Let Die.) Broccoli didn't want to get too outlandish with it, he described the approach as science fact rather than science fiction, but they were going to do something involving space.

They even had a Fleming novel left to adapt with the perfect title: Moonraker. The third novel in the literary series, Fleming's Moonraker had nothing to do with space exploration - the Moonraker of the title is an atomic rocket that is ostensibly being built to defend England from missile strikes, but it turns out that its "test firing" has a trajectory that will bring it down just yards from Buckingham Palace, nuking London. The destruction of London would be a big enough threat for most movies, and would usually be fine for a Bond movie, but at this time Broccoli was thinking bigger. This movie would not be dealing with what he called "a little piddling rocket."

Broccoli was going to make a globetrotting (and orbiting) epic, and to do so he put together a budget that was almost triple the size of the one he had for The Spy Who Loved Me - Moonraker would cost $34 million.

The 007 Stage had been constructed at Pinewood Studios, just outside of London, during the making of TSWLM, but due to new tax laws in England the majority of the following film would not be filmed there. Instead, Broccoli moved the production to France, where the set needs required the use of every stage in Paris.

The core crew of TSWLM were reassembled - director Lewis Gilbert, second unit director/editor John Glen, production designer Ken Adam. Gilbert intended to work with cinematographer Claude Renoir again, but Renoir had to decline. While filming on the Liparus supertanker set, Renoir had been unable to see to the end of the stage, and that was a sign of trouble. His eyesight was failing, he would have to retire. French cinematographer Jean Tournier became his replacement. Composer John Barry, who had worked on most of the previous films, returned to the series. Tom Mankiewicz, the Diamonds Are Forever/Live and Let Die/The Man with the Golden Gun writer who had also done an uncredited polish on the TSWLM script, kicked off the adaptation by writing an outline, with TSWLM screenwriter Christopher Wood working on the script from there. As with The Spy Who Loved Me, Wood also wrote a novelization for this film, published as "James Bond and Moonraker."

New to the world of space exploration in the '70s were space stations and the concept of space shuttles, crafts capable of being launched into space by a rocket, orbiting the Earth, re-entering the atmosphere, and landing like a regular airplane. At the time of the making of Moonraker, NASA had run the shuttle Enterprise through many test flights and were preparing Columbia to be the first shuttle launched into orbit. Columbia was scheduled for launch in 1979, almost coinciding with the release of Moonraker. It was perfect. Space stations and shuttles would be the basis of James Bond's science fact adventure.


The film opens on the sight of a Moonraker space shuttle being transported through the sky on the back of a 747, en route from the United States to England. Unfortunately, there are a couple of leather jacketed stowaways on the Moonraker who hijack the shuttle and take off in it, destroying the plane in the process.

Like in the beginning of TSWLM, M receives a phone call delivering disturbing news - the theft of the Moonraker in this case - and checks with his secretary Miss Moneypenny to find out where 007 is.

James Bond is on the "last leg" of a mission, so of course when we catch up with him he's running a hand along the leg of a beautiful woman. He's taking a private jet back home from Africa and is killing time by seducing the air hostess, played by Leila Shenna. It doesn't work out, because this girl is complicit in an attempt on his life.


The hostess pulls a gun on Bond and is joined by the pilot, who comes out of the cockpit wearing a parachute. The controls of the plane are shot out, the girl gets a parachute of her own, and they prepare to leave Bond on the crashing jet. He doesn't make their exit easy for them, but ends up giving the pilot what he wants when he tosses him out of the plane.

As Bond watches the pilot plummet through the air, a parachute-wearing Jaws, the fan favorite henchman from TSWLM, steps up behind him and shoves him out of the plane. How the 7'2", steel-toothed brute could stay hidden from Bond up to this point on the tiny aircraft isn't quite clear. Jaws then jumps out after Bond.


The pilot and Jaws both have parachutes, but Bond is screwed, falling to his death. But he's not one to just accept his fate. He manages to catch up with the pilot and a freefalling tussle ensues, during which Bond steals the man's parachute away from him. Bond kicks the pilot away, straps on the 'chute, and deploys it to escape from the clutches of Jaws. Jaws attempts to deploy his parachute as well, but has a malfunction... Now Bond is safe, the pilot is about to die, and it doesn't look good for Jaws. The girl put on her parachute in the plane and that was the last we saw of her, so it can be assumed that she had a much better time escaping than any of these guys.

Like the pre-title ski jump in The Spy Who Loved Me, this parachute action was thought up by Broccoli's stepson Michael G. Wilson, who was promoted from assistant to the producer on TSWLM to executive producer on this film. It took the stuntmen and cameramen eighty-eight jumps to get all they needed for the sequence.

Jaws lives in a more cartoonish level of reality than anyone around him, so he manages to survive his parachute-less fall by aiming himself at a circus tent. His safe landing on the acrobat/highwire net is the segue into Maurice Binder's title sequence.

At one point, the song accompanying this sequence was going to be called "Think of Me", with lyrics by Paul Williams. Frank Sinatra was approached to sing it, Kate Bush was considered, there was an unfinished recording with Johnny Mathis performing it. Then it was decided to do a proper title song, so lyrics for "Moonraker" were written by Hal David. Shirley Bassey was brought in to sing it, making this her third and final (so far) Bond title song, following Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever.

When Bond heads into M's office, after a brief exchange with Moneypenny, for a meeting with his boss, Q, and Minister of Defence Sir Frederick Gray, he already has an idea of why he's been called in. "Moonraker?"

The official word in the news is that the Moonraker and the 747 it was being transported on crashed in the Yukon, both destroyed. Bond is informed that there was no trace of the Moonraker in the wreckage, and he's shown footage of the crash site on a monitor hidden behind a mirror. Bond's mission is to find out what happened to the Moonraker, why, and who's responsible.

It's said that the Moonraker was being brought to England "on loan" from the Americans, but it's never said in the film exactly why the shuttle was being loaned out. In the novelization, Wood explains that it was being brought over to be examined by Q Branch, who were developing a security system for the shuttle that would destroy any intercepting missiles before they got anywhere near the craft.

The Moonraker shuttles are constructed at Drax Industries in California, so Bond believes that's the place to start his investigation.


Before Bond leaves, Q equips him with a new gadget, a standard issue bracelet. On the underside of the bracelet is a dart gun, activated by nerve impulses in the wrist. If Bond moves his hand in a specific way, a dart will be fired. He's given ten darts to load it with: five armor piercing, five with cyanide-coated tips. A nice little weapon to have, but not the best design job that Q Branch has ever done. Bond now has a very obvious little gun on his right wrist at all times. Bond tests it out by firing a dart into a painting on M's office wall. Rude.

Arriving in California, Bond is picked up at the airport in a helicopter flown by Corinne Dufour, "a humble pilot in the service of the Drax Corporation." Played by French actress Corinne Cléry, the character is quite beautiful, but I'm bothered by her scenes for a reason outside of Cléry's control - she was dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl, who had provided the voices of characters in several of the previous films, including Honey Ryder in Dr. No, Sylvia Trench in From Russia with Love, Domino in Thunderball, and Solitaire in Live and Let Die, but this dub job stands out much more than those. It's obviously not the actress's voice and it doesn't sound natural.


Corinne flies Bond over the main Moonraker assembly and testing complex, then takes him to the home of the owner, Hugo Drax. When Bond first spots the Drax residence, it causes him to gasp, "Good Lord!" The Drax mansion and grounds sit amidst an oasis of greenery in the desert. Corinne informs Bond that the home was originally located in France and Drax had "every stone" brought over to California. In fact, the filming location was the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte in France, with the land matted into a shot of the Mojave Desert for the aerial view. Bond jokingly asks why Drax didn't buy the Eiffel Tower as well, and Corinne tells him that he did, he just couldn't get an export permit.

A group of physically fit, attractive young men and women are seen exercising on the Drax grounds. Astronaut trainees, part of the program that Drax is completely financing out of his own pocket.

Corinne lands the helicopter and Bond is taken into Drax's home to meet with the man himself. As played by Michael Lonsdale, Hugo Drax is so calm and soft-spoken that you almost don't pick up on how unpleasant he is. On the DVD/Blu-ray filmmaker audio commentary, Christopher Wood describes Lonsdale's performance as "so laid-back, he was almost horizontal."

Drax assumes that Bond has been sent to deliver a personal apology for the loss of his shuttle, but Bond tells him that an apology to the U.S. government will be saved for after he finds out where the shuttle is. Drax offers Bond to take part in afternoon tea, which he considers England's only indisputable contribution to Western civilization. "May I press you to a cucumber sandwich?" Bond declines.

The meeting seems to go alright despite some of Drax's comments, but when Corinne takes Bond away to be given a tour by a "Doctor Goodhead", Drax reveals himself to be a villain. He turns to a henchman named Chang and tells him, "Look after Mister Bond. See that some harm comes to him." Then he takes a sip from his little cup of tea.

Corinne drops Bond off at the Moonraker complex, where he introduces himself to the first female he encounters - "My name is Bond, James Bond." - and tells her that he's looking for Doctor Goodhead. She replies, "You just found her." Bond is inordinately surprised to find that the doctor is female, in fact he responds to the news by saying "A woman!" like a total fool.

The doctor is named Holly Goodhead and she's played by Lois Chiles, so whenever I watch Moonraker moments and lines from the segment of Creepshow 2 that Chiles was in keep flashing through my mind. Goodhead is a fully trained astronaut, working for Drax on loan from NASA. The equivalent character in Fleming's novel was named Gala Brand, I'm not fully sure why they didn't just go with that, instead opting to make up a sexual double entendre name. "Gala Brand" still hasn't been used in any of the films.

Goodhead gives Bond a tour of the facility, during which he shows off his knowledge and, after his "A woman!" reaction, she is appropriately cold. The tour ends at the centrifuge trainer, a pod that's spun quickly around a room to simulate the gravity force felt by astronauts in a shuttle. She suggests that Bond give it a try and for some reason he immediately agrees. Probably still showing off. Goodhead straps Bond into his seat while they discuss G force. The trainer can go up to 20 Gs, but that would be fatal. 3 is takeoff pressure, most people pass out at 7. There is a "chicken switch" that Bond can push to stop the spinning if he gets too uncomfortable.

As soon as Bond is strapped in and ready to go, Chang enters and tells Goodhead that Drax wants her to call him. Goodhead goes off to make the call from her office. While she's gone, Chang starts the centrifuge trainer and messes with the controls so that it reaches dangerous speeds and the "chicken switch" will not respond to Bond's pushing. Bond reaches 13 Gs and nearly loses consciousness before subliminal flashes back to the scene in M's office remind him of his wrist dart gun. He fires a dart into the pod's controls and it slows to a stop, disappointing Chang.


Bond stops by Corinne's room that night and attempts to seduce some information out of her. As they get into bed, she tells him that they had been working on something very secret in the laboratories, but everything has since been moved. Postcoitus, Bond leaves a sleeping Corinne in bed and goes to snoop around the Drax residence. There's a nipple slip that can be spotted in HD here, as the drowsing Corinne doesn't pull the sheets up quite high enough at first, but if you really want to see Corinne Cléry nudity all you have to do is watch Story of O.

Corinne soon gets out of bed and finds Bond in Drax's study, where he discovers a hidden safe and uses an x-ray safecracking device concealed in a cigarette case to get it open. The wrist dart gun may be clunky, but I think this safecracker is a step up from the one he was carrying around in You Only Live Twice.


In the safe are the blueprints for some kind of device that Drax Industries has been working on, with a note that "Venini Glass" should also have a copy. Bond takes pictures of the blueprints with a small camera that has his number on it. That's odd.

The next day, Drax is out shooting pheasants when Bond stops by on his way to the airport to thank him for his hospitality. As Bond arrives on the field, a hunter blows a horn, three notes of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra", a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Drax hands Bond a shotgun in case a stray bird flies over, meanwhile a henchman is climbing a nearby tree to take a shot at Bond. Some birds do fly over Drax and Bond, Bond tracks them with his gun, fires... and misses. Or did he? The henchman drops out of the tree, dead. The way the scene is shot, it's not clear whether the dead body is in Drax's view, but I have to assume it's not. That would be very awkward if they did just watch a dead body fall from a tree and not comment on it. Drax does seem to realize what has happened without visual confirmation.


After Bond leaves, Corinne arrives at the field. Drax knows that she was in his study with Bond and showed him the safe, so he terminates her employment by letting his vicious, trained dogs loose on her. The dogs chase Corinne through a moodily lit, smokey forest in a very disturbing scene that feels like something out of a horror movie along the lines of The Omen. People have been fed to animals in previous Bond movies, but this scene is a step beyond, and personally I could do without it.

The Venini Glass tip takes Bond to Venice, Italy, where that business is located. Executive producer Michael G. Wilson makes his first of three cameos outside Venini Glass as Bond enters.

In one section of the Venini Glass building are the glassblowers. Touring their workshop, Bond is able to compare an image on his pictures of Drax's blueprints to small, hexagon-shaped glass containers that the glassblowers are making. Perfect match.

In another section of the building is a Museum of Antique Glass, a room filled with hundreds of examples of the art of glassblowing. Vases from the 1800s, a bowl made in 1520 that's worth more than $1 million, a dish from the 17th century, a one-of-a-kind glass-handled sword from the 18th century, etc. A guide leading a group of tourists through the museum briefly loses her train of thought when she spots Bond moving through the room.

Bond has spotted Goodhead in the museum and follows her outside. Catching up with her, he finds out what she's doing in Venice - addressing the European Space Commission - and chips away at her icy demeanor enough to get her to at least consider having dinner with him that evening.

Bond takes a gondola ride through the canals and finds himself under attack. His gondolier is killed by a knifethrower who rises out of a coffin on a passing funeral boat and Bond has to take control of the gondola himself. Turns out that this is tricked-out gondola from Q Branch, which has a motor that helps him escape machine gun fire and henchmen on a speedboat. When Bond reaches St. Mark's Square, a flick of a switch reveals the gondola to be a hovercraft, which he drives off among the crowd that packs the popular location.

 

Producer "Cubby" Broccoli, his wife Dana, and production designer Ken Adam are all somewhere in the Square. Cinematographer Jean Tournier cameos as a painter. Victor Tourjansky reprises his "Man with Bottle" role from the previous film, looking at his alcohol in disbelief as Bond's hovercraft rides by. Even a pigeon does a double take at the sight.

Screenwriter Christopher Wood's original idea was for there to be a motorcycle chase through the alleyways and over the bridges of Venice, bouncing across the gondolas and vaporettos. There are many different kinds of Bond fans, some are all about things like hovercraft gondolas, but I'm of a category that would've rather had a straightforward motorcycle chase. It sounds like it could've been quite impressive, featuring some neat stunts. They still could use the idea for a Bond film someday.

Night falls and Bond goes back to Venini Glass, sneaking in and looking around. He finds a locked door with a security keypad and hides to watch a scientist type in the code. As the buttons are pushed, 1-2-5-8-9, the tone they make is the five note alien-hailing tune from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Beyond the door is a laboratory, in which Bond witnesses two scientists using robotics to fill small vials with clear liquid. Batches of three vials are then placed by hand within the hexagonal containers, several of which are then put inside large spheres. When the scientists roll one of the spheres out of the room, Bond takes the chance to steal one of the liquid-filled vials. Sticking the vial in his shirt pocket, he places the other two vials from its container aside on a sphere and runs back to his hiding spot in an adjoining room as the scientists return.

Not noticing the misplaced vials, the scientists start to roll this second sphere and accidentally knock the vials to the ground. The vials shatter, releasing some sort of gas that causes the scientists to drop dead almost instantly while Bond observes through a window. The room he's in is sealed off to protect him. Though the men are dead, Bond notices that rats in a cage in the room with them seem to be unaffected.


As Bond leaves the laboratory area, he's attacked by Chang. Their fight takes them into the Museum of Antique Glass, where Bond briefly uses the glass-handled sword to protect himself and nearly every piece of glass in the room ends up being destroyed. It's a lot of fun to watch the stuff break. Luckily, one piece of glass that doesn't get shattered is the vial in Bond's pocket. This scene earned the record for most breakaway sugar glass used in a movie.

The fight continues up into the inner workings of the large clock on the front of the building, which Bond ends up knocking Chang through. Chang falls to his death onto a piano set up in the courtyard below. When Bond quips "Play it again, Sam" it's the first line of English dialogue that's been spoken in the film for over 11 minutes.


Bond goes to Goodhead's hotel room, where he takes note of her choice of champagne - "Bollinger. If it's '69, you were expecting me." - and is able to confirm that she's not just an employee of Drax Industries, she's a C.I.A. agent who was placed with Drax to keep an eye on his activities. Her literary counterpart was doing the same for Scotland Yard. Goodhead has dangerous gadgets scattered around her room - a pen with a poison point, a dart-firing diary, a flamethrowing perfume bottle, a transistor radio purse. All standard C.I.A. equipment, of course. Goodhead wonders aloud if it might be time for them to pool their resources, but it's clear that she's not really interested in teaming up - she tells Bond that she's not planning on leaving Venice, even though he's already spotted her Air France ticket. She doesn't trust Bond, but she does go to bed with him.

The following morning, Bond leads M, Sir Frederick Gray, and local law enforcement to Venini Glass. Sir Frederick is perturbed by what he's been hearing from Bond. "I hope you know what you're doing, Bond. I've played bridge with Drax." This line is a nod to the early chapters of the Moonraker novel.

In the novel, Hugo Drax is a hugely popular public figure in England and a member of the most exclusive gentlemen's club in London, Blades. James Bond first encounters Drax before there's ever any inkling that there's trouble surrounding the Moonraker rocket project, the only issue there is when Bond is called into M's office is this: "Sir Hugo Drax cheats at cards." Drax has been playing bridge at Blades and cleaning out his fellow members to an impossible degree, he hasn't lost money since he joined the club a year ago. The chairman of Blades has confided his suspicions in M with hopes that something can be done to put a stop to this without causing Drax public embarrassment, after which he could file a libel suit against the club. Bond is the best card player in the service, so M takes him to Blades to observe Drax's bridge games and figure out how he's cheating. Bond spots Drax's cheat and, having taken a dislike to the man, decides to let him know he's been caught and warn him off by one-upping the method of cheating. Fuelled by champagne, vodka, and Benzedrine, Bond sets out to make Drax lose big.

It's a great sequence, and I would love to see it adapted to the screen one of these days. It would be perfect for the Daniel Craig era, since he made his Bond debut in Casino Royale '06 with its extended card playing sequences, but it could also work for the first film of whoever follows him in the role, a bit of "this is still the same guy, you know" for their introduction.


Bond and his superiors put on gas masks before he punches the Close Encounters tones into the security keypad and leads them into the Venini Glass laboratory... but all signs that a lab was ever set up in this room have been removed. Bond has led M and Sir Frederick into the impressive but innocuous office of Hugo Drax.

Sir Frederick apologizes to Drax, and as he storms away from Venini Glass with M and Bond following behind (and Michael G. Wilson watching from a bridge in the background), Sir Frederick orders M to take Bond off of the assignment.

M has to do what Sir Frederick says and tells Bond to take two weeks' leave of absence. Bond finally hands over the vial of liquid to M, to have Q run tests on it. Not sure why he wouldn't have done this earlier. M unofficially approves of Bond continuing on the Moonraker case during his "leave". If Bond messes up, both of their careers are in jeopardy.

Bond catches an Air France Concorde flight to Rio de Janeiro. As he's driven to his hotel, he notices his car is being followed by a girl who takes a picture of him while she drives. And when he's checked into his suite, he finds that same girl behind the bar, shaking up a vodka martini.


She is Manuela, played by Emily Bolton. She works for Station VH, who M has asked to assist Bond. He has come to Rio to investigate C&W Inc., Carlos and Wilmsberg, local importers and a subsidiary of Drax Industries. Manuela agrees to help Bond with the difficult task of checking out their warehouse that night. Within one minute of meeting Manuela, Bond manages to seduce her. They have five hours to kill before they go to the warehouse.

To get to the warehouse after nightfall, Bond and Manuela have to wade through the throng of people filling the streets celebrating the Rio Carnival. Among the costumed partiers is Jaws, who Drax has hired as Chang's replacement.

Manuela waits outside the warehouse while Bond sneaks in, a task not nearly as difficult as expected. The place is empty. All Bond finds inside is a tag for Drax Air Freight.

Jaws attacks Manuela, but is interrupted by a crowd of partiers before he can sink his teeth into her neck. The struggle between Jaws and Manuela comes off as very strange because her mouth is wide open the entire time, but she doesn't scream, she doesn't yell for help, she doesn't make a sound of any kind. Bond comes out of the warehouse and gets Jaws away from Manuela, and the henchman is then swept away by another group of partiers.

The next day, Bond takes one of the two cable cars up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, where he uses a telescope to look down on the São Pedro airport as a Drax Air Freight plane takes off. He finds that Holly Goodhead is also on Sugarloaf to watch the airport. Drax planes have been leaving every two hours. Drax is on the move, but to where?

Bond and Goodhead again discuss how they can work together while not trusting each other. They take a cable car down from Sugarloaf together, but the car soon lurches to a stop. They're stranded hundreds of feet up in the air, and it's because Jaws and a cohort have taken control of the cable cars. Jaws rides the second car up to meet theirs at the mid-way point so he can attack the vulnerable secret agents.


The action on top of the cable cars features death-defying performances from the stunt people, who had no safety harnesses on. Bond stunt double Richard Graydon did have a harness for the moment where Bond goes off the side and catches onto the edge with his hands, but it was not yet secured when director Lewis Gilbert called for him to do the stunt. Rather than have Gilbert wait for his safety cable to be hooked up, Graydon went ahead and performed the near fall with nothing to catch him if he lost his grip.

Jaws's plan does not go as he intended, and the sequence ends with him having yet another smash-up that would be the death of a lesser henchman: his cable car crashes into the control station at a high speed, causing most of the building to collapse. Jaws is helped out of the wreckage by a short blonde woman named Dolly, and as he brushes himself off and they get a good look at each other, they instantly fall in love. Without a word, they walk off hand-in-hand.

The cable car situation ends easier for Bond and Goodhead - since there had fortuitously been a chain in their car, they're able to use it to slide down the cable and jump off of it from a safe height - but then things turn out worse for them. They're coming down from their near death experience with a makeout session when they're approached by some goons in the guise of overzealous paramedics. These "paramedics" capture Bond and Goodhead, tying them down to gurneys in the back of a speeding ambulance.

Bond manages to get free, but his fight with one of the baddies causes him to fall out of the ambulance before he can free Goodhead as well. The ambulance disappears around a bend with the C.I.A. agent still in captivity.


Moonraker is a rarity. Most movies or TV shows that are set in Rio de Janeiro go out of their way to feature close-up shots of the Christ the Redeemer statue to establish the location. Moonraker doesn't, the statue is only glimpsed far off in the distance.

Wearing a cowboy outfit reminiscent of Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone Western, Bond rides a horse over the South American plains (pampas) while Elmer Bernstein's theme from the film The Magnificent Seven plays on the soundtrack. The ride takes Bond to a monastery, where MI6 has a field office. There's an area for Moneypenny's desk, Q is developing gadgets in the courtyard, and M is waiting in an office. I'm not a fan of these characters having bases set up in random locations all over the globe during the Moore era, but there are sillier ones than this.

One of the gadgets we get is a look at is something that will be a big part of the climax of this film: a lazer gun, which we see being fired into the face of a mannequin, causing its head to melt. (I know I should spell lazer with an S when writing about a British character, but I like the look of the word better with a Z.)

Bond has been called here because Q has the breakdown on the vial of liquid from Venini Glass. It's a nerve gas that's harmful only to humans. Bond is so over-informed that Q might as well not even be here for the explanation: shown a picture of the chemical formula, Bond recognizes that it belongs to a plant. Shown a picture of the plant, he knows that it's an orchidae nigra, an orchid so rare that it was thought to be extinct until a missionary brought one back from Brazil. Bond even corrects Q on where the missionary found the flower: the River Tapirapé, not the upper Amazoco.


M dispatches Bond to the River Tapirapé, with Q providing his ride: a tricked-out speedboat that comes in handy when he finds himself being pursued down the river by grenade launching, machine gun firing henchmen (including Jaws) in speedboats of their own. Two chases in this movie and they're both speedboat chases. Bond drops mines and fires boat-seeking torpedoes to get himself out of trouble, but finds that the chase has taken him to the edge of a huge waterfall.

Most of this boat chase was shot with Jupiter, Florida standing in for Brazil, but this waterfall is the Iguazu Falls. Stretching almost two miles across at the Brazil/Argentina border and with drops up to 269 feet, the sight of the Iguazu Falls is one that convinced Albert R. Broccoli that he should make a Bond movie in Brazil.

The boats carrying Bond and Jaws both go over the falls, but Bond is able to escape - his boat is equipped with an emergency hang glider for just such an occasion. Jaws takes the full plummet, but of course that's not enough to kill him.

After landing in the rainforest, Bond spots a beautiful woman dressed in white walking nearby. He follows her through the trees and along the rocky shore of the river. When she reaches a hidden stone temple, an exterior filmed in Guatemala, she looks back at Bond and we recognize her as the front desk clerk from Venini Glass.

The girl enters the temple and Bond follows. More beautiful women file into the "great chamber" of the temple, women who we've spotted throughout the film at Drax locations - the glass museum guide, astronaut trainees, Drax's Lady and Countess high society pals... Then Bond steps into just the right spot to be knocked into a pool, in which he is joined by a large python that attempts to make a meal of him. Apparently Bond stole Goodhead's poison pen from her room in Venice, because that's what gets him out of this jam.


Jaws pulls Bond out of the pool and Drax enters the room, lamenting to Bond, "you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you."

Bond is led into the next room, a large control room full of technicians working at tabletop panels and communicating through headsets. Monitors cover the walls, showing the launches of Moonraker space shuttles as the scene plays out. Drax doesn't reveal all of what he's up to just yet, but does give some information. The orchidae nigra was responsible for the eradication of the race who built the temple they're in, as long term exposure to its pollen causes sterility. Drax's scientists have used that pollen to create the nerve gas, which causes instant death to humans rather than sterility, an "improvement", but does not affect plants or animals. "One must preserve the balance of nature." Drax also tells Bond that he ordered the hijacking of the space shuttle that kicked this story off because one of his other shuttles was inoperable and he needed to take back the one he had given to the U.S. government. This confession can really bog your mind down with questions if you think about it too much. As the manufacturer, wouldn't Drax have just been able to recall the shuttle? It's not like the public's reaction to word that Moonraker shuttles may have mechanical issues would matter at this point. Was he concerned that the government would just have NASA check it out rather than return it if he said it was faulty? Surely there was some way that he could've gotten it back without drawing the attention of the British secret service.


While more Moonraker shuttles prepare to take off from the area, Bond is reunited with Goodhead in a room below one of the shuttles. When the rocket fires, Bond and Goodhead will be cremated.

There's a bit I like in the final chapters of the Moonraker novel that couldn't be duplicated here since they're dealing with the launches of multiple space shuttles rather than the countdown to the launch of one missile, Bond figuring that the only way to stop the missile is to walk out among the fuel vapors and light a cigarette, but this is a nod to the sequence that follows, when Gala Brand comes up with an alternate plan that ends up taking them into the rocket's exhaust pit, having to escape through a ventilator shaft as it takes off, being enveloped in intense heat.

Here, Bond and Goodhead escape getting cooked by the rocket because Bond has had a gadget throughout the film that we were never told about - there's an explosive charge hidden in his watch, which he sticks to an air vent gate and detonates with the push of a button. Bond and Goodhead hurry down the air vent, chased by a stream of flame, and follow the vent out into the temple.

The secret agents knock out a couple astronauts, steal their outfits, and climb into the cockpit of the final Moonraker shuttle. They have to know where the others are going, and remember, Goodhead has had astronaut training. The shuttle takes off, following a pre-arranged flight program. And James Bond is launched into space.

As the shuttle follows its course, Bond switches on a "personnel hold" monitor to see what they're carrying. From what he sees, Bond begins to piece together what Drax has planned. Riding in this shuttle are six couples of good looking, physically fit men and women who seem quite lovey dovey toward each other. Bond figures that they're on a sort of space age Noah's Ark.


When the Earth's rotation causes the sun to peek around the edge of the planet, in a great shot the sunlight slowly reveals an orbiting space station from top to bottom. The station does not show up on radar, it's equipped with a jamming system.

All of the Moonraker shuttles converge and dock at the station, which has gravity and a life support system that makes it so that when the people enter it from the shuttles, it's no different than entering a building on Earth. When his astronauts and beautiful people (and Jaws and Dolly) are all present, Drax makes a speech to them that fully reveals his villainous plot.

In the novel, Hugo Drax had been a Nazi soldier who was badly wounded and disfigured in World War II and mistaken for an English soldier when he was found. Once healed, he made a fortune for himself and, still a fully committed Nazi, came up with the Moonraker operation to strike back against England. The cinematic Drax does not share the backstory, but he does have similar ideas about creating a master race.

Drax intends to launch fifty spheres loaded with nerve gas back down to Earth, each capable of killing 100 million people, wiping out the human race. On his space station, the group of physically perfect people that he has assembled will breed a new super-race. Eventually, their offspring will return to the planet and shape it in their image, and when they look to the heavens to pay deference to their creator, their god will be Hugo Drax.

Bond and Goodhead manage to switch off the station's radar jammer, and when it becomes visible to systems on Earth, Michael G. Wilson has his third cameo as a NASA technician who passes on the information. The United States and Russia scramble to ensure that neither of them put the station up there. Russia's General Gogol, Walter Gotell reprising his role from The Spy Who Loved Me and wearing some snazzy red pajamas, is assured over the phone that the station is not American and NASA has already sent a shuttle up to intercept it. Gogol responds that if the situation isn't handled in 12 hours, Russia will take action and hold the United States responsible. Gogol then returns to bed, where a lovely blonde woman is waiting for him. Apparently there was some thought of having this woman be a cameo for Barbara Bach as Agent Triple X, but I'm glad that didn't pan out. Seeing her in bed with Gogol would've been about as disturbing as seeing Bond in bed with the Judi Dench M.

The launch of the nerve gas spheres has begun by the time the United States spacecraft, carrying a team of Marines, nears the space station. When Bond disrupts things before Drax can just blast the U.S. shuttle with a lazer cannon, he has to send his men out to deal with the threat personally. Drax's astronauts/henchmen and U.S. astronauts/Marines go EVA to battle in space, but they're not tethered to anything, they're floating free with Manned Maneuvering Units on, something that wasn't successfully used in real life until 1984, and even though MMUs (and later a device called SAFER) exist, untethered EVAs have only been done on a few occasions. Q Branch aren't the only ones who have lazer guns, both sides of this fight fire away at each other with them.


They may be outlandish and goofy, but the space sequences do have a nice style to them, thanks to Derek Meddings and his special effects team. Each element in these shots were filmed individually, the film being run back through the camera repeatedly until they had captured every one. One shot has forty-eight elements, meaning that particular piece of film ran through the camera ninety-six times.

While the battle rages, will Bond and Goodhead be able to stop Drax himself? Can love and some sensible words bring Jaws over to the side of good? And will the spheres that Drax has managed to launch be destroyed before millions of lives are lost?


Packed audiences found out the answers to those questions when Moonraker was released in the summer of 1979. Broccoli's decision to join in on the sci-fi craze paid off, as the film was a huge hit at the box office. When adjusted for inflation, the earlier hits of Thunderball and Goldfinger were still ahead of it, but in straightforward numbers, Moonraker earned the title of most successful Bond film, a title it kept until the release of GoldenEye in 1995.

Despite its success, the years have not been kind to Moonraker's reputation. It tends to be referred to as one of the worst films in the series. I'm not particularly fond of it myself, I don't enjoy an over abundance of gadgets or when the action sequences get too silly, and overall the movie feels very routine and lifeless, like it's just following a checklist and trying to stay similar to The Spy Who Loved Me.

It is basically the same movie as The Spy Who Loved Me. Bond teams with a female agent from another country and has to fight Jaws again and again on the way to stopping a megalomaniac who wants to destroy life on Earth as we know so he can restart it in his own kingdom - Stromberg was taking people under the sea, Drax takes them into space. This was Lewis Gilbert's third time directing a Bond, and looking back to his first, 1967's You Only Live Twice, the odd realization occurs that he essentially directed the same Bond movie three times. TSWLM was a reworking of YOLT's story of the villain stealing properties of countries to stir up a war - spacecraft in YOLT, submarines in Spy - and Moonraker is a carbon copy of TSWLM with YOLT's space elements reincorporated.

The similarities between The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker wouldn't matter as much if there had been more time and movies between them, but since they're back-to-back the similarities do hamper the enjoyment for me when I watch them both within a close time frame.


This was the last Bond for Lewis Gilbert, and for a few others. Ken Adam broke his last record with the series - largest sets ever constructed in France - on this one, he never returned as production designer on another Bond film. Jaws is left alive at the end of the film, but was not brought back, for which I am glad. He was cool the first time, but I think having him in two movies was a bit much. Having most of the action sequences involve a cartoony villain who can walk away from any situation without a scratch doesn't work for me. The saddest loss is Bernard Lee, who gives his eleventh and final performance as M in Moonraker. He was intended to be in the next film, but passed away at the age of 73 in January of 1981 before his scenes could be filmed.

Roger Moore's three film contract had been fulfilled with The Spy Who Loved Me, from then on he re-negotiated one film at a time. He's fine in his fourth film, but I might be happier with the Moore era if he had left the role after this one. Moonraker is the last time that I'm really comfortable with him as Bond. But he'll be back. A few times.

Elements of Moonraker have been adapted a couple more times since, though none of the adaptations have been all that faithful. In general, I'm against the idea of remaking Bond films and re-using titles, most of the best Fleming novels were adapted well in the early days, and I don't agree with people who think Bond films should be period pieces, I think the floating timeline of the series should continue to keep Bond modern. Moonraker is the one exception. I don't want to see it remade title and all within the series proper, but I would love to see something like a made-for-TV adaptation of the novel set in the 1950s. The novel is one of my favorites in the literary series and I would enjoy seeing it translated directly to the screen.

As for the real world shuttle launch that was supposed to happen around the time that Moonraker was released into theatres, it was delayed. Columbia did not go into orbit in 1979. It finally launched on April 12, 1981, just two months before the release of the next Bond film. Like the end credits of The Spy Who Loved Me, the end credits of Moonraker announce that Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only... and this time it was true.


3 comments:

  1. Another wonderful look at some old school 007! I agree it's one of the weaker movies - but I am gaga over pretty much any movie from 1979 - so I love this flick.

    I too would like to see Moonraker (and really, all of the books) done as medium budget TV or cable movies in period - totally separate from the theatrical series - but a hoot to see Fleming played out in live action. There have been two radio adapatations of the books over in England, with Toby Stephens (Die Another Day's Gustav Graves) giving up his villainous ways to play 007! I've listened to Goldfinger - with Ian McKellen as ol' Auric, and it's really a fun listen. The other was Dr. No. Not quite Moonraker or a movie - but definitely vintage period Fleming. Cheers!

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  2. I begged to differ about the dub job for Corinne Clery's Corinne Dufour as I didn't even KNOW her voice was dubbed.

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  3. I begged to differ about the dub job for Corinne Clery's Corinne Dufour as I didn't even KNOW her voice was dubbed.

    ReplyDelete