Moonraker came out just as the 70s were coming to an end. Using the same team as brought about the success of The Spy Who Loved Me: Lewis Gilbert directing, Roger Moore (obviously) starring, Christopher Wood writing and even Richard Kiel returning as the henchman Jaws, the film had a notably higher budget - almost double - and exaggerated the comedy aspects while still retaining the evergreen Thunderball plot.
They'd already done Thunderball in Space once before with You Only Live Twice, but in that film Bond had remained earthbound. With the success of Star Wars in 1977 the time was ripe to send 007 into space. The novel by Ian Fleming, which is also earthbound and in fact never leaves Britain, was almost totally discarded and a now familiar template of globetrotting action and comedy set pieces put in place. This was the last Bond that I only saw on television. I'd see all of the rest on the big screen and I remember it being a favourite as a kid. I loved the space battles, I was still freaked out by Jaws, I thought the comedy was hilarious and the stunts thrilling. Maybe rewatching these, I should think of them as children's movies. Or family films with the dad jokes and the children friendly violence, something for everyone.
A space shuttle is hijacked midair and James Bond is dispatched to the owners at Drax industries to find out what went on. Here, he meets Drax himself (Michael Lonsdale), and his life is immediately threatened when an astronaut training vessel he is riding is sabotaged and a sniper tries to kill him. Leads take him to Venice and Rio de Janeiro along with Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), a doctor working for Drax who is actually a CIA plant. On finding Drax's secret base, they uncover a plot to kill everyone on Earth and start again with a perfect race that has been saved in a space station.
Moonraker is by far the silliest Bond. The set pieces are frequently excellent. The opening skydiving scene is particularly good, a stunt which took 88 jumps to film. And the acting by Lonsdale and Chiles is likewise excellent. Drax was supposed to be played by James Mason and that would have also been fine but Lonsdale gives the role a contempt that seems to be as much for the movie around him as it is for James Bond. Corinne Cléry as Corinne Dufou is also very good and her death is one of the more vicious ones in the Roger Moore Bonds. There's something gothic about her being chased by hounds through misty woods in a diaphanous dress. Such a threatening presence in The Spy Who Loved Me, Kiel is not relegated to something of a joke, at least by the end of the movie. The love story between him and a busty pig tailed girl is awkward to watch now and the scoring of Tchaikovsky over it makes it obvious that this is all done for laughs.
The silliness permeates the film. The boat chase in Venice is a good example, with Bond's motorized gondola turning into a hovercraft a particular nadir. When the Lotus turned into an underwater car it was part of an exciting chase and it led to another action scene. Here the hovercraft part is a ludicrous punchline; complete with a double-taking pigeon and a man who worries he might have drunk too much. I don't object to the movies having a sense of humour, but it's such a bad sense of humour. The groaning you hear is no substitute for genuine laughter and I've never subscribed to the so bad it's good school of thought. It doesn't help that with no one taking it seriously and a real lack of originality at this stage, there's almost zero tension. The action sequences - as good as they are - are almost always deflated by some visual joke, or strange soundtrack choice. Moore doesn't help as he becomes increasingly self-parodic and less and less interesting.
And yet the film was a massive hit. The biggest thus far for any Bond movie and so the template was more or less fixed for the next decade. There would be an attempt to bring Bond a little bit more down to Earth in the follow up For Your Eyes Only, which had been originally slated to be made next before Star Wars came out and changed everyone's minds. Moonraker would also be the last Fleming novel to be filmed and as the series became increasingly its own thing, Fleming's original conception of the character receded into the distance and Austin Powers came to the fore.
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John Bleasdale is a writer, novelist and screenwriter.