Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. This week, Bond goes to space and jumps the shark in Moonraker.
During the credits of The Spy Who Loved Me, on-screen text proclaimed that James Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only. However, that same year, Star Wars changed the rules and made extravagant sci-fi into box office gold. With that in mind, Albert R Broccoli opted to change plans and produce a film with sci-fi inflections, inspired by Fleming’s celestially titled novel Moonraker.
Roger Moore returned to play Bond and the regular MI6 roster also came back to the fold. A new villain was joined by a rarity, in the shape of Richard Kiel’s Jaws – the franchise’s first returning henchman.
Given the rather hasty assembly of all of the moving parts for Moonraker, it was perhaps inevitable that the film would suffer creatively. However, few could have been prepared for just how badly the film would fall apart.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with Moonraker, which has major issues with tone, story and indeed characterisation. The opening sequence is the perfect microcosm for the film’s issues. It features a jaw-dropping action set piece in which Bond is pushed from a plane by Jaws, managing to grab another henchman’s parachute from his back in mid-air.
However, as with so much of Moonraker, this moment of quality action is marred by an awkward comedy beat seconds later as Jaws crashes into the big top of a circus. And then, after Shirley Bassey’s incredibly forgotten theme tune, the film itself begins…
Bond is despatched to investigate the apparent theft of a space shuttle. He is soon drawn to Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), who appears to have taken the shuttle for his own bizarre plan to rejuvenate the human race. With CIA agent Dr Goodhead (Lois Chiles) alongside him, Bond must track Drax all the way to a space station orbiting the Earth.
"You persist in defying my efforts to provide an amusing death for you."
Moonraker never really gets going, hamstrung by a plot that seems more concerned with jamming in multiple locations than constructing a coherent narrative. The best Bond films are those in which the plot continuously propels Bond around the world, being led by pursuit of the villain or the clues they leave behind. In Moonraker, there’s no impetus and no momentum.
It’s not the fault of the villain. Lonsdale’s Drax is an interesting and intelligent bad guy, with an impressively malevolent physical appearance and an aptitude for one-liners that rivals Moore himself. In a better film, he could’ve been amongst the best of the Bond villains. Even Jaws, so impressive in The Spy Who Loved Me, is wasted here and loses all of his potential as a threat. By the time he picks up a love interest out of nowhere and allies himself with Bond, he’s like a neutered animal wearing a muzzle.
Screenwriter Christopher Wood, who co-wrote the previous film with long-time Bond writer Richard Maibaum, gives short shrift to Lois Chiles as the utterly ludicrously named Dr Holly Goodhead, who is nominally Moonraker’s female lead. Immediately following the brilliant Anya Amasova in The Spy Who Loved Me, Goodhead is written as a woman completely in thrall to Bond’s sexual potency and without any agency at all. It’s as if, forced to throw a film together, they simply reverted to the sexist Bond formula.
Eclipsed by silliness
Any issues with the characters, however, are minor quibbles in comparison to Moonraker’s biggest flaw – its mind-blowing stupidity. Desperate to mimic the success of Star Wars, the film shoots its protagonists into space and decides to have them fire lasers at each other, seemingly unaware of how ridiculous that feels outside of a sci-fi context. It’s no coincidence that many aspects of this finale formed the third act of Austin Powers sequel The Spy Who Shagged Me.
The Moore era of Bond was always goofy and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing by default. In the case of Moonraker, though, the goofiness is turned up to eleven and the spy thrills are pushed into second place. Jaws is a comedy character, every other Bond line is a double entendre and the central villainous plot is the work of nonsense.
"His name is Jaws. He kills people."
Almost worse than the silliness, though, is the fact that Moonraker is, for most of its running time, offensively dull. Moore, so alive in The Spy Who Loved Me, completely phones it in here, looking too old for the role and devoid of any of the effervescent energy that made his earlier films so entertaining. The fact that Goodhead is more of a thumbnail sketch than a character doesn’t help.
Moonraker was a dud long before it left Earth’s atmosphere, but by the end, it feels more like an insult to the audience’s intelligence than anything else. It is certainly the worst film of Roger Moore’s tenure as Bond and could be the low point of the entire franchise.
In order to send Bond into space and mimic Lucas’ blockbuster space opera, Eon stumped up an enormous budget twice the size of the previous film and four times that of The Man with the Golden Gun. The box office returns paid dividends, though, with Moonraker breaking the franchise record set by its predecessor with a worldwide haul of $210m.
Critics were divided straight down the middle on the film. Vincent Canby, of the New York Times, gave Moonraker a wildly positive assessment and later called the film the franchise’s best, alongside Goldfinger. Frank Rich described the film as “irresistibly entertaining” in his Time magazine review and James Monaco called it a “minor masterpiece” in The Connoisseur’s Guide to the Movies.
Others were more critical of the film’s extravagances, with MSN Movies ranking it as the fourth worst movie in the entire series. Danny Peary, in Guide for the Film Fanatic, described Moonraker as the “worst James Bond film to date”, noting that there’s “little suspense and the humour falls flat”. I know which side of the critical coin I’m on.
"I don’t know if I trust you either. That’s what makes it more exciting, doesn’t it?"
For me, the critical division over Moonraker is an odd one given the film’s obvious deficiencies and glacial pacing. Roger Moore looks thoroughly bored and the final hour is utterly ludicrous in the worst way. It may not quite be the worst Bond movie but, made almost solely to capitalise on the Star Wars phenomenon, Moonraker is certainly the one that feels the most cynical.
Next time, Bond returns to his grittier roots in For Your Eyes Only.
What do you think of Moonraker? Does it mark a low point in the Bond franchise, or do you enjoy its comedy flavour? Let me know in the comments section and keep your eyes peeled for an early new Bond Reloaded this week.