Sunday, September 4, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Moonraker (1979)

Following the United States’s successful mission to the moon in 1969, space technology developed at a lighting quick pace, with many players very keen on participating. Not all of said contesting parties were state representatives. A multi-billionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), of Drax Industries, was one of the more significant shuttle construction companies at the time, and when one of his top vessels was stolen while on loan to the Americans, MI6 sent 007 (Roger Moore) to investigate the matter.

It was at Drax Industries that 007 met a certain Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), a top scientist and top astronaut working for the corporation. Bond hopped around the world on the trail for increasingly revealing clues as to who stole the space shuttle and why. From California, to Venice, to Brazil and outer space itself. Two revelations were made as Bond zig-zagged to and fro, the first being that Dr. Goodhead was, in actuality, a CIA operative posing as a scientist with strict orders to investigate any wrong doings at Drax Industries. The second discovery was that Hugo Drax himself was the perpetrator behind the theft (of his own space craft). All his efforts to aid the American space program were but a ruse. His personal vendetta against humanity, as one might say, led him to gather fatally poisonous toxins from plants that would eradicate human life on our planet, the toxins being launched from outer space where he and his selected population of the world’s finest men and women would create a new civilization from within a secretive space station.

Moonraker, like the titular shuttle in the story, has been on a wild ride for me personally. It is such an over-the-top Bond adventure, where the special effects, action set pieces and jokes clearly take precedence over everything else, most notably any semblance of genuine danger or original Bond characters. As a child, it was hard to deny the joy of seeing so much fantastical material blow up, fall, run and float all over the screen. Moonraker, more so than for possibly any 007 film, was made as family entertainment. By 1979, after witnessing some human history defining moments such as the landing on the moon and other, more movie related successes, like Star Wars, the filmmakers felt it was time to up the ante to even greater heights than had been done on The Spy Who Loved Me, which was already one of the crazier Bond films, if not the craziest. It was time to send Bond into outer space (the theatrical one-sheet declared that ‘Outer Space Now Belongs to 007’). Maturation (in relative terms) into teenage-hood and most off all early adulthood meant that Moonraker was suddenly a moronic, implausible, silly gag fest that had no business being an official entry in the Bond franchise. It’s not serious enough, not grounded enough and the filmmakers once again treat Jaws like a Saturday morning cartoon character. Nay, the entire film is a Saturday morning cartoon. Bollocks.

Now, in 2011, at the age of !*, have my feelings and thoughts towards Moonraker come full circle, back to the point where it may be considered as a spectacular ride, plot and character be damned? Not so much, but watching it again did bring back some fond memories and, despite it all, there are a handful of things to like about Gilbert’s final film as a director.

It was touched upon last week how Lewis Gilbert is a smart man in as far as he knows perfectly well that Bond movies are not the ones a director decides to adopt avant-garde techniques to be showy. Once again, he excels at letting the scenery, grandiose nature of the action and set design do most of the work. His camera is always in the right place and because his 007 films are so big in nature, that becomes a vital component to any enjoyment a viewer will extract from the experience. If we are to only discuss set design and awe inspiring locals, then Moonraker would be a near-perfect film. Gilbert and production designer Ken Adam work supremely well with one another and always have (they were a team on YOLT and TSWLM, two other Bond adventures that look fantastic), and their efforts on this film in particular are exemplary. The Drax hideout in the jungles of Brazil is exotic and sexy, while the enormous space station hovering above the Earth is a feast for the eyes, especially for the science-fiction fan in you. The special and visual effects crew equally deserves a tip of the hat for the audaciousness of the movie’s climactic battle sequence, which has Drax Industries guards and United States spacemen do battle in and around Drax’s gigantic space station with laser guns. Purely on a script level, does this need to occur in a James Bond film? Of course it does not and in fact I would prefer if it hadn’t, but things are what they are, and the battle sequence looks stupendous, even when looking at it through lenses’ influenced by our modern special effects standards.

There are some other great moments that occur earlier in the picture as well, let us not forget as much. People must have been wondering in 1979 how on earth can the stunt coordination team outdo themselves after the cliff/parachute jump in the pre-credit sequence in the previous film? They unbelievably pull it off, while not one, but two fights that occur during free fall! Bond is returning to London via private jet after successful completion of a mission when the crew on board reveal themselves as assassins. A wild scuffle forces Bond out of the plane without a chute, meaning that he has to catch up with one of the villains who left the aircraft with the coveted landing device. No more shall be reveal as to how the scene plays out, but it serves as one of my definite favourite pre-credit sequence in the entire series, behind only those of Goldeneye and Goldfinger.

Another moment I really enjoy happens when Bond, now touring the Drax Industries facilities, is invited to try the machine which simulates multiple G speeds. Naturally Drax has sent one of his minions to tamper with the instrument, sending 007 on a freakish spin where it almost feels like he is in actual danger for one. Even the conclusion of the scene is a departure from how things develop throughout most of the movie. Dr. Goodhead tries to comfort Bond and he just tosses her hand away, still under the brutal shock of the insane ride he barely escaped. No quips there.

Sadly, there end most of the positives one can muster up for Moonraker. For all the praise I can award director Lewis Gilbert for his simple but highly effective camera techniques, it eventually grows tiresome to see exactly the same film from his. TSWLM was very similar to YOLT, and now Moonraker is a perfect replica of TSWLM. Villain has disdain for humanity, believes himself to be authoritative enough to wipe us out of existence and repopulate with physically perfect beings. He has a super secret station located in an area few would choose to look. Jaws is back. The Bond girl is a secret agent from another country with whom he must learn to cooperate with. Their relationship starts off a little rocky, but eventually blossoms. The final shot features representatives from both Great Britain and this time the United States discovering the two agents in bed. The title song is a sweeping love melody. The climax has two armies fighting each other in addition to Bond’s smaller search for the mastermind behind the plot. After putting the mastermind out of commission, there are still bombs that have to be destroyed through the use of sophisticated machinery Bond was use on the fly, otherwise entire cities (or the world) will be destroyed. That is what I could come up with off the top of my head. Safe to say that even the list above is reasonably extensive.

There is not a shred of originality in the movie. Originality is not an element one should beg for out of a Bond film, I am willing to concede that point, but when a subsequent adventure is such a blatant retread of a previous instalment, an immediate predecessor no less, the viewing experience can grow tiresome if not downright frustrating. As some readers may already be telling themselves at this moment, Moonraker is not the only instance in the series when the filmmakers call back to previous adventures, but there is a case to be made that Moonraker is the most shameful of said call backs.

This is not to mention that the comedic elements are practically doubled for this film. TSWLM had its fair share of laughs, some being unfortunately at the expense of Jaws, but at the very least there was a sense of adventure to it all. With Moonraker, the screenwriters and director seem remarkably more intent on making everything as light as possible. Only a few lines ago this review showered praise on stunt work performed during the opening scene, and we shall stand by that. However, just before the actual jump occurs, there is a brawl between Bond and a henchmen in the plane during which a hard ‘kock’ sound can be heard when 007 receives a blow to the crown jewels, as if made of wood. That is but an early indicator of the type of lazy humour the viewer will get for the next couple of hours. Later on, when Drax invites Bond to hunt birds on his country grounds, he hides a marksman in a tree with request that 007 be shot. Bond fires, misses the bird, which prompts a small delight from Drax: ‘You missed, Mr. Bond.’ Seconds later, Drax’s henchmen falls dead out of the tree. Bond replies ‘Did I?’ First and foremost, the joke is not very funny, and secondly, is it not a bit strange that a guest would just intentionally kill a man in a tree like that? Is it not plausible that Bond could be arrested? The groan-worthy moments only pile up after that. The film even commits one of the oldest ‘movie quote mistakes’ in history by having 007 utter ‘Play it again, Sam’ after the secret agent tosses a baddie into a piano.

Which reminds me of a closely related topic: the dialogue. Is it just me or does the dialogue witness a serious decline in the quality of Bond’s quips and one-liners? Granted, even in other films his retorts are not always as clever as the filmmakers think they are, but Moonraker is littered with a whole bunch of real clunkers. The scene when he says that one of Drax’s employees has a heart of gold and she returns the compliment with ’18 karat!’, the ‘get them in stores for Christmas’ line after Q demonstrates Bond’s new poisonous dart-launching wrist pad, Bond saying he killed a python because he discovered it ‘had a crush’ on him, etc. The is a laundry list of pretty tepid lines that pale in comparison to some of the jewels he, Connery and dare I say even Lazenby uttered in previous episodes. Rather disappointing all in all.

Which brings us to the end of this discussion about Moonraker. As mentioned previously, I am willing to admit that my overall opinion on the film has received somewhat of a boost in comparison to the disdain I used to reserve for it. Nonetheless, it has a host of issues that prevent me from truly embracing now, nor are the odds very high that I shall ever fully embrace. Be that as it may, I no longer consider the over-bloated Moonraker to be an utter failure. Apparently, even in space one can hear the famous line ‘Bond...James Bond.’



thevoid99 said...

I agree, it's not one of the best Bond movies though it has moments such as the locales and action sequences.

As cheesy as it is, I enjoyed the stuff with Jaws and the girl in pigtails. Plus, he actually got a chance to say a line.

I kinda liked the Hugo Drax character since all he wanted was something away from the world of wars and complications though the reality of was to shut out those who didn't meet his criteria. That's not cool.

edgarchaput said...

@thevoid: The movie is too self-indulgent and too grandiose. Even though the crafstmanship that went into creating the final set piece is to be applauded, as a James Bond story element it's all pretty stupid.