Sunday, 28 October 2012

50 Years of Bond: "Moonraker"

I originally wasn't going to talk about Moonraker, deciding that after The Spy Who Loved Me, to jump right in to For Your Eyes Only, the film the ending of The Spy Who Loved Me promised would come next. But after listening to a commentary for Moonraker on the Out Now Podcast,  in which the commenters were in agreement that Moonraker was an underrated entry in the Bond cannon, I decided to give Moonraker another look. I never hated the film but my memory of it was that it was a weaker entry in the franchise, falling prey to campiness and without a solid narrative structure. After watching it again, I still think it's goofy moments that clash with the darker elements of the film and that it's structure needed some work- but, if you're willing to go with the space based climax and get past stuff like the double- taking pigeon, Moonraker isn't as bad as you may remember it, and in fact it's a pretty solid entry in the Bond franchise.

After the success of Star Wars, instead of moving forward with For Your Eyes Only, it was decided to cash in on the phenomenon of George Lucas' space epic by taking James Bond to space. Funnily enough, there's not much space based action in the film, and it all comes in the final act. And even when we get to space, it doesn't feel like a Star Wars movie, it feels like a James Bond movie. I think that's because the space-based stuff is a variation on the hollowed out volcano from You Only Live Twice and the tanker from The Spy Who Loved Me, both directed by Lewis Gilbert, who directed this film as well, which would ulimately be his final Bond film as well.

With all three of these films, Gilbert was essentially doing a variation on the same concept-space shuttles or submarines go missing, Bond goes looking for them-and discovers a plot to cause WIII or armageddon. In both The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, the main villain wants to create a new civilization. Stromberg from The Spy Who Loved Me wanted to create a underwater civilization while Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), the villain of Moonraker, wants to kill everyone on earth and re-populate it with a selected few he deems worthy.  Drax's obsession with the notion of a perfect human is a rare moment in a Bond film that is reminiscent of uncomfortable ideals that were- and still are- present in our world. Lonsdale is  very good here, being a convincing authority figure as well as being very sinister without overdoing any bad guy posturing.

Like The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker's pre-title sequence announces that the film is going to be pretty large scale. After a  Moonraker space shuttle is hijacked while in space, we cut to a scene on a plane, with Bond, in typical Bond fashion, kissing a beautiful woman. She pulls a gun on him and then another man appears who shoots the plane's controls. Jaws (Richard Kiel), from the previous film, makes a re-appearance and pushes Bond out of the plane. Bond gets hold of the the man with the gun's parachute and then escapes from Jaws via parachute while Jaws, in typical Jaws fashion, has a faulty parachute. This is pretty great opening. I love how there's no context to why these people want to kill Bond- he's James Bond and this is the stuff he deals with on  a daily basis. It's a excitng mini-adventure that reminds us how thrilling practical stunt work can be.

My favourite sequence in Moonraker features Bond in a machine used for astronauts in H-G training, and whose speed is cranked up by one of Drax's henchman in an attempt to kill Bond. Bond is able to stop the machine using the wrist dart gun given to him by Q (Desmond Llewelyn). I love this sequence because after Bond gets out of the machine, you see he's really wiped out. He can't speak, so there's no one liner. It humanizes Bond and since Dr. Holly Goodhead (Los Chiles) is there, it's fascinating to see Bond so vulnerable in front of a woman- it's a great payoff to the intensity of the sequence, which had put us in to Bond's perspective, as the machine keeps speeding up. It's one of the only moments in a Bond film where it genuinely seems Bond could die.

There's another sequence that's really well done. It involves Corinne Dufur (Corinne Clery), Drax's personal pilot, being hunted through the woods by Drax's dogs after he discovers she has been helping Bond. It's actually quite a haunting scene and while Corinne wasn't a fully fleshed out character, I surprisingly felt her death.

Holly Goodhead is actually a CIA agent who has gone undercover in order to discover what Drax is up to and who eventually forms a reluctant relationship with Bond.  Essentially, it's the same set-up as in The Spy Who Loved Me. The relationship between Bond and Goodhead doesn't quite have the heart of that film, though. The film also never allows the their relationship to settle in to a groove and keeps pulling them apart. I would have liked them to stay together longer throughout the middle of the film, instead of having Goodhead captured for no particular reason then to give Bond more solo screentime. Like Barbara Bach, Lois Chiles isn't the strongest actress but I feel she does have a little more personality than Bach. I als like that this is the second Roger Moore Bond to have a reasonably strong female lead alongside Bond. The notion of Bond teaming up with someone who has the profession as he does is a really nice touch.

Jaws does appear again after the pre-titles sequence, being hired by Drax to kill Bond. In this film Jaws actually falls in love with a short blonde woman named Dolly (Blanche Ravalec), who Jaws takes to Drax's space based headquarters. After Bond questions Drax about people who aren't perfect in Drax's eyes, who Drax will exterminate, Jaws turns on Drax, teaming up with Bond and Goodhead. Jaws becoming a good guy who reportedly done because children really liked Jaws and wanted him to be good guy. I actually don't have a huge problem with Jaws falling in love, even though it is one of the goofy elements that clashes with the darker tone of the film. Jaws has always been a humourous figure and a big clutz, so it's not hard to imagine that deep down he's not that bad of a guy. I do think the relationship between Jaws and his girlfriend could have been developed more but it's probably the most human thing in the film.

I really love the film's finale, with Bond and Goodhead in a space shuttle, attempting to destroy the three globes that contain the nerve gas that will keep many people on earth. While they're able to destroy the first two with no problem but the third proves more difficult. It's pretty tense sequence and it's quite a relief when Bond is able to destroy the third globe.

The film's main problem is that it's tone is all over the place. It has moments of darkness but it's also outlandish and goes for sight gags like a double taking pigeons and Jaws falling over waterfalls. The Spy Who Loved Me was a more tonally solid film, and of course, this film also suffers from being too similar to that film in terms of plot. Still, the film deserves a second look because it's not really bad in my eyes. It has some genuinely suspenseful sequences, a solid Bond woman, and plenty of rousing action. But despite Moonraker's success, the Bond producers decided that after taking Bond to space, he needed to be brought back down to earth. James Bond will return in: For Your Eyes Only.

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