Moonraker: The James Bond Movie You Shouldn’t Take Seriously

There's a good case to be made for this being the silliest James Bond movie of them all, but Moonraker's still a lot of fun...

Well, we’ve come a long, long way since From Russia With Love. Moonraker: a film that redefined the possibilities of the James Bond franchise if only by sheer scale of stupidity. The space bits are relatively by-the-numbers (other than being in space). However, the script was probably written in crayon.

Chases happen without explanation, people randomly bump into each other, the utterly implausible is presented as mundane. Purists think of Istanbul and weep. But treat the whole thing as a comedy – perhaps a gentle spoof – and you’ll actually enjoy yourself. A plot-hole drinking game will get everyone plastered.

The Villain: Weirdly good. The master of the dry putdown – “James Bond. You defy my attempts to devise an amusing death for you” – Hugo Drax almost steals the film. He’s an overweight little bloke with a stupid beard, no claw or scars here, yet Michael Lonsdale fashions a rather endearing antagonist. Astoundingly impassive, and near-heroic in his refusal to shoot Bond whenever the opportunity presents itself.

The Girl: Uninspired. As a film, Moonraker isn’t obsessed with characterization or motive. Both girl and villain are affected. But whereas Michael Lonsdale deadpans his way to success, Lois Chiles as Dr Holly Goodhead fares less well. Having the girl talk back to Bond and kick people isn’t a bad move but it doesn’t automatically generate a strong character. Far from the worst Bond girl but nowhere near the top half. The vanilla ice cream of heroines.

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Moonraker is The Spy Who Loved Me on a substance we perhaps shouldn’t encourage. You have to hand it to Bond: what other franchise could look back on a film that involved a mad billionaire attempting to nuke New York and Moscow to instigate World War Three and force the surviving humans to colonize an underwater city in the Mediterranean… what other franchise could contemplate such a plot and think ‘we should go bigger’? And then proceed to do so.

The result isn’t so much a car crash as a giant monster truck rally in which the monster trucks are driven by blind lemurs and doused in gasoline. Theoretically a disaster – but what a blazing heap of fun!

Now let me be clear: I shall not argue that Moonraker is an unjustly neglected classic (although such a Bond exists – and we’ll get there). Moonraker has a strong case for being the worst film of the franchise. The Man with the Golden Gun, the holder of that title at this stage of the retrospectives, has the vastly redeeming feature of Christopher Lee and a genuinely arresting premise. Moonraker lacks both. And yet for some reason it occupies a special place in my heart. Admittedly a very weird place, the kind of place that you only visit after taking copious amounts of drugs. But, if you can embrace the trip, then you really should have a blast.

So, after a spaceship is hijacked with suspicious ease – can you really just drive it off into space like that? – we join Bond in the clinch of an air-stewardess. Only she’s an evil air-stewardess and promptly draws a gun on him. And then some other guy shoots the controls of the plane and, after a brief struggle, exits with parachute. Surely it would be easier just to shoot Bond and fly the plane?

Over the years the series has constantly forgotten and re-learnt a fundamental rule of action cinema: action is far more exciting if you know what is going on. Not just visually but narratively. We have absolutely no idea who these people are, why they wish to kill Bond, what Bond is doing on a plane with them and, above all, where the hell did Jaws come from? To stress the point: it isn’t a very big plane. And I really feel Bond would notice sharing its relatively confined space with a steel-toothed giant who’d tried to kill him on numerous occasions.

But Moonraker follows the manta of ‘never apologise, never explain’. Definitely never explain. Jaws is there, get over it. He just pushed Bond out of the aircraft.

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Fortunately, Bond can fly.

Actually, I won’t be snarky about the freefall fight. It’s an amazing sequence and apparently required something like 80 takes – that’s 80 different skydives. 80 skydives more than I’d ever manage. Sure, some of the physics confuses me – can people really swoop around like that? Where does the other guy vanish once Bond grabs his parachute? – but this is probably my ignorance.

I just wish Jaws wasn’t there. He mars any otherwise effective set-piece. When he pulls the parachute chord off and starts gurning at the camera – eesh. Although, as a metaphor for the series in 1977, a giant plunging 10,000 feet into a circus tent, and surviving, can’t really be bettered.

The opening act at Chez Drax is pretty solid. The flight simulator is perhaps the highlight of the film. Makes you feel a bit sick – which is certainly a mark in its favour. Okay, so it’s essentially the rack scene in Thunderball: hot female professional abandons Bond on highly dangerous device (understandably as he’s being a prick) only for nefarious baddie to hijack said device and duly bring the pain. But the Moonraker version is better because the idea of being dizzied to death is highly nauseating.

And doesn’t Bond look sick! I love how Bond can’t even speak as he staggers from the machine (probably for the best, as the only suitable words would not be fit for a PG). Comfortably the most dishevelled moment of Moore’s tenure, and all the better for it. It would be remiss of us not to include a picture…

Drax’s second attempt to kill Bond is less satisfying. Staging a shooting accident is all very well but insisting Bond carry a gun seems a tad overkill. The sniper hidden in a tree across the field has a clear sight. He looks pretty damn concealed to me but either Bond has heat-sensitive vision or he’s developed radar. Of course, spotting the sniper wouldn’t be much good if Drax hadn’t thrust a gun into Bond’s hands a second earlier.

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So Bond takes a shot and then smirks ‘Did I?’ when Drax claims he missed. Cue dead sniper dropping from tree. Nobody seems much affected by this. Bond hands back the gun and saunters off to his car. Drax glowers. Everybody continues about their day. The fact Bond just capped an employee in broad daylight isn’t considered a biggie. Again, I don’t quite understand why Drax doesn’t just shoot him. Who’d know?

Now while crashing at Drax’s pad, Bond seduces a French pilot named Corinne. She helps him find some papers in a concealed safe but is spotted by Drax’s evil Asian henchman. So after Bond waltzes off the premises, Drax has Corinne torn apart by dogs.

Next we find ourselves in Venice, where Bond promptly – you’re still thinking about the dogs, aren’t you?

It’s genuinely harrowing. Poor Corinne hurries into the forest – utterly stupid place to hurry – and the dogs lollop after her. She runs faster, dogs run faster. Sad violins start playing. Branches whip, trees impede… Then the dogs catch her and drag her down to the ground…

Honestly, it must be the most incongruous scene on celluloid! A film that is basically a musical without songs has a sequence straight out of Game Of Thrones. Only I expect a woman to be torn apart by dogs in Game Of Thrones. Less so in Moonraker. It’s horrific! And nobody ever mentions it again.

Venice helps us forget Corrine by swiftly providing an utterly random gondola chase. The coffin in a funeral boat opens and the inhabitant chucks a knife at Bond’s gondolier. Fortunately Bond’s gondola is a souped-up gondola and he motors off down the canal. More boats pursue.

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No explanation is provided for any of this. Presumably these are Drax’s boys – but how did they find Bond? And how come Bond has a gondola with gadgets? Do MI6 keep suitably weaponised vehicles in every major city on the off chance Bond turns up? Most pressingly: how long was that guy hiding in the coffin for??

I should clarify: I am aware the border of Pedant Country has been crossed, and I’m now a fully naturalised citizen. I shan’t deny it. But I find the greatest enjoyment of Moonraker comes by noting the utterly illogical moments the film attempts to smuggle under my nose. And I honestly do enjoy Moonraker. In a weird, warped way I love it. And celebrating the absurdities is partly how I love it. Just remember: most of what I write here, I write with a smile.

The boat chase concludes with Bond’s gondola sprouting wheels and driving into St Mark’s Square. Italians gawp, waiters spill drinks, a pigeon double-takes. The joke is identical to the Lotus driving out of the sea only without the novelty. And yes: the pigeon is utterly risible and rather amusing. Kinda like the film.

Isn’t the bit where all the glass gets broken great? Asian henchman Chang tries to kill Bond by dressing up as a samurai and chasing him around a museum. Much shattering ensues. Highly satisfactory. Although Bond then misquotes Casablanca after dropping Chang into a piano. Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam”! Why, the one time the insufferable know-it-all gets something wrong, is nobody there to call him out on it?

“So there was a laboratory” is possibly my favourite line of the series. I better expand. In Venice, Bond discovers a secret laboratory and sees two scientists expire after accidentally breaking a vial of poisonous gas. Rather than alert the Venetian police, or Section V, Bond summons M and Fredrick Grey. The trio rush in sporting gas masks only to discover it is now an office housing none other than Drax. Grey is not amused.

After Freddy has flounced off, Bond produces a vial, causing M to exclaim ‘So there was a laboratory!’ What I love about this line is that the only possible inference is M thought Bond had been lying. Sadly the potential monumental ramifications are never explored.

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Vexingly for an astronaut, Holly Goodhead never quite takes off. The character is styled as an American version of Anya Amasova: smart, kickass, mutually distrustful relationship with Bond that thaws into genuine attraction. But it doesn’t work here. Lois Chiles is amiable but bland. And the alliance between MI6 and the CIA makes the partnership far cosier than the traditionally hostile MI6 and the KGB. And Bond didn’t kill her boyfriend. As with many aspects of the film, you suspect the mantra was ‘Do what we did on the last one’ without anybody taking the time to consider what exactly made The Spy Who Loved Me work.

One unintentionally amusing aspect of the Bond-Holly dynamic is their habit of randomly bumping into each other. So after meeting Holly in England, Bond spots her in Venice. A different country where they happen to be in the same museum at exactly the same time. After leaving Holly in Venice, Bond spies her in Rio. A different continent where, again, they happen to be on the same bit of mountain at exactly the same time. And neither bats an eyelid.

Jaws reappears in Rio. I treat the Jaws of The Spy Who Loved Me and the Jaws of Moonraker as two separate characters. It isn’t that hard. A once menacing figure is played entirely for laughs. His durability is now that of Thor. Jaws falls from the sky, crashes into a building, and plunges down a waterfall to no ill-effect. I don’t know. A once effective joke totally escalates, and the temptation is to mount the highest of horses.

But really. This is Moonraker. Grousing about Jaws, or about anything really, is missing the point. The franchise is exploring the outer limits of its stupidity and there’s something strangely liberating about that.

So cheer when Jaws gets a girlfriend – why the hell not? And obviously she’s tiny, and bespectacled, and has massive breasts. Apparently the filmmakers were initially reluctant to cast so short an actress; they worried the audience wouldn’t believe it. To which the only response is: really? Height disparity? That’s where you draw the line? Surprised pigeons, pass, amateur space travel, go ahead, but short girls dating taller men? No thank you!

Another wonderfully serendipitous moment is Bond’s discovery of Drax’s lair in the Amazon. During a boat chase (man, Moore loved his boat chases) Bond flies off in a hang glider. He descends into the middle of the jungle and promptly spots a beautiful girl in a white dress. She leads him to more beautiful women and the whole thing turns into a L’Oreal advert. Then Bond falls in a pond and has to wrestle a very fake python.

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Even narrowing the area, the Amazon River is pretty large. The discovery is fortunate, to say the least. Naturally the film takes it completely in its stride.

Drax works. Like a finely seasoned Cheval Blanc, the man ages well. When younger, I never warmed to Drax as a villain. Where’s the mania, the disfigurement? He looks like my old Geography teacher. But, grown and wise, I now appreciate Drax and his expertly modulated trash talk. “Mr Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.” Have some ointment for that burn, 007.

Let us take a moment to appreciate the utter mentalness of Drax’s plan. Extinguish the human race from outer space (hey!) and repopulate Earth with genetically perfect specimens. My question is simple: where does Drax find these people? Thirty thoroughbred men and women happy to watch the extermination of humanity? Assuming Drax didn’t breed them – he’s not old enough – the only possible conclusion is some sort of interview process must have taken place. “So you’re fertile, which is good, and you look fantastic. Tell me – what are your thoughts on global genocide?”

If you can overlook the outer space element, the space shuttle climax is actually quite mundane. Nothing we haven’t seen before: Bond escapes capture, destabilizes from within, and then an army of goodies arrive and triumph over the colour-schemed baddies. The zapping is very Star Wars and bloodless. The outcome is never in doubt.

At least Drax gets a decent demise. After two shootings, one inflation and three survivals, Drax is the first villain since Thunderball to get a satisfactory death. Unlike Jaws who, inspired by the power of love, defects to Bond’s team. He actually works much better as a goodie, certainly in this film. And limitless kudos for whoever thought of that payoff line. Inspired.

The final globe-hunt is actually exciting. It’s an unnecessary but successful addendum that provides thrills at the very last. Okay, so Bond looks like he’s playing Space Invaders, but then the whole filmsfeels like a computer game. If you’re being kind, you could almost view it as a very clever in-joke. Almost.

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For the first time, reading back over myself, I worry I’ve misjudged. That what is light and joyous when shared with a friend comes over snide and mean-spirited when typed into print. I almost feel I should write this piece in capital letters, as homage to the film and indication I don’t take this stuff seriously. Because you can’t take Moonraker seriously. You just can’t. You can shun it, embrace it, demonise it – but you can’t take Moonraker seriously. Any more than you could the village pantomime.

And so what? The beauty of 23 films and counting is that there’s room for everyone. Really the franchise has lacked a sense of adventure. Where is the anime Bond? Or the black-and-white Bond? (Apparently Tarantino actually proposed this. Imagine.)

I won’t watch Moonraker again for a while. But when I next do, and I will, I’ll make a night of it. I’ll watch it with a friend, and a beer, and I’ll behave like I would at the pantomime, bellowing ‘HE’S BEHIND YOU!’ and ‘OH NO YOU WON’T!’ at the television. And I’ll have a ball.