Thursday, September 6, 2012

Brandon Peters dissects the 007 series part 11: Moonraker

With Skyfall dropping in theaters in just a few months, along with the 50th anniversary of the James Bond series, a close friend and fellow film nerd, Brandon Peters, has generously offered to do a comprehensive review of the entire 007 film franchise. Today is the eleventh entry, with a full review of one of the most underrated films in the franchise, Moonraker. I hope you enjoy what is a pretty massive feature leading up the November 9th release of Skyfall. I'll do my best to leave my two-cents out of it, give or take a few items I have up my sleeve (including a possible guest review from my wife as she sings the praises of her favorite 007 film, you won't believe what it is). But just because I'm stepping aside doesn't mean you should. Without further ado...

Director: Lewis Gilbert
Starring: Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel
Rated PG

Well, here’s to us.
            ~ Jaws ?!?!?!

Kills:  16 + 1 Boa Constrictor
Girls:  Holly Goodhead (take a drink every time they say her name before you even are introduced to the character), Corrine Dufour, Manuela
Cars:  Inflatable Gondola
Locales:  California, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, OUTER FRICKIN’ SPACE
Odd Villain Trait:  Jaws (see Who Loved Me, Spy), Chang is…Asian?
Song:  “Moonraker” performed by Shirley Bassey

Since Star Wars did “ok” at the box office, we’re now on to the much maligned Moonraker.  There was a sci-fi surge in the late 70s and of course the 007 franchise jumped on it.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but for some reason this film still gets flack for going this route.  The 70s Bond had already visited the kung fu and blaxploitation genres.  I remind you the series began as wanting to be Hitchcock infused films.  So I ask, why not try science fiction?  The 007 series certainly features outlandish gadgets and villain bases so it seems even more sci fi fitting than blaxploitation and kung fu.  Whether it works or not is beside the point of discussion, Moonraker should not be discounted for the fact that it and other major studios decided to venture into sci fi.  Did we discredit Sony’s Spider-Man coming in the wake of Fox’s X-Men?

If there’s any film Moonraker should be accused of ripping off, it’s The Spy Who Loved Me.  The plot basically has Hugo Drax taking Stromberg’s underwater ideals and putting them into space with a touch here or there.  The story shares a lot of the same beats and character developments as SPY.  Basically, Hugo Drax has Noah’s ark in space.  He hopes to destroy human life on Earth and repopulate it with his hand-picked master race of people living in the space station until Earth is habitable again.

The opening teaser/stunt is perhaps my favorite in the entire Bond-verse.  Allowing he and two of his henchman to be kidnapped and put on a plane, Bane is able to abduct Dr…wait.  Sorry all this talk about rip offs got me carried away.  After a space shuttle is stolen (last time it was submarines, check), we shift to an airplane with Bond on board.  He is left to die without a parachute and gets into a sky jumping battle for a parachute with his attacker.  Jaws returns in this sequence to cause havoc in the sky, but Bond escapes.  While some stuntmen are a bit noticeable, it doesn’t take away from this breathtaking spectacle.  Last time, Bond was grounded and took to air to escape.  This time he was aerial looking to get grounded.

007 in this film came off a tad of a smart ass right off the bat in this one.  It doesn’t last, but in the beginning he’s quite a sarcastic fellow.  The interesting bit about this entry, before the film goes to space, is that it feels like Bond is by himself for most of it.  He gets together with M and Goodhead here and there, but it’s never for long before he’s back to being on his own.  He’s constantly on the move traveling to different locales.  I know we’ve seen Bond in many films before this on his own stealth missions, but this is the only film so far to feel that way.  It’s on Roger Moore’s shoulders to carry ¾ of the film and he does it quite well.  With him on his own for most of it, the danger and threat level feels a little higher and a bit more serious.

Before Moonraker goes lunar, it’s a surprisingly dark Bond entry.  Lewis Gilbert returns for a final time to direct.  He delivers a film that’s different in look and a more serious feel (kind of gave me tiny vibes of Solaris).  While the plot beats are reminiscent of The Spy Who Loved Me, its tone is not.  It’s much darker.  The scene in which Bond’s first fling, Corinne Dufour, is disposed of is outright disturbing.  The score also supports this dark mood as well.  Hugo Drax, the film’s villain turns his vicious dogs on her through the woods by his mansion.  I don’t know if I’ve felt this bad for the death of a Bond girl (and killing one of them has been a common occurrence since Goldfinger). 

Speaking of Drax, he’s much creepier than Stromberg.  This actor has a great voice too.  He would have been perfect for film trailers.  This is definitely one of the top performances of a villain in the series.  The main Bond Girl, Holly Goodhead, serves as a much more serious approach to Agent XXX from The Spy Who Loved Me.  She’s a rival agent in the CIA and is always a couple steps ahead of Bond.  She also gets kidnapped just before the end of the second act.  The film plays pretty grim and dark for the first 3/4, and anything its borrowing from the prior film is done with a much more serious approach.

Jaws returns to us in Moonraker.  However, where he ends up is one of the biggest complaints of the film.  He does get a rather terrifying scene in an alleyway in Rio.  He’s up to his old hijinks and all is well.  But then, he falls in love, takes his girlfriend to space, becomes a good guy aiding 007, then pops open champagne and…GASP…he SPEAKS!  First off, I’m not going to defend where they went with this direction on the character.  I will say, this could have been done in a better and easier to stomach fashion.  First, had Jaws met his girlfriend at the end of the cable car sequence and it was just a comedic tag to end it and she never came back (like most action sequences involving the character), I wouldn’t have a problem.  Also, in space, when Jaw flips sides and helps Bond out, what other decision was there to make?  Let Drax kill you due to your imperfections?  Maybe he didn’t need to completely aid 007, but make it his own agenda.  They did go the wrong way about this and made it embarrassing.  Lewis Gilbert kept getting fan mail from children wanting Jaws to be a good guy and fight along James Bond.  Well, he caved, and that’s what we got.  The disdain for this is surely deserved.

The big turning point of this film is the final 32 minutes, when James Bond and Holly Goodhead take to a space station to stop Hugo Drax from poisoning the earth in order to later repopulate it with his master race.  I’m fine with it.  It’s part of the story.  They want to go to space – ok.  How did they do?  It was “serviceable” at best.  The effects here are certainly nowhere near its rival sci-fi films of the time (Star Wars, Alien).  They are closer to Logan’s Run if anything (though a bit better).  The special effects were nowhere near as bad as I remember them.  You can pick out action figures here and there, yes.  It doesn’t completely distract from the story at hand.  It’s basically another battle like the volcano base or the battleship, just this time with astronauts and lasers instead of ninjas/soldiers and machine guns.  If you can recognize that, then you’re going to be fine.  They wanted to go bigger and outdo the previous one and this is where they went.  Bond and Goodhead escape the space station and recreate the Death Star trench battle going after Drax’s bombs above the atmosphere.  When done, they decide that they just can’t wait to Bone Another Day and are caught by the government camera.  The minister of defense asks “What is he doing?” to which Q responds with “I believe he’s attempting reentry”.

I must mention while its Gilbert’s last directing effort and Shirley Bassey’s final song contribution to the series, this is our final film with Bernard Lee as M.  Lee passed away during production of the next Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.  His passing was before he filmed any of his scenes.  Out of respect, the character of M was written out of the film.  Lee’s M was an iconic presence in the 007 universe.  In fact, none would stand out again until Judi Dench took the helm in Goldeneye.  I really enjoy that in his final film he’s given ample screen time and you a good couple scenes where M and 007 are able to show a relationship slightly closer than a professional one.

I’m pleasantly surprised coming off this entry in the retrospective.  Moonraker proved to be far more than its reputation suggests. It may be borrowing its skeleton from Spy Who Loved Me, but I loved that one, so I can’t complain there.  75% of this film really is a damn good Bond entry and offers a level of dark storytelling not yet seen in the series.  The final act of the film is where people jump off the ride.  You’re either going to go with it or turn on it.  I’m of the former.  It’s still entertaining.  The best stuff clearly came early on in the film, but space is just getting us to the end.  While I think Moonraker and The Spy Who Love Me would make for a good double feature night, I also think it would make for a bad one.  Watching them back to back it was easy to pick up every instance of Moonraker recreating beats and points from The Spy Who Loved Me.  Pretty much all Moonraker’s action pieces are unique, though.  But, distancing your viewing from the prior entry, I don’t think it’d be as noticeable if even at all.  Moonraker is a good time.  I recommend giving this one another shot for anyone who didn’t care for it when they were younger or only saw it once long ago. 

Brandon Peters will return in For Your Eyes Only…for real this time

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Aaron Neuwirth said...

People that talk bad about Moonraker have clearly only heard about it or seen parts. It's a fun Bond flick and better than many.

Brandon Peters said...

Definitely. Or they've watched the climax out of context in some clip show or another. Or you never know, younger people with no appreciation/respect for older effects and aesthetics.

geha714 said...

Also is the last Bond film where Ken Adam was the production designer. Drax's lair in the Amazon and the Space Station are cool, even if they look kinda dated now.

Michael Lonsdale is the actor who played Drax. He was on Munich as well.


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