11 August 2012

OFF WE GO, INTO THE WILD BLUE BONDER

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.

MOONRAKER
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Written by Christopher Wood
Premiered 26 June, 1979

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
Quiz time, everybody! What Bond film opens with a pre-title sequence that starts with the mysterious theft of a large military vehicle that sends the British government into a tizzy, whereupon M (Bernard Lee), head of British Intelligence, asks his secretary Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) to recall Agent 007, James Bond (Roger Moore) using an inadvertent sexual pun; at the moment, Bond happens to be be in a clinch with a beautiful woman, who betrays him at the first opportunity, and the only way the spy can save himself involves a parachute jump? If you said The Spy Who Loved Me, you're absolutely right! And you'd also be absolutely right if you said Moonraker, the very next movie in the franchise, and one that is by and large way too content to function as The Spy Who Loved Me In Space!!! Oops, spoiled the third act.

Anyway, the least of this scene's problems is that it's a retread of the movie they'd just made; it's that it's such a wimpy retread, reintroducing us to metal-mouthed assassin Jaws (Richard Kiel), the first sign of this film's massive creative bankruptcy, before launching into an unbelievably complicated and dangerous fight sequence in free fall, as Bond steals a parachute from another man in midair, while also fending off Jaws - it would take a hell of a lot to fuck up a stunt that awe-inspiring, and the second unit filming it isn't nearly ambitious enough to do so. But it is certainly nowhere near as powerful and exciting as it clearly ought to be. Also, Bond manages to knock Jaws aside, so that the killer falls, parachuteless, into a circus tent. It is extravagantly goddamn stupid.

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Rating: 2 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
Oh well, two out of three is a fine record. Shirley Bassey returns for her last Bond theme, after the legendary, scorching Goldfinger and the insinuating and slinky Diamonds Are Forever, and "Moonraker", with music by John Barry and lyrics by Hal David is none of those adjectives. It's stuck with the problem that Thunderball had, a meaningless noun that should absolutely not be put into a song lyric, but where Tom Jones managed to sell it with sheer force of will ("HE STRIKES! / LIKE THUUUUUUN! / D'RBALL!"), Bassey is in a much more swanning, romantic mode, and it kills her ("Just like the moooon / ray kergoes / in search of his dream of gold"). The way to deal with a song like that is to distract us from it, and the subdued register of the song prohibits such an approach. It is modestly well used in underscore, though.

And no matter how bland the opening credits version is, the motherfucking disco remix over the end credits blows it out of the sky.

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Rating: 2 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
After two, I would say, absolutely splendid credits sequences, Maurice Binder appears to have simply run out of steam, and more crucially, ideas: while most of his previous efforts have had some distinct "narrative" to tie them together, his Moonraker credits are mostly just an exercise in throwing shit at the wall. There is, kind of, a focus on flight, which goes to some weird places (a woman's silhouette is covered in red and blue indicator lights, as in a cockpit); and there are a lot of circles, and planets, but it's hard to say what he's going for. And there's a bit involving texture, where instead of being black against color, the main silhouette is actually filled with some kind of circular motif. It doesn't add up to anything at all, and the ideas are simply scattered; how else to explain his attempt to tie in the opening sequence by using cut-outs of clowns in the very beginning?

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Rating: 1.5 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
Moonraker, the third Bond novel, was the last to be filmed (though Casino Royale would not receive an "official" adaptation for another quarter-century), though the original plan was not for it to be Eon Productions' 1979 Bond picture; the end credits of The Spy Who Loved Me promised us "James Bond Will Return in For Your Eyes Only". But TSPWLM came out in the summer of 1977, the same time as a little space adventure that 20th Century Fox was a bit ashamed of, called Star Wars. After that film made an amount of money that was both unprecedented and largely unimaginable, every movie producer who knew from big-budget extravaganzas immediately tried to figure out how to make their very own, and a lot of people who probably shouldn't have dabbled in science-fiction started to do so with variously unsuccessful results. For Albert R. Broccoli, this meant switching gears and adapting the one Fleming book that could withstand that treatment - the word "moon" in the title was undoubtedly a significant plus - though by the time it reached the screen, very little of Fleming's story remained in any form; the only reason we cannot call it the loosest of all Bond adaptations is because The Spy Who Loved Me retains literally nothing besides the title and the presence of James Bond himself.

Anyway, then, Moonraker is a largely original film, if that's a fair word to use for a carbon copy of its immediate predecessor and You Only Live Twice. A space shuttle (called "Moonraker") built by Drax Industries for the British government has been stolen, apparently, and Bond is sent to investigate; with no other leads, he first goes to the California estate of the genius billionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), who can offer no help and indeed starts taking immediate steps to kill the spy. Seducing Drax's assistant and personal pilot, Corinne Dufour (Corinne Cléry), Bond finds documents that send him to a glass shop in Venice, where he unexpectedly bumps into Drax's chief scientist, Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), before finding several vials of an extremely potent nerve gas, as well as evidence that Drax is establishing a base near Rio de Janeiro.

In Rio - during Carnival, of course; setting a movie in Rio at any time other than Carnival would be like killing an old cop with more than three days to go before his retirement - Bond finds Goodhead again, learning only now that she's a CIA agent hunting Drax, but no sooner than they agree to team up, they're captured by Drax's new hired thug, the very same Jaws who fell miles out of a plane in the opening scenes. Bond manages to escape, and tracks Drax into the Amazon basin, where he discovers not just one Moonraker shuttle, but five, all of them attached to a plan to bring several genetically perfect human specimens into space, kill all of the humans (but none of the animals, we are informed thanks to Dubious Science) with his nerve gas, and repopulate the planet according to his eugenic theories and warped moral compass. Bond and Goodhead cannot stop the shuttle launch, though they are able to hop aboard one of the vessels, and they save the day, though the more I think about the film's concluding quarter, set aboard Drax's space station, the sadder I will be, so you'll just have to watch the movie if you want to know how that works.

The "Bond In Space" angle is, of course, all we need to write Moonraker off as daft, but it's simply the dog turd cherry on a shit sundae. The whole script is a messy disaster, starting off with the inconvenient fact that, for a long time, Bond has no actual reason to believe that Drax is even in on the plot to steal the Moonraker, let alone the mastermind, but investigates the tycoon's company as though it's obvious; almost like Bond knows that he's in a Bond movie. Which probably also explains why he is so fucking dumb the entire time, entering a machine that he's just been told can be converted into a death trap at one point, and falling ass-backwards into almost every clue that actually sends him forward. This is the first - alas! not the last - Bond movie where things happen solely because there'd be no plot if they didn't happen, and combined with the excruciating dippiness of the "let's go to space" finale, what we have here is our first no-hold-barred barrel-scraping horrible Bond scenario.

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Rating: 1 Stolen Nuke


THE VILLAIN
I must confess to a weakness of memory: I had remembered Hugo Drax as one of the absolute worst villains in the Bond canon, an angry beard in search of a character. Rewatching the film, I in fact found him to be very much the highlight of just about every single scene in which he appears, which doesn't necessarily take all that much effort.

Make no mistake, he's still not a good villain: he is singularly inactive, and pretty much spends all of his relatively limited screentime standing still and being haughty. And the accent Michael Lonsdale uses is quite untraceable and inordinately odd: the bilingual French-born actor appears to be indulging in a German accent as played by a Brit who never actually met anyone from Germany. But it's the kind of thing that grows on you - or anyway, it grew on me - and I really, really enjoy the stiff boredom with which Lonsdale appears to tolerate Bond, rather than view him as in any meaningful way a threat. Plus, he gets the two best lines of villainous dialogue since Auric Goldfinger expected Bond to die; one is my choice for Best Quip, the other is "Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him."

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Rating: 2.5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Oh my God, we've finally arrived at the worst-named character in the Bond series, Dr. Holly Goodhead, which is the sort of thing you end up with when the first day of shooting is tomorrow, and you need something to replace your temporary slug of "Swallow Cummings". I hate it and love it in equal measure, except that I mostly hate it.

But what's in a name? You can't judge a character's dramatic value from their name, except for maybe Plenty O'Toole from Diamonds Are Forever. And once you get past that, Dr. Blowjob is far from the worst Bond Girl, though "the worst Bond Girl" takes us to some awfully dark places. Lois Chiles is somewhat annoying but in her better moments she parries Moore's sexual advances well, and it's generally the writing and not the performance responsible for whatever is least believable about the character.

Mind you, the writing is fairly wretched: she's alarmingly unconvincing as a CIA agent, spending most of her energy messing with Bond's head rather than actually working on a case. For all that, she is a good deal stronger than your average Bond girl, and even after she is kidnapped and has to be saved, she still ends up returning to be relatively capable of helping to save the day in the story's final beats. It's sad we have to consider this a shocking positive development, but it's a Bond movie.

Being physically capable doesn't mean she has to be terribly smart, mind you, and she very much isn't. But since Bond's not either, maybe it's just a secret agent thing.

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Rating: 2 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMAN
Drax's trusted assassin is a largely mute Asian named Chang (Toshiro Suga), who I take it is a bald-faced attempt to remind us of Goldfinger's legendary Oddjob, because he doesn't otherwise do anything of merit, other than look impish and evil, and get thrown off of a Venetian balcony.

Then, back comes Jaws, and if ever there was a more degraded version of a once-loved character, I'd hate to see it. He's been reduced to the confused bad guy in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, right down to the "Wuh? Aieee!" reaction shots, given a "humanising" love story with the shortest "ugly" woman the filmmakers could find ("ugly" now means, in Bond parlance, "wearing glasses"), and turned into a friend and helper by the end. It's miserable. Still he remains Jaws, and therefore at least minor fun, but I do mean minor.

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Rating: 1.5 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
Corinne Dufour barely appears before a haughty Drax sics his dobermans on her, but she makes a fair impression: far sexier than the daft Goodhead, and I love the way she so casually throws Drax over with a quiet look of pleasure on her face; one gets the impression that she has no particular love for her job in the first place, and the opportunity to screw her boss while also getting hot gratitude sex from a handsome British spy is what she's been wanting for years. It's a pity that she's only in a grand total of three scenes, one of them short, but in a movie this dire, spending less time onscreen just means that she has less of a chance of being contaminated by it.

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Rating: 2.5 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
The skydiving fistfight is, as I have indicated, not as cool as it ought to be, and that's even more true of the other big setpiece, a fight atop one of the tram cars going up to the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio. At least both of those scenes have a certain "okay, it's cool to think about that quality", which is true of none of the other action in the movie: a fight in a Venetian glass museum between Bond and Chang, the latter dressed as a samurai and destroying shelf after shelf of what we've been assured are irreplaceable examples of historical glassmaking (it's not even a little clear if this is supposed to be funny or not); a fight between Bond and an anaconda that is rather obviously a rubber prop that the actor has to throw around to make it look alive, though it's only distracting near the end, when it has its mouth wide open and ceases to look even vaguely organic; and, oh god almighty, the assault on Drax's space station, starting with Bond literally jamming on the brakes, so that an arm of U.S. space-soldiers can float out of their shuttle and attack Drax's space-soldiers, everybody armed with laser guns. It's like the worst of the series's several underwater fights (slow-moving, hard to choreograph), overlaid with a big steaming layer of Idiot Sauce.

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Rating: 1.5 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
Space lasers! Which are dumb, yes, but cool in their way and they also make one of the absolute best weapons in the multiplayer levels if you play GoldenEye the way I do, because they have unlimited ammo and you get to run around the arena jamming on the fire button constantly, not having to bother to stalk or even aim. So thanks for that, Moonraker (and thanks as well for providing a bonus level to that fine, fine video game, one that is considerably more exciting than the movie itself).

Bond himself only gets a couple of gadgets, but he uses one constantly: a wrist dart gun that is almost as versatile in application as Doctor Who's sonic screwdriver. It's not that "cool", though, not like the poison pen, perfume flamethrower, and diary-gun he steals from Goodhead. Nor even his safe-cracking cigarette case, with a neat little matte effect that always impressed me a hell of a lot more than it should. Anyway, there is little gadgetry here, but it is used well. Desmond Llewelyn's Q continues to get more and more to do, but none of it is terribly interesting, unless you count a "re-entry" pun that is one of the worst lines in the entire franchise, that Llewelyn can do nothing with at all.

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Rating: 3 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Ken Adam's final contribution to the James Bond series is, I am sorry to say, not one of his stronger efforts: the Moonraker launch base deep in the Amazon, while awfully cool and full of lots of computers and angular lines, worked into the faked ancient ruins of some long-gone civilization, suffers horribly from what I can only call a nitpick. Namely, those ancient ruins, which are pretty obviously inspired by Incan art and architecture, which was on the wrong side of the Andes to show up in present-day Brazil on the scale we see here. Research failure, Mr. Adam; a forgivable one, and as "did not do the research" moments go, it's hardly as galling as the misunderstanding of space travel and zero gravity and human behavior that marks the rest of the movie; but it hurts an otherwise fun set.

As for the Drax station, a grand attempt at the large-scale monstrosities that Adams was so good at... it's not anybody's fault that The Black Hole came out the same year as Moonraker, and the Bond film did beat the Disney picture by almost six months. But gracious, do they ever look similar, and Adam's designs, which I'm sure were very expensive and complicated, look way cheaper and reedier. This is an accident of history, but a crippling one.

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Rating: 2.5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Seeing Bond in Venice feels right in some ineffable way, but the spy makes no effort to enjoy the finer things of this or any other way stop along his travels, and the whole thing is much less lush than The Spy Who Loved Me. Yes, the now-standard vodka martini makes its second consecutive appearance after being only an erratic element of the franchise before now, but it's the only nice thing Bond drinks the whole time. And he spend far too much of the movie wearing a frankly boring tie. Moore's carriage is too suave to be a total loss, but despite a few beautifully tailor suits, he's just not trying very hard.

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Rating: 2 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Bond introduces himself to Dr. Goodhead.
Forced or Badass? To be honest, I don't know. I actually didn't notice it while I was watching and had to look it up afterwards. I think I was too busy being sick over "Dr. Goodhead". Let's called it forced, because fuck Moonraker.


BEST QUIP
DRAX: "Mr. Bond, you persist in defying my efforts to provide an amusing death for you."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
A moment, please, for Mr. Bernard Lee, who passed away before he could film scenes for the next Bond movie, making Moonraker his last of 11 performances as the put-upon M, the boss who kind of can't stand 007 but knows he's too talented to every seriously censure him. I have not said nearly enough about him in this retrospective, because he was always there, a rock for the franchise to anchor itself to: all respect to Dame Judi Dench, but Lee is and will always be the M, the slightly-amused, slightly frustrated, very intelligent bureaucrat who reminds us of what the business end of spying looks like; his final line in the film is an annoyed but hardly surprised "007..." when footage of Bond space-fucking Goodhead is beamed directly to the President and the Queen, and for all the indignity of having to appear in Moonraker, it's such a quintessential line that I'm glad he got to end with it.

As for the movie itself: oh, do we have to? There's nothing at all redemptive about Moonraker, which cozily nestles itself at or near the very bottom of my personal ranking of Bond movies (the absolute best I could imagine saying is that it's only the fourth-worst), with its arbitrary story that doesn't even try to make sense - why would a billionaire with a private space army even want to supply a shuttle to the British government? - and it's horrifying cartoon sense of humor, running with the bright silliness of The Spy Who Loved Me and slamming immediately into brick wall of Roger Moore wearing a Clint Eastwood-style Western get-up, of ludicrous musical cues (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Magnificent Seven are all referenced), and worst of all, of a by-our-fucking-Lady reaction shot of a pigeon that does a double-take when it sees Bond riding a hovercraft gondola. The worst thing is that I can't tell if "pigeon does a double-take" or "hovercraft gondola" is the worse part of that construction.

It's shamefully edited - John Glen certainly knew better, and had proved it, but whether it's showing a hugely unnecessary establishing shot of an airplane in the opener, or cutting to Q's face like an angel, reminding Bond of his wrist-darts, the film is chopped together with crude functionality and no special flow to speak of - it's fair to say that the tram scene, which has no real excuse not to be fantastic, is largely a victim of editing more than anything else. The visual effects are terrible for a film that came out the same year as The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, one year after Superman, and two after Star Wars and Close Encounters - the space material is decent, but on Earth, the film is speckled with simply godawful rear projection that makes it look not even slightly like Roger Moore is hanging over Guanabara Bay. It's not even fun as dumb-ass popcorn fare, that is to say, leaving aside any value as a James Bond movie whatsoever.

Also, in the scenes where he's poking around Drax Industries, Moore is wearing way the hell too much bronzer. A little thing to complain about, but seriously, fuck Moonraker.


OVERALL SCORE
24/60

5 comments:

TheConciseStatement said...

Bravo, Tim. This review wins the coveted John Woo Award For Most Hilarious Use of a Forward Slash.

Rick said...

I figure most people hate Moonraker, but I mark it as...well, odd but oddly endearing (despite its myriad of flaws). However, anyone that throws in a Doctor Who reference (and throws a jab at the sonic screwdriver's ubiquity) earns a round of applause from me.

Finally, while Drax may not rank among Bond's greatest villains, he is memorable, so much so that when my friend and I watched Munich and Lonsdale appeared, we turned to each other and said, "It's DRAX!"

Michael Grover said...

It is an unquestionable fact that Moonraker is an achingly stupid movie, and it's fundamentally indefensible as a serious entry in the Bond series. With that being said, I was ten years old when it was released, and the ten-year-old boy inside me will always love it without reservation. I was crazy for anything science fiction or space-related at the time, and my lifelong interest in the Bond films was just coming into bloom; Moonraker represented the convergence of these two youthful obsessions, and as such, it will always resonate with me on a very basic level.

Also, wouldn't a disco remix make any song better?

Neil Fulwood said...

Yup. We're in agreement.

redwood said...

I know that the Bassey song is not a great one, but for some reason, I always get chills when I hear it. If nothing else, it seems to fit in a Bond film. In fact, better than the last theme song (which, I believe, you previously hint at in that review). As far as the "movie" goes, it simply always looked cheap, kind of like an inexpensive B film (ironically following a blockbuster widescreen extravaganza like "Spy ..."). I wonder if it was rushed, in order to cash in on the "Star Wars" scifi thing? I mean, it WAS going to be "FYEO", right? So, maybe that explains it? Dunno. Fuck Moonraker. Gotta admit, though, my favorite line of your review here, (which is so, so great, I might add): "the dog turd cherry on a shit sundae". Couldn't stop laughing on that one.