Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Moonraker (1979): Bondian Ascension


Out of all the movies in the long-running, wildly successful James Bond franchise, the most unappreciated entry has got to be Moonraker. This film, made during the swell of space madness that followed Star Wars, quite literally took 007 to outlandish new heights. An investigation into the disappearance of the Moonraker space shuttle leads Bond into outer space, complete with disco-accented laser battles, unbelievable Ken Adam sci-fi sets, and some of the rockin'est special effects ever put to film.

For this reason, among others, many have looked down on the movie, calling it silly, stupid, terrible, and, depending on who you ask, the worst Bond film of them all. Forgetting for a moment that you'd have to be a pretty Grinchy individual to not enjoy Moonraker's bombastic ridiculousness (and that anyone who said Moonraker is the worst Bond film could not have seen Die Another Day), it's unfortunate that such immediate and total dismissal has kept people from seeing the movie's importance to the Bond canon overall. The movie fits into and culminates an arc that had been percolating since Dr. No, for better or worse.

Bond solves the mystery of the missing Space: 1999 prop.

Having said that, I will certainly admit that Moonraker is no On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The script is, at times, very weak, giving very little choice dialogue to anyone, Moore included. One of the most glaring examples of this is when Bond enters M's office and tells Moneypenny that he just fell out of an airplane. At first, I thought that this was an attempt by the screenwriter to subvert audience expectations. Normally, a scene like this would involve Bond giving a cryptic one-liner about his previous mission to Moneypenny ("I had to drop out," for example), so I thought that the scene was trying something new. As the conversation unfolded, however, I realized that the writer had probably expended too much energy trying to formulate an obscene-enough name for the leading lady to come up with a good pun.

"It isn't easy, you know!"

The acting is also pretty flat, with most of the supporting cast not bringing much to the table. Richard Kiel is a blast as Jaws, but Lois Chiles is somewhat vanilla as Bond's love interest, Dr. Holly Goodhead (I feel lame just for having to type that). Michael Lonsdale does pretty well as the villain Hugo Drax, but he's often outperformed by the fantastic scenery he inhabits, whether it be his breath-taking mansion or his awe-inspiring space station. Other supporting characters are... well, I honestly can't really remember them, so that should tell you a lot. However, despite that, I think that everything else about the movie works beautifully. The direction and cinematography are first class (one of the most striking examples of this comes in a haunting sequence where Drax dispatches an unfaithful employee with a pair of hounds), the special effects are as well-mounted as they are convincing (and they are very convincing), Ken Adam's set designs are bigger and better than ever (including a massive control room with walls that consist entirely of monitors and control panels), and John Barry's score ranks as one of the best Bond soundtracks in history (very reminiscent of another 1979 Barry score, Disney's The Black Hole). These elements, along with some funny sci-fi references, end up saving the film, as the memorability and fun factor of a 007 flick this unbelievable rely heavily on the onscreen magic.

No scene illustrates this magic better than the visually poetic, aurally stimulating, and suitably epic entry into outer space. Here, Bond and Dr. Goodhead (I am never typing that again) find themselves stowed away onboard one of Drax's Moonraker shuttles, as the countdown begins. Despite initially being uneasy about the prospect, Holly assures Bond that they are on a predetermined course. With that said, the shuttle lifts off, rocketing off from the placid Amazon jungles and into the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

Finally stabbing through into the cold black void, the Moonraker shuttles fly together towards an unknown rendezvous point, John Barry's mysterious score leading them on. Wondering at their cargo, Bond switches on the monitor, revealing a cabin full of perfect human specimens, separated into couples. "...The animals went in two by two," 007 muses at the sight.

Finally, the sun rises over the curvature of the earth, bringing light to some kind of space station, previously shrouded in darkness and totally undetectable by radar... the base of operations for Drax's sinister plan.

Now, whatever your feelings on the idea of Bond in outer space, it cannot be denied that the concept wasn't just treated as "Hey! Bond's in space now! Cool, huh?" Instead, the scene is handled with the appropriate grandeur of such a momentous event, with every awe-inspiring second of the launch sequence dripping with the wonder of space travel.

As I said earlier, Moonraker represents the completion of a journey for the Bond films, and the entry into space represents this best. The series always seemed to hint at something greater. Phrases uttered in each story such as "we have all the time in the world" and "the world is not enough" carry with them a grand sensibility that seemed to condescend to the exciting action tales they sublimated into. Bond himself began the series as a dashing but undeniably human man; his surroundings were often lush but certainly of this earth. He might be glanced over if you saw him on the street. Now we find him soaring above the clouds, hovering over and passing through throngs of mere mortals in an inflatable gondola craft. Everyone knows his name and occupation. "Your reputation proceeds you, Mr. Bond," Drax says. Statements like this one build up a heavy atmosphere of inevitable endings and beginnings. The spy has out-spied his own ability to remain a mere incognito investigator. A transformation is about to take place.

Pictured: A transformation.

Therefore, having killed many formidable foes, having experienced the tragic loss of his one true love, having lived when he should have faced a thousand deaths, having seen all the adventures that earth could possibly provide, Commander James Bond takes his rightful place among the stars and ascends to a higher plane of being. Doing so, he fulfills his mythic arc, John Barry's cosmic strings serenading him all the way home. So many great heroes of legend have been immortalized in the heavens: Orion the Hunter, Perseus the Gorgon-Slayer, and finally Bond the Secret Agent. Now you're probably saying to yourself, "Oh, come on! The Bond films becoming progressively sillier doesn't equal a 'mythic arc.'" You'd probably be right. I myself am very happy that the franchise came back down to earth with For Your Eyes Only, as a movie about Bond fighting an evil alien corporation on Alpha Centauri with plans to destroy the galaxy would have probably been the next logical step.

And apparently I wasn't the only person who thought this.

However, I do think that there is more to Moonraker than most would have you believe, and it can be said that, at the very least, it did allow the over-the-top 007 shenanigans of the 70's to go out in a blaze of glory, ending with one of the worst and therefore best lines of dialogue in Bond history.
If you haven't seen Moonraker thanks to negative opinions or just because you find the concept of Bond in outer space offensive, give it a spin! You might be surprised at just how much fun you'll get out of it.

1 comment:

  1. moonraker is still my favorite bond. amazonian boat battles, astronaut battles, exploding south american balls of death, and a centrifuge scene that still makes me nauseous. a+ bond movie, forget the critics.