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Celebrating MOONRAKER, James Bond’s Silliest Adventure

I’m a massive fan of the James Bond films. I have seen them all multiple times, written essays about them for other publications, done commentaries on all the films for fun, and have schooled my friends in James Bond Trivial Pursuit on more than one occasion (two actually, because nobody would play with me after that). Maybe my least favorite James Bond, when looking at their entire output, is Roger Moore, which I’m aware is blasphemy. Sure, George Lazenby isn’t my favorite Bond, but his sole film happens to be one of the all-time best. Of the seven Bond films Moore made, only one — 1977′s The Spy Who Loved Me — is legitimately good – great, even. The other six fall somewhere between “Enjoyable Enough” and “Stick a Salad Fork in My Eye.” Moonraker, which immediately followed Spy, is definitely nearer that second distinction.

In the 1970s, Bond producers tried to reignite the franchise by pulling further and further away from Ian Fleming’s source material and relying on enormous, meaningless action, genre pastiches, and very broad comedy. When most people think of the Bond movies as ridiculous overblown camp-fests in which mustache-twirly villains try to destroy the world, it’s the Moore films they’re thinking of almost across the board. But they were, for better or worse, immensely popular, so these are also the ones people have seen the most, on television or what have you.

Again, with the exception of The Spy Who Loved Me, which pretty silly at times, all of Moore’s ’70s output consisted of movies attempting to emulate other popular types of movies; Blaxploitation movies were big in 1973, so that’s what Live and Let Die is; Enter the Dragon had just come out, so in 1974, The Man with the Golden Gun featured a lot of martial arts; and after 1977, nobody could ignore Star Wars, hence we got Moonraker. Moonraker also references, or flatly rips off, a dozen other movies from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to The Magnificent Seven, just for shirts and giggles.

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The “plot” has Bond investigating French aeronautics magnate Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), whose experimental Moonraker spacecraft is hijacked en route to NASA. Drax doesn’t hide his disdain for Bond and pretty much admits to everything right away. Still, Bond snoops around Drax’s lair and meets the improbably named Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) with whom he eventually copulates, despite being very sexist and condescending to her throughout. Eventually, they discover Drax’s plan to wipe out humanity using a virus and rebuild it with young, attractive people he’s brought to his secret giant space station nobody can see. Jaws (Richard Kiel), who’d been very popular in the last movie, returns here, doesn’t die a million times, then turns into a good guy for no reason.

Those are the broad strokes of the movie, but even the specific scenes just feel like a series of broad strokes. It begins with what is actually a very well-directed action scene in which Bond skydives without wanting to, fighting bad guys in the air including the aforementioned Jaws. They fall for what must be, ballpark, 60,000 feet because they never seem to get closer to the ground the whole times until finally Bond retrieves the final parachute from the giant metal-mouth and sails to safety. What happens to Jaws? Well, he careens to Earth and flattens a circus tent that happens to be there… and survives! I know the whole point of him is he’s nearly impossible to kill, but he plummeted to the ground at terminal velocity, he’s pushing 500lbs, and his head is made of steel; there is no way this guy’s getting up and dusting himself off. But that’s the problem with this movie, to me – it’s basically just a cartoon, making fun of people who once took these movies seriously.

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Part of what I’ve always disliked about the Bond films are their rampant sexism. In the 1960s, the woman were manhandled by Connery, which is not okay, but it was the ’60s and Don Draper does the same thing. It was of the era, as horrible as that is. In the ’70s, however, there was a definite attempt to make the “Bond Girls” more intelligent, and more capable. In this film, despite her stupid name, Dr. Holly Goodhead is a brilliant scientist and the head of a privately funded space program. Sure, it’s owned by an evil megalomaniac, but she doesn’t know that. The problem is that Bond hasn’t changed at all, only now he’s just sort of bemused at women being anything other than secretaries. When he meets Dr. Goodhead, he doesn’t know she’s the doctor he’s meant to meet and when she introduces herself he smiles and says “A woman” like he’s just found out a Springer Spaniel was in charge of the space race.

There are lots of references to other science fiction movies peppered in throughout the movie, some subtle and others less subtle. But, inexplicably, the biggest reference/homage/rip-off comes about halfway through the already very long movie in which Bond, in South America, dresses in a poncho and hat and rides a horse to a Spanish mission where Q branch has all their new gadgets. This sequence is set to the music from The Magnificent Seven FOR NO REASON. I’ve literally tried to figure out why in a movie about rockets and space and stuff would there need to be a scene with Bond riding casually on a horse while the theme from a western plays behind him. There’s nothing thematically relevant at all. Is it just to set up the exceedingly silly weapons and gadgets we see demonstrated once Bond arrives? Also, Roger Moore should never wear a small, flat cowboy hat.

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Now, I could keep picking at this movie and saying what I think is stupid about it (and there’s a lot… a BIRD DOES A DOUBLE TAKE at one point), but there is something I genuinely love about this movie, and it’s not particularly great or fit in with the movie, but that’s kind of why I like it: the last 30 minutes of Moonraker are a straight-up space opera. Bond and Dr. Goodhead go up in one of Drax’s rockets to his space station, where he plans to wipe out all of humanity. Well, Drax has a bunch of soldier guys (presumably called The Cannon Fodders) and Bond has gotten word to MI-6 so they send up a squad of their own guys and what follows is, I’m not even kidding, one of the coolest and least-sensical laser gun fights of all time. Please, enjoy below.

I have no idea who is shooting whom or why laser guns would be attached to spacesuits, but I’m perfectly okay with it. The special effects in this movie were nominated for an Academy Award and still, I think, hold up. And, as dumb as the rest of the movie is, all of the space stuff in the final act is actually very well done and exciting, aside from Jaws staying onboard the exploding station with his tiny blonde girlfriend and Q saying the immortal(ly stupid) final line while Bond and Dr. Goodhead get it on in space: “I think he’s attempting reentry.” Ohhh jeepers.

Of all the James Bond movies I don’t like, Moonraker might be the one that I don’t like the least. If nothing else, it’s entertaining because of its off-the-wall stupidity and its parodying of itself. Even some of the ones that are objectively better, or at least less stupid, are also less fun to watch and even a little boring at times. It’s a very hard line to walk, especially for a James Bond flick. So, I guess if you’re going to watch a terrible Bond movie, you could definitely do a lot worse. And I’m clearly wrong because until GoldenEye in 1995, Moonraker was the highest-grossing Bond movie of them all. Huh.

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Images: United Artists