When one thinks of the world’s most famous secret agent, James Bond, the phrase “In Space” does not readily leap to mind, but after a little film called Star Wars broke box offices records around the world, producer Cubby Broccoli and the people at United Artists were among many who scrambled to take some of that real estate for their own. But there was one little problem: in any of Ian Fleming’s stories his dashing hero had never actually gone into space. Needless to say, that was a problem that was easily overcome.
The 1979 Bond film Moonraker is a perfect example of an “In Name Only” adaptation as the Ian Fleming book didn’t have anything to do with outer space; it mostly dealt with a multi-millionaire named Hugo Drax, an industrialist who turned out to be a dedicated Nazi planning to launch his “Moonraker” nuclear missile at London. In the movie, however, we have French billionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) planning to destroy mankind by launching 50 globes of nerve gas into Earth’s atmosphere after which he’d then repopulate the planet with his collection of handpicked, genetically perfect young men and women. So, aside from keeping the name Hugo Drax, there is no holdover from Fleming’s book – well, the creation of a “Master Race” does have a bit of a Nazi feel to it, but that’s about it – and the title “Moonraker” was used simply because it sounded outer-spacey.
Note: Hugo Drax’s plan in this movie was more in keeping with your standard comic book supervillain plot and is something one would expect from the likes of Batman’s archenemy Ra’s al Ghul, who was often plotting to wipe out humanity to “save” the Earth.
Not only was the villain’s evil plot something right out of a comic book but returning to the franchise was monstrous henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel), a character who would fit right in with the X-Men’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Jaws first appeared in the previous film The Spy Who Loved Me, and though he was defeated by Bond, the steel-toothed killer was so universally well-liked that he was brought back for Moonraker, proving the age-old adage that you can’t keep a good villain down. Now, in Ian Fleming’s book, The Spy Who Loved Me, there was a hoodlum named Sol “Horror” Horowitz, who simply had steel-capped teeth, while his filmic counterpart was nigh-invulnerable and could bite through a steel cable with those nasty teeth of his. It’s clear that Jaws wasn’t a villain out of the pages of a spy thriller and had more in common with X-Men villains like Sabertooth or Juggernaut, but the reason this change worked so well was mostly due to the amazing performance by actor Richard Kiel.
Note: After the release of The Spy Who Loved Me, many children wrote in asking “Why can’t Jaws be a good guy?” which would explain his change of heart at the end of Moonraker, and I will admit to liking the idea of Jaws getting himself a girlfriend.
So with a mad supervillain plot, and a couple of nasties who would have been more at home in a comic book, we have an entry in the Bond franchise that though still wildly successful, was starting to show a little wear and tear around the edges. One of the more painful elements of the Bond series that has lasted long past its best before date is the lead character’s rampant sexism, and though some may excuse Roger Moore’s Bond as being a “product of his time,” it still makes watching these moments a little cringe-inducing, especially when Moore lobs one of his horrible sexual bon mots just before seducing some poor women and then getting her killed.
• The space shuttle is hijacked en route from California to England but crashes in the Yukon, which begs the question, “Were the pilots extremely lost, or were they taking the scenic route to England?”
• Holly Goodhead is up there with Pussy Galore as ridiculous Bond Girl names.
• Bond is given a tour of the Drax facilities, including a ride on the astronaut’s training centrifuge, but why? He’s looking for a missing shuttle not planning on buying the place.
• Bond is surprised that Doctor Goodhead (Lois Chiles) is a woman because he is a sexist asshat.
• Once again, the seduction of one of the villain’s female employees leads to the woman’s death. Nice work, Bond.
• Bond carries around a camera with “007” printed on it because why not let everyone know you have a license to kill?
• The gondola chase includes one of the dumbest moments in Bond history, the pigeon taking a double take at Bond’s hovercraft gondola.
• When Bond arrives in Rio, it’s during Carnival because, according to movies, Carnival runs about 365 days a year.
• It’s odd that a man with a “License to Kill” doesn’t carry a gun. A lot of Bond’s fights would have been considerably shorter if he’d been able to just shoot his opponent.
• How did Drax go about finding so many beautiful loving couples who were cool with the idea of the genocide of all humanity on Earth? Was there a special type of Craigslist in the 70s for this kind of thing?
• No matter how impressive the radar jamming of Drax’s massive space station was, it wouldn’t stop people on Earth from spotting it with the naked eye.
Attempts at Killing Bond:
• The movie opens with a nondescript villain planning to leave Bond on a disabled aircraft instead of just shooting Bond in the face. Not only is this a less-than-effective way to murder Bond, it’s also rather expensive, as it costs you an aircraft.
• The centrifuge chamber is cranked up to lethal speeds to kill Bond. Can someone please explain to me why such devices always seem to have lethal settings?
• Drax has a sniper set up in the woods to shoot Bond during a pheasant-hunting excursion, which is rather silly considering that even the local police would be able to tell the difference between a supposed shotgun wound and that of one left by a sniper rifle. Also, Bond killing the sniper with a shotgun at the range depicted here is patently ridiculous.
• A knife-throwing assassin kills Bond’s gondola driver first instead of taking out his primary target. These killers need better training so they can prioritize things more efficiently.
• An assassin comes after Bond with a Kendo stick because when tackling one of the most dangerous spies in the world why not try a long piece of wood?
• Jaws demonstrates the ability to bite through the steel cable of a cable car, but instead of biting through the ones holding up Bond and Goodhead’s car, he proceeds to ride his own car up to theirs so he can have some hand-to-hand combat.
• Bond survives a boat attack on the Amazon River because Q thought to include a hang glider in his souped-up spy boat. This also results in another wonderful Q invention biting the dust.
• Bond is dumped into a pool with a python because, apparently, we are now in a Tarzan movie.
• Bond and Goodhead are placed in a room beneath a launching space shuttle, where they will be incinerated by the rocket’s exhaust, but why there’s an apparent boardroom below a launch bay is the bigger question. Was Drax’s hidden base hard-up for space?
That insightful line of dialogue goes a long way towards explaining the trope of Bond villains not simply just shooting Bond on sight – wonderfully lampooned in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery – and as the Bond series pushed their villains closer to their comic book counterparts, it actually kind of makes sense.
Over-the-top villains and sexist heroes aside, what makes films like Moonraker worth watching is the spectacular stunt sequences and, when it comes to brutal fights and wild chases, this movie is bar none fantastic. It should also be noted that in the original Fleming novel Moonraker, Bond never so much as stepped a toe out of Britain, and as part of the allure of a Bond movie was in its global jet-setting nature, changes had to be made. Audiences were not disappointed as we see Bond go from the beautiful Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, now doubling for the Drax family manor, to the depths of the Amazon rainforest where Drax had his villainous lair located.
As for the space element of Moonraker, well, despite Cubby Broccoli’s insistence that his film was not “Science fiction” but “Science fact,” it’s all quite laughable and Bond’s journey into space owed more to the likes of Flash Gordon than it did to the works of Arthur C. Clark or Philip K. Dick. When NASA finally notices Hugo Drax’s massive space station, they are somehow able to scramble an attack force of Marines and launch them into outer space at a moment’s notice – while in reality preparing a launch takes up to three years – and then, when they do get to space, we are treated to a fun if rather ridiculous laser battle.
When one sits down to watch a James Bond film it’s for the pure escapist nature of the franchise and if you can let slide the occasional sexist moment Moonraker will provide you with an entertaining two hours. That all said, it was also clear that at this point in time, the series was struggling to feel relevant and sending Bond into space came across as a rather sad attempt at remaining popular with the kids. Unfortunately, further entries with Moore would prove to be even less engaging with that particular target audience.
Question: The film ends with the standard Bond trope of MI6 cutting in and seeing Bond having sex with whichever Bond girl managed to survive to the end credits, but in the case of Moonraker, Bond and Goodhead are aboard one of Drax’s shuttles, so how could they access that ship’s onboard cameras?
Movie Rank - 6/10
There are some amazing stunt scenes in Moonraker, and Ken Adams once again provides some truly gorgeous sets for the Bond franchise, but the ludicrous plot and Bond’s rampant sexism is a little hard to take at times.