Moonraker (1979): Lewis Gilbert
The landmark success of a certain movie set in a galaxy far, far away caused the producers of the James Bond franchise to make Moonraker the next 007 movie down the pike.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: James Bond tracks a maniacal industrial magnate and his plot to kill most people on Earth and start a new society from space.
Moonraker opens with two stowaways stealing, of all things, a space shuttle carried on the back of a jumbo jet flying above Britain. The theft makes the Brits look bad to the Americans, and let that never be! MI-6 sends James Bond (Roger Moore) to investigate.
First stop is Drax Corporation in southern California. Hugo Drax’s (Michael Lonsdale) eponymous company manufactures Moonraker shuttles and sells them to governments seeking a space program. Bond arrives to investigate the company and its CEO, and he finds some interesting things.
First, Bond meets Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery), who claims to be a “humble pilot in the service of the Drax Corporation.” That’s code for, “I hate my job and I want out.”Bond dutifully helps Corinne, first by sleeping with her and second by convincing her to help snoop Drax’s secrets, which causes her death. That’s the James Bond Assist right there.
Bond also meets Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), who, Bond notes, is a woman. A science doctor AND a woman! Bond continues to astound with his regressive thinking. Turns out Goodhead is a CIA plant. She and Bond consider working alongside each other. Not “together,” as that might require trust between the two. They both want to see Drax crash and burn.
The investigation takes Bond to a Venice glassworks, where he discovers a lab making canisters of a gas fatal to humans but not animals. Goodhead is also there to investigate on her own.
Bond alerts MI-6 to the gas, but the place is cleared out in a matter of hours, leaving Bond embarrassed and officially put on leave. Where will he go? Why not Rio, which is having Carnival and is also the final destination of several crates Bond spotted in the Venice glassworks?
Turns out Brazil is the base of Drax and his evil plan. Bond finds Goodhead has followed the trail as well, but how do space shuttles and poison gas fit in? Read on.
Hugo Drax is a man of enormous ego and equally boring personality. He first appears in his drawing room playing a soothing piece on piano for two silent, beautiful women of European noble families. We already know that he loves French things; he lives in a chateau and bought the Eiffel Tower, but the government wouldn’t grant him an export license. “What he doesn’t want, he doesn’t own,” Corinne says.
What Drax doesn’t want is to be of interest to anyone. He’s planning on abandoning Earth for space and becoming a billionaire genius god, so maybe he’s got the future on his mind, OK?
Drax’s Moonraker shuttles are the key to his plan, and it’s a doozy–gas the human population and reseed the Earth with descendants of perfect physical specimens selected and trained by Drax.
Listen, folks, Drax is exceptionally boring. I don’t want to dwell on him. He’s worse on the heels of The Spy Who Loved Me, in which another billionaire madman also seeks to end human civilization and start again…underwater. Drax is interested in doing the same in space. At least he’s chosen the “right” people to repopulate his new world.
Drax might be the worst person yet at trying to kill Bond. He’s on to the British spy from their first meeting, when he instructs a henchman to “see that some harm comes to him.”
Of course the first attempt to kill Bond, in a G-force training room, fails. Bond kills a would-be assassin during a pheasant hunt. Also failing is the next assassination attempt in Venice, using speedboats. And the one after that in Venice, with a sword fight.
Drax hires Jaws (Richard Kiel), and Jaws fails to kill Bond a couple of times in Rio. Drax has some guys attempt to kill Bond in Amazonia, and when that fails he lures Bond into a snake pit. That fails, too.
“You defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you,” Drax says. Finally he places Bond in a sealed room beneath a rocket to die from the ignition blast. Guess what? That also fails. Bond and Goodhead board a shuttle and meet Drax on his space station.
Drax does a serious villain thing and gives a speech to the troops aboard his space station. The lights dim for him as he explains that their new civilization will begin in the “untainted cradle of the heavens” and that he’s created a race of perfect physical specimens to begin a new “terrestrial empire.”
Typical bad guy behavior, for sure. If you thought that was the end of Drax trying to ineffectively kill Bond, you were wrong. Bond and Goodhead are aboard that space station, and when they are discovered Drax prepares to shoot them…out of the airlock. He plans to make Goodhead the first American woman in space, forgetting that she already is (unless any of those other women aboard are Americans).
Bond figures a way out of that, too. Later, Drax will point a gun at Bond and still fail to kill him. Drax, a colossal dunderhead, goes 0-11 against Bond. A terrible villain with zero personality, Drax should be forgotten as a bad guy.
Moonraker gets weird when Bond journeys to Venice. He takes a gondola ride, as one does, and passes a funerary boat, probably a normal thing in Venice.
The coffin on the boat opens, and a fully alive man rises up and grabs a knife from the coffin lid and throws it into Bond’s gondolier. He throws another at Bond but misses. Bond throws the knife back and hits the bad guy, who falls back into the coffin. That’s the most obvious foreshadowing I’ve ever seen.
Another bad guy sticks a gun out of the same boat and pops off some rounds at Bond. Bond hits the throttle and speeds along the canals. A speedboat joins the chase, slicing in half a tourist gondola as it chases Bond.
Bond pilots his craft to St. Mark’s Square, where he shows MI-6’s skill in planning for all contingencies. The gondola inflates a bottom and becomes a hovercraft, sliding across the plaza and away from the trailing speedboat. It also evokes an infamous shot of a pigeon doing a double take; too silly even for me.
That night Bond sneaks around the Venice glass works where he saw Goodhead sneaking during the day. He finds the lab and accidentally kills two scientists by carelessly leaving gas canisters out. That’s so rude of Bond.
Bond also discovers a masked kendo master trying to beat him to death with a bamboo sword. You might have guessed that this is the same Drax henchman who failed to kill Bond in the G-force capsule in California.
The purpose of this fight is to continue into the glass museum and break everything in it. From that standpoint it’s as good as such fights get. All the glass is broken. Don’t throw swords in glass showrooms. Bond wins the fight by tossing him through a clock face and into a piano below.
Dr. Holly Goodhead, as Bond helpfully notes for the viewer, is a woman. Been so since birth. “Your powers of observation do you credit,” she tells him. She’s also a rocket scientist, or at least poses as one. We know she’s a CIA plant in Drax Corp. Was she spook then scientist, or the other way around? We don’t get to learn.
The huskily voiced Goodhead doesn’t trust Bond from the start, and the feeling is mutual. Both want to stop Drax, but on their own terms. So they keep meeting each other across the world.
“I keep forgetting you are more than just a beautiful woman,” Bond says to Goodhead, perhaps the most condescending statement one could make to a woman. Others forget, too, as Goodhead twice makes eyes at men to distract them so Bond can fight them. She gets in some licks as well, learning to fight not at NASA or Langley, but at Vassar.
Goodhead certainly has skills in flying, as she pilots Moonraker 6 to dock with the space station. For a first in the series, Bond has a woman explain to him how something works. If Chiles was a better actor her character might have elevated the cheesy dreck that is Moonraker.
Jaws is back! Producers knew they had a good thing with Jaws, and they smartly did not kill him in The Spy Who Loved Me. Jaws crashes into a building, falls off a waterfall, falls from an airplane without a parachute, and falls from space, surviving all.
Not even Bond is as unkillable as Jaws. He’s survived more attempts to kill him, but even Bond had a parachute in the opening skydive sequence. He used a hang glider to prevent cascading over the waterfall.
Jaws also gets character development. He meets his soulmate in Rio de Janeiro, a tiny, pigtailed woman who’s willing to follow him into space, and even to die on the space station. Stick with Jaws, though, and you’ll survive anything.
In the cold open, Bond relaxes aboard a private jet, but some people on it want him dead. After kissing a woman, she draws a gun on him and forces him to watch as she and the pilot prepare to parachute from the plane. The pilot shoots the controls.
The pilot jumps and Bond after him, without a chute. Bond wrestles away the pilot’s chute and survives the attack from Jaws, who was also on the plane for some reason, falling after him. The action is straightforward, but the visuals astound. The camera is right there alongside the combatants. No editing tricks concealed green screens. Jaws, without a parachute, falls into a circus tent and survives.
How about a nice boat chase? It’s been [checks watch] about five years since Bond had one. Moonraker has TWO. One is in Venice, the other, better one is in Amazonia.
Bond pilots his boat deep in the jungle, searching for the dangerous orchid Drax collected to create the poison gas that will soon wipe out most of humanity.
Drax is no dummy (in some regards), and he’s got boat patrols to guard his stash of orchids. Three of these boats come from nowhere to menace Bond. Bond speeds away. He’s not piloting any old speedboat, but one given to him by Q, so you know it’s loaded with the latest gadgets.
The first boat shoots mortars at Bond. The spy responds with floating mines ejected from the back. One hits its target and kills the boat. Two more boats follow, one with Jaws on it, who is everywhere in this movie to threaten Bond.
More mortars follow. Bond fires torpedos this time, exploding one boat. These are tremendous explosions, as if the boats were warehouses of ordnance.
Jaws shoots a machine gun at Bond while directing the assault. At one point his boat flies over a spit of land in a terrific stunt. Both boats approach a huge waterfall, but only Bond seems to notice. He straps on a helmet and unveils the reason Q is gonna be quite miffed tomorrow–he put a hang glider in the boat, and Bond uses it fo float away.
Jaws sees the waterfall not in time, and when he tries to jerk the wheel to avoid it, he rips out the wheel instead. The boat careens over the waterfall. Jaws will later survive a fall from space, so a waterfall is nothing to the guy.
After Bond and Goodhead disable the space station’s radar jammer hiding it from terrestrial radar stations, the station shows up on American radar. Marines are able to scramble a squad of astronauts armed with lasers into a shuttle within hours and send it to space. Who knew America had such capabilities?
One of Moonraker‘s funniest lines occurs when Drax realizes the shuttle is in range. He’s smartly installed a defensive laser on his station and he says, “Activate laser. Prepare to destroy spacecraft,” as if no one would have thought of that.
Drax also has captured Bond and Goodhead, and is preparing to blast them into space. Bond raises some good points about how people who don’t fit Drax’s specific physical characteristics won’t be allowed to live in his brave new world.
Bond says this not because he’s worried about future survival, but because the gigantic, steel-toothed Jaws is in earshot and listening. The ploy works. Bond hits the emergency stop button, which ends the station’s rotation and synthetic gravity.
Bond, Goodhead, and Jaws start bashing skulls. Right about now the Marines dock with the station and begin EVA. Drax sends some of his troops into space, equipped with their own lasers.
A huge space laser fight ensues. The screen is filled with combatants and the laser guns affixed to their chests or shoulders. Laser bolts are flying everywhere. It’s all very silly and the least believable moment in Bond history.
Meanwhile, Drax has sent three poison gas globes hurtling toward Earth. Forty-seven to go. Keep those in mind.
Some Marines board the station and get the artificial gravity working again. The Marines have handheld laser guns, as do Drax’s people. They shoot at each other, igniting fires with their blasts. I see the purpose of not having guns in space (they wouldn’t work without oxygen, nor would you want projectiles poking holes in your space station), but lasers are just as bad because they set things on fire.
Anyway, Drax runs from the fight. He’s not a physical Adonis, only a mental Adonis. Bond chases him. The two meet in a corridor near another airlock. Drax picks up a laser gun. He’s finally about to kill Bond, but still blathers on about destiny or some shit.
Bond, meanwhile, raises his hands. You might recall long ago, at the beginning, when Q gave Bond a dart gun worn around his wrist. Bond remembers, and he flicks his hand just right, firing the weapon and plunging a dart into Drax’s chest.
That’s when Bond advises Drax to “Take a giant step for mankind,” and shoves him out the airlock. Bravo! Problem is, the station is breaking apart. The Marines are the first to go. They fly away in time.
Somehow Bond knows that Drax’s shuttle, Moonraker 5, has a laser on it. They’ll need it to destroy those pesky poison gas globes hurtling to Earth. They enter the shuttle, but it’s stuck. If only a big, strong man who chose to stay behind with his girlfriend could help them escape. Hey look, here comes one now.
Jaws helps free the shuttle moments before their section of the station breaks away and falls to Earth. Bond is not worried if Jaws will survive, which seems insane, but if you saw the last movie you know Jaws can survive a lot. I get it. Moments later the station explodes.
Goodhead flies the shuttle while Bond tracks the globes. The laser automatically targets bogeys, killing two globes easily. Luckily there wasn’t as much space junk in orbit in 1979 as now, or the laser might shoot at anything.
The shuttle hits the atmosphere before targeting the final globe. It wobbles and forces Bond to switch to manual. Goodhead has to pilot a steep re-entry. With moments to spare, Bond lasers the final globe and saves millions. Good boy.
The one-liners are pretty good!
- “Take a giant step for mankind.” Bond to Drax before pushing him out the airlock.
- Looks like he’s “attempting re-entry.” Q about Bond while the other officials watch him having sex with Goodhead.
- “I discovered he had a crush on me.” Bond about the python he kills.
- When asked if he broke anything after a nasty fall, Bond answers, “Only my tailor’s heart.”
- When the RAF pilot tells the American, “Trust the RAF,” the American just laughs at him.
It’s hard to believe Bond hasn’t yet visited the home of Hollywood, but it’s true. Excellent overheads allow us to follow Bond as he flies above southern California toward Drax’s French chateau.
France’s Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte served as the exterior of the mansion, while Château de Guermantes served for the interiors. As you can see, they are some of the world’s finest homes, and only an insane billionaire industrialist could own either today.
Bond also travels to Venice and Rio de Janeiro, and the shots of the latter are spectacular. Bond traverses all levels of the city and its environs in overheads not matched until NBC covered the Olympics there in 2016.
The movie’s end takes place in space. Moonraker’s best shot occurs when the station first appears. Rotating slowly in geosynchronous orbit, light slowly unveils the station in, dare I say it, a Kubrickian manner. (I’m as surprised as you.)
Drax’s motivations are exactly the same as the villain in the previous Bond movie, and that’s a problem. At least Drax is willing to start the world anew after destroying it, and to do so without nuclear weapons. He’s invented a poison that only kills humans. Pretty smart. It’s a step up from Stromberg, but still the same desire.
I’ve covered Bond’s thoughts about Goodhead, the reason for the score.
- These titles are all over the place: jewels, acrobats, the moon, wind machines.
- Drax outfits resemble Goldfinger‘s uniforms, another way Drax is a copycat.
- Drax practices English pheasant hunting on a French-style grounds in California. Too many styles here.
- Bond carries a poison gas canister unprotected in his shirt pocket.
- Drax says he finds British humor hard to follow; he finds all humor hard to follow.
Summary (28/68): 41%
Moonraker represents the nadir of the Bond franchise to that point, and probably in the entire series. Terrible villain, poor gender relations, space laser fight, Jaws dating–it’s all too much. Bond should stay on the ground.