The James Bond Rewatch: MOONRAKER (1979)

The success of Star Wars in 1977 prompted Eon to speed up production on Moonraker, a bandwagon-jumping science fiction Bond film that proved Earth alone couldn’t contain 007’s exploits.

Costing twice as much as The Spy Who Loved Me and featuring the return of a beloved henchman, Moonraker pushes the James Bond franchise nearly to its breaking point. It’s fairly ridiculous and a time capsule of pop culture in the late 70’s, making for one of the strangest Bonds yet.

Moonraker (1979)

Directed by Lewis Gilbert, with Roger Moore as James Bond (for the 4th time)

The Theme Song: “Moonraker” performed by Shirley Bassey

Dame Shirley Bassey returns for her third and final (so far) Bond theme song with “Moonraker”. The song benefits from her phenomenal voice but is a bit maudlin and at odds with the weird cartoonishness of the movie itself. An odd fit and a case of diminishing returns, although it’s still slightly catchy in its own way.

The Plot

When a Moonraker shuttle is hijacked mid-air by mysterious forces, Bond is called in to save the day but meets Jaws along the way. They tussle while plummeting out of a plane in a scene that features some pretty obvious stunt doubles but is kind of cool anyways. While Bond obviously escapes unscathed, Jaws fruitlessly flaps his arms like a bird before crashing into a circus big top (foreshadowing the goofy tone).

It turns out that the Moonraker space shuttle was made by Drax Industries, and Bond must infiltrate the remote operations of the wealthy Hugo Drax and discern his connection to the crime. The usual globe-trotting adventures ensue, this time across California, Venice, Rio de Janeiro and even into outer space (!). The villain Drax has a gigantic, lunatic plan – to wipe out all human life on Earth (using flowers somehow) and restart it using sexy people that will revere him as a God (“Your seed will pay service to the ultimate dynasty I have created”, ewwww). This rates about an 11 on the crazy scale.

James The Fighter

Like The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker features another boring lead villain in Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale). He doesn’t get too many chances to go over the top and doesn’t even have the usual physical deformity that most of these egomaniacs sport. Instead, his defining characteristics seem to be: a seething hatred for mankind, a fondness for lasers, and prominent eyebrows. He also lets Bond get away a ridiculous number of times, as if he doesn’t even want to kill the secret agent.

“Mr. Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you.” – Drax, after letting Bond escape for the millionth time

Fan favourite Jaws (Richard Kiel) returns to battle Bond, but here he’s given an honest-to-goodness character arc as he falls in love with a diminuative Blonde woman and eventually sides with Bond against Drax, becoming a defacto good guy in the process. It’s a weird sub-plot that betrays the earlier terror that Jaws instilled and basically makes him into a cartoon character that’s always mugging for the camera (although he does get one spoken line).

The action itself is the usual boat and car chases mixed with fisticuffs and gunplay. Nothing stands out too much (with the exception of the gonzo ending), but one effective sequence has Bond and Goodhead (more on her later) escaping a dangling gondola with Jaws in hot pursuit. The finale is huge, with giant outer space laser battles and poorly conceived zero-g effects (the wires are visible at times). It’s clear they spent a lot of money and at least the production design is fantastic, especially Drax’s Aztec pyramid base that also houses the Moonraker launch pads.

James The Lover

Lois Chiles plays astronaut Dr. Holly Goodhead (zing!), Bond’s main female ally. Moore’s Bond is initially shocked that a woman can also be a doctor, but quickly gets over it and starts hitting on Goodhead. It turns out that Goodhead is also a CIA agent and she and Bond team up to stop Drax nefarious plans. Chiles is more naturalistic than other Bond actresses, which clashes a bit with Roger Moore’s arch style but doesn’t torpedo their scenes.

Dr. Goodhead giving her best

Dr. Goodhead giving her best “Are you shitting me?!” face after Bond expresses surprise at her PhD

There’s also the beautiful but dim Corinne who boasts “I never learned to read” despite being Drax’s helicopter pilot. She reveals secrets to Bond after they’ve spent the night together, and of course Drax finds out (the mortal curse of Bond’s member is inescapable). Drax sics his hunting dogs on her as revenge (“I’m terminating your employment!”) in an ugly scene that’s overly harsh.

In a hotel room later, Bond brings out that cheesy charm when he asks the female bartender “Do you come with the suite?”

Iconic Moments

  • Q equips Bond with a wristwatch that shoots poison and explosive darts (Bond responds, “Very novel Q, you must get them in stores for Christmas”)
  • Drax’s California residence is an imported French castle, with vast hunting grounds and a training site for nubile young astronauts (later revealed to be his “master race”)
  • Jaws wears a giant clown costume to disguise himself during a parade – it’s total nightmare fuel
  • Bond dresses as cowboy/gaucho and the spacesuits are pretty stylish too – overall it’s a good movie for outlandish costumes
Costume game on point

Costume game on point

  • Bond escapes approaching enemy speedboats by hang gliding over a roaring waterfall – not something you see everyday but the sleepy Moore plays it as if it’s just another day at the office
  • After the last battle, the joint CIA and MI6 forces attempt to hail the marooned Bond and Goodhead in space. M gets a visual on the randy couple and asks “My God, what’s Bond doing?” to which Q replies, “I think he’s attempting re-entry sir.” Cue 70’s wah-wah music.

The Verdict

Moonraker is patently ridiculous for much of its screentime and often doesn’t even feel like a Bond film. Jaws is basically a cartoon and Bond becomes a superhero who’s nearly infallible. Much of the money spent went towards great production design, but it’s in service of a disjointed script that never really gels. The product placement begins to become overwhelming too, as one chase includes numerous billboards wedged in for no reason. Notable for its weirdness and being out of sync with other entries, Moonraker is ultimately less than the sum of its parts.

Updated Rankings

  1. From Russia With Love
  2. Goldfinger
  3. Dr. No
  4. The Spy Who Loved Me
  5. You Only Live Twice
  6. Live and Let Die
  7. Thunderball
  8. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
  9. The Man with The Golden Gun
  10. Moonraker
  11. Diamonds Are Forever

James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only

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