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Moonraker
Moonraker, the one James Bond movie where Agent 007 goes to space, may not have been the best Bond film, but was a success at the box office. (credit: MGM)

Have tuxedo spacesuit, will travel


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Roger Moore passed away on May 23 at the age of 89. Moore, who was born in London in 1927, was best known for playing James Bond in seven movies between 1973 and 1985, more Bond movies than any other actor. Moore’s Bond appearances included the 1979 film Moonraker, the highest-grossing Bond movie until Daniel Craig rebooted the franchise in the 2000s. Moonraker is one of several Bond movies with a space theme, but the only one where James Bond travels into space.

Moonraker often tops critics’ lists of the worst Bond movie made, although it sometimes ties for that dubious honor. Like most Bond films, it recycled a lot of over-used plot devices: the megalomaniacal billionaire bent on world destruction, lame double-entendres, blatant sexism, dumb quips Bond makes upon dispatching a bad guy, the amazing coincidence that Bond happens to possess exactly the right gizmo he needs at the moment of maximum peril, and the absurdity of a “spy” with brand name recognition whom everybody recognizes the second he walks through the door. But these were the franchise’s fault, not Moore’s.

Moonraker often tops critics’ lists of the worst Bond movie made, although it sometimes ties for that dubious honor.

Moore stated on several occasions that he viewed the Bond movies essentially as camp, and so he played the character that way. Moonraker’s director, Lewis Gilbert, also said that the production team did not think that the movies were supposed to be taken seriously. But the films were not played as obvious parodies or comedies (well, except for the time Bond dressed as a clown.) Later on they were cleverly spoofed by the Austin Powers franchise, which Daniel Craig said were what led to the darker and more violent reinvention of Bond starting in 2006.

Utopia justifies the means

Moonraker was weakened by several things. For starters, it is pretty much a repeat of the previous Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me. The story involves a rich industrialist who has decided to kill everybody on the planet. In Spy the rich villain is obsessed with the oceans and so he wants sea life to thrive, and figures that Global Thermonuclear War™ is the best way to achieve this. In Moonraker, the billionaire, named Hugo Drax, is a little less fish-focused and instead wants to repopulate the planet with a race of superior beings who he has selected based upon their resemblance to fashion models. Drax, despite his droll demeanor, is apparently a bit of a perv.

Moonraker starts with a space shuttle on the back of a 747. Two stowaways on the orbiter emerge and climb into the cockpit. They fire up the shuttle’s engines and fly away, blowing up the 747 in the process. Bond then gets put on the case, sent to California to “investigate” why no shuttle was found in the wreckage. It is unclear why the bad guys hijacked the shuttle over the Canadian Yukon, rather than the ocean, where shuttle wreckage would have been much harder to find.

Bond ends up at Drax Industries in the Mojave Desert, which manufactures the space shuttles for NASA. He is initially shown around by Drax’s “humble helicopter pilot” Corinne Dufour, played by the fetching Corinne Cléry. Cléry’s voice was dubbed in the film, and like “Bond Girls” before and after her, had a somewhat risqué resume. Dufour soon suffered one of the more ignominious Bond Girl deaths: eaten by Dobermans for the transgression of showing Bond Drax’s safe.

Moonraker was made because producer Cubby Broccoli saw the box office returns from Star Wars and decided that his next Bond movie should be set in space. Broccoli was shameless, but his decision paid off handsomely.

Of course Bond becomes a target, but Drax seems to be incapable of simply sending a couple of goons to shoot him, or shooting him himself when he’s standing right next to him with a loaded gun. Bond then bops around to Venice—where he is nearly killed by a ninja—then to Rio de Janeiro—where he is nearly killed by a giant—then to the Amazon rain forest, where he is nearly killed by inept goons in speedboats. After following a leggy blonde, he eventually stumbles upon Drax’s huge underground lair, where the billionaire is preparing to launch several space shuttles. But first, Bond is nearly killed by a giant snake.

The clichéd Bond escapes are frequently absurd—after Bond poisons Drax’s pet anaconda, Drax drolly states, “You defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you.” Of course, Drax delivers the line while flanked by two machine-gun-toting guards who he could have ordered to shoot the pesky spy on the spot, but Drax inexplicably fails to give the order. Some of the best lines in the movie belong to Drax as he repeatedly orders Bond killed, such as “Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him,” and “At least I shall have the pleasure of putting you out of my misery.” Alas, predictably, Drax fails in both of these attempts to retire James Bond.

Bond and his beautiful CIA agent partner stow away on a shuttle and end up at Drax’s orbiting space station. The gorgeous women who have appeared throughout the movie all show up as well, accompanied by their pretty boyfriends. Once on his space station Drax delivers what should have been an inspiring speech but comes across as perhaps the most unenthusiastic genocidal manifesto ever filmed:

First there was the dream, now there is reality. Here in the untamed cradle of the heavens will be created a new super race, a race of perfect physical specimens. You have been selected as its progenitors. Like gods, your offspring will return to Earth and shape it in their image. You have all served in public capacities in my terrestrial empire. Your seed, like yourselves, will pay deference to the ultimate dynasty which I alone have created. From their first day on Earth, they will be able to look up and know that there is law and order in the heavens.

Star Wars, with a license to kill

Moonraker was made because producer Cubby Broccoli saw the box office returns from Star Wars and decided that his next Bond movie should be set in space. Broccoli was shameless, but his decision paid off handsomely, with a worldwide gross of $210 million in then-year dollars. Although Moonraker frequently rates among the worst Bond movies, it made more money than any other Bond film for the next 16 years. Moore reprised the role three more times.

This was not the first Bond movie to feature a space theme. In fact, a space-based plot device—such as a killer satellite—was common to many Cold War era Bond plots, although that has faded along with the diminishing cultural influence of spaceflight (see “Bond, in orbit”, The Space Review, January 8, 2007). Before Moonraker, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever involved space in some way, the latter movie featuring a diamond-covered satellite. Probably the best space-themed Bondian plot device was Goldeneye’s electromagnetic pulse satellite left over after the demise of the Soviet Union.

It was common for Bond productions to announce a premiere date, select exotic locations, and start working on action sequences before they even had a draft script. That was certainly the case with Moonraker and both the Rio de Janeiro location and the opening aerial fight scene were selected before the script was written. The script was written by a committee. That does not mean that the scriptwriting was always crude, however. In a clever bit of backstory, the nerve gas that Drax plans on using is extracted from an Amazonian orchid that paradoxically killed the rain forest tribe that cultivated it, leaving the ruins that Drax then adopted as his Moonraker launch sites.

The producers had extensive cooperation from NASA, including visits to both Johnson Space Center and Ames Research Center in California, although no NASA facilities appeared in the film.

Of course, with such a vast production, involving four studios, seven countries, and three continents, not everything went smoothly. The Rio cable car filming nearly fell apart when the owner of the cable car company concluded that it would ruin his business and physically tried to stop the shooting. The filmmakers were talked out of suing him after being informed by a lawyer that in Brazil “litigation is like a knife fight in the dark—anyone can win.”

The producers had extensive cooperation from NASA, including visits to both Johnson Space Center and Ames Research Center in California, although no NASA facilities appeared in the film. Some exterior scenes were shot at hangar facilities in Palmdale in the Mojave Desert. Due to some punitive taxation policies in the United Kingdom at the time, the production moved from England to France, where it took over every available stage in Paris.

The two primary characters other than Bond are CIA agent/astronaut Holly Goodhead (played by Lois Chiles) and Drax (played by Michael Lonsdale). Neither actor seemed to be very engaged in their roles, although the same has been said about Roger Moore in the lead. Lonsdale later stated in an interview that he enjoyed the role, so his acting style was clearly a choice and not protest against the material.

Lonsdale (like Corinne Cléry) was chosen because French regulations required that the production hire some French actors, and he spoke excellent English. But he delivered his lines with palpable boredom and you almost expect him to start snoring in the middle of a genocidal monologue. One of the producers speaking on the DVD commentary admitted that Lonsdale was “So laid back he was almost horizontal.”

As for Chiles, who had turned down a previous Bond movie role, she projects the air of somebody who did not want to be in the film. She had no chemistry with Moore, and she spoke her dialogue as if she was answering phones at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Moonraker
A shuttle awaiting launch from an underground Brazilian site in Moonraker. (credit: MGM)

Old school special effects

Moonraker was the most expensive Bond film made at that point, with a budget of $32 million, more than the cost of the first six Bond movies combined. But the filmmakers balked at the exorbitant rate that an unnamed special effects company wanted to charge them for the space sequences, so they decided to film them in-house. At a time when computer-controlled cameras were becoming common for special effects, they ended up using a decidedly old-fashioned technique of shooting a single special effects element, like a space shuttle moving across the frame, then stopping the camera and winding the film back, introducing another element to the shot, and filming it again. Of course, this dramatically increased the risk that they would break or scratch the film, or accidentally expose it, or somehow ruin multiple hours or even days of work. One particularly complex space battle sequence involved dozens of elements, and the crew ended up treating that bit of film as if it was worth its weight in gold.

Although the special effects were pretty good for the time, what really made the movie shine was the set design and models. The sets, particularly Drax’s Amazonian lair and the space station interiors, are excellent.

Rather surprisingly, the special effects tend to slow the film down rather than add excitement. Of course, decades later watching a space shuttle dock with the real space station did not prove to be gripping entertainment. The movie would have benefited from some judicious editing, not to mention recasting to increase the energy level. John Barry’s score is, as expected, excellent, although it has the paradoxical effect of slowing down the space battle. Like so many James Bond movies, the individual components are often well done, but they don’t always connect together well.

Although the special effects were pretty good for the time, what really made the movie shine was the set design and models. The sets, particularly Drax’s Amazonian lair and the space station interiors, are excellent. The French set builders were supposedly so excited that they defied their union and worked overtime and weekends to complete them.

The model work, done by the late, great Derek Meddings, is so good that it represents probably the most realistic depiction of the shuttle on film for the next two decades. To simulate shuttle launches, the effects people used magnesium flares and projector bulbs to get the brightness of the engines, although they did not include the incredible smoke trails common to shuttle launches. Another inaccuracy is that the shuttle doors remain closed while the orbiters are in space. However, the Moonraker shuttles came equipped with nifty orange “go faster” stripes on their sides and wings, which NASA unfortunately never adopted for its shuttles, but perhaps inspired the inclusion of sexy stripes on the base of the SLS’s solid rocket boosters.

Drax’s odd-looking space station was a reaction against 2001: A Space Odyssey’s famous wheel. Instead, the designer wanted it to look like a child’s mobile. In a nod to the requirement for artificial gravity, they spun the station, but even the filmmakers acknowledged that it didn’t make much sense and they primarily wanted it to look “pretty.” Eventually they blew it up by blasting away at it with shotguns on a closed set.

Remembrance of things past

The filmmakers’ original goal was for the movie to debut at the same time as NASA’s space shuttle took flight, thereby riding on that publicity. But the shuttle’s launch date kept slipping. Moonraker premiered in June 1979, but the space shuttle did not launch until April 1981. Nevertheless, Moonraker can be credited with giving the shuttle its widest public exposure until it started flying. Moonraker is now in the distant past, and is being followed in memory by the space shuttle.

Before becoming Bond, Moore played wealthy adventurer Simon Templar in The Saint from 1962 to 1969. After Moonraker he continued to play Bond for half a decade, then handed the role over to another actor. He made numerous other movies and television appearances, sometimes parodying his Bond persona. He said that his travel to third world locations for the movies exposed him to extreme poverty, which led him to become involved in charity work, for which he was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth. To date he remains the only James Bond to fly into space.


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