Bond, in orbit
by Dwayne A. Day
|The concept of billionaire businessmen developing secret space programs is not a new one. In fact, it has existed in science fiction literature and film for decades.
However, despite their overall godawfulness, Bond movies often also feature clever plot ideas that really belong in much better movies. Occasionally an unremarkable non-Bond movie will contain a great Bond-like idea that should be in an even better movie, but then gets stolen for a Bond movie. This has happened a few times. For instance, Jackie Chan’s amusing Rumble in the Bronx featured a fantastic action sequence involving a massive hovercraft barreling down a city street. That was cool. Bond lamely ripped it off in 2002’s Die Another Day, where it became a smaller hovercraft used in a chase through a minefield. It’s such a great idea that it really does deserve a better movie than either of these.
Which brings us, in a very roundabout way, to the subject of James Bond movies and space. James Bond movies offer several examples of neat space storylines or plot ideas that really deserved to be in better movies. There have been twenty-one Bond movies, and space themes have appeared in five of them. In most cases, the script took a good idea and then hyped it into something silly. This started very early in the Bond franchise, in fact, right at the beginning.
The very first Bond movie, and the one that supplied the iconic image of Ursula Andress emerging from the ocean in a bikini. It is also the least typical Bond film, but does involve the stereotypical, rich evil genius up to nefarious deeds. This time the evil rich villain wants to interfere with an American Mercury spacecraft launch. However, Bond conveniently blows up a nuclear reactor in Jamaica, foiling the plot. The movie does not bother to explain how irradiating the Caribbean is a superior outcome, however, especially when one considers that hurricanes come from that general direction—atomic hurricanes, now that would be bad (but might make for an amusing movie).
This 1967 movie started with a Gemini spacecraft being abducted in orbit by another spacecraft that moved in behind it, opened its payload fairing, and swallowed it like an alligator, leaving one spacewalking astronaut outside to float to his doom. Naturally, Bond is sent to investigate and discovers that evil billionaire Ernst Blofeld is trying to instigate global war by capturing both American and Russian spacecraft. He commands his forces from his headquarters inside an extinct volcano from which he launches his rockets. This concept might have seemed cool and futuristic in the midst of the space race, but it is partially undone by limited special effects. The plot device of the evil billionaire instigating mayhem, usually by stealing something belonging to a superpower, and then being taken down when his command center is attacked by commandoes led by James Bond, was recycled numerous times, most notably in both The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.
In this 1971 movie Bond discovered that the nefarious Ernst Blofeld was stockpiling diamonds for his massive laser satellite that he intended to use to fry various targets around the globe. His adventures take him to Las Vegas, where he gets involved in a moon-buggy chase in the desert. The diamond-studded satellite gets launched and blasts an American ICBM, a Soviet nuclear submarine (under water) and a Chinese missile base. Naturally, Bond wins in the end by leading a massive firepower-heavy assault on the bad guy’s offshore oil platform lair.
The movie is yet another frustrating example of the Bond genre, filled with both silliness and clever ideas, although the special effects had notably improved since 1967. It is clear from the various Bond space movies that the screenwriters at least did some homework about real spaceflight. In this case, the satellite is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, which actually makes a lot of sense, because a satellite launched into a polar orbit from there could cover the entire globe.
|Remember when the Space Shuttle was still full of promise and seemed incredibly futuristic? That was around 1979 or so, and Bond was there, trying to capitalize on the sci-fi genre reinvigorated by Star Wars.
Unlike You Only Live Twice, this time it is clear that Blofeld doesn’t have his own space program and actually has to find a real aerospace company to build his satellite, which he does by secretly taking over an American company run by a billionaire American aerospace executive clearly modeled on Howard Hughes. In a surprising twist, the man is neither batty nor evil. He does, however, have the Texas accent and attitude that the British consider to be shorthand for the American cowboy swagger that they publicly despise, but often secretly admire.
Remember when the Space Shuttle was still full of promise and seemed incredibly futuristic? That was around 1979 or so, and Bond was there, trying to capitalize on the sci-fi genre reinvigorated by Star Wars. Once again an evil billionaire has concluded that once you’ve become insanely rich, the only thing left to do is kill everybody on the planet and remake it in your own image. This time the evil villain is named Hugo Drax, who, despite his megalomania, seems awfully bored, if not downright sleepy, for most of the movie.
Drax runs an aerospace empire, manufacturing space shuttles and training astronauts for NASA (an early example of NewSpace, anyone?) But when one of NASA’s space shuttles is abducted in flight (firing its main engines from the back of a 747 despite the lack of any fuel tank), Bond investigates and discovers that Drax has a plan to wipe out humanity with a nerve gas and then breed a new master race based upon his herd of perfect, scantily-clad astropeople—all of whom will live on Drax’s orbiting space station.
Based largely upon its campiness and derivative plot, Moonraker is widely regarded as one of the worst Bond films, but it was the highest grossing Bond movie in the US until GoldenEye, sixteen years later. Is it a coincidence that spaceflight (human and robotic, respectively) was integral to the plots of both films?
The criticisms of Moonraker abound: a plot essentially stolen from the previous film The Spy Who Loved Me, stunning action sequences and locales that have little connection to the actual plot, and a performance by Lois Chiles as CIA agent/astronaut Holly Goodhead (insert obligatory snicker here), who is more wooden than a tree. Rather surprisingly, the special effects actually tend to slow the film down rather than add excitement. Of course, watching a Space Shuttle dock with the real space station is not exactly gripping entertainment, so it is hard to see how Moonraker could have made it seem dramatic. The movie would have benefited from some judicious editing, not to mention recasting, starting with actors who possessed some actual charisma in addition to nice legs (on Ms. Chiles, not the guy who played Drax—although I will confess to falling in love with the doomed Drax helicopter pilot Corinne Cleary the first time I saw her).
Drax has to steal a NASA shuttle to replace one of his own, which suffered from manufacturing flaws. This was not terribly original, because at the time the movie was made the actual shuttle was then over a year behind schedule due to problems with the main engines and the thermal tiles. Drax has six shuttles that he launches from underground silos in the Amazon jungle (where does one find a construction company willing to do that kind of work?) The models were excellent, although the special effects appear dated today. The initial liftoff of the shuttles is almost as realistic as the actual launches that started only two years later—primarily missing the huge smoke plumes produced by the solid rocket boosters. Some of the effects are cheesy. For instance, to produce a smoke effect that streamed away rather than floated up around the shuttle, the special effects team filled a small model with salt, which then drained out in a thin white trail. Far worse is the space station design. Intended to look like a spider, it makes absolutely no sense at all. There is no way to get gravity by spinning such a contraption. The bigger sin is that it is one of the stupidest-looking space stations ever committed to film.
But one parallel to the real space program is Drax’s megalomaniacal vision, which, except for the killing all of humanity part, shares some similarity with longstanding space enthusiast dreams of conquering the heavens:
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.
Okay, maybe not too much similarity… Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and others want to build affordable rockets to send humans into space, but to date there has been no indication that they are actually intending to conquer the planet or breed a new race of supermen.
|Despite its flaws, Moonraker also had some clever ideas and concepts.
Drax’s speech does bring up a little question, however: when his genetically and physically perfect breeding stock learned that all their friends and families were going to be wiped out with nerve gas, did they have any problem with that? Or was the promise of zero-gee procreation simply too good to resist?
Despite its flaws, Moonraker also had some clever ideas and concepts. Upon discovering Drax’s space station, the United States launches Marines aboard a Space Shuttle from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where the US Air Force actually constructed a shuttle launch site that was never used. In a poetic touch, Drax’s killer nerve agent is concocted from a flower known as the Black Orchid, which itself was responsible for the deaths of the Amazonian tribe that cultivated it, and whose ruins he now inhabits.
If you’re a chauvinist, the most clever idea in the entire film is the sexist concept of putting leggy female astronauts in low-cut miniskirt uniforms. It’s a far cry from the plain blue jumpsuits that NASA uses, and not terribly practical. Of course, that wasn’t really the point.
This passable 1995 film wins my vote as the Bond movie with the best plot device worthy of a better movie: a space-based electromagnetic pulse weapon. The story is that during the Cold War the Soviet Union developed the GoldenEye satellite, equipped with a nuclear device capable of generating a single massive, directed-energy electromagnetic pulse that can fry all electronics for tens of square miles. They placed two of them in orbit before the country fell apart. A Russian crime syndicate with plans for holding the West hostage steals a crucial control disk for the GoldenEye and detonates one of the weapons to cover their tracks. Bond is already on the case and eventually follows the bad guys to Cuba, where a giant dish for controlling the satellite is hidden under a lake, which is dramatically drained to reveal the dish and its antenna. Like most modern action films, all the high tech gadgetry and cleverness is abandoned for the finale, where the fate of the Earth is ultimately decided by a fistfight between our hero and the villain.
GoldenEye is admittedly not all that bad as an action flick, and the basic plot device is one of the best ones in any Bond film. A number of movies during the 1990s tried to use the concept of Russian weapons falling into the wrong hands after the Cold War, but none as innovatively as this one. The final fight between Bond and an ex-secret agent was filmed atop the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico—a site that was also featured in the Jodie Foster movie Contact. It’s a spectacular location for a fight scene, although remarkably stupid in terms of logic—it does not require a 300-meter dish to control a satellite in Earth orbit; ten meters is more than enough.
Now considering that most of the above movies had some pretty clever space elements, it would be neat if somebody stole them (okay, in Hollywood they don’t steal, they pay homage) and put them in a better movie. Maybe something where the hero travels to the former Soviet Union and “acquires” a derelict Buran space shuttle to fly into orbit to prevent the detonation of an electromagnetic pulse weapon.
Then again, how do we know that Bill Gates is not already planning this?