Moonraker (1979) – BlogalongaBond #11
By my reckoning, the Bond film that, based on ITV broadcasts, has “attempted re-entry” the most times. Depending on your point of view, that makes it the serial sex-pest of 007 movies or the gift that just keeps giving.
(Lewis Gilbert, GB, 1979)
The title song begins by asking, “Where are you?” For James Bond, the answer’s that he’s getting burnt from flying too close to the sun
In September 1977, while the world was beginning to fall in love with Star Wars, another moment in cultural history occurred whose significance wouldn’t be understood until much later. For that was the month that The Fonz water-skied over a shark in Happy Days, after which things in that series would never be the same. And, the next time audiences saw James Bond, he was getting chucked out of a plane without a parachute by a fella called Jaws. Not quite jumping the shark, but close enough to feel the point.
Moonraker is a film obsessed with chasing the illusion of the perfect 007 moment but, like Icarus, the higher it tries to fly, the further it falls, each set-piece precipitating a downward slide in plausibility and quality. Cubby Broccoli must have had nightmares about the impossibility of having to raise the bar higher each time. He had created a world where Aston Martins are fitted with ejector seats and Lotus Esprits can dive underwater without springing a leak – so now he’s cursed. He can’t look at a gondola without specifying that it must be able to transform into a hovercraft, or that a speedboat be equipped with a hang-glider.
Worse still, with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg redefining popcorn cinema, it’s time to fire 007 into space. As per Bond’s family motto, the world is no longer enough. Ludicrous, right? But this is still playing fair by the rules established in earlier Bond films – if it bears a passing resemblance to something Ian Fleming wrote, it’s fair game. I can just imagine the grumpy faces in the Eon boardroom the day after they saw Star Wars, having already committed to making For Your Eyes Only next. Bugger. But – hallelujah! – Fleming wrote a story about a missile called Moonraker. That’s sci-fi enough for us! (Bet the intern who raced into the boardroom waving a copy of the book got a promotion.)
And for all the tackiness in doing a public U-turn to court the Star Wars audience, this is the first time since Sean Connery that the A-team of John Barry, Ken Adam and Shirley Bassey had been reunited in the same film, so it’s not for want of trying. Add to that art-house darling Michael Lonsdale (an actor who’d worked with Welles, Truffaut and Bunuel) as the villain and, on paper at least, Moonraker has quality to spare.
So what went wrong? “James Bond in space,” I hear you cry – and yet the biggest fault with Moonraker isn’t the influence of Star Wars, but the influence of television. It’s hard to believe now, but a 007 film wasn’t broadcast on British telly until 1975. By the time Moonraker went into production, ITV has playing major catch-up and it was obvious that small-screen residuals would be a major source of revenue for the future of Bond.
Moonraker is the first film to really feel constructed more for Bank Holiday afternoon lounging around than a night out in the cinema, with its “new location every ad break” plotting, the wildly varying tone (from the chilling horror of the dog attack to Jaws getting laid) and the revue-style campness of the comedy. This is a film that begins with a shot of a big top and later arrives in Rio during the Carnival, so somebody was thinking variety hour here – and, according to my childhood memories, I reckon this is the Bond film that has been on telly more than any other.
Viewed in that light, it’s better to treat Moonraker as a disconnected series of moments than as part of the 007 canon – and, in isolation, there are gems galore. The afore-mentioned dog attack, a rare moment of atmospheric menace. The visual gag of Bond trying to protect a fragile phial containing deadly nerve gas, while an entire glass museum is smashed to bits is priceless. The vertigo-inducing stuntwork on the Sugarloaf Mountain cable car. And the fact that the plot (about a utopia of scantily-clad, multi-racial hotties) appears to have pre-empted United Colours of Benetton’s 1980s ad campaigns.
Nonetheless, a mess – and one which required an immediate return to first principles. Not for the first time (and certainly not the last!), James Bond was in need of a reboot, and For Your Eyes Only was getting impatient.