Countdown to Spectre: Moonraker Revisited

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The Bond: Roger Moore for the fourth time.

The Release: Cubby Broccoli originally announced that Octopussy would be the next film, but The Spy Who Loved Me‘s credits announced that it would actually be For Your Eyes Only. However, producers eventually chose to adapt Moonraker (the last full novel they had the rights) and get in on the sci-fi craze sparked by the success of Star Wars two years prior. Released June 28, 1979 in the UK and one day later in the US, critics were mixed, but the film became the highest grossing entry in the franchise to date with $70 million domestically and over $210 million worldwide.

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The Girl: While the film sticks pretty closely to the three-girl structure, the two non-leads are less important than ever. The first exists solely as the answer to Bond’s question of what to do with fivw spare hours in Rio de Janiero. The second, Corinne Dufour (Corinne Cléry), has the traditional role of the girl who dies after sleeping with Bond/giving him information about the villain.

The main Bond Girl is Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead. She’s a seemingly competent CIA agent and Bond literally wouldn’t be able to do anything rocket-related without her, but she also can’t banter at Bond’s level and she seems a little weak as a result. Like many before her, Chiles was chosen more for beauty than talent, getting the role after serendipitously sitting next to director Lewis Gilbert on a plane. Still, the character is memorable for at least one reason. “I have to say that I actually like that I have one of the more obscene names,” Chiles said later.

The Villain: Michael Lonsdale as Hugo Drax, who is sort of the textbook example of what you probably think of when you hear “Bond Villain.” The line, “Mr. Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you,” should just be repeated in every single movie. However, Lonsdale manages to take the character’s typical extravagance and make him genuinely menacing.

While Drax is the Big Bad, the more important villain is Richard Kiel as Jaws, returning after becoming a fan favorite in TSWLM. The character was especially loved by children, who did, however, have one complaint: they wanted him to be a good guy. So, in Moonraker, the character essentially becomes comic relief and spoiler eventually Bond’s ally. He also, oddly, gets a love interest—a smiley blonde with pigtails and glasses. The relationship has a weird Frankenstein feel in its gentle giant-fearless child dynamic, but kids don’t know or care.

The Gadgets: This movie isn’t so much about gadgets as it is about vehicles, particularly the Moonraker shuttles. NASA unveiled its first shuttle, Enterprise, on September 17, 1976, but didn’t launch the Columbia until April 12, 1981. They gave the production team unprecedented access to their research and the film’s shuttle designs and concept of how objects move in space are surprisingly realistic as a result.

The Song: “Moonraker” by Shirley Bassey. While the tune brings back the now-classic combination of Bassey’s vocals and John Barry’s music, it doesn’t fit the film. There’s a dreamy, romantic quality that works with the slow motion anti-gravity scenes, but feels at odds with the fast pace and surprisingly violent action sequences. Still, the melody and lyrics are really strong and it’s a pretty effective little ear worm.

The Book: Except for the title, the villain’s name, the hints of Nazism and the rockets, Moonraker has very little to do with its source material. Like many of the Bond books, it relies heavily on coincidence to drive the plot. This time, simply because one of the employees at Blades (the fictional gentleman’s club where M gambles) notices that Drax is cheating at cards, Bond discovers that the rocket the villain seems to be generously donating to England is actually involved in a Soviet/ex-Nazi plot to drop a nuclear bomb on London. It’s a set up that feels ripe for a Bond movie, but the move to space makes sense. When Ian Fleming wrote Moonraker in 1955, fear of nuclear war would have been on everyone’s mind. In 1979, the eyes of the world were turned toward the stars.

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However, the only real loss in the transition from page to screen is the girl, police detective Gala Brand. Gala, short for Galatea, has been working undercover for months as Drax’s secretary when Bond shows up and she’s decidedly chilly to this secret agent who insists on flirting with her. She’s got a very Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter feel–tough, competent, maybe a little competitive–and she’s perhaps the only Book Bond Girl who is his equal. She is also the only girl with whom Bond doesn’t sleep.

After the sexual tension slowly mounts throughout the novel, Bond discovers that all his plans to bed Gala are irrelevant. The engagement ring on her finger isn’t just part of her cover. While Bond has little respect for marriage (this book reveals he has ongoing affairs with no less than three lonely London housewives), he only goes so far as to admit that he’s jealous. The last lines of the book are perhaps the best expression of Bond’s chronic loneliness Fleming ever wrote: “He touched her for the last time and then they turned away from each other and walked off into their different lives.”

The Movie: If TSWLM was big, Moonraker was even bigger. Though producer Cubby Broccoli wanted to make it on a smaller scale, it cost $34 million, more than the first 6 films combined. Because strict tax laws in England would have unreasonably inflated costs even more, the production moved to France, making this the first Bond not filmed at Pinewood Studios

Production designer Ken Adam (for his last Bond film) said the only way he could make the required sets was if they booked all three sounds stages in Paris—which they did. Speaking of the film years later, Adam said, “I think Moonraker was possibly the best thing I’ve done,” and looking at the sets now, it’s hard to argue. By far the best is the space station, which was the largest indoor set ever built in France up to that point. It was not, however, easy to shoot in because, in order to make it look even bigger, sections were built in perspective and cameras had to be carefully placed so as not to reveal the set’s true size. It’s also the home to the film’s second best sequence, when the assembled passengers fly into the air after Bond shuts off the gravity. The scene took hours of wire rigging and still stands as the largest simulated weightlessness scene ever filmed.

However, the movie’s most impressive technical feat is the scene where American astronauts storm the space station. Today, all the space scenes would be made with CGI, but Moonraker had to use miniatures and multiple exposures. For those who don’t understand that latter term, the film was exposed to light, then rolled back and re-exposed multiple times so each astronaut and ship could be filmed separately. Even the pinpoint lights of the stars had to be strategically covered and uncovered as objects moved so that the light wouldn’t shine through them and reveal the filmmaking. For this sequence, the film passed through the camera 48 times and the filmmakers were constantly afraid the negative would break or something might happen to overexpose it. Luckily, no catastrophe befell the film and the special effects team was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for their work (Alien won instead).

While only the last third of the movie takes place in space, Bond spends little time on the ground, flying somewhere new seemingly every scene. The best location is the cable car at Pão de Açúcar in Rio de Janeiro. Perched high above the city, the view makes even simple dialogue scenes breathtaking. As pure spectacle, Moonraker is a serious competitor for Moore’s best Bond, but both the villain and the girl feel like less interesting versions of the characters in TSWLM, so the earlier film ultimately reigns. That said, it’s still one of the more enjoyable films in the franchise and it moves a hell of a lot faster than most.