Sunday, July 01, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Moonraker

Memory can play tricks on you. It had been a while – actually, a good decade or so – since I’d last seen ‘Moonraker’ and I recalled it as being dumb but fun. Mrs F had the same recollection and, though she’d not participated in any of the viewings for the Bond-a-thon beyond a couple of the Connery titles, sat down to watch it with me. We groaned, face-palmed and talked sarcastically over the movie for two solid hours.

The trickery of one person’s memory may be considered unfortunate, two people’s smacks of conspiracy. “Why did I waste two hours on that piece of shit?” my wife enquired as the end credits rolled. I could offer no answer. It may be of some cold comfort that at least she doesn’t have to write this fucking review; one, moreover, that forces me to reappraise my earlier opinion of ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ as the series’ nadir. Although perhaps ‘TMwtGG’ is more bitterly disappointing because of the flashes of potential it displays – ‘Moonraker’ simply starts bad and stays bad.

How bad? Even allowing for the extravagancies and unsubtleties that are emblematic of the Roger Moore opuses, ‘Moonraker’ is god-awful. The pacing is leaden, the action scenes perfunctory, the humour sub-juvenile, the plot meaningless, the gadgets dull, the Bond girls duller and the villain dullest of all, Michel Lonsdale not even attempting to act but delivering a series of monotone line readings with all the conviction of an automaton.

Let’s spend a few hundred words finding out why, wrap this up as quickly as possible, and in ten days’ time we can enjoy ‘For Your Eyes Only’ which at least has Carole Bouquet, Topol, some nice scenery and no fucking idiotic space battles.

‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ ended with the promise “James Bond will return in ‘For Your Eyes Only’”, however producer Albert Broccoli – his antennae, as always, attuned to what was bringing in the biggest box office bucks at any given moment – realised that audiences were responding to sci-fi spectaculars. ‘Star Wars’, released the same year as ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, had left 007 standing in terms of ticket sales (and ‘TSWLM’ was no flop either, earning its budget back at least ten times over). ‘For Your Eyes Only’ was put on hold and ‘Moonraker’ was rushed into production.

The biggest rush job was arguably the script. If Christopher Wood took more than a weekend over it, I’d be amazed. Wood was the chap Lewis Gilbert brought on board to add a dash of humour to Richard Maibaum’s script for ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. Earning himself a solo writing credit for ‘Moonraker’, Wood basically rewrote ‘TSWLM’ substituting “up in space” for “under the sea”. Hence we have reclusive billionaire Stromberg who wants to destroy earth and rule a new master race under the sea reimagined as reclusive billionaire Sir Hugo Drax who wants to destroy earth and rule a new master race in the stars; sexy helicopter pilot Naomi replaced by sexy helicopter pilot Corinne; the plot kickstarter of a stolen submarine rehashed as a stolen spacecraft (deepening levels of self-plagiarism here, with ‘Moonraker’ essentially ripping off ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ which essentially ripped off ‘You Only Live Twice’); Bond’s emergence from the sea in a car/submarine occasioning a nearby drinker to glance at the bottle and shake his head in disbelief restaged as Bond’s transition from canal to piazza in gondola/hovercraft occasioning a nearby drinker to … well, you get the picture.

A musical gag is also repeated: a snatch of Maurice Jarre’s score to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ as Bond crosses a desert in ‘TSWLM’; a bit of Elmer Bernstein’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ theme as Bond rides a horse dressed in western gear. Elsewhere, a security keypad plays the famous motif from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (Spielberg repaid the homage by featuring the Bond theme in ‘The Goonies’, which he produced), and a hunt is opened by horn players sounding the opening notes of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, the Richard Strauss tone poem forever associated with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Just one of these would have maybe provided a cute little touch; stuffing them all into the film, along with its plentiful self-borrowings, turns it into a tedious plod through a decaying mulch of unoriginal material.

Jaws (Richard Kiel) returns, ostensibly in Drax’s employ but helping Bond during the mind-numbingly horrible space station battle at the end. His reversal of sympathies was due to Broccoli receiving tons of mail from kids whose imagination had been captured by the steel-toothed giant in the previous and had written to ask, in so many words, “Please mister, we think Jaws is dead cool, can’t he be a goodie this time and help Bond?” And so their requests were fulfilled; ergo a little more kerr-chinggg at the box office. Also, the big dude gets a girlfriend [insert “Jaws scores” pun here] and is allowed to deliver his only line of dialogue (“Here’s to us”).

By this point in the franchise, putting the words “Some Actor isJames Bond 007 in ‘Totally Interchangable Title’” over a big ballad and some naked women gyrating in silhouette was a guarantee in and of itself of at least $150million in box office returns, and for me it’s this foregone conclusion of profitability that makes ‘Moonraker’ such a depressing thing to watch. Every bit of it is a cynical calculation with a dollar bottom line that’s so unabashedly obvious it swamps even the faintest smidgin of technical ingenuity or entertainment value. More depressing is the fact that it worked; for all that ‘Moonraker’ took a deserved kicking from the critics, it made $210million from a $34million investment (double the budget of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’).

Still, columns of figures are not the yardstick for this Bond-a-thon; these are tentpole movies whose mainstream appeal should be based on how entertaining they are; how much fun to watch. And ‘Moonraker’ delivers very little in the entertainment stakes. Everyone involved seems to be going through the motions: Gilbert’s direction is pedestrian, Moore’s performance is perhaps his most wooden turn in the franchise, Corine Cleary and Lois Chiles – saddled with underwritten characters – just phone in it, Lonsdale as mentioned earlier merely reads his lines and leaves it at that; the action scenes lack any frisson, with a potentially exciting speed boat chase reduced to a yawn-inducing a few minutes of padding and the explosive finale managing by some weird reverse alchemy to be as OTT as it is boring.

There’s not much else to say about the whole fiasco – at least not without getting into an overlong diatribe on how little sense the plot makes, even by the logic-starved standards of your average Bond movie, and I really don’t want to waste any more time or words on ‘Moonraker’ – except that it marks Bernard Lee’s final appearance as M. Which is a bloody shame. He deserved a better swansong.


Matthew Kitsell said...

Hi Neil,

I have been following your Bond-a-thon with great interest and have thoroughly enjoyed all your reviews of the movies. I must say this one made me laugh quite a bit!

Yes indeed, Moonraker can certainly try the patience of anyone but the most casual and forgiving viewer. Coincidentally, I decided to take a look at it myself quite recently, and found that, despite all the obviously disappointing aspects of the production which you have correctly pointed out, one or two elements are in fact really outstanding: Claude Tournier's cinematography is glorious (he captures the grey beauty of Venice quite magnificently) and John Barry's soaring, majestic score has long been one of my favourites (and, I think, one of his finest achievements during his long association with Bond). Taken purely as a spectacle, Moonraker is often very impressive, if one can look beyond the inane dialogue and sight gags. At the very least, in my opinion, it maintains a good pace and never runs out of steam, which TMWTGG and most of the Brosnan films certainly do. To be honest, there are later entries in the franchise that I find far more offensive than this one - the quite horrid Die Another Day for one.

Great review, as always!

Many thanks,


Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for commenting, Matt. Good points re: the cinematography and the score - Barry's work for the franchise was consistent and is often overlooked (not least by me: I haven't paid him nearly enough tribute in these reviews!)

Funny you should mention 'Die Another Day' - two other people have said exactly the same thing to me, and my blood runs cold at the prospect of sitting through THAT one again.



David Pascoe said...

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article in defence of Moonraker. I tried to upload it to this blog, but it was too big to fit in. In summary my defence of Moonraker amounts to the following:

1) One of the best pre-title sequences in the history of the series. The parachute sequence is absolutely brilliant. Superbly shot and scored. It's probably the definitive "How the hell is he going to get out of this one??" scene. I've certainly made notes in case it happens to me ;0)

2) The title song - You've talked about John Barry's score, but this may be Shirley Bassey's best vocal performance. Less bombastic than Goldfinger, though Diamonds are Forever is cooler. Had Moonraker been made in the 80s, it would probably have had a theme song by the Human League. An intriguing concept, but not quite as elegiacly beautiful as what Bassey and Barry delivered.

3)The darkness - This is one dark and twisted film. From the poor airline pilots who get fried by the space shuttle engines to the G-Force scene (which Moore plays brilliantly, particularly the aftermath which shows one of the few times in his era in which Bond seems genuinely scared and afraid by events); Corrine Clery's death, the sniper in the trees, the scientists getting gassed in their laboratory. It isn't all double taking pigeons....

4) Toshiro Suga's performance as Chang is very impressive and he should have been kept on for the whole film. His death via grand piano is another disturbing moment.

5) Richard Kiel's performance as Jaws at the moment when he realises that he and Dolly will not be a part of Drax's new world due to physical and mental deficiences. A moment which showed he had greater silent range than just going "Oh fuck!" when heading towards a waterfall.

6) The ending which is genuinely tense and exciting as they chase the plague capsule.

A much better film than it's given credit for. And Cubby Broccoli did everyone a favour by deferring the dullest of all Bond movies by another two years.

Michael Grover said...

I expected you'd have a field day with this one! I can't disagree with many of your comments, but the fact remains that I still have a soft spot for Moonraker. At the time of its release, it neatly intersected with two of my adolescent obsessions - Bond and science fiction - and it certainly made an impression on me. I'll echo Matthew's positive comments about John Barry's score and some the film's spectacular set pieces. For example, take the discovery of the space station. Barry's music coupled with the impressive special effects do invoke a genuine sense of awe, at least for me. I will also say that I think the the gondola on wheels is one of the single dumbest things in the entire series.

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