Revisiting 'Moonraker' (aka That Time James Bond Went to Space)

Revisiting 'Moonraker' (aka That Time James Bond Went to Space)

Nov 08, 2012

Welcome to The Last Sci-Fi Blog, a column dedicated to science fiction on film.

There's always been some vague science fiction going on in the James Bond series.

It happened incrementally, of course. No one noticed the Bond series' transformation from slightly elevated espionage stories to full-blown fantasy until it was too late. The critical and commercial failure of the grounded, character-driven On Her Majesty's Secret Service convinced the Bond producers to retreat to the bizarre, fantastical antics that had begun to define the series with Goldfinger and had reached ridiculous heights with You Only Live Twice (that's the one that features a villain stealing a U.S. and U.S.S.R. spacecraft from his volcano lair). For the next decade, the Bond films would grow sillier and more bombastic, latching onto trends and leaving any and all reality in the rearview mirror. Q's gadgets became more implausible and 007's adventures became increasingly ridiculous -- The Spy Who Loved Me is so bizarre that it might as well be a science-fiction film.

This all culminated in 1979 with the release of Moonraker, the first (and last) Bond film that was unashamedly a true science-fiction adventure. It's also one of the worst films in the entire series.

It's obvious why Moonraker exists: Star Wars arrived two years earlier and changed the cinematic landscape forever. The Bond producers (who never saw a popular trend they didn't want to attach to Agent 007) saw an opportunity to cash in and they went for it. The result is one of the strangest films in the series, a film that remains watchable because all of its terrible ideas (of which there are plenty) are fascinatingly terrible. You can see and understand why every decision was made, which makes their awkward, jaw-dropping-in-the-wrong-way execution all the more worthy of academic study.

Moonraker begins like a typical Roger Moore entry in the Bond series. After a silly pre-credits action sequence, Bond heads to MI6, flirts with Miss Moneypenny and takes a meeting with M, where he is assigned to investigate Hugo Drax, a mysterious millionaire with seemingly nefarious intentions. After getting equipped with a new set of gadgets by Q, Bond begins his investigation and for the first hour or so, it's Just Another Below Average James Bond Movie. Agent 007 evades a few attempts on his life, beds a gorgeous woman (who is killed by the bad guys) and teams up with an undercover agent with the eye-rollingly terrible name of Holly Goodhead. Soon enough, Drax's evil master plan is revealed and the film takes a hard left turn into new (and yet oh-so-familiar) territory.

He's stealing government spacecraft so he can transport his chosen people to his secret space-station lair, where they will unleash a virus upon the population of the planet and inherit the Earth, rebuilding civilization as they see fit. Although the outer space angle is completely new to the series, the theft of spacecraft was part of the villainous scheme in the above-mentioned You Only Live Twice and the whole "destroy the world so my people can reclaim it" angle was the ultimate goal of the bad guys in the film right before this one, The Spy Who Loved Me

In short: even when Bond was going where no man has gone before, he was still treading on familiar ground and following a template.

Bond reacts to the prospect of going into outer space like you'd expect he would: with a shrug and a quip. In the year 2012, only a handful of brilliant men and women have had the opportunity to leave our planet, but in 1979, James Bond treats it like another day at the office. This nonchalance extends to the entire cast -- no one is ultimately surprised by the fact that Drax has a space station. In fact, the good guys already have an army of ray gun-wielding soldiers in special sci-fi spacesuits who are able to do battle with Drax's army of ray gun-wielding henchmen in sci-fi spacesuits during the climax.

That should tell you how silly the Moore years were. Moonraker literally becomes something out of Buck Rogers in its second half and no one in the film (or seemingly anyone behind the camera) feels the need to treat this as something extraordinary. There's no excusing the lazy writing, bad jokes and the inexplicable return of the henchman known as Jaws (who gets an embarassing romantic subplot), but a genuine sense of wonder would have gone a long way to making Moonraker tolerable. 

How embarrassing is Moonraker? The producers immediately followed it up with For Your Eyes Only, easily the most grounded and human films of the Moore era. If Moonraker was a dizzying and mortifying left turn in search of Star Wars money, For Your Eyes Only was an equally powerful turn in the opposite reaction, a very public way of proclaiming "Okay, we promise to never send 007 to space again." Although Bond would still brush against science fiction again and again over the years (the invisible car in Die Another Day, anyone?), the producers have been true to their word. Bond has stayed on Earth... where he belongs.

Categories: Features, Sci-Fi, Geek
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