Lewis Gilbert directs his third and final Bond movie with 1979’s Moonraker. Loosely based on Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel, this 007 film has a science fiction edge that was meant to capitalize on the popularity of a little something called Star Wars. It is an escapist yarn that does away with most of the Fleming book, with Christopher Wood penning the script.
By this point, the James Bond formula is well-known. Moonraker doesn’t deviate from it much, volleying from wild set piece to wilder set piece just in time for a climactic sequence that is as improbable as it is exhilarating.
The picture opens with the hijacking of a Moonraker space shuttle owned by Drax Industries. MI6 agent Bond (Roger Moore) is of course sent to investigate, which requires him to meet with billionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale). 007 is immediately targeted by Drax, who is clearly hiding something in his ridiculously mammoth lair.
Bond teams with Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), an astronaut working for Drax, and comes across a plot that involves nerve gas and the movement of the villain’s operations to Rio. Naturally, the secret agent follows the trail and discovers an even more sinister conspiracy that eventually launches him into orbit.
As villains go, Drax is certainly ambitious. His real plans don’t come out until the end of the picture and this dampens the blow somewhat, especially considering how downright horrid (and interesting) his designs are. Lonsdale doesn’t bring much to the part, which is a shame considering all the potential that exists.
The return of Jaws (Richard Kiel) is a bit of a mixed bag. He goes through a bit of a transformation late in the game thanks to the arrival of Dolly (Blanche Ravalec) and this makes him into a rather sympathetic character. He’s still charged with some serious destruction and gets in a few good fights with Bond along the way, though.
Moore’s English gentleman routine is nearly automatic by now. He beds down numerous women, but he has his match in Goodhead. She doesn’t buckle like other Bond girls; she maintains her intelligence and cleverness until the very end. The other women, like Corinne Cléry as Drax’s hot pilot, are underused.
Moonraker excels when it keeps the speed up and whisks the audience through locales like Los Angeles, Rio and Venice. It seems only natural for the picture to wind up in space because it ran out of earthly sites. Gilbert and cinematographer Jean Tournier capture the action well enough, although there are some slip-ups.
As with The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker has trouble topping its opening scene. It is a wonder of skydiving awesomeness, with Bond and Jaws plunging through the air as they fight it out. A lightweight Panavision was used to capture the sequence and the stuntmen – Jake Lombard, B.J. Worth and Ron Luginbill – took some 88 dives to get it right.
There are also some incredible sets, including Drax’s mansion. Ken Adam’s designs, which were made in France rather than at Pinewood’s 007 Stage, were enormous. The climactic sequence in space still holds the world record for the most zero gravity wires used in one scene, while the glass museum is another work of art.
The gadgets are also on-point, even if they do venture well over the line into silly territory. Bond’s gondola in a critical Venice chase sequence is a great work of transformation and it gives way to one of the weirdest chase sequences in the picture. The attempts at humour as 007 takes to land are a little much, especially the double-take from the pigeon.
Moonraker is among the sillier of the Bond movies, but it’s also very amusing. It is an undemanding spectacle full of absurdity and some marvellous set pieces. The stunts are stunning, especially the initial scene, but the comedy misses more than it hits and the villain leaves a lot to be desired. Still, Moonraker is a fairly good effort overall.