Having defined what a James Bond movie is in the previous ten installments (actually, the formula was in place by the third episode, Goldfinger ), 1979’s Moonraker has a lot of fun changing locations and costumes while remaining loyal to the design. Lewis Gilbert, who directed three Bond pictures including Moonraker, has a knack for mounting Bond productions that add very little except an exotic location. In his You Only Live Twice (1967), Gilbert put Bond in Japan, a first for the still–new superspy. In 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond appeared in an underwater fortress. In Moonraker, Bond arrives in outer space. Keep in mind, of course, that enticing locales are not significant additions to a story; they are more like a new coat of paint. It’s still the same house underneath.
It’s perhaps this narrative stability that makes the Bond franchise the most profitable in film history. The producers found a formula that audiences never seem to tire of, but the individual directors of the movies by-and-large add a personal point of view or a stylistic flourish, if for no other reason than to stave off boredom. Guy Hamilton, for example, maker of four Bond pictures, brought a different sensibility to each one, and although their quality might widely fluctuate, they are all unique statements from a strong voice. I have no idea what Gilbert’s voice as a filmmaker is, but it isn’t visually or narratively strong. It seems he likes sets.
And in Moonraker he has a good one: a space station lovingly created by Ken Adam, the production designer, that has much of the awe and detail of the ones in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), though those would never find themselves in such a silly picture as Moonraker. This time Commander James Bond (Roger Moore) is investigating the billionaire industrialist Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) who is masterminding a plot to launch himself and a few hundred couples of his choosing into space, kill every human on Earth through a potent nerve gas, and return to repopulate the planet through a “dynasty that [he] alone has made.” This investigation will take Bond to Venice, Rio and finally into the station itself, and he will once again have to avoid the metal teeth of Jaws (Richard Kiel), the goon from The Spy Who Loved Me who is the best muscle megalomaniac money can buy (there’s a scene of Drax on the phone with a what must be a henchman staffing service indicating his desire to hire Jaws: “Well, if you can get me him…”). At Bond’s side is Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), a NASA scientist in Drax’s employ, who turns sides when she recognizes her boss is a genocidal lunatic.
The joys of Moonraker are modest but they exist. They deal mainly with the way it looks. This is a handsome movie, impeccably designed by Adam with an attention to detail that is often missing from these movies. The space station is the piece de resistance but there’s good work also in Drax’s various ornate chateaus and in a well-staged Carnivale sequence in Rio. Lonsdale is a quietly effective Bond villain and one of the funniest. His face and beard make him resemble Droopy Dog, but he is able to provide both the cold sophistication and appropriate menace required for the part. Lonsdale is a brilliant comedian of understatement (his work with Truffaut, particularly in Stolen Kisses , remains some of the director’s funniest moments) and there’s great badinage in hearing him deliver a line such as “Mr. Bond, you have foiled all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you.” I’m also partial to “Mr. Bond, you appear with the tedious inevitability of an unwanted season.” Watch the subtle way in which Lonsdale quietly suggests that perhaps Drax, a consummate Frenchman, wants to murder humanity and start again because it will rid the world of the English.
Moore is as ribaldly cheeky as always, but he’s saddled with a lame duck in Chiles who has little presence and gives a line such as “I can’t hold this course much longer. We’ll break up at 200,000 feet,” as if she were reading the driest section of The Financial Times. Despite the exquisite sets surrounding him, Gilbert continues to treat narrative filmmaking as if he were a child being told to eat his vegetables, and many of the movie’s action scenes, including the final battle in the space station, are sloppy messes. Gilbert goes into such auto-pilot that he often has the art direction tell the story for him, so we have spy files complete with a subtitle that reads “Most secret” and everything in the space station is properly labeled including buttons that are classified as “Laser Beam – Manual” and “Emergency Stop – Do Not Use Unless Station Secured,” which is fairly obvious code for “Hey, Bond, Use This If You Want The Station To Become Unsecure.”
Gilbert come alive only when there’s a visual gag he can make or if he can set up for a joke, and here, after a bungled and unintelligible cable car chase, we get a brilliantly realized sequence when a henchmen gets thrown in the air and has his head bust through an advertising billboard, making his prone body appear to be coming out of the mouth of the woman in the ad. There’s also a well-set up joke involving an ancient vase in a museum. A tour guide demonstrates the vase’s security features, showing a tour group that an alarm sounds when the vase is touched. Later, when Bond and an assailant are battling in the museum, Bond picks up the vase to throw it at his attacker but is startled by the alarm and gently replaces it, stopping the alarm. Then his attacker unceremoniously shatters it by trying to get at Bond.
The best joke, however is the last one, which reveals a lot about Gilbert’s playfully sophomoric worldview. Bond and Goodhead, having saved the human race, are consummating their relationship in zero gravity. Unbeknownst, the British government has patched a feed of Bond’s craft to both the White House and Buckingham Palace (how they got a camera in the spaceship is beyond me, as the craft itself belonged to Drax, but never mind). An outraged official, when he sees what is being broadcast to the queen, blurts out, “My God! What’s Bond doing?” Q (Desmond Llewelyn), the unflappable gadget man, coolly replies, “I believe he’s attempting re-entry, sir.” These are meager pleasures spread over 126 minutes, but they are enough to sustain Moonraker, which is happy to be an old house with a new coat of paint and even happier to be made by a man who works with paint but doesn’t have any desire to be an artist.