Monday, January 3, 2011

Review – Moonraker

January 3, 2011

Moonraker – UK, 1979

Moonraker was not supposed to be the next Bond film. That honor was supposed to go to For Your Eyes Only, but Star Wars changed that, as it did many things. Bond simply had to be in a science fiction film. And it was not enough for the film to simply have space crafts, which You Only Live Twice does. This time, Bond had to physically go into space, and since Bond is not a trained astronaut – that would have been simply too preposterous, even for Bond – he had to be paired with someone that knew something about space shuttles. In Moonraker, that person is none other than a beautiful female scientist named Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles). I’m not joking. That’s her name. It’s almost puts “Pussy Galore” to shame.

It’s hard to know what Moonraker was intended to be. At times, it seems to be paying tribute to classic science fiction films, yet at others it seems to be blatantly ripping them off. It seems to want to be taken seriously; however, then it throws in moments that can only be described as sophomore attempts at humor, which take away from the film’s more dramatic elements. I have a feeling that if the audience laughs, though, it won’t be for the intended reason. For example, there’s a moment when a villain pulls too hard trying to open a parachute and the cord breaks. Instead of being panicked and fearful, the expression on the character’s face is comical. Soon, he’s flapping his arms, trying to fly as he plunges further and further to the ground. In a Road Runner cartoon, this might be humorous, but in a Bond film? The people trying to kill Bond should be menacing and dangerous. The men assigned that task in Moonraker seem as if they belong in a slapstick comedy rather than a spy mystery.

It’s not just that Moonraker is bad; it’s that it doesn’t seem to be trying at all to be original. It begins with yet another woman that Bond is seducing pulling a gun on him, has a character that announces himself as the villain about two minutes after he appears on screen, and is full of action scenes that are either predictable or are given no build up at all. One of these scenes involves Bond getting into a space flight simulator just to try it out. The scene serves no purpose but to enable the villain’s evil henchman, Chang (Toshiro Suga), a man whose mannerisms resemble Nick Nack’s a bit too much, to make his first of many failed attempts to assassinate Bond. Eventually Bond puts this character out of his misery, and the villain has to literally call for a replacement, as if somewhere there’s a company that rents them out to whoever is trying to take over or destroy the world this week. In another scene, Bond is shown driving a speed boat through a river in the Amazon, and in the blink of an eye, he’s being pursued by other speed boats. Usually we would see people hiding in the waters, biding their time, while Bond begins noticing clues. Not this time though. The chase begins practically the moment the scene begins.

This is unfortunate because Moonraker actually has a promising premise. In the film, Bond is assigned to discover how a space shuttle on loan from the U.S. was stolen while it was being transported to the UK. The theft is cleverly executed, and it is obvious why an event such as this would be embarrassing for two political allies. Bond’s investigation takes him to California, where it appears that every woman wears a shirt with a long, revealing v-neck and pants that allow their slender legs to practically shine in the sunlight. The villain is quickly revealed to be a wealthy man determined to conquer space named Drax (Michael Lonsdale). He runs Drax Industries, a company that among other things builds space shuttles, a fact that makes his motives a mystery, for why would he have to steal something his company manufactures? The answer to this puzzling question is less interesting than it should have been. The first half of the film, which is predictable and unspectacular, involves Bond’s investigation, and it takes him from California to Rio; the second half of the film takes Bond into space and attempts to dazzle the audience with its special effects and its elements of science fiction, including a impressive-looking space station, a skirmish in space between American astronauts and Drax’s soldiers, and an apocalyptic plan for world domination involving both positive and negative eugenics. The space station is reminiscent of the one in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the space battle, replete with Atari-like sound effects, resembles the underwater battle from Thunderball – slow and slightly silly looking. The inclusion of eugenics is interesting, yet it comes too late in the film to save it. In fact, it may have been used simply because it enabled screenwriter Christopher Wood to give a pivotal character a change of heart. Later, Bond and Goodhead wander through the space station looking for a device that must be turned off if Drax’s plan is to be thwarted. Sound familiar?

As I watch films, I often scribble down notes to remind myself of interesting parts that I might want to include in my reviews. Here are a few of the things I scribbled down for Moonraker: “again?” “henchman like a taller Nick Nack,” "why?” and “odd cut from ambulance.” Not a word of praise among them. Maybe the film played better in 1979, when the Cold War was still being waged and space was being talked about as a possible future battleground. Maybe audiences enjoyed seeing blatant references to much better films. However, I’ve always believed that a director shouldn’t remind an audience of a classic film unless his film matches it in quality, which Moonraker doesn’t even come close to doing. It’s also not a good sign when an audience member begins to imagine something that mocks what he is watching, and as the film progressed, I half expected a narrator to say in a loud Muppet-like voice, “Bond in Space!” If Moonraker did not kill off the Bond series, I’m convinced that nothing will. In fact, according to Wikipedia, it had the highest gross of any Bond film until 1995’s Goldeneye. At least, in this one, the villain doesn’t invite Bond to sit down after telling him he’d been expecting him. (on DVD)

2 stars

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