Review: Moonraker

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The title song to Moonraker, sung by Shirley Bassey, sets the tone for the latest James Bond film: gentle, inoffensive, almost sweet. This is not the audience-affronting, brassy Bassey of Goldfinger or Diamonds Are Forever; and of John Barry’s score, even the recycled, tried-and-true music from previous Bond films fails to please. The brash, insistent guitar of Monty Norman’s original “James Bond Theme” has been traded down for gentle violin pizzicati, the tempo tripping rather than surging, more cute than clout. Like a turtle drawing in its head, the James Bond format has become systematically less and less daring with the passing years. Not only the actors but even their characters seem progressively aware of participating in a routine: Bond (Roger Moore) isn’t surprised when Drax (Michael Lonsdale), with no provocation, immediately sets about trying to kill him; and Drax himself makes no bones about wanting Bond dead. There’s no detective work, no effort to sidetrack or deceive the investigating agent. What immediately gives Drax away—to Bond and us—as the archvillain is his lavish wealth. It’s become an accepted premise of the Bond film that those who have enough money to buy anything they want will inevitably build private fortresses, equip private armies, and spend their lucre on a quest for world domination.

Yet as a voguish attack on the corporate rich, Moonraker seems unconscious of its built-in irony: Bond himself has always enjoyed the same kind of luxury, surrounding himself with the trappings of his high station and salary. The bet is hedged by defining Bond as one who enjoys the best things in life as it is, while his adversaries are demented Midases who would turn the world into something it was not meant to be. But the Roger Moore Bond films overlook the critical difference between Bond and his opponents in the Connery days, when there was still some fidelity to the Fleming spirit: Bond was an essentially clean and conscientious agent who worked against men who were boorish brutes, despite their wealth: Goldfinger, Largo, even Blofeld. By contrast, Moore’s Bond fights men who are associated with cultural refinement, art and sensitivity, even though he himself pretends to the same kind of refinement. The way this motif crosses itself in Moonraker is exemplified in a fight between Bond and Drax’s goon Chang (Toshiro Suga) in a Venetian glass museum. Both men slug it out with no regard for the delicacy and value of the glassworks around them, until Bond has occasion to pick up a million-dollar glass bowl. He considers a moment, relents, and puts it back on its stand. Chang then smashes it to pieces. When the chips are down, we are supposed to believe, James Bond cares, while the forces of evil do not.

But the film’s lack of real commitment to anything keeps this notion from evoking anything but a mirthless laugh. The obligatory fight scenes are not sufficiently violent to be tense (a Bond film can’t risk an R rating), nor yet sufficiently inventive to be comic. They are as dull and formulaic as the obligatory chase scenes and the obligatory bed scenes (which bear no relation at all to the wonderfully suggestive kinkiness of Goldfinger or Diamonds Are Forever). The Moore Bonds are played just for laughs; there is no tension, no concern for the characters themselves, never any sense of loss or gain. We’re unconvinced when the film tries to tell us that Bond cares because we no longer care. The film invites us to come along for the ride, not to get involved. “Jaws” (Richard Kiel), the metal-toothed gorilla from The Spy Who Loved Me, is turned into an ally of 007 by the end of the film, just as the most popular monsters of Japanese science fiction became good guys in subsequent films; and the shift in allegiance makes no difference whatever to the way we feel about him. ‘M’, ‘Q’, and Miss Moneypenny keep moving their headquarters around so that they can be near Bond—both uncharacteristic and a frivolous disregard of security. All it means is that we are no longer to take anything seriously, are to accept nothing as an important given in Bond’s world, as we did when Connery’s Bond fought for the honor of his Queen. Given its due, Moonraker boasts some spectacular special effects, and is all in all a better film than its predecessor, The Spy Who Loved Me. But both films are little more than remakes of their director’s only Connery Bond film, You Only Live Twice, the most forgettable of the James Bond adventures. Lewis Gilbert’s noncommittal, unimposing style seems to embrace mediocrity; and that may be precisely why he has become the reigning director in this latest, box-office-safe, lowest-common-denominator phase of the Bond series.

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

MOONRAKER
Direction: Lewis Gilbert. Screenplay: Christopher Wood, after the novels of Ian Fleming. Cinematography: Jean Tournier. Production design: Ken Adam. Editing and second-unit direction: John Glen. Special visual effects: Derek Meddings. Music: John Barry; lyrics: Hal David. Production: Albert R. Broccoli.
The players: Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael (Michel) Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Toshiro Suga, Corinne Clery, Emily Bolton, Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.