April 4, 2013

Moonraker (Bond #11) [Bond 50 BluRay Set]

The general consensus among those who know the James Bond franchise well seems to be that 1979's Moonraker is one of the shittier entries. Having just seen it myself (albeit over several sittings), I have to agree.

But before you think I'm just jumping on the hate wagon here, I should emphasize that I started to dislike the movie well before I got to the notorious third act where Bond is in space firing lasers. That's incredibly stupid, don't get me wrong… but even if we ignore that whole section, I still think the movie suffers from having an unclear, meandering plot and an excessive case of the sillies.

Watching all the Bond movies in order as an adult has been revelatory because I've found that more often than not, the movies have layers and complexity and cohesion that I just didn't pick up on when I was a teenager. That's doubly true of the three Roger Moore flicks that came before this one - Live And Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me… all of which somewhat upended my earlier impression that the Moore era was defined by hammy one-liners and semi-nonsensical plots. Those earlier three movies aren't really like that, I've found, but Moonraker is the first Bond I've encountered in my 11 movie journey thus far that kind of fits my mental criteria of what the series can be at its worst.

One of the key things about this movie that's indicative of went wrong in terms of thinking and concept is the incessant inclusion of "Jaws," the terrifying, scene-stealing steel-toothed thug who first appeared in the previous movie. Bond's first scene in this one finds him having to make a hasty exit from an airplane sans parachute. Once Bond jumps out, it is revealed that Jaws was on the plane too and is coming after him (although we didn't see him at all in the previous bit). Why did Jaws decide to stay hidden during the fist-fight that happened on the plane before everyone bailed? The mission Bond was on seems to have had nothing to do with him, so why was he even up there in the first place? And where's HIS parachute? One gets the feeling that Jaws has just been following Bond around more or less continuously since The Spy Who Loved Me came out, which frankly makes me think of him as a fairly lousy killer.

Right away, though, bringing Jaws back seems like a weird thing for the franchise to do. The series hadn't really continued a secondary bad-guy from one movie to the next before… Blofled appears in five of the first seven Bond pictures (sometimes only briefly and with his face obscured), but generally speaking, once the end credits roll, that's the end for Kerim and Oddjob and Largo, and Mr. Wint & Mr. Kidd… usually because they're dead, of course, but you know what I'm saying.

Anyway, having Jaws pop up pretty much every time there's an action scene throughout Moonraker - often without much logic or purpose - seems to suggest that the filmmakers had a "if-they-liked-it-last-time, we'll-give-em'-a-bigger-helping-this-time" approach to making this movie, and that's a big part of what feels lazy and uninspired. Indeed, everything is "more"… more exotic locations, more action scenes, more double-entendre, more gadgets, more women for Bond to sleep with, and the most deadly of all, more of the camp that would somehow become synonymous with Moore's portrayal of Bond. It's not as smooth a cocktail as it was in the previous movie, and the story seems to get crowded out a bit by all the excess.

While we're on the topic, though, let's see if we can make some sense of the plot…. During the pre-credit sequence, we see a space shuttle get hijacked mid-air whilst being transported from California to Europe. The UK was apparently responsible for the shuttle's safety, so MI6 sends Bond to investigate. He first goes to Los Angeles (via stock footage), where eccentric space ship industrialist Hugo Drax - played by an astonishingly uncharismatic Michael Lonsdale - has built a sprawling estate next to his space ship factory that is supposed to look exactly like an estate in France (because in reality the movie was filmed in France for tax purposes).

Chang, one of Drax's lackees, tries to kill Bond using a g-force simulator for no clear reason, and then after Bond randomly has sex with Drax's personal jet pilot, the billionaire tries to have him assassinated during an impromptu duck hunt on the estate's front lawn. Right away the movie lost me because Drax could have been a little friendlier to the British secret agent up front as opposed to, oh I don't know, trying to kill him multiple times, and then his evil plot might have gone off without as many hiccups.

The various attempts on Bond's life do arouse some mild suspicion, however… so much so that he inexplicably goes to Venice, Italy, where he has several scenes where he just looks like a sad old man wandering around aimlessly, much like John McCain at a Presidential debate.

Fortunately, after a while Bond randomly stumbles upon a secret chemical lab that happens to be producing some highly deadly nerve gas. Why are they doing that? And what does it have to do with the missing space shuttle? Well, the movie waits another goddamn hour to tell us, and meanwhile, Bond decides to go to Rio for no clear fucking reason that I was able to piece together based on anything that was said or demonstrated elsewhere in the movie. Once there, he has sex with another stunningly attractive woman who is probably 30 years younger than he is, and then goes to a street festival.

Meanwhile, Jaws is relentlessly in pursuit and continues to easily survive situations like falling 20,000 feet from the sky into the hard ground, and sliding down a lift cable and smashing into a brick building. He then meets a short blond girl with enormous breasts whom we instantly know he is in love with because Tchaikovsky's "Romeo And Juliet Overture" plays when we first see her. Their blossoming romance mercifully happens entirely off-screen, but then later they both show up on Drax's space station in the third act. Once Jaws realizes that Drax's plan for using the nerve gas to kill everyone on Earth and then having all the preppy models he's brought into space create a new "master race" to repopulate the planet miiiiiiiiiiight not include a gigantic steel-toothed freak and his 4 foot tall, triple-D cup girlfriend, he suddenly switches sides, and helps Bond save the planet. Urgh.

Drax's plot is very unclear until the last half hour of the picture. I've been thinking a lot about that and whether or not it contributed to the film's crippling lack of momentum for me. When I think of it, many of the other Bond pictures have done this too, starting at the beginning of the franchise with Dr. No, to varying degrees of success. Maybe Moonraker's problem isn't that there are too few breadcrumbs being thrown down as much as the fact that how it gets you from one to the next just isn't all that interesting.

But of course, Hugo Drax bears a lot of the blame too. Roger Ebert sometimes quotes Gene Siskel's observation that "a Bond picture is only as good as its villain." So far, I've really found that to be true… the two Bond pictures I've liked the least thus far - 1965's Thunderball and now this one - have the misfortune of following the intimidating Auric Goldfinger with the dull mumbling Largo, and the steely aquatic-obsessed Stromberg with Hugo Drax, who looks like he came to set immediately after appearing at a Renaissance Fair. He's given so little screen time that it's hard to even really feel all that intrigued or intimidated by him. In fact, Drax basically sub-contracts out the disposal of Bond to Jaws early in the movie, and then disappears for a good hour or so. How are you supposed to root against a villian when you don't know anything about him or what he's doing?

Now in Drax's defense, it's truly a scary scene 90 minutes in when he launches all of his shuttles into space, and we still don't have much of a clue about what he's up to, but I stand by my overall comment that he's one of Bond's less interesting baddies. You can be good, and you can be bad… but the biggest sin is being "boring." Drax is just plain boring.

Oh, and after a parade of bubbly bimbo Bond girls like "Plenty O'Toole" and "Mary Goodnight" throughout the 70s Bond pictures, the series continues the radical concept from the last movie of having Bond's primary love interest be a little more intelligent and respectable. Still unable to resist Bond's penis, mind you, but at the very least, she's less ditzy and outright stupid. This time, it's an American CIA agent who is posing as a rocket scientist in Drax's organization. She has the dignified name "Dr. Holly Goodhead" and is played by Lois Chiles, who makes for a surprisingly bland and uninspiring foil to Bond, certainly so relative to Barbara Bach in the previous movie. But hey, that kind of nondescript dullness seems to be par for the course with this movie.

Several key creative personnel were carried over from 77's The Spy Who Loved Me… most notably director Lewis Gilbert and screenwriter Christopher Wood. This was the last time either would work on the franchise. It was also the last movie for Bernard Lee as "M." Lee would pass away early in the production of next movie, 1981's For Your Eyes Only, before any of his scenes were shot.

I could be wrong, but Moonraker - the 11th "official" James Bond movie - really feels a bit like the end of an era for the franchise. I liked the earlier Moore pictures, but it seems that this is the point where the movies got a little less inventive and Moore's camp and schtick went a little over the top in terms of corniness.

The previous movie, 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me, was probably a bit of a sea change too.... It was the first outing where long time Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli handled one of the movies solo, after his partner Harry Saltzman had to sell his stake in the franchise. With Spy, it's like Broccoli knew that he was under a lot of pressure and the movie had to be good. It was. But Moonraker feels more like "product"... a mismatched collection of established Bond traditions and clich├ęs rather than a movie that feels like a unique entity which moves the series forward.

Longtime Bond editor and 2nd unit director John Glen would direct the next five pictures, all of them made throughout the 80s (three more starring Moore and two with Timothy Dalton). My vague memories of the Bonds of this era are not terribly positive, but I will go in with an open mind and I guess I'll have to see how I feel when I watch 'em.

I wonder, though, that if I had been old enough to see the movies in theaters as they were released, if I wouldn't distinguish the Bond pictures between those that came out before Moonraker - the "good ones" - and the ones that came out after.


Miscellaneous observations:

•Look, I'm as big a fan of the original 1977 Star Wars as anyone, but 1979 must have been a tough time to go to the movies, what with all the Star Wars knock-offs and other assorted space-based adventures that were in theaters. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, The Black Hole, plus the original Battlestar Galactica on TV. I think I would have been so sick of seeing glacially paced starship movies that I would have staged some kind of a boycott.

•Another Star Wars influence... Bond seems to use The Force during the movie's climax in order to shoot down one of Drax's satellites that is set to release nerve gas into the earth's atmosphere. Uh-huh...

•Just before Bond discovers the nerve gas factory in Venice, someone punches an access code into a keypad. The tones match the famous five notes from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind two years earlier. A sign of the bald-faced sci-fi pandering to come later in the film.

•The martini returns again for only the 2nd time in the Moore series thus far. The sexy 20 year old agent that Bond teams up with in Rio makes it for him.

•The product placement is out of control after the scene on the cable car in Rio. There are 7UP billboards all over the place, and shortly after that, ones for Seiko, Marloborogh and British Airways. It still doesn't beat all the Kentucky Fried Chicken product placement in Supermans II and III for me, but it's still worth mentioning.

•The picture returns to Venice for the first time since From Russia With Love. During The Spy Who Loved Me I was starting to feel that the movies were flirting with repeating action scenes… the opening ski chase is Spy is like a faster version of the many ski chases from On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Also in Spy there's the fight with Jaws on the train that brought From Russia to mind as well. I wonder if these are all intentional homage or if the movies just ran out of locations and concepts?

•Again, Moonraker follows the roadmap of the previous movie a little closely, but without the same sense of fun. Drax's plot is ultimately the same as Stromberg's in the last movie, but set in space instead of under the sea. The car chase in Italy during The Spy Who Loved Me was very exciting and badass… Moonraker attempts two similar sequences where Bond suddenly gets into trouble and escapes using a tricked out vehicle that Q has supplied him with. The much more stupid one happens first: That's when Bond is minding his business on the canals of Venice when bad guys start shooting at him. Luckily, Q foresaw this and happened to design an MI6 gondola loaded with rocket launchers, and which can turn into a hovercraft. The other scene is an exhausting speedboat chase before the film's third act, which is mainly notable because whenever Bond blows up a rival ship, there's a ridiculous shot of a bunch of dummies being propelled through the air by the explosion.

•Another repeated pattern from the last movie: Bond is getting busy with the chick-of-the-flick when he's suddenly caught by M, MI6, and some rival government. It's moderately disturbing to me that he doesn't seem to mind his superiors catching him in the act. In both cases, the women don't seem have a problem with having been caught either.

•For some reason, the title song performed by Shirley Bassey (her third for the series) really irked me in this movie. Some of the Bond songs are about the movie's bad guy (Goldfinger, Thunderball, The Man With The Golden Gun, etc) while others seem at least tangentially related to something in the movie (Diamonds Are Forever, et al). This one is another love song - presumably because the song from The Spy Who Loved Me was so successful - but a love song for who? There's no real love story in the movie. Check out these lyrics:

Where are you? Why do you hide?
Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side?
Just like the moonraker goes in search of his dream of gold,
I search for love, for someone to have and hold,
I've seen your smile in a thousand dreams,
Felt your touch and it always seems,
You love me,
You love me.

Well, the 'Moonraker" is one of six spaceships that's going to enable some asshole to kill everyone from space. Did lyricist Hal David even watch the movie? I guess you could argue that the song is about Jaws and his desire to find a lifemate... it's way funnier that way, to be sure, but I'm not sure I entirely buy it.

•I don't have much of an impression of John Barry's score for this one, overall, but I thought that the cue he wrote for when you first see Drax's private space station was really chilling.

•Speaking of 2nd tier baddies usually not returning for subsequent movies because they're dead… I'd like to point out that Nick-Nack did survive the end of The Man With The Golden Gun. I have high hopes that he'll return in the next Daniel Craig picture, maybe played by Peter Dinklage or Tony Cox now… we'll have to see how that shakes out.