Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Moonraker - 1979

Background: at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me it clearly says James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only, yet the next film to be released was Moonraker. What happened?

It was Eon's intention to make For Your Eyes Only as their 11th James Bond adventure, however the Star Wars phenomenon hit and never one to pass up an opportunity to make money out of a current cinematic craze, Cubby Broccoli started looking around for any Ian Fleming property that he could turn into a space/science fiction extravaganza and he found Moonraker.

The only thing vaguely science fictiony about Moonraker the novel is the title. It did originally begin life as a film script that Fleming was never able to get made before he turned it into a novel. The story that Eon came up with for the film is so vastly altered from the novel (about the only things it retained were the title and the name of the hero and the villain) that the screenwriter, Christopher Wood, was actually authorised to write and publish a novelisation of the script.

Changing ideas mid stream like this is never really a great idea, and it didn't work here, either. The whole thing (stunts and effects aside) has the look something made in a hurry on order to cash in on a trend, which is largely what Moonraker is. Despite all that, it had a budget of $34,000,000 (most of which went on effects, it certainly wasn't spent on the script, a far cry from the days when they made some outstanding films for less than $10,000,000) and it took a staggering  $210,300,000 at the box office, which remained a record for the franchise until Casino Royale surpassed it in 2006.

Story: early on it looks like they're remaking Thunderball in outer space and without SPECTRE or Largo and even Blofeld, who all belonged to Kevin McClory (at this time busy with his own remake of Thunderball). 

It kind of settles down into a more standard Bond film, with the hero globe trotting and sleeping with any attractive woman who happens to cross his path, on the track of billionaire industrialist Hugo Drax who looks to have engineered the theft of his own technology, the Moonraker space shuttle, while en route to NASA for their use in the space program. He also uncovers a deadly virus or nerve gas in a Drax owned glassworks in Venice. They certainly had some attractive locations: Drax's estate in California, Venice (although I would have felt any real Venetian glassworks would have at least had the work done on Murano and then transported to the main island, not have the work done just off St Mark's Square as appears to be the case here), Rio De Janeiro and then Iguazu Falls, although it's described as being somewhere in the upper basin of the Amazon and the falls are located in the south of Brazil.

They made a lot of use of Venice, that's where one of the film's more ridiculous moments takes place. Bond is chased by a bunch of speedboats across the Grand Canal, while piloting a gondola and escapes by inflating a hovercraft under the boat and riding through St Mark's Square. Once with the submersible Lotus was funny, this is just stupid, and it isn't helped by some dodgy CGI involving a pigeon doing a double take. They do push the chase scene boundaries with Bond, we've had cars, helicopters, planes, motorbikes, moon buggies, klong boats and now a gondola. In Venice they also got permission from Spielberg to use the music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to allow entrance to Drax's lab, and there was a nice scene where Bond sees it as a lab, then goes back the next day after causing a scene by putting Chang through the zodiac clock at one end of St Mark's Square, and demolishing a glass showroom in the process, including a glass bowl worth in excess of $1,000,000, and everything's gone, which makes everyone, except for the loyal M, think Bond is bother dangerous and insane.

Everywhere Bond goes he keeps crossing paths with Dr. Holly Goodhead, who as well as being an astronaut with a PhD in aeronautics, is also a CIA operative. Initially Bond and Holly are working against each other, although for the same end, so decide to work together. This proves invaluable when Bond disposes of Drax's original assassin (his Japanese manservant/bodyguard Chang) and is replaced by the somewhat more formidable and indestructible Jaws (he returned due to popular demand).

After the scene on Iguazu Falls the film goes through an odd metamorphosis in order to include the space element. My wife remarked that it was rather Dr. No, in that it starts one way, then goes another, when they could have made a perfectly serviceable film about Bond's investigation into Drax and the nerve gas or virus he was producing.

Drax has a base near the falls (probably under them) and has staffed it with his unbelievably attractive young male and female astronauts. He tries to dispose of Bond and Holly by imprisoning them under the rockets of one of his shuttles (he had to steal the one that was being given to NASA because one of his other ones developed a problem and he needed a working one in a hurry, no really the scriptwriters thought the audience were that stupid, it's kind of insulting actually). Bond uses the string of plastic explosive (honestly, I am not making this up it was in the film!) stored in his wristwatch to get them to safer before the shuttle takes off. Bond and Holly then steal it and follow the other shuttles to Drax's space station.

Blofeld has absolutely nothing on Drax when it comes to out there plans. He wants to release his virus on Earth, wiping out the human population (it only kills people, does not affect animals, it's distilled from a South American orchid), then repopulating the planet with his own perfect specimens, safely housed on his space station. It's actually Drax's love of the ideal person that ultimately turns Jaws and his newfound love, Dolly against him, and ultimately leads to his downfall.  

Of course having a lot of it take place on a space station allows them to stage a space battle. I'm sure the intention as the CIA/NASA/US airforce astronauts (I'm surprised Felix Leiter wasn't one of them) battle Drax's people in outer space with space suits, jet packs and blue firing lasers, was to remind the audience of Star Wars (could have been a mistake, because it made people long for Star Wars and think that The Empire Strikes Back couldn't be that far away, could it?), but I kept thinking of the underwater battle in Thunderball.

Utilising Holly's expertise in piloting a spacecraft and Bond's computer marksmanship (although I personally feel they needed a 14 year old Playstation expert on board with them) they knock out the containers of the virus to save the world, and it ends with Holly and Bond making love in zero gravity while M, and various other dignitaries want to thank the 2 via a video link up.

I still rate this above The Man With The Golden Gun, but it's a close run race. I hadn't realised exactly how dire Moonraker was until this rewatch.


Director: there were no problems in convincing Lewis Gilbert to return. In some ways it may have been better if he hadn't, although if he had directed For Your Eyes Only, rather than the hastily put together Moonraker, it might have have suited him better. It was Gilbert's idea to alter Jaws character and turn him into a sort of good guy, and he was also behind the casting of Lois Chiles (both mistakes in my opinion). He tended to concentrate on the stunts and effects, and like Guy Hamilton before him in The Man With The Golden Gun, seemed to leave the actors to direct themselves. It was his last Bond film.

James Bond: I'm not sure what happened to Roger Moore in between making The Spy Who Loved Me and this film, but he seemed to forget everything that made him a successful Bond in the previous movie and just went through the motions in this. He looked positively bored at times. Maybe he was too comfortable in the role, maybe he had wanted to leave and been convinced back (he did talk about leaving occasionally and Broccoli simply threw more money at him), possibly he'd been expecting to film For Your Eyes Only and just got thrown Moonraker at short notice with no real time to prepare. In the actor's defence he did arrive late for the South American shoot due to health problems, including kidney stones, which may have significantly affected his performance in that part of the film.

Hugo Drax: I find the name of the character the most interesting part of it. Fleming was known to use the names of people he'd crossed paths with as characters in his books. The name Blofeld is the name of a classmate, and was the father of British broadcaster Henry Blofeld. Drax more than likely owes his name to Admiral the Hon. Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, the younger son of the 17th Earl of Dunsany and due to his convoluted name was derisively nicknamed Admiral Acronym (although never to his face I am sure) was an admiral during the 2nd World War and it's likely that he and Fleming crossed paths, or were known to each other, so the author appropriated the name for his villain. The original choice to play Drax was James Mason (once also considered for Bond), but when the decision was made to make the film an Anglo-French production under the 1965-79 film treaty they had to cast a French actor, and that gave the role to Michael Lonsdale, a bi-lingual actor. While Mason may have given the role the menace that Lonsdale's flat delivery didn't, he lacked Lonsdale's rather sinister look and imposing physical size.

Jaws: audience reaction was so positive to Richard Kiel's giant steel toothed henchman that he was almost a lock to be cast in the next Bond after The Spy Who Loved Me, no matter what it was. I have kind of mixed feelings about it. While I, like most Bond fans, love Jaws and wanted to see him again, I was less comfortable with the decision to use him largely as comedy relief. They compounded this by making him indestructible (he survives a fall from a plane without a working parachute and crashing into a circus tent, and a fall from the top of Iguazu Falls, all without any discernible ill effects, he's also kneed in the groin by Bond and doesn't even flinch) and then giving him a diminutive girlfriend in Dolly. Lewis Gilbert also confessed that he received a number of letters from children begging him to turn Jaws from a 'baddie' to a 'goodie' and acted on it! While Jaws as a character is much beloved, he's really not a good guy, how many people has he killed? He's a professional hit man after all, and he didn't discriminate between whether they were bad or good, if he was told to kill them he did. So to see him do a 180 and be turned by the love of a good woman, then escape scot free doesn't quite sit right with me.

Peripheral roles: the audience favourites were back in their familiar roles. Again Bernard Lee has the largest role of the 3 MI6 support crew, bobbing up in all sorts of places. It was sadly the last time audiences would see Bernard Lee as the irascible M, he passed away before they filmed For Your Eyes Only. Once again Lois Maxwell's Moneypenny  (compounding the family feel about the films amongst regular cast and crew members were decisions like that to cast Maxwell's daughter Melinda as one of Drax's astronauts) role is very much a brief background one. I must admit she's got a good gig, though, wherever M travels and sets up she goes with him. These days she seems to regard Bond as a charming and rather amusing distraction from the day to day tedium of her job. Q, as well as providing Bond with all sorts of useful gadgetry, has another mobile lab, this time in Rio, and he also seems to be M's 2IC. He has the line of the film as well at the end, when Bond and Holly are seen making love in zero gravity, and one of the British politicians asks what Bond thinks he's doing and Q replies deadpan, 'I think he's attempting reentry, sir.' It's kind of crude and obvious as well as being in true Carry On style, but it is one of the series' best double entendres and perfectly delivered by Desmond Llewelyn.

Chang: Tishiro Suga isn't really an actor. He's actually an aikido instructor. He was teaching Michael G. Wilson at the time and it was Broccoli's stepson who suggested him for the role of Chang. He doesn't really have to act, just look menacing and be very energetic, and he does that well.

Corinne Dufour: if there's a secondary female role, then this is probably it. She is rather unfortunately ripped to pieces by Drax's Doberman hunting dogs after she betrays him to Bond. The role was played by French actress Corinne Clery, who was probably best known at the time for portraying O in the film version of Pauline Reage's controversial novel about bondage and submission The Story of O. She did better than most of the major roles in this and I would have liked to see her get the Holly role over Lois Chiles.

General Gogol: I know he appeared in a few films, I hadn't been aware this was one of them. They must have had Walter Gotell on a fixed film deal, because there's almost no reason for the character to appear, and it really amounts to a cameo.

Dolly: this is a tiny role, but I really have to include it. I have the feeling that Blanche Ravalec, who plays Dolly was part of the deal to include French actors in the film, like Michael Lonsdale, and possibly Corinne Dufour were. She's not a big lady and looks even smaller next to the giant Richard Kiel. They were initially concerned by the size difference until Richard Kiel said that his wife was about the same size.

Dr. Holly Goodhead: they did give her a genuine Flemingesque name, it's probably about the most risqué since Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. Making her an astronaut and aeronautics expert with a PhD is about the most unbelievable qualification to date, although Tanya Roberts' seismologist Stacy Sutton in A View To A Kill and Denise Richard's nuclear physicist (she couldn't even pronounce it properly!) Dr. Christmas Jones in The World Is Not Enough probably top it. The real mistake was casting Lois Chiles. She had apparently been offered the role of Anya Amasova (thank goodness she didn't accept) but declined as she was taking a break from acting at the time. Even the Holly role came about by chance, she happened to be seated next to Lewis Gilbert on an international flight. All her delivery is lifeless, as is her expression, they could have saved some money by making Holly a mannequin, projecting a face onto it's head and then getting someone who could actually put some life into the lines do the voice work. I had problems with Britt Ekland, but at least she was trying. The idea seemed to be to get lightning to strike twice, and create a similar character to Anya Amasova, it may have worked if they'd hired a moderately competent actress.

The Curse of the Bond Girl: Lois Chiles was a model before turning to acting as a possible career. She seemed to play murder victims a lot. I'm assuming this was because her lifeless delivery and lack of facial expression made her perfect to portray a corpse. She struggled to find big roles after Moonraker and given the mess she made of the role of Holly that's not at all surprising. She taught acting at one stage, I pity her students, although I guess her stories about working in a James Bond film may have had some value to them. She's one of the few that remembers the experience fondly, possibly because she didn't have much of a career outside of it.

Pre credit sequence: it's largely a vehicle to let audiences see the stealing of the Moonraker and then reintroduce Jaws. Lewis Gilbert seemed to like to portray Bond on missions largely unrelated to the one he's going to be involved in for the bulk of the film during the pre credit sequence. He did it in The Spy Who Loved Me and he does it here too. It's largely an extended skydiving scene, and it shows an extremely dangerous stunt, which is pulled off beautifully by the crew responsible for it.

Gadgets: fittingly for an adventure that is partly set in space, so therefore rather futuristic, there were a lot of gadgets in Moonraker. Q supplies Bond with a wrist dart gun, which saves his life on two occasions. Once in Drax's out of control G Force machine and once in the final confrontation with Drax. Although it's not stated Bond also had to have gotten his watch with the plastic explosive from Q. Holly was armed with a hypodermic needle disguised as a pen, an address book that shot darts, a handbag that doubled as a short wave communication device (the things we did before mobile phones became commonplace) and an atomiser that was a miniature flame thrower. According to Bond this was all standard CIA issue. Shame we never got to meet their version of Q if that is the case. Q's lab in South America had all sorts of cool stuff being tested, bolos that explode, a laser gun that was ripped off from Star Wars (I'm surprised Lucasfilm didn't sue). Then he would have also provided the infamous motor powered, hydrofoil gondola, as well as the hydrofoil boat at the falls, which is equipped with rockets, water mines, jet propulsion, and if all else fails, a built in hang glider.

Music: ahhhh what could have been. Frank Sinatra and Kate Bush were both considered for the song. Given his daughter's experience with You Only Live Twice, Ol' Blue Eyes might have said no, and Kate never really looked at the expected option, although '79 was the height of her first wave of popularity, I would have liked to see what she would have done with a Bond song. They went as far as getting Johnny Mathis, but he was unable to complete the project, so they contracted Shirley Bassey at short notice, making her the only person to record, not two, but three Bond songs. No one else has even done two, so I think Bassey will retain the record. I doubt Sinatra, Bush or Mathis could have done much more really, maybe Kate Bush with her quirky experimental style, as it was a pretty naff song. Bassey didn't like it much and it failed to crack the top 100 on the charts. This was attributed to Bassey's refusal to do much promotion due to the late scheduling, but the fact is it's not a particularly inspiring or even very good song. I'd put it at number 2 on the all time worst list just behind The Man With The Golden Gun, which is an offence to the ears.

Moonraker will really go down as a shameless grab for cash, it achieved that aim spectacularly, but I think it turned more than a few fans off and was one of the reasons the franchise struggled for a while, as well as the competition provided by the rising wave of action heroes.

James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only (for real this time!)

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