Moonraker (1979) – Blu-ray Review

For most people, their favorite Bond films (and Bond actor for that matter) depend largely on where (or more precisely, when) in a person’s life they happen to fall. MOONRAKER, released in 1979, was our first Bond film seen in a theater – an experience that burned both the film and its star, Roger Moore, into the mind as a perennial, albeit sentimental, favorite. At the conclusion of the previous Bond installment, 1977’s The Spy who Loved Me, the end credits announced that James Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only; but that same year, a little thing called Star Wars changed the business forever, and even James Bond would have to find his way in a new climate. Eyes was postponed until 1981, and work quickly began shaping Ian Fleming’s 3rd Bond novel into an outer space adventure. The novel Moonraker was a decidedly Earth-bound tale about a former Nazi posing as a wealthy industrialist, Hugo Drax, who attempts to begin the Blitz anew by obliterating London with a nuclear missile. As with most adaptations of Fleming’s books, the producers retained the major character names, a handful of incidents, and little else for the film version. In the film, Hugo Drax was still a wealthy industrialist, but the jewel in his crown was a space shuttle manufacturing plant in California, where Drax himself resides in a rebuilt French chateau, and personally funds and trains his own suspiciously young and attractive group of astronauts. Bond is placed on his trail after the Drax-built Moonraker shuttle is hijacked in mid-air off the back of a 747, and soon uncovers a plot to exterminate all human life while Drax waits with his Noah’s Ark of perfect physical specimens on a space station orbiting secretly above the Earth.
In the 30 years since its original release, MOONRAKER has found itself in the ignominious position of representing ground that even the most fervent Bond apologist is willing to surrender. The earliest films (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger) had fanciful moments, but were rooted in a very traditional (read – conventional) espionage film format. Thunderball was the first Bond on a truly epic scale; it was the first to be filmed in widescreen; the first to have a running time over 2hrs; and the first to emphasize spectacle over more mundane concerns like plot mechanics, with a lengthy underwater finale that slows the 1965 film down to a deadly crawl. From that point onward, each successive film in the series was then tasked with outdoing what came before. Live and Let Die was an inauspicious debut for Roger Moore, as he was force-marched through a clumsy effort to contemporize the series with an “urban” edge, and fared little better with The Man with the Golden Gun, a cheap looking affair enlivened only by the casting of Christopher Lee as his nemesis. Not helping the cause was the producer’s decision to abandon scope photography and return to a more TV-safe aspect ratio, resulting, not surprisingly, in two films which appeared to be made for television. That all changed with the next outing, The Spy Who Loved Me, which featured much more than just a return to widescreen photography. Unlike the prior efforts, the picture plays as though it were tailored specifically to Moore – looser and more comfortable now – allowing the actor’s estimable charm to shine through. Say what you will about Connery and Craig, only Roger Moore could retain his dignity while converting a Lotus Esprit into a submarine and flinging a fish from the driver’s seat as it rides up out of the surf. No less important was the addition of Curt Jurgens as baddie Karl Stromberg (a last minute stand-in for Blofeld, as the rights to both the character and SPECTRE itself were involved in a lawsuit) – marking a welcome return to the heady days of global conquest seeking super-villains. Everything about Spy seamed big, from the famous opening ski-fall stunt to Stromberg’s undersea lair, and Moore perfectly inhabited this larger than life world. Now he owned the role.
So, what’s so great about MOONRAKER?
Roger Moore is in top form here, sandwiched between Spy and Eyes – which form his perfect Bond trifecta. Moore was always a capable actor, but suffered from the inability to stop being Roger Moore long enough to invest a character with real emotions. (On this side of the Atlantic, Robert Wagner had the same difficulty, and a promising career quickly degenerated to the stature of professional raconteur.) It was easy to see Moore’s growing disinterest with the role in subsequent installments, but here he keeps both hands on the reigns, keenly maintaining the humor of the piece without allowing it to degenerating into farce, which is exactly how most people regard the outer space aspect of the story. Words like “ridiculous” are typically applied to the film’s final act, in which a shuttle filled with American Marines engage Drax’s satellite security force in a pitched laser battle in outer space. It’s odd that people would wait nearly 20 years to be bothered by the lack of realism in a James Bond film. In truth, there’s little technology present in the film that isn’t already achievable today, where shuttles routinely dock with orbiting space stations (though our astronauts don’t have nearly the sense of style as Drax’s do).
Audiences are cleverly eased into the notion of space travel by the stunning set designs of the great Ken Adams, who evokes a futuristic yet practical aesthetic for Drax’s shuttle assembly plant and the absolutely breathtaking underground mission control deep in the Brazilian jungle. One of those very designs made it onto the cover of Ken Adam Designs the Movies: James Bond and Beyond . Another behind-the-camera collaborator that must be singled out for praise is special effects artist Derek Meddings, who was charged with creating and photographing the picture’s amazingly detailed model work. The impressive special effects during the final reels hasn’t dated the film in the way that other Sci-Fi extravaganzas of the era have (you, The Black Hole, stand up!), and they give the space scenes an elegance and austerity that more than offset any “What’s Bond doing in space?” incredulity.
The Bond films enjoyed more than one good streak in the ’70s, with turns from a group of terrific actors taking their Bond baddie bows: there’s Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga (a perfect example of a great villain in a pants movie) and his henchman Nick Nack (the inimitable Herve Villechaize), Curt Jurgens turn as the aforementioned Stromberg, but MOONRAKER offered the best of all. The bilingual Michael Lonsdale was born to a French mother and a British father, and moves freely between English and French language productions. At the time of MOONRAKER’s release, he was probably best known for his role as the lead detective on the trail of assassin Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal, and his services as a character actor are still in high demand today (watch him steal Munich right out from under every other actor onscreen – including future Bond Daniel Craig and future Bond nemesis Mathieu Amalric). His deadpan delivery of lines like “Take care of Mr. Bond – see that some harm comes to him” strike the perfect balance between sinister and camp, and only Donald Pleasence before him seemed to have as much pure fun going up against 007.
Appearing alongside Drax is Jaws, a monstrous henchman with steel teeth (Richard Kiel) brought back from an uncertain death at the end of Spy after proving popular with audiences, particularly children (a fact that this reviewer can personally attest). Another sticking point with this film seems to be the overly comic handling of the character – most likely done because of his popularity with kids like myself – as opposed to his decidedly deadlier turn in Spy. You can practically hear a muted-horn “wah-waaaaa” whenever he emerges from a pile of rubble, or rips off the steering apparatus on the vehicle that he’s in. If this really bothers you, then the final character revelation on board Drax’s space station will leave you in a fit of apoplexy.
From the moment the Union Jack popped out of Bond’s parachute pack in the opening of Spy, the bar for the pre-credit gag has been set immeasurably high – and MOONRAKER doesn’t disappoint. Following the thrilling (again thanks to Derek Meddings’ model work) mid-air shuttle theft, we’re treated to Bond being pushed out of a plane in midair by Jaws, and having to propel himself toward the pilot and his parachute. After wrestling it off the pilot’s back, Bond is attacked by Jaws, moving towards him in freefall with arms outstretched like a bird of prey. It’s a crackerjack opening; a genuine adrenalin rush with the feeling of real danger that’s capped by a terrific theme sung by Shirley Bassey. With MOONRAKER‘s eponymous title tune, Bassey returned to perform a Bond theme song for the third and final time after Diamonds are Forever and Goldfinger. It’s a return to the dreamy pop stylings of the ’60s era pictures that tends to get lost among the more FM-friendly themes by Carly Simon (“Nobody Does it Better”) or Paul McCartney (“Live and Let Die”). There may be catchier themes, but Bassey’s vocals represent the class and elegance of the era in which the series began like no others.
MGM’s new Blu-Ray offers a near-flawless presentation of Lowry Digital’s restoration, showing off levels of color and detail that are nothing less than stunning. The later-period Bond films didn’t get the same comprehensive digital overhaul that the early Connery films got (being older, and somewhat more popular, the negatives were re-printed much more often, which caused much more damage). Consequently, the upgrade in quality from previous DVDs of this title isn’t quite as obvious as that of Goldfinger. The DTS Master audio is suitable punchy but we really appreciate the inclusion of the original 1979 surround mix – this should be a non-negotiable item for any catalog release. As for bonus features, the new disc seems to have picked up most (if not all) the extras from the previous collector’s editions. The major items:

  • Audio Commentary from Roger Moore
  • Audio Commentary from director Lewis Gilbert and members of the cast and crew
  • Vintage featurette – Bond ‘79
  • Ken Adam’s production films
  • Featurette – Learning to Freefall
  • Featurette – Inside Moonraker
  • Featurette – The Men Behind the Mayhem
  • Plus the usual array of storyboards and trailers

The above was rewritten from an earlier review, here.

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