directed by Lewis Gilbert
(United Artists/MGM, 1979)

And then there was Moonraker.

After the stunning coup that was Roger Moore's third Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, the series took a sharp downturn with its plunge into science fiction, Moonraker. It started so promisingly, too, with the theft of a prototype space shuttle from the back of a British 747, followed by a free-falling duel between Bond and an unnamed pilot, then Bond and the menacing Jaws (Richard Kiel), the henchman who survived the previous movie.

But then Bond decides to start his investigation of the missing shuttle by interviewing the manufacturer, Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), who probably just should have worn a T-shirt with the words "I'm the villain!" in bright neon green. (Ordering your personal assistant to make numerous attempts on an investigator's life immediately following the investigator's arrival is something of a clue, I think.)

At least we get to meet a fine addition to the legion of beautiful, oddly named Bond girls: Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), a CIA operative who just happens to be a fully trained astronaut. After so many successful confabulations between Bond and the CIA, there doesn't seem to be any good reason for Goodhead's mistrust of Bond -- except to make it a little tougher for him to make that particular conquest.

Moonraker was a poor attempt to cash in on the science fiction craze which followed the 1977 release of Star Wars. But Bond isn't Han Solo, and scenes of him lasering the "Death Satellites" above the Earth's atmosphere is just too far over the top, even for a Bond film. The United States doesn't have a crack platoon of "space marines" with laser guns, ready to launch at a moment's notice and battle evil in space. And those aren't the only failings here.

After the clever use of Wet Nellie, a seafaring Lotus, in the last Bond outing, filmmakers tried to do the same again with a gondola/car in Venice. The effort falls flat. And Jaws -- who was a great evil henchman in The Spy Who Loved Me -- became a caricature of himself here. What a waste of a good character. (Although, credit where credit's due, he's wonderfully menacing in Rio as a Carnivale clown -- with amusing results. Also, Manuela (Emily Bolton), the Rio agent assisting Bond until Jaws comes along, is unusually competent in the job -- a refreshing change from the usual female agent=ditz factor.)

The bout between Bond and a screaming martial artist Chang (Toshiro Suga) in, of all places, a glass museum was a bit much. Anything that could be smashed was smashed, and we once again wonder why people choose the weapons they do when they're going after a man as hard to kill as James Bond. Also, one must question the forethought of a criminal genius who, after fooling the authorities into believing him the victim, sends an associate who can be easily linked to his operation.

Too, the basic premise of Moonraker is the same as the basic premise of The Spy Who Loved Me -- destroy the world and build a new one somewhere else. OK, so it's in space instead of under the sea, and the worldwide armageddon comes about via poison gas, not a nuclear holocaust. But the basic setup remains the same.

A Moonraker milestone: this film marked Bernard Lee's final appearance as M.

Despite its many flaws, Moonraker holds a special place for me as the first Bond movie I ever saw in a theater. It was also a rude awakening. Watching as a young Bond novice, I was certain Our Hero would arrive in time to save the beautiful Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery) from her fate -- and I was shocked to learn that, in Bond films, beautiful women often die. Her demise was a particularly gruesome one, too, which has stayed with me ever since. Yuck.

Critics will say that Moonraker is the worst of the Bond films, and I agree it certainly deserves a place at or near the bottom of the heap. It does have a few saving graces, some clever scenes and dialogue, etc., so it's still worth two hours of your time if you enjoy Bond action. It doesn't get really stupid until it launches into outer space.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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