You can’t knock Black Widow for knowing the Moonraker script off by heart – as seen in her latest movie – or paying homage to Roger Moore’s Bond by skydiving without a parachute. And she’s not the only one ripping off Rodge. The Fast and the Furious crew have jumped plenty of things before – planes, skyscrapers, the laws of physics – and now they’ve jumped the shark in F9 by taking a detour into space. You could say the same for Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson though they’re almost certainly less Bond, more Hugo Drax – Moonraker’s dodgy industrialist villain.
Often ridiculed as a poorly-judged jape of a Bond film, 1979’s Moonraker has been blasted from the sphere of critically applauded Bonds – a benchmark of the self-parody that 007 is seemingly unable to resist once a generation. The endorsement from Black Widow – whose climactic jump from a plane is clearly inspired by Moonraker's opening sequence – and the Fast crew could bring it back down to Earth. It's classic Rodge. Moonraker’s reputation is attempting re-entry.
If the Bond series boasts the most successful formula in film history, Moonraker is a Bond of the very purest quality: a Goldfinger do-over fueled by Bond’s game of one-upmanship with himself – the need to increasingly up the ante.
By the time Moonraker came around, producer Cubby Broccoli believed that a high-thrills motorcycle chase wasn’t showy enough for 007 – which is exactly the kind of attitude that got Roger Moore thrust into the Earth’s orbit while wearing a yellow spacesuit.
After the huge success of The Spy Who Loved Me – Moore’s third outing as 007 and the first to feature Jaws, the metal-toothed henchman played by Richard Kiel – the next film was touted as For Your Eyes Only. But the popularity of blockbuster science-fiction in the late Seventies – specifically Star Wars – inspired Cubby to switch to the more space age-sounding Moonraker.
Apart from the title and villain, the film version bears little resemblance to Ian Fleming's original novel, which was published in 1955. In the movie, a space shuttle on loan to the British goes AWOL, which puts Bond on the trail of Drax (played by French actor Michael Lonsdale) and his Moonraker space programme. But this was still Bond. Cubby insisted “we’re not science fiction, we’re science fact”. A climactic zero-gravity laser battle in outer space, however, suggests otherwise.
Speaking in 2016, Steven Spielberg revealed that he offered to direct a Bond after Close Encounters of the Third Kind – putting him in line for Moonraker – but Broccoli rejected Spielberg’s services. By then, Spielberg claimed, Bond couldn’t afford him. (The Close Encounters tune gets a cameo, however.)
Instead, Lewis Gilbert – director of You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me – returned for one last go with 007. Other notable returns included set designer Ken Adam, editor John Glen (who went on to direct five Bonds following Moonraker), and Richard Kiel as Jaws, back due to his popularity with children.
Something was new to Bond though: Cubby Broccoli had left the UK as a tax exile, and a bulk of the filming took place in France. Ken Adam built 50 sets across three Paris studios. Whatever you think of Moonraker, Adam’s sets – among them Drax’s lair and secret space station – are incredible. The adventure also took Bond to Guatemala, Italy, and Brazil.
The Bond team was given access to NASA’s all-new Space Shuttle and featured a fictionalized version in the film – though NASA’s shiny new toy (purportedly the creation of Hugo Drax) is skyjacked off the back of a 747 in the opening scene. It’s one of the film’s many product placements (see also: 7up). The real Space Shuttle first launched in 1981.
Even the film’s screenwriter, Christopher Wood, had reservations about Bond’s futuristic adventure. “My James Bond is an earthbound man who wears a suit and tuxedo and punches people on the nose,” he later said. “When you put him in space kit you lose that touch – he disappears behind that mask.”
Certainly, Moonraker commits some unforgivable crimes against the good name of Bond: a gondola-turned-speed boat-turned-hovercraft chase; a pigeon – yes, pigeon – so shocked by Rodge’s antics that it does a double-take; Jaws falling in love; and, well, Bond going into space.
But Moonraker also has some of Bond’s most ambitious, most death-defying sequences. See the pre-titles skydive, when Bond is pushed from a plane without a parachute (wearing a navy blazer and cream roll-neck, no less) but manages to nab one off a henchman’s back halfway down. The stunt was performed an incredible, vertigo-inducing 88 times.
Arguably more impressive is a fight between Bond and Jaws atop cable cars at Sugarloaf Mountain. The fight was performed without wires by stuntmen Martin Grace and Richard Graydon. For one shot – in which Rodge is almost thrown to his death, clinging to the cable car with his flared trousers and wrinkled chops flapping in the high-altitude winds – Graydon hurled himself off the cable car and held onto the roof, dangling without a safety wire at 1,000ft. “There was nothing else you could do but go for it and hope it worked,” Graydon said. Lewis Gilbert admitted that he was caught up in the moment he forgot to cut: “The chap was hanging there and suddenly my assistant nudged me and says, ‘Cut! Cut!’”
Roger Moore – by then in his early 50s – was struggling with the physicality of Bond. “Spending eight months being blown up and climbing under waterfalls and struggling though jungles isn’t fun,” said Moore. “The real problem with the Bond films is they’re so physically taxing.” Moore even had to take time out of the shoot for a kidney stone.
The real joy of Moonraker is how proudly it flaunts that knowing, naff genius of the Moore era. It’s the very thing that rankles the purist bores: the more ridiculous the concept of Rodge as a trained killer, the more deliciously enjoyable it is.
Moonraker has plenty of Moore staples: stuntmen who are very obviously not Rodge; his inability to have a normal conversation with anyone – particularly women – that isn’t laden with innuendo or puns (“I like to keep abreast of things”); and daft outfits – from ponchos to safari suits (as Alan Partridge once said about Roger: “No one could wear a safari suit with the same degree of casualality”). And not forgetting eyebrow raises that would give the Me Too movement an embolism. “I did tell you not to talk to any strange men,” he tells a woman after saving her from the clutches of Jaws – the same woman Bond had met just hours earlier, and whom he greeted by immediately yanking off her dress.
Moore, of course, was totally self-aware. Speaking to the Daily Express in 1979, he offered a tongue-in-cheek critique of his own tongue-in-cheek-ness. “I may not be Olivier, but I’m taller,” said Moore. “I have my three expressions. 1. Eyebrow raised. 2. Eyebrow lowered. 3. Crossed eyes when the villain Jaws grabs me by the kidney stone.” He does have a moment of genuine intensity in Moonraker, when Bond is trapped in a G-force simulator and a crafty henchman cranks the Gs all the way up. Moore created the G-force effect by blasting his own face with air, which left him bruised.
Moore is supported by two of the series’ all-time characters: undercover CIA operative Dr. Holly Goodhead, played by Lois Chiles, and Hugo Drax. Written as cliché but performed by French actor Michael Lonsdale with dry, almost-irritable megalomania, Drax is a top-tier Bond villain, running the gamut of evil banter, from passive aggressive small talk (“Your reputation precedes you”) to murderous contempt (“Mr Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you”).
Partaking in a customary contest of mano-a-mano posturing with Bond – this time a competitive pheasant shoot – Drax hits all the Bond villain beats. His lair, an Amazonian pyramid-cum-shuttle launch site, even has a killer, less-than-convincing anaconda for Bond to wrestle. “People often asked me how you act out fighting with a giant snake,” explained Roger Moore. “I said, ‘First you fight with the snake, and then you laugh all the way to the bank.’”
In the original Fleming book, Drax is a secret Nazi, set to take revenge on the WW2 victors by firing his Moonraker rocket into London. Though he’s not revealed as a Nazi in the film, Lonsdale’s version has shades of Nazism with his nondescript accent and crackpot plan: to kill off the world’s population using toxins launched from space and repopulate the earth with a genetically-perfect master race.
More grounded – and more terrifying – is Drax having his PA ripped to shreds by Dobermans. A streak of nastiness beneath all the nonsense. Because, yes, Bond in space is a ridiculous, dubious tack-on – as is Jaws’s about-face turn and Roger’s zero-gravity canoodling.
When Likely Lads writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais came onboard briefly, there was a script note that read: “From this moment on everyone is weightless.” Clement remarked: “It was one of those little things that puts millions on the budget in one sentence.” Moonraker was certainly expensive, costing a reported $33 million. By contrast, the previous installment, The Spy Who Loved Me, cost just $13 million. But Moonraker also broke Bond’s record with a worldwide box office of $202.7 million.
Critics say that movie franchises go to space when they run out of ideas. Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, Emmanuelle, and, erm, Leprechaun did it. As proved by another 40 years’ worth of films, Bond wasn’t quite out of ideas (I dare say the Fast and the Furious will manage a few more films too). Rather, Bond was riding on the back of a rocketing blockbuster trend. And you can’t have Bond without the silliness – it’s an integral part of the Bond series, as much a part of the formula as vodka martinis, gadgets, and dodgy one-liners.
Bond needs to get silly every so often – always a sharp reminder to himself to get serious again and reinvigorate the series. Indeed, after Moonraker came Rodge’s overlooked, gritty (by Roger’s standards) masterpiece, For Your Eyes Only. But Black Widow would surely agree that Moonraker itself is worth revisiting. As Holly Goodhead says: “James, take me round the world one more time."