Eager to cash in on the late-’70s sci-fi craze, producer Albert Broccoli decided to launch James Bond into space ASAP. What he and his team came up with was Moonraker, their ludicrous but enjoyable hooey about a space-age Captain Nemo who lords over a cloaked space station, from which he intends to annihilate the human race. Much of Moonraker‘s fun rests with our familiarity with characters, gags and ideas introduced in previous and better Bond entries: Its freefall opening action sequence (one of the series’ most famous) has the same vertiginous thrills of The Spy Who Loved Me‘s cliff-jumping ski chase; Spy‘s nifty sports car-submarine is reincarnated here as an amphibious, tricked-out gondola; the villain Hugo Drax is accessorized with ass-kicking femme bots (a la Diamonds Are Forever); and, by popular demand, we get the return of Jaws, the gigantic, indestructible, steel-toothed assassin last seen in Spy.
The disappearance of the titular space shuttle in mid-flight prompts Bond (Roger Moore) to track down the techno-baron Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), whose corporation manufactured the shuttle. A typically Bondian jaunt around the world follows, during which 007 digs up evidence of Drax’s nefarious plans involving vials of nerve toxin, a massive bunker deep in the Amazon, a fleet of space shuttles, a space station impervious to radar detection, and a cadre of strapping men and nubile women eager to re-populate a decimated Earth.
By the time Moonraker rolls to a close, Bond’s arch-nemesis Jaws (Richard Kiel) is rendered a downright loveable oaf with an adorably nerdy girlfriend to match. That lovability, though, feels out of place in 007′s universe of villains — generally they’re just blunt killing machines like Oddjob (Goldfinger) and Red Grant (From Russia with Love). And the decision to ‘tame’ Jaws is symptomatic of how Broccoli, writer Christopher Wood, and director Lewis Gilbert try — with generally clunky results — to infuse light comedy and cheeky self-consciousness into their spy thriller framework. Their choices yield a gallery of squirm-inducing results, including repeated nods to Kubrick’s 2001 (for obvious reasons, but that doesn’t make it right) plus Leone’s spaghetti westerns and The Magnificent Seven, with scenes that involve Bond dressed in a poncho(!), riding horseback across South American grasslands towards headquarters.
Moore further etches out his version of Bond as a lethal punster-cum-foppish action hero to enjoyable effect. Others in the cast, meanwhile, offer mixed results: Lonsdale is as droll and suave a villain as any in the franchise, but Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead -Moonraker’s resident Bond Girl — seems to have her emotional and expressive gears stuck in neutral. It’s as catatonic a performance as you’ll ever witness, in and out of the franchise.
What recommends Moonraker though is the world-class input of Bond veterans — set designer Ken Adam and composer John Barry — along with effects master Derek Meddings, whose shuttles and stations were Oscar-nominated. When the film finds itself inside Ken Adam’s ingenious sets — which recall his outsize designs from You Only Live Twice, and feel like beautiful, brilliant mash-ups of Star Wars and 2001 — it takes a qualitative leap to the next level. Likewise whenever Barry’s music kicks in, you’ve entered a richer cinematic realm, one that endows Bond, both the character and the series, with the sophistication and élan they aspire to. Indeed, it’s the work of these master artists that lifts Moonraker out of terminal goofiness and reminds us that Bond, in spite of everything, can be a pretty cool cat.