19 September 2007

Moonraker: The Guiltiest Pleasure Bond

Moonraker (1979)
Directed by Lewis Gilbert. Starring Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michel Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corrine Clery.

There are many things wrong with Moonraker.

The plot is outlandishly ludicrous. The narrative has the logic of a Road Runner Cartoon, with Jaws taking the part of Wile E. Coyote. The supposed “scientific accuracy” touted by Cubby Broccoli is a joke that elementary school children could dismantle. The desperation to sell toys to the kids deluged with Star Wars merchandize is painfully evident. Hardly a trace of Ian Fleming’s Bond survives, and aside from the title and the villain’s name, nothing of one of Fleming’s most intriguing novels makes it to the screen. And the Bond girl asks James to take her around the world one more time.

On all charges, Moonraker is guilty as hell.

Yet at the time it premiered, the eleventh official James Bond film ‘raked’ in more dough (discounting inflation adjustments) than any of the previous ones. And although it often sits at the bottom of most 007 purists’ list of film, Moonraker continues to hold a svengali-like fascination over many Bondians, more so than some ostensibly better films such as Diamonds Are Forever and Octopussy. Even people who can’'t defend it artistically admit they can enjoy it as the ubiquitous “guilty pleasure.”

On this charge, Moonraker is also, uhm, guilty.

I will leave aside my own personal nostalgia about Moonraker—it was the first James Bond movie I saw, at the impressionable age of six—as well as my ironclad credentials as a Fleming Purist/Fleming Snob and my usual resistance to “Top Ten” lists that don't originate from some guy named Letterman, and try to answer the question: “Why do I and so many others get such a thrill from watching this shallow, ridiculous, juvenile movie?”

And to that end, I present:

Top Ten Reasons Moonraker Is the Best Guilty Pleasure Bond Movie

1. John Barry
Sandwiched between two scores from other composers (Marvin Hamlisch and Bill Conti) that are unabashedly contemporary and therefore dated, Barry shows what “timeless” means in film music. Perhaps On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ranks as Barry’s finest score for the series, but Moonraker comes a close second in my opinion. In the score’s inventiveness and willingness to drop many conventions of Bond music, it is a unique work: melodic, floating, almost ethereal. Barry’s emphasis on strings and French horns and his avoidance of heavy electronics creates a romantic atmosphere that goes completely against the grain of the wild shenanigans on-screen. Yet it works. The lengthy cue “Flight into Space” is a superb, contained piece capturing the wonder of space travel and zero-gravity movement. “Space Laser Battle” is an unusual Barry action cues, rendered as a sort of mellifluous dirge. The score would also be the last time we would hear the cue “007” that Barry debuted in From Russia with Love, which I prefer to the more famous “James Bond Theme.” (Would David Arnold please resurrect “007”? At least it would get Barry’s name back on the credits.)

And why didn’t the title track turn into a jazz vocal standard? It’s the most melodious of all Bond songs.

2. Jean Tournier
The late French cinematographer (responsible for The Day of Jackal) replaced Claude Renoir, whose eyesight had started to fail. Monsieur Tournier then lensed the most crisply beautiful-looking movie in the series. It glistens with crystal clarity that perfectly fits the high-tech atmosphere, and complements the work of . . .

3. Ken Adam
You mean there’s no more Ken Adam after this movie? No offense, Mr. Lamont, but Adam is to Bond design what Barry is to Bond music. The design here has echoes of Disneyland's original “Tomorrowland” mixed with Balhaus. The use of silver and black. The great cathedral where Drax launches his Moonrakers, and the beauty of the scientifically ludicrous space station.

4. Michel Lonsdale Is Drax!
. . . or maybe it’s Christopher Wood, who gave Lonsdale’s villain all the best lines. Lonsdale glides into the film as if fresh from an Oscar Wilde play in the West End (a bit odd, since he’s a French actor supposedly playing an American industrialist) and skips through the whole film whipping out one amused snort after another. Face it, the quip—“Mr. Bond, you resist all my efforts to plan an amusing death for you”—sums up the whole damn movie a single sentence. His Hitler-as-After-Dinner-Speaker speech in the space station has poetic weight for such absurdity. Drax only loses his cool once, and even then, he’s cool: “Expel them!”

5. Remember When They Did Effects Like This?
Looking at Derek Meddings’s plastic work on his swansong, GoldenEye, makes you almost forget how important his effects once were to the series, when his style of model-making was not only the standard, but filled viewers with wonder. The period after Star Wars featured a rush of intricate model effects work in films: the same year of Moonraker we also feasted on The Black Hole and Alien (which deservedly copped the Oscar for Best Visual Effects). The emergence of the space station from the blackness of space as the shuttles approach is pure special effects beauty, and its piecemeal destruction via off-screen shotguns is equally impressive. The old-fashioned “roll-back” technique makes for flawless compositions that still hold up in today’s CGI-saturated world, and contain the touch of handmade magic seen so rarely in today's VFX spectacles.

6. Oh Wow, That Opening!
The Spy Who Love Me has a better pre-credits teaser, but few movies in any genre have quite poured on the excitement right out of the gate like the mid-air wrestling match. Even the dumb gag of Jaws plummeting into a model of a circus tent (look at those foreground trucks very closely) is saved by the clever transition into Binder’s credits. And speaking of which . . .

7. Binder’s Masterpiece
By the end of his career, Maurice Binder’s collages-with-nudes-and-guns title sequences would cease to have any connection to the actual movies; did Binder watch The Living Daylights or Licence to Kill, or ask the producers what they were about? But no credit design better fits the appearance of its film than the “Zero-Gravity Ballet” that accompanies Shirely Bassey’s song. The single moment when a Bond beauty rockets from the upper right corner of the screen, sinuously unfolding from a tuck (and over Tournier’s credit!), is more breathtaking than anything Binder did subsequently.

8. Dobermans Ripping Girls Apart Are Pretty
Weird as it sounds, Corrine’s death at the jaws of Drax’s dobermans is a beautiful and unearthly sequence. It goes against the grain of what you expect for that kind of “flunkie gets offed by the boss” scene. And I’ll also sneak in here mention that the centrifuge scene also works well.

9. How Can You Not Love Those Laser Guns?
This mayhem is what late-1970s spectacle cinema is all about!

10. I Heart ‘70s Space Opera
That is what it really what it comes down to, isn’t it? Moonraker is a prime specimen of a popular genre, the post-Star Wars fantasy film stampede, which happens to have a favorite character careening around inside it like steel ball in a flashy space-themed pinball game. We love those blinking lights, the sleek retro-industrial sheen of the game cabinet, and kiddie joy of smashing the flipper buttons to run up our points. Maybe we recognize the ball, perhaps we feel sorry for it getting caught in this outrageous madness. But we’re still having a good time at the 1970s space arcade.