Summer of 1979.
It was the summer of 1979, and I was a 12-year old sci-fi junkie. I was deep into “Star Wars,” “The Twilight Zone”, “The Outer Limits,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Star Trek,” “Battlestar Galactica” and I caught occasional late night syndicated airings of “Space: 1999” whenever I could. I’d also enjoyed random samplings of a ‘new’ (16 year old) series from across the pond airing on American public TV called “Doctor Who.”
At age 12 I had never seen, nor had any particular inclination to see, a James Bond movie. I wasn’t quite the right demographic (yet), and spy movies/TV shows just weren’t my thing. My thoughts were all about sci-fi in those days (and still are, to an unhealthier-than-average degree). But all that changed when I saw the first trailers and TV ads for this new Bond movie. It was if the United Artists’ marketing department was deliberately calling out (nee: shouting out) to my demographic.
“Moonraker” was to be partly set in outer space, and it was going to have laser battles with fleets of space shuttles. It helped that I was also caught up in the pre-launch fever of NASA’s then-new space shuttle orbiter. I even built a few model kits of the new ‘space truck’ (which, sadly, never quite lived up to her promise), so the ads for “Moonraker” had me hooked.
I remember going to see it with my family at a big screen theater called the Crest Studio, in a seedy part of downtown on E Street. The Crest used to be a grand movie palace when it first opened in the 1920s; it even had balcony seats. But when I went there as a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s, it was just a worn-down theater in a bad part of town. However, it offered cheap seats ($1.50, all day) and it played double and even triple features (!). Lunch at the Crest Studio would consist of ancient, leathery hotdogs and a lukewarm soda (“shaken, not stirred…”), but you could literally spend an entire day at the movies back then, no kidding.
What little I knew of James Bond (then played by the late Sir Roger Moore) in those days was through cultural osmosis. Bond was a British agent for MI-6, he slept with lots of different women and he causally killed people, usually followed by a one-liner. In those innocent times, I’d not yet seen any of the (far superior) Sean Connery Bond movies… in fact I’d not seen any Bond movies, not even on television. “Moonraker”, for better and worse, would be my gateway drug into the greater James Bond universe, a trip which continues to this day.
Despite having never read any of the Fleming books in those days, it wasn’t hard to imagine that this movie was going to deviate considerably from Fleming’s 1955 same-named novel. And at that age, I couldn’t care less.
****SPACE-STATION SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
“Moonraker” opens with a bang, as an American-made (non-NASA) space shuttle from the Drax corporation is hijacked from its piggybacked 747 transport, blowing its carrier plane to bits by prematurely firing its orbital rockets. Having seen photos of the test orbiter Enterprise dropped from high altitudes in Nat Geo magazine, this image of a piggybacked shuttle certainly looked right, even if this scenario smacked of implausibility (the orbiters would never be fully fueled for transport; something I knew even back then). The destroyed carrier plane was British, and her majesty’s government was being held responsible for the loss of both vehicles.
The movie then cuts to Bond attempting to seduce a deadly spy aboard a private plane. She pulls a gun on him, and he quickly realizes the plane’s flight crew is compromised. Bond gets in a scuffle with giant, metal-mouthed strongman Jaws (memorably played by Richard Kiel). Kiel’s memorable henchman was returning from the 1977 film, “The Spy Who Loved Me”, though I didn’t realize it at the time. The pilot bails, as do Jaws and Bond (sans parachute). There is an elaborate and spectacular sky-diving sequence during which Bond steals the pilot’s chute and manages to put it on mid-air. Jaws pursues Bond, and fails to stop him, as his own chute’s rip cord fails. Bond lands safely, as Jaws comically crashes through the tent of a convenient circus bigtop. Until then, I’d assumed Bond movies were more serious, but so far “Moonraker” played like an elaborately staged Buster Keaton comedy.
Soon the main credits rolled, with Shirley Bassey’s gorgeous “Moonraker” title song playing. That theme stuck in my head for days afterward, and is still one of the better Bond themes in my humble opinion. “Moonraker” than cuts to the MI-6 offices where Bond receives his new orders to investigate the loss of the Moonraker shuttle… an embarrassment to the British government. The shuttle’s wreckage is mysteriously absent from the plane’s crashed debris. Hmmm….
At MI-6’s SIS building, are then introduced to a trio of Bond film mainstays; Lois Maxwell as the ever-patient, always-pining Ms. Moneypenny, Bernard Lee as the venerable “M”, and Desmond Llewelyn as gadget master “Q.” This was the first time I’d seen any of these actors in their now legendary roles. Q gives Bond a dart weapon that launches from his wrist, and I was quickly imagining scenarios for its use…
Bond is taken via helicopter (flown by a scantily clad, ill-fated female pilot) to pay a visit to the Northern Californian estate of aerospace billionaire Hugo Drax (French actor Michael Lonsdale). Drax, with his black Van Dyke beard and Nehru jacket simply reeked of villain. It’s obvious Drax hijacked his own shuttle, but Bond had yet to understand why.
Interesting to note that “Moonraker” foresaw the casual privatization of spaceflight decades before Elon Musk’s Space X, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin, or any of the other private space companies that have emerged in the 21st century. Well done, “Moonraker.”
Drax quickly realizes Bond is MI-6, and tells his ninja henchman Chang (Toshiro Suga) to arrange an unpleasant stay for the British snoop. Later on that evening, Bond sneaks a peek at some secret files, and is nearly killed the next morning in a memorable sequence aboard a sabotaged centrifuge trainer used for Drax’s corps of super-fit ‘master race’ astronauts. Bond uses his wrist-dart device to short out the controls and stop the device, barely in time. He is pulled out of the simulator by future love interest, Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles). This is the only time in the entire film where we see Bond truly looking vulnerable, as focused wind machines were used to simulate extreme g-forces on actor Moore’s face. He exits the simulator shaken…and a little stirred.
And yes, the doctor’s name was Good-head. Even at age 12, I knew what that meant, and it was a bit shocking to hear in a PG-rated film (this was a few years before PG-13 was a thing).
The next day, Drax and Bond go hunting on his private estate before Bond’s scheduled departure. Drax shoots a pheasant. Bond kills a hidden sniper in a tree. They each acknowledge the other’s threat.
From there, Bond follows various tenuous leads as he globe-trots from a glass factory in Venice (a memorable fight with henchman Chang in a glassworks museum is a highlight), followed by a spectacular trip to Rio de Jeneiro, where Bond partakes in a comical air tram pursuit with Jaws, who attempts to sever the tram’s thick steel cable with his iron teeth!
Jaws crashes into a Rio cafe and meets a bespectacled petite beauty (Blanche Ravelec) who is immediately smitten with the fearsome giant. What the hell? Jaws falls in love? Okay, sure…
Avoiding a clumsily bungled kidnapping afterward, Bond and Goodhead make their way to MI-6 operations at a Brazilian monastery, where Q demonstrates a new round of hi-tech weapons (including killer bolos and a laser rifle that would come into play later on). Q also gives confirmation of the lethal nerve agent Bond discovered in Venice at Drax’s glass factory front. The toxin comes from a genetically engineered orchid. The plot thickens…
Soon Bond is involved in a boat chase over a Brazilian waterfall, once again ending with his escape and Jaws’ boat about to comically plunge over a waterfall (which he conveniently survives as well). So far, my first exposure to Bond reminded me more of Adam West’s goofy “Batman” TV series than the suave super-agent adventure flick I expected. Yes, it was all very goofy, but undeniably entertaining.
Surviving the loss of his boat, Bond is lured into yet another gorgeous Ken Adams’ designed lair filled with scantily-clad beautiful female astronauts to entice the permanently libidinous MI-6 agent into yet another trap… this time a battle with a wildly phony-looking boa constrictor snake. The wrist-dart launcher saves our hero yet again (Drax never searches Bond for hidden weapons, either…)
Bond soon finds himself facing Drax and a still-soaking wet Jaws. Drax then (inexplicably) proceeds to show Bond his quasi-futuristic looking mission control complex which he’s using to coordinate the launch of his hidden Moonraker shuttles from all over the world. And, of course, he fills the MI-6 agent on his little plan to use them for global domination.
Villainous Drax then places Bond, now reunited with Goodhead, into an easily escapable chamber beneath the exhaust of a Moonraker shuttle’s boosters; which are set to launch in moments. Of course, this being a Bond movie, no one makes sure Bond and his companion are actually dead after the launch. Even at 12, I saw this Bond villain cliche of just ‘leaving the heroes to die and hoping it went okay’ as ridiculous. It was a cliche later satirized in 1997’s “Austin Powers” (along with a host of other silly Bond tropes…).
One of my funniest memories of this scene had nothing to do with the actual movie, but rather the somewhat vocal audience with whom I first saw the film. When Bond enters the chamber, a relieved Holly shouts, “James!” To which someone near the back of the theater shouted back in the same relieved tone, “Bitch!”
To an immature 12-year old easily impressed with puerile humor, I remember that being the funniest thing I’d heard that month.
Bond and astronaut Goodhead do indeed escape. After stealing a pair of Drax astronaut uniforms, they steal a Moonraker shuttle and fly it into space… following five other Moonraker shuttles toward a rendezvous with Drax’s space station (kept hidden by radar jamming). Drax’s enormous station made Skylab look like a paper airplane.
Bond’s shuttle automatically docks with the station. Their ‘cargo’ includes ‘breeding stock’… genetically flawless astronaut couples who will repopulate the Earth after Drax wipes out the human race with orchid-derived nerve gas delivered by a series of satellites. Drax’s master plan is identical to the ‘master race’ ideology of the villain Stromberg (Curt Jurgens) from 1977’s “The Spy Who Loved Me.” In that regard, “Moonraker” is a space-borne remake of its immediate predecessor.
Once aboard the station, Bond and Holly are soon found out, but not before they deactivate the station’s radar jamming field. The world is immediately alerted, and Drax quickly launches his deadly orchid-nerve gas bearing satellites, which will soon enter the atmosphere and kill off the human race.
Jaws is ordered to kill the captured Bond and Holly, until Bond convinces the metal-mouthed giant that he, and his petite bespectacled girlfriend, won’t meet Drax’s standard of physical ‘perfection’ in his new world order. Bond’s words sink in, and Jaws turns on his master, aiding Bond and Dr. Goodhead. In a desperate act, Bond then quickly sabotages the station’s rotation’s stabilizing thrusters, plunging it into zero-g free fall. The chaos that ensues allows all of them to escape Drax’s clutches. Bond kills the supervillain with a well-placed wrist-dart. Drax is then ejected out of his station’s airlock, and ‘takes a giant leap for mankind.’
Alerted to the presence of Drax’s station, the United States launches its own space shuttles (which are surprisingly operational). Their payload pays are full of space bound marines in “2001: A Space Odyssey” spacesuits. These marines board the station and commence a battle royale in space. Blue laser beams criss-cross everywhere, as the space station begins to take on damage and collapse around them. Jaws, Bond, Holly and Dolly (Jaws’ girlfriend) manage to escape the decaying station, with Bond and Holly in a shuttle and Jaws and Dolly in an escape pod. Before their escape, we finally hear Jaws’ first (and last) spoken line (“Well…here’s to us”) as he pours victory champagne for he and Dolly.
Bond and Holly fly their escaping shuttle in pursuit of the three launched orchid satellites, which are in dangerously low orbits now. One by one, Bond and Holly use a shuttle-mounted laser weapon to pick off the deadly satellites. They succeed (as if there were any doubt, right?).
The final scene sees mission control attempting to contact Bond’s shuttle. The shocked mission controllers catch Bond and Goodhead doing their own version of ‘the 150 Mile High Club.’ Shirley Bassey sings a disco-beat version of the main title song.
While the grandiose space-bound spectacle of “Moonraker” is what lured me to the Bond franchise, my childhood enjoyment of it would ebb rather quickly afterward as I got older and began to seek out the earlier, better Bond films (via rented VHS and laserdiscs, and much later on DVD). Those earlier Bond films eschewed a lot of the Batman-level camp of “Moonraker” and were far more brutal. Connery’s Bond was a very different animal than Moore’s campy super agent; he moved like a human panther. By the time I got to “Goldfinger”, arguably the first of the more spectacle-driven entries, I was a true Bond fan.
I’ve since tracked the series through Sean Connery, George Lazenby (the only Bond actor I’ve actually met), Moore, Timothy Dalton (he was very under-appreciated), Pierce Brosnan and now Daniel Craig. There have been some classics (“From Russia With Love,” “Goldfinger,” “”Casino Royale,” “Skyfall”), some solid adventures (“Tomorrow Never Dies” “Living Daylights” “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) and a few genuine embarrassments (“The Man With the Golden Gun” “Live and Let Die” “Quantum of Solace”). But, as I’ve learned, even the worst of the Bond movies guarantees some measure of entertainment.
At a sci-fi convention in Pasadena back in 2004, I also had the chance to meet and talk with actor Richard Kiel (“Jaws” himself). Kiel was good-natured, soft-spoken (but with that deep voice) and was very easy to chat up. In fact, our conversation was less about his Jaws role and more about his work in one of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone, “To Serve Man” (written by Damon Knight). In that episode, a very young Kiel played the alien Kanamit (with split screens and clever editing, Kiel played every member of that race). The Kanamits were an interstellar species who planned to chow down on the human race (Kanamit…cannibal…get it?). I asked for an autograph for my sister, and he signed it using the episode’s famous line, “It’s a cookbook!” I remember shaking his hand afterward, and my hand fit into his as a baby’s would in a catcher’s mitt. Kiel was a kind man, and I was saddened when he passed away in September of 2014.
My Bond fandom also prompted me to buy a copy of film documentarian/historian Laurent Bouzereau’s terrific book “The Art of Bond”, featuring many of the production sketches and paintings used to design the memorably extravagant villain lairs and bases seen throughout the series. Ken Adams’ work is well-chronicled within its pages. It’s a must-have for Bond fans, if you can find a copy via Amazon.
I think back to how this rich vein of Bond adventure might never have been mined if I hadn’t plunked down $1.50 in allowance money to see “Moonraker” in a seedy, rundown old movie palace on E Street some 40 years ago…