In Defence of Moonraker and the Genius of Ken Adam
After Movie Diner & Dr.Action Facebook group member, Eric Foster, recently linked an article to the Facebook group in which all the James Bond films were ranked. The ranking was worked out using some bizarre algorithm based on critics ratings (surely a flaw) and rotten tomato score. As usual with these rankings there seemed to be quite a few Roger Moore movies ranked near the bottom with Moonraker, Octopussy and A View To A Kill taking up three of the bottom four spaces. Moonraker is usually always near the bottom on these type of lists, even amongst Bond fans it's not very well regarded. I haven't seen it for quite a while so decided to go back and check it out.
Moonraker is undoubtedly one of the most reactionary Bond films. It was released two years after Star Wars and attempts to jump on the Sci-Fi bandwagon, as many Hollywood productions were doing at the time. This isn't an issue for me as plenty of Bond movies have been reactionary. Live And Let Die tried to implement elements of Blaxplotation and it didn't damage the film at all. One of the other issues that people have is that plot wise this is almost a carbon copy of director Lewis Gilbert's other two Bond films, You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me. Again I don't think this is much of an issue and can only see it being a problem if you watch them back to back or in chronological order (The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker were released consecutively in 1977 and 1979 respectively).
The third issue that people have is the tone of the film. It is quite comedic and very playful. The best example of this is the gondola scene in Venice in which we also get the infamous pigeon double take. All very over the top and a bit silly but still entertaining and enjoyable. The issue that some have with the tone of this film is an interesting matter to me, as I think this film contains one of the most unsettling scenes in the franchise's history. This is when the Drax employee, who Bond convinced to help him, is summoned by Drax and is then sent running through the woods being chased by two Dobermans. The music is brilliant, the fog machines have been turned on and the way this is shot is like something out of a horror film. It's really well done but goes completely against the tone of the rest of the movie.
Anyway, on to the things that I think elevate Moonraker above its lowly position in the rankings. First off, the pre-title sequence. A space shuttle is hijacked from the airplane that is carrying it which it then blows up with its booster rockets. And that's not all. Then we have Bond being thrown from a jet without a parachute. He then has to freefall chase a bad guy to steal his chute all whilst being pursued by Jaws. It's brilliant! That kind of sets the tone for the rest of the movie. It's not very story/plot driven and although it does feel like a lot of set pieces cobbled together, when the set pieces are as enjoyable as they are, then it's not a problem for me.
There isn't a tricked out Bond car here but we do we get a weapon filled speedboat which fortunately comes equipped with a hand-glider which is always useful when your boat chase ends with a waterfall. We also have the wrist dart gun (6 armoured tipped and 6 cyanide coated of course) which is shown off in the G Force simulator scene and the finale. We also have a great fist fight in the glass factory and clock tower, which is beautifully lit. Throw in an underwater wrestling match with a giant python and you have a bunch of set pieces that are enjoyable, entertaining and all happen before we even get to the giant battle in space at the end!
Which brings us on to the sets. This was the last Bond film in which legendary set designer Ken Adam worked on and it's hard not to overstate the importance that his work had on the series and how it helped define its look and became part of the magic formula that made a Bond film so special. His work here is no exception. From the beautiful clock tower set, to Drax's launch room and the space station itself. It's astonishing and breathtaking.
The day before I wrote this, Ken Adam passed away. He was a legend, plain and simple. He designed some of the greatest and most memorable sets ever put on film. This was during a time that, if you wanted a villain's lair inside a volcano, you built it rather than get actors to stand in front of green screen and let a computer do all the hard work. For his genius and amazing work we should be eternally grateful. Thank you Ken.