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You Only Live Twenty-Thrice: “Moonraker”

“You Only Live Twenty-Thrice” is Nick Rogers’ look back at the James Bond films.

Each Friday until the release of the 23rd official Bond film, “Skyfall,” Nick will revisit its 22 official predecessors from start to finish, with a bonus post for the unofficial films in which James Bond also appears.

If not a lie, producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli told a half-truth in “The Spy Who Loved Me.” James Bond would return in “For Your Eyes Only,” just not until 1981.

The only thing worse than that half-truth? The film that followed it.

Over time, a fan minority has held 1979’s “Moonraker” up as an unheralded success of the series. But save the fleeting fun of few-and-far-between action sequences and some terrific quips, it takes a giant leap backward for Bondkind.

It’s a slow-moving, clownish capper to a decade that only gave 007 two suitable entertainments and one great adventure. It also marks a halfway point both for the franchise (as the 11th official film) and the 20-year stretch of financial, creative and critical turmoil (with few exceptions) from 1969 to 1989.

That said, “Moonraker” supplanted “Spy” as the series’ highest grosser, a spot it held until Pierce Brosnan’s 1995 debut in “GoldenEye.” Really, the only shrewd thing about “Moonraker” is its successful capitalization on the late-’70s science-fiction renaissance swept in by “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

With a $34 million budget just shy of combined costs for all of Sean Connery’s Bond films, “Moonraker” revolves around a stolen space shuttle and concludes with an outer-space battle. But that hefty price tag couldn’t buy any sense of awe or excitement at sending Commander Bond beyond the stratosphere.

These scenes earned “Moonraker” an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects, but they feel studio-sterile next to the grimy grit of the same year’s “Alien” (the Oscar winner) or the galactic grandeur of  “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” It also feels behind the times, unlike “Star Wars,” “Encounters” or “2001: A Space Odyssey” — three films “Moonraker” references with ill-advised cheekiness and consistency. Honestly, the film stops just short of introducing a character named Han Duet.

The pew-pewing lasers sound disco-ready. Vegetables have escaped a Slap Chop with less dicing than a laser fight between America’s military and the villain’s army.

And director Lewis Gilbert — allegedly responding to fan mail from children asking why Jaws couldn’t be a good guy — compromised for cuteness well before accusations flung at George Lucas. Bond’s greatest physical foe becomes a hapless, lovelorn lug — Jaws-Jaws Binks, if you will.

Even after “Spy” and “You Only Live Twice,” Gilbert wasn’t immune to the inevitability of any director going more than two rounds with 007 turning in a dud. His just happened to be the most resounding failure.

Per Gilbert’s style, “Moonraker” is well endowed with scope and beauty; the aerial photography of villain Hugo Drax’s industrial complex and Brazil’s vistas is stunning. Ditto for a moment when Drax’s pilot, Corinne (Corinne Clery), is chased by dogs in a scene more like John Carpenter than anything else. But with just one ridiculously rewound shot of a bird, Gilbert captured the moment at which he clearly stopped caring.

Plus, Bond movies are rarely airtight, but screenwriter Christopher Wood’s plot loses cabin pressure immediately, while his banter is lame at best and barbarically insulting at worst. “Moonraker” is the most shamelessly sexist Bond film yet — a particularly odious decision coming off the heels of the respect shown to Anya Amasova in “Spy.”

“Moonraker’s” pre-credits sequence begins with a space shuttle strapped to a British plane, returning to the United States after a loan to the United Kingdom. Hidden in false panels, stowaways steal the shuttle, with the flames from their takeoff engulfing, and exploding, the plane.

Here’s where visual effects supervisor Derek Meddings deserves a bit of slack. Plumes of smoke and fire are today’s iconic, indelible images of a shuttle launch. But because NASA’s space shuttle program had not yet officially launched, Meddings and company essentially guessed for their re-creation. The attachment of miniature shuttle models to bottle rockets and signal flares, and the use of salt for vapor trails, looks sufficiently convincing.

Offer no quarter to Wood, though, for the dunderheaded direction in which he takes this opening development. We learn that the space shuttle was privately built by billionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), for whom spacecraft are his stock-in-trade. It’s also revealed that he’s the megalomaniacal mastermind behind the heist.

Drax doesn’t only have one shuttle. He has a fleet, and his plan is to ferry perfect human specimens into space, wipe out mankind with a weaponized orchid-based toxin, and repopulate the planet with his eugenic empire. Boasting an unfortunate Eddie Munster ’do, Drax seeks to become God of the “untainted cradle of the heavens” — a celestial-minded Hitler with more money and facial hair.

He’s also a man for whom money is no object, said to have purchased the Eiffel Tower but been denied a permit for its transportation. So why not, oh, I don’t know … build another shuttle? Drax alone is to blame for the time-critical factor in his plan, as stealing his own shuttle gets the world looking for it. And unlike Francisco Scaramanga or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Drax isn’t so vain as to willfully draw Bond out.

But M. (Bernard Lee) gives Bond this mission after a narrow escape involving aerial acrobatics in Africa. Left to crash in an unmanned plane without a parachute, 007 leaps from the aircraft to chase the pilot and take his chute.

It’s a pulse-pounding sequence to rival “Spy’s” opening salvo and the byproduct of nearly 90 separate jumps over five weeks. Using special equipment to prevent whiplash, cameramen could only film for a minute before stuntmen opened their chutes. But even that white-knuckle intensity is tarnished by the first of many mishandled moments in the return of the fearsome, metal-mouthed assassin Jaws (Richard Kiel).

For starters, where was a 7-foot-tall man hiding out in that plane? And while Jaws is a lumbering brute, he’s not stupid. If anything, he’s a physically grotesque reflection of Bond himself — adaptable, resourceful, pervasive and brutal when necessary. Jaws would’ve rigorously checked his chute. Then, rather than have Jaws appear out of nowhere, Bond could have simply struggled with him midair and stolen his chute.

Kiel gives the part his all, but Jaws is no longer an overtly homicidal menace. He’s just a clumsy oaf for comic relief. Even Bond, who has fought Jaws at least a half-dozen times, seems to forget how formidable he is. Why else would you knowingly punch someone who has metal teeth in the face? Only once in the entire film is Jaws frightening — donning an unsettling costume during Rio’s Carnival to stalk his prey. But even then he’s foiled by thong-wearing partiers.

After the opening, “Moonraker” revisits the Naked Gymnastics of the Bond Olympiad — credits stuffed with side-boob silhouettes of women who turn into LED displays. And although it’s nice to again hear Shirley Bassey — who classily belted out “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever” — the song coasts solely on nostalgia.

Just try remembering even part of this lightweight tune’s melody in a few days. It’s not the first bad Bond theme, but it is the first bland one, which began an unfortunate run of elevator-music blandness. (At least John Barry’s score is rather lovely, especially during the South America scenes.)

As Bond sets about to foil Drax’s sinister plan, we find Drax is almost a laughably ineffective villain. His series of “accidental” deaths planned for 007 — by astronaut centrifuge, pistol, kendo stick, gondola and tram — seem hopelessly doomed from the start. (Only the centrifuge leaves Bond visibly shaken and stirred and truly at death’s door.)

No, the weapon Drax wields most wickedly is his deadpan dryness, uttering “Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him,” and “You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.” It’s the sort of role Brian Cox might get today. But quite frankly, Lonsdale looks like a regular-height Peter Dinklage — who would, with the right characterization, make one helluva Bond heavy some day.

Drax’s silken dialogue is anomalous to the meathead sexism of Wood’s script. Although her very name is a lame pun, the reaction Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) gets from 007 when meeting him is worse still.

If that’s not enough, Bond reiterates to Holly that he “keeps forgetting” she’s “more than just a beautiful woman.” Chiles doesn’t do much to help her cause. She turned down the chance to play Anya in “Spy,” and given her somnambulant performance here, that’s a big bullet dodged. Chiles dodders through the film as if she heard “Action!” two seconds later than anyone else, and it’s a blessing that she joins logic, thrills and cohesion as things that take long, off-screen hiatuses during “Moonraker.”

As slanderous as James is to Holly, it’s worse when he woos Corinne, Drax’s pilot. Corinne tells James her mother gave her a list of things to never do on a first date. As things get hot and they migrate toward a bed, the following exchange occurs:

Bond: What happened to that list of yours?
Corinne: I never learned how to read.

Say what you will about one-dimensional objectification, but “illiterate nympho” drops the misogyny to murky depths. On the more playful side of sex, it’s not Bond, but Q, who gets one of the series’ sauciest double entendres.

Perhaps Wood’s feeble attempt to avoid bad karma is Dolly (Blanche Ravalec), a mute blonde with bountiful breasts who becomes Jaws’s love interest. She apparently melts Jaws’s heart enough that Jaws sides with Bond during the climactic scrap — realizing that Drax’s plan for genetic perfection leaves no room for him or his lady. (Never mind the difficulty of conjugal consummation between them, seeing how “Moonraker” informs us that Jaws also has metal genitalia.)

Goofy as it seems, Bond and Jaws fighting side by side is the only inspired thing in “Moonraker’s” conclusion; it certainly isn’t Drax’s demise, which marks the umpteenth time Bond uses his wrist pistol (the “wristol”?) to get out of a jam.

Some defenders claim “Moonraker” steels itself against criticism for its campiness, but “camp” suggests exaggerated excitement — the heightening of a moment to surreal points. As 007 and Holly race to stop Drax’s orchid toxin from wiping out Earth, they convey the urgency of a couple struggling to decide which salads to order. And when Bond switches to manual fire to detonate Drax’s bombs, what moisture-farm refugee does that sound like?

Bond would have to go back to Earth in “Eyes” because “Moonraker” is truly a stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder.

Next week: “For Your Eyes Only”

BULLET POINTS

“Moonraker” is said to hold two world records — the highest number of zero-gravity wires in one scene (when the gravity in Hugo Drax’s space station goes kerflooey) and the largest amount of break-away sugar glass used in a single scene (Chang and Bond’s fight in the glass museum / warehouse).

The cable Jaws (Richard Kiel) bites through during the tram sequence was actually made of licorice.

Blanche Ravalec — who plays Dolly, Jaws’s l’amour fou — utters not one word in “Moonraker.” But network TV fans have heard her voice on several occasions, even if they don’t know it. Ravalec, who hails from France, has provided the French-speaking voices for characters on “Ugly Betty,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Friends.”

In March 2004, 40 minutes of footage was found from an unfinished, long-lost 1956 version of “Moonraker” — directed by Orson Welles, who also starred as Drax, along with Dirk Bogarde as Bond and Peter Lorre as Drax’s henchman. Or at least that’s a briefly buzzed-about hoax started on the Internet.

Steven Spielberg hasn’t directed, and may never direct, a Bond film. But he was a peripheral player for a piece of “Moonraker.” Producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli received Spielberg’s permission to use the famous five-note musical motif of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as tones emitted from the Venice lab’s electronic lock. In turn, Broccoli let Spielberg use the “James Bond Theme” six years later in his 1985 production of “The Goonies.”

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One Response to “You Only Live Twenty-Thrice: “Moonraker””

  1. [...] a sterile and shockingly sluggish adventure smothered by halfhearted attempts at suspense; after “Moonraker,”it’s hands-down the worst Bond movie of [...]