NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: MOONRAKER Revisited

In the No Time To Die Countdown, Jake Tropila takes a look back at every Bond film – official and unofficial – in anticipation of the release of the latest entry.

One trend that has been consistent through this point in the series is the promise that James Bond would return for another adventure, and said adventure was always named onscreen (e.g., “James Bond Will Return in Goldfinger”). While A View to a Kill will permanently do away with revealing the next title at the end of the credits, the franchise still continues to tease 007’s return at the end of each film, and it’s the very reason why I sign these pieces off in similar fashion.

The Spy Who Loved Me turned out to be a resounding hit for the franchise and all but guaranteed its success for years to come. Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that the next film was intended to be For Your Eyes Only. However, 1977 saw the release of another megahit that spawned a multi-decade franchise: Star Wars. And since Bond was in the habit of appropriating popular trends, For Your Eyes Only was shelved and Moonraker was to be the next Bond film.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: MOONRAKER Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Okay, time to go against the grain once again. For many, Moonraker is another lowlight for Bond, with some going so far as to cite it as the worst. While the Star Wars elements are a big factor in ascribing it such a lowly position, there are still several other components in play that sink it for most viewers. A gondola-hovercraft! A pigeon doing a double-take! Jaws inexplicably returns, and falls in love! All this and more before Bond even sets foot in a space shuttle.

Look, I will make no claims that Moonraker is a misunderstood masterpiece. If you truly hate it, that’s your prerogative, and I will not try to change your mind. But I also cannot join you in your hate. Moonraker is a bonkers film, to be sure, but it’s also an immense deal of fun. Frequently entertaining and grandiloquent in equal measure, Moonraker’s overblown excess is a total joy, like a big bowl of ice cream loaded with extra dollops of sugar. Let’s hop aboard my own personal Moonraker shuttle and head on back to 1979 to find out why.

One Small Step for Bond

Moonraker was helmed by Lewis Gilbert, in his third and final outing as a Bond director, which can only mean one thing: we open with the hijacking of another large vessel. This time, it’s the titular Moonraker itself, a space shuttle that is stolen mid-flight by taking off of the back of the NASA aircraft transporting it. This causes an uproar in the UK, prompting MI6 to send (you guessed it!) Bond into the fold to investigate.

How exactly does one top the famous ski jump at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me’s pre-title sequence? The answer: you move laterally, keeping Bond in the air after forcing him out of a plane without a parachute. This results in one of the most thrilling sequences in the series, a triumph of practical stunt work as Bond and a baddie freefall towards earth while fighting over a single, life-saving chute.

It’s as exhilarating as anything captured on film for Bond and took something like 88 separate skydiving trips to accomplish (the stuntmen wore hidden parachutes sewn into the fabric of their suits to give the illusion of danger). Oh, and Jaws randomly shows up, having become something of an audience favorite from the previous film. How could Cubby Broccoli resist bringing him back? Try as he might, Jaws fails to bite Bond mid-air and crash-lands on a circus tent. Cue credits.

Shirley Bassey scores a series hat trick with another go at the title song. Offering her gentlest theme yet, “Moonraker” lacks the classic oomph of “Goldfinger,” but I still like it quite a great deal. What could have been a mere for-hire gig gets elevated by Bassey’s eternal greatness. For that, we, salute her.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: MOONRAKER Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Before we can proceed any further, we must bid farewell to one of our series stalwarts. Moonraker would be the last film to feature the great Bernard Lee as the irascible M. At eleven films, three Bonds, and seventeen years of service, Lee has been an important fixture since Dr. No, appearing in every film since even though the role only required a few minutes of screen time per entry. One of his final moments here, secretly entrusting Bond to go out and complete his mission under the guise of a personal leave, is one of his best. Thank you, Mr. Lee. Thank you for your service.

The mission in question? Find the missing Drax Industries Moonraker shuttle, whose remains were nowhere near the crash site of the fallen NASA craft. Bond heads to California to meet Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), head of Drax Industries, and your Bond Villain for this evening’s entertainment. Full disclosure: I think Drax is secretly one of the best villains, if only for Lonsdale’s performance. He dryly underplays lines like “Mr. Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you” and “Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him” so incredibly well that he practically steals the show. He also has a great death too: poisoned by a watch-dart and shot out into the vacuum of space. Top that, Blofeld.

As great a villain, I think he is, I must admit he is pretty lousy at killing Bond. Drax has several golden opportunities to just walk up and shoot Bond point-blank in the head, but his proclivity for elaborate murder (a common trope) proves to be his downfall. Whether it be death by spinning centrifuge chamber, pheasant shooting, shuttle exhaust incineration, or anaconda strangulation, Bond always has the convenient Q-gadget to save the day. Hell, Drax even orders Jaws from a Henchman Hotline™ to assist with the expiration of 007, and he still can’t get the job done.

(I would like to highlight the wit of the attempted pheasant hunting kill, which harkens back to Connery: Drax plants a sniper in a tree to take out Bond, while Bond is busy aiming his rifle at the flying birds. Bond fires his shot, seemingly hitting nothing. “You missed, Mr. Bond,” Drax confidently claims. The sniper falls dead from the tree. “Did I?” Bond wryly responds. Drax is unamused. Perfection.)

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: MOONRAKER Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Drax Industries is aided by one Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), an astronaut and undercover CIA agent, covertly operating against Drax. Much like how this film gets a bad rap, I feel like Holly does not get her fair shake as a Bond Girl. She’s intelligent, resourceful, beautiful, hosts a secret stash of her own gadgetry (the smile she throws at Bond after he tests her flamethrowing perfume is wonderful) – what’s not to like? I must admit, despite these embellishments, the character never really comes alive – Chiles plays her rather sedately throughout the film – but how come audiences have never taken her seriously?

Oh right, her name is Goodhead. Personally, I blame Broccoli for this, as the name does not appear anywhere in Fleming’s novel. Another woman capable of going toe to toe with Bond and they spoil it with a joke. Seriously, try calling anyone “Dr. Goodhead” and see if you aren’t stifling laughter before you finish your sentence.

One Giant Leap for The Franchise

Whether or not you think chasing the Star Wars craze was the best possible direction this film could take, there’s no disputing that it worked out financially. As it stands, Moonraker is one of the highest-grossing Bond pictures ever made. Adjust for inflation and it still comes in the Top Five. Not bad for a film that features a pigeon doing a double-take.

“Campy” is a term that gets tossed around freely to describe the Moore saga, but I feel that does Moore a disservice. Moore’s the fun-loving Bond, to be sure, but he still meant business when he needed to, and could still occasionally pull off the cold kill. I suppose it’s the fact that Moonraker literally him into space that this gets derided as campy, but there are two key sequences that tonally clash with this intention.

The first concerns Corinne (Corinne Cléry), Drax’s assistant. With Corinne’s help, Bond breaks into Drax’s vault and photographs the blueprints for his plan. Once Drax becomes privy of Corinne’s betrayal, he sentences her to death in the most horrifying fashion: chased through the woods and eaten by two starved Dobermans. For a moment, Moonraker stops being a Bond film and briefly turns into a giallo. The mood, the setting, the actress running through the misty forest in that white dress, the vicious kill – truly the most incongruent sequence relative to the Bond film it’s in.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: MOONRAKER Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The second sequence features the return of Jaws. I like Jaws quite a great deal – he’s a physically imposing menace, and henchmen almost never get to return for a second feature (without checking, I’m pretty sure he’s the only one). It’s the handling of Jaws that’s more concerning. If you’ll recall his first big setpiece in The Spy Who Loved Me, Jaws is much more ghoulish, silently stalking Bond through the Egyptian Pyramids like he was Frankenstein’s monster bathed under an ethereal glow of green. He was terrifying, to say the least.

We get a glimpse of that here when Jaws tracks Bond down to Rio de Janeiro and disguises himself under a festive mascot costume for the Rio Carnival. The image of Jaws slowly honing in on Bond’s location down an empty alleyway offers some serious, hair-raising tension. Of course, Jaws doesn’t stay scary for long – he’s primarily used for goofy, wide-eyed reaction shots that result from Bond foiling his plans yet again. Moonraker starts with Silly Jaws, then briefly switches to Scary Jaws, before returning to Silly Jaws (albeit Silly Jaws in Love). Can’t have everything, I guess.

Despite boasting the scariest sequences in a Bond film, it’s largely business as usual for Moonraker. Bond goes to Venice, partakes in a gondola chase that transforms into a gondola-hovercraft (this is where the twice-aforementioned double-taking pigeon comes in – more weird than terrible, in my humble opinion). In Rio, Bond survives near-death in a cable car encounter with Jaws (subsequently, this is where Jaws meets Dolly (Blanche Ravalec), the twice-aforementioned love interest who wins his giant heart), and we also get some brief musical references to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Magnificent Seven. Fun stuff.

NO TIME TO DIE Countdown: MOONRAKER Revisited
source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Laugh all you want about Bond going into space, but the entire final third of the film is handled with some grandeur. Okay, it’s not quite 2001, but I found myself relishing in the set design of Ken Adam once again. Drax’s plot is finally unveiled: he plans to release a toxin upon the world that will decimate the human population only (flora and fauna will remain unaffected). Drax would then repopulate the earth with his selected Space Race of physically perfect humans. In other words, it’s just your typical billionaire industrialist scheme with a god complex scheme.

Unfortunately for Drax, his master plan has no room for Jaws and Dolly, who turn against the madman and side with Bond. Space marines also arrive at the fray, delivering another “army vs army” showdown that pits Drax Industries against earth’s armed forces in an epic laser battle for the ages. Okay, the effects are awfully corny, but I still had a good time watching it. And once Drax is offed for good, we get a decent little epilogue of Bond and Holly hunting down and destroying Drax’s toxin globes before they reach the other, squeezing in some last-minute excitement right before some zero-g sex. Oh, and Jaws gets to have champagne with Dolly, and even shares his only line of dialogue! Adorable, that Jaws.


Moonraker is an enormous picture in many ways; while grander in scope, the film suffers from being slightly overstuffed, and I can understand why it is reviled by many. But I do not feel this way. Moonraker is an absolute blast from start to finish, harnessing the best of Roger Moore to riff on one of the largest film franchises in the universe. The disco rendition of Bassey’s “Moonraker” that closes out the film is the icing on the cake.

Coming up next: we get what was promised. The No Time To Die Countdown will return with For Your Eyes Only.

What do you think? Is Moonraker better than its reputation of being unfairly maligned? Let us know in the comments below.

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