After years of setting the pace for pop culture and a successful passing of the torch from Sean Connery to Roger Moore, the James Bond franchise found itself on the outs at the end of the 1970s. The franchise had performed strongly with 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, earning massive financial success and reluctant praise from critics who had grown weary of 007. But at the same time, another movie had emerged as the year’s clear trendsetter — Star Wars.
George Lucas had done what the Bond franchise could only hope for. He showed the public was yearning for a new type of story. There are a number of reasons why Star Wars became the massive success it did, but the producers at Bond studio Eon saw one big one: it was set in outer space.
As luck would have it, Bond author Ian Fleming had written a novel called Moonraker. Never mind that Moonraker the novel was an introspective look at the character with a plot focused on secret identities and nuclear weapons — it never even goes into space. The studio kept the title, some of the characters, and stripped everything else.
The result is a James Bond that is remarkably light. Roger Moore’s performance is best described as “sassy,” or lightly amused with the entire premise of the movie. What’s interesting about Moonraker is how, at its most audacious, it showed some accuracy in predicting the future. Its opening heist starts with a rocket being stolen off the top of a flying plane, which is similar in an incredibly vague way to how Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl gets a ship into space. And of course, its main villain, eccentric rocket builder and billionaire Hugo Drax, could be considered a proto-Elon Musk.
But Moonraker is less concerned with the future of space exploration than it is with witty puns. Some of these work quite well, like Bond telling Moneypenny that he fell out of a plane without a parachute, accurately describing the movie’s initial stunt. At other times, it is utterly bizarre. When Bond kills one of Hugo Drax’s henchmen right in front of him and walks with a clever one-liner, surely there would be some reaction by anyone?
Moonraker’s characters are mostly forgettable, including Bond Girl Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead. The one exception is Richard Kiel Jaws. His return as a Bond villain is always welcome, and the movie allowing him a last-minute face turn is its most genuinely enjoyable plot point. Director Lewis Gilbert has said that the fan mail of children convinced him to make the switch, and it gives Moonraker a warmth that the franchise has never been able to recapture since.
Moonraker is filled with odd jokes that don’t quite work, or do work and are eye-rollingly corny (these often involve references to James Bond having lots of sex). It’s much better to focus on the wonderful practical effects that a big-budget movie in the 1970s was expected to have. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review at the time, the “stars of this movie are Ken Adam, the art director, and Derek Meddings, in charge of special effects.”
Meddings had been associated with the Bond franchise for a number of years, building everything from a miniature space station to a Venice gondola that turned into a hovercraft for Moonraker. For the movie’s finale battle in space, Meddings had to get surprisingly old-school. He had to add in the movie’s special effects “in the camera,” meaning he had to wind back the film and expose it again and again. One particular shot had to be wound back 96 times.
For their efforts, Meddings and his team would be nominated for an Academy Award for special effects. However, they would lose to another film franchise that was quickly signifying the future of the industry: Ridley Scott’s Alien. While Bond movies would still remain successful, they were entering a period of increasing cultural irrelevancy.
Moonraker is streaming on Hulu through December 31 in the U.S.