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Revisiting 1979’s ‘Moonraker’

50 Years of James Bond

When it comes to Bond, maybe the world I>is/I> enough. In “Moonraker,” a madman named Hugo Drax hatches an elaborate plan to launch into space, poison every living thing on earth and then return with a hand-picked group of perfect human specimens to repopulate it. We know this because he explains his scheme in a long monologue to Bond aboard his space-station, but by this point in the most preposterous of 007 adventures, our eyes have rolled so far back in our head we’re not even watching the movie anymore.

Let’s face it: Bond has no business in space. Roger Moore is perfectly adept at besting bad guys on land, sea and air (and “Moonraker” affords him ample opportunities to do so), but even the most eager 007 fan has to draw the line somewhere. After rocketing into orbit in pursuit of Drax, wrestling with metal-mouthed Jaws in zero gravity and seducing a scientist named Holly Goodhead on reentry, where can Bond possibly go from here? Back in time to stop Hitler?

Eleven films into the series, the Bond franchise has become downright stale. Rather than mixing up the formula, the producers opted to amplify the existing ingredients. As a result, the Bond movies are effectively in an arms race with themselves, forced to outdo the set pieces and scale of the previous installment, while hitting all the same beats: the pre-credits thrill (“Moonraker” has one of the best), the assignment brief, the outfitting of fresh gadgets by Q, the seduction of fresh females by Bond and the final showdown in the villain’s base.

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In “Moonraker,” Drax’s base is the most extravagant yet, giving Ken Adams the chance to build the interior of an enormous space station to host the film’s intergalactic finale — a ludicrous laser battle between American astronauts and Drax’s henchmen. The problem has never been the sets, nor the exotic locations, but the fact that so much of what fills them has been recycled from past adventures. In “Spy,” Bond still dodges bullets by spinning around and using a girl as a body shield. Strapped into a G-force simulator and left to die, he might as well be stuck back in the traction machine from “Thunderball.”

No doubt real-life spy work is full of drudgery and repetition, but when it comes to the movies, we expect imaginative storytellers to keep the action from slipping into routine. Sending Bond into space suggests the creative crew had simply run out of ideas. Generally speaking, I’m not the sort of critic who lets plausibility interfere with the pleasure I take from escapist entertainment. Nor should figuring out how a certain effect is achieved (say, the way the skydiving stuntman looks nothing like Jaws) interfere with the fun.

But space? Drax’s plan makes Stromberg’s “The Spy Who Loved Me” scheme — to unleash nuclear war and relocate the survivors to Atlantean cities beneath the sea — seem reasonable by comparison. The problem with escalating elements from one film to the next is that it backs the producers into a corner from which the only relief is to recast the Bond character and start over. Unfortunately, Roger Moore still has three more missions on his contract.

Revisiting 1979's 'Moonraker'

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