Friday, February 19, 2016

Another Self-Aggrandizing Artifact (Moonraker)

fig. 1: Why We Fight In Space

It is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that Star Wars was a game changer for movies. That between it and Jaws, those couple of years in the late 1970's basically invented the tent pole film. While that's certainly true, writing a personal retrospective on the James Bond series obliges me to point out that Doctor No's arrival to American shores in 1963 was the very definition of a blockbuster. That film made twenty-five million dollars at the Early Sixties box office, more than five times that of its closest rival, Doctor Zhivago. Its runaway success--and that of the franchise as a whole--inspired a legion of imitators that would shape the popular culture of the 1960's. That was then, however. This is "now."

It's not like James Bond invented the adventure movie. There were Westerns all through the 1950's and beyond, and, prior to Star Wars in 1977, audiences could count on a disaster picture like The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno for thrills. Bond movies continued to come out at an even pace even as the spy genre died around them, like the occasional throwback Western. Then Star Wars arrived. Star Wars inspired its own legion of imitators, and like Bond's, very few of these were any good. Audiences--and movie studios--of the late Seventies went mad for space adventure, the result of which, at least for our old friend at the British Secret Service, was Moonraker.

fig. 2: Hang on. That's not it.

If you stuck around through the end credits of 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me, you'd have seen the promise that "James Bond Will Return in For Your Eyes Only." Not quite. The seismic event that was Star Wars forced the franchise to adjust. It's an uneasy adjustment. The novel upon which Moonraker is nominally based bears almost no resemeblance to what audiences would see on screen in 1979. The earlier work is all about British missile defense, with its antagonist Hugo Drax secretly a Nazi scientist aiming to blow up London with a nuclear missile.

It's not as if Bond hasn't played in other sandboxes before, or will again. Spectre borrows liberally from political thrillers. Licence to Kill is a gritty Eighties actioner, and Live and Let Die is James Bond walking off the set of his own movie and through the set of a Blaxploitation film from 1973. That malleability has helped keep the franchise running for fifty-plus years. Like the Star Wars films, the James Bond franchise is more a series of aesthetic decisions than a focused, coherent narrative. (Any doubt about that should be put to rest by The Force Awakens, if not the Prequel Trilogy.) Within those lines, however, there is a lot of room to color.

Moonraker as it arrived on screens, more or less follows the same plot beats as The Spy Who Loved Me, substituting Stromberg's plan to build a Utopian society under the sea with Drax's Orbiting Master Race. Metal-mouthed henchman Jaws even returns. Replace "kill off the human race" with "ransom the world," and you've also got the plot of You Only Live Twice and Thunderball, down to the former's massive shootout through a vast sound stage. Only this time, it's done with lasers.

fig. 3: I have a bad feeling about this.

It's like the parable of the frog in boiling water, only the frog in this case is James Bond and the boiling water is camp. I remember back in the day when SpikeTV used to run its marathon of Bond films--Seven Days of 007--I somehow always seemed to turn on the TV right as this one came on. "Oh, crap. It's Moonraker." The film has the reputation as being the ugly stepchild of the franchise, which it got at least in part for existing for a long time prior to Die Another Day.

In fact, the film was a tremendous hit at the box office. It would remain the highest-grossing Bond film until GoldenEye unseated it, sixteen years later. Critics weren't as enthused, and hardcore fans raked Moonraker over the proverbial coals, but the fact remains it was a massive hit. It warped the language, in a way. Do the same Google trick I did with Quantum of Solace and see how far you have to scroll down before you find a picture of an actual moonsail.

fig. 4: Well...
The word "moonraker" has three definitions, and they're all pretty fun. First: it's the topmost sail of a square-rigged sailing ship. That's a wonderfully evocative word, of the exact same vein as "skyscraper," one of my favorite words. They're sails for ships built for speed. The second definition, tied to an English folk tale, has a bunch of smugglers trying to retrieve their cache by moonlight,only to be caught by revenue men.When asked what they were doing, the smugglers pretended to be trying to rake a wheel of cheese out of the water, and played at the reflection of the moon with their rakes. The last, befitting James Bond and his antagonists, is a term for a very ambitious man. So, pretty good word for your movie, and the space shuttle that features so prominently in it. This film, in fact, marks the on-screen debut of the space shuttle orbiter, intended to coincide with the shuttle's first launch, though in fact the launch was delayed until 1981. Laser guns, well, they're taking a bit longer.

In fact, while Moonraker gets flak for being "the space one," Bond and his fellow secret agent (ugh.) Dr. Goodhead don't make it to Drax's Space Refuge for Really Telegenic People until there's only about a half hour left in the film. Previous to this, it's as typical a 007 adventure as you're likely to find, and if you somehow managed to wander into the theater without ever seeing a poster for the film, you might not imagine that space was where James Bond was going to end up. Or, at least, not in the middle of a pitched battle between the US Space Program and a bunch of Eugenicists led by a hilariously dour Frenchman. I spent much of my rewatch thinking "When is he going to get to space so this thing can start sucking?"

fig.5: That's no moon.

The space bits are hardly the worst offenders in this film. If I had to pick where Moonraker went off the rails for me, it would be in the music cues. When Jaws first meets Dolly, one of Drax's buxom astro-nymphets, the score can't help but break in to Tchiakovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" theme, long-since lapsed into parody, and as Bond arrives on horseback (for some reason) at British Intelligence's Brazil HQ, wearing a poncho and cowboy hat (for some reason), the score (for some reason) sees fit to break into the theme from The Magnificent Seven. There's not taking yourself too seriously, and there's this.

The franchise would course-correct in the next entry, but by Octopussy, the familiar rhythms would be in place again, rhythms that would more or less persist in Bond's model of storytelling until Casino Royale. I mentioned in my look back at Quantum of Solace that that film represents a limit case of how far the Bond franchise can go in a certain direction (in this case the Conflicted Antihero route) and still remain recognizably itself. , then, is its obverse, showing how far down the rabbit hole of its own excesses the franchise can go, and still remain entertaining.

fig. 6: Damn it.

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