Although far from the best entry in the 007 franchise, Moonraker may just be the most underrated. It eclipsed prior installments with its gargantuan scope, sending James Bond on a mission to prevent the menacing Hugo Drax from enacting genocide on the entire human race. Known, and subsequently disregarded, as the “one where Bond goes into outer space,” it marks the end of an era for the long-running series.
Lewis Gilbert, director of two other “apocalyptic” 007 pictures (You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me) purifies his vision in his final outing. There’s a real sense of directorial flair, of inventiveness, that coats Moonraker, and Gilbert molds it into a work of visual ecstasy. Focused entirely on unfettered entertainment, he puts every penny of the sizeable budget on the screen, aided by awe-inspiring production design. Ken Adams’ sets, from elaborate mansion interiors to space stations, are breathtaking. Watching Roger Moore’s smooth 007 walk through a construction of NASA control boards embedded in ancient Egyptian architecture may perhaps be the refined definition of escapism. These words, escape, smooth, breathtaking, define Moonraker. John Barry’s ethereal music glides over the entire film, adding to the beautiful grandeur of the affair. The influence of character creator Ian Fleming may be completely absent, but it hardly matters. This is cinematic 007 dialed up to eleven – unadulterated blockbuster spectacle crafted by the hands of professionals.
Although not entirely without reproach (its sheer absurdity and ridiculousness occasionally overwhelms) its operatic scale is nigh-impossible to not revel in. Although the aforementioned absence of “Fleming’s Bond,” may rankle many viewers, Moonraker, in all of its humorous and sprawling grandeur, could never coexist with Fleming’s cold and relatively grounded spy. Gilbert’s cast falls in line perfectly with the tone. Moore, in his fourth outing, is brimming with ultra-confidence and clearly having the time of his life (his suave smirk practically never leaves his face). Michael Lonsdale, aided by brilliant writing from Christopher Wood, creates one of the best villains of the series in Hugo Drax. It is a performance of pure camp and a tinge of menace, with strong presence and deliciously droll dialogue delivery following suit (one line reads “You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season”).
Moonraker is a film where super villains plan to repopulate a post-apocalyptic Earth with a group of unbelievably attractive humans; it is a film where characters are named Holly Goodhead. Although the series would ultimately rival Jean Tournier’s vibrant cinematography with 2012’s Skyfall it has yet to find a suitable replacement for Ken Adams’ set design, for John Barry’s music, or for Bernard Lee’s “M.” At the end of the director’s commentary track Lewis Gilbert wryly states, “They don’t make them like this anymore.” He is absolutely right.