Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Moonraker
Even a venerable spy series cannot endure without sampling the cheese plate. In fact, the James Bond films operated for decades on the careful application of cheesy elements. It served movies like From Russia with Love, Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service well. But you’ll note I’m citing films starring Sean Connery and George Lazenby. In the Roger Moore era, the application spread to a wider portion of any given film’s surface and now Moore’s time as 007 is remembered as an era of outrageous gadgets, terrible quips and Moore’ overall silliness. But it didn’t happen all at once and certainly not in equal measure across all seven of his films. Live and Let Die has not aged well, but sees Moore debuting in the tone of his predecessors. The Man with the Golden Gun is a terrible film in every respect, and thus its cheese went bad before the film’s release. The Spy Who Loved Me manages to acquit itself well with a story that more or less works — even if it cribs a few ideas from You Only Live Twice. The next film in the sequence, however, is an overflowing fondue pot of cheese. In fact, it’s surprising the film lacks a fondue accident in its cavalcade of outlandish and silly set pieces. And while not the worst film in the Bond cannon — that’s certainly Spectre at this point — Moonraker is often dismissed for its high concentration of Moore era wackiness.
The plot sees Bond match wits with French industrialist Hugo Drax (Micheal Lonsdale), who intends to privatize space with his Moonraker shuttle program. When one of the shuttles Drax Industries loaned to Her Majesty’s Government goes missing, Bond is dispatched to Drax HQ in California. There, someone tries to kill him in a centrifuge. It instantly makes Bond suspicious of his host. Thus begins an odyssey which sees Bond traveling to Venice, Rio de Janeiro, the Amazon and, finally, outer space to uncover the truth about Drax and his real ambitions. He even finds out why that first shuttle went missing.
But in between those points on the map, Bond fights a would-be samurai, destroys one of Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain gondolas, and quips through a rematch with Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me. More on him in a bit. The “highlight” of these set-pieces is Bond’s high-speed gondola chase in Venice. Though it begins on the canals, 007 eventually reveals the gondola is also a hovercraft and escapes his pursuers by trotting across the Piazza San Marco to the astonishment of onlookers. The vibe is very, very jokey with a bird doing a double take via editing, a painter losing his canvass to the hovercraft and a repeat of The Spy Who Loved Me‘s “Did I drink too much?” guy.
In fact, several elements of The Spy Who Loved Me are recycled in Moonraker. Drax’s very complicated eugenics program mirrors Stromberg’s plot to create a new world under the sea. His underwater city no doubt inspired Drax’s space station. Bond also has to team up with a foreign female agent to save the day in both films. As it happens, the similarities are intentional. The Spy Who Loved Me ends with the declaration that “James Bond Will Return In For Your Eyes Only.” But a funny thing happened before EON Productions, the makers of the Bond series, started developing For Your Eyes Only: the release of Star Wars.
And though it might seem that Star Wars birthed all cheesy flicks, it really didn’t. It just created a wider market for them. But in the case of James Bond, its windfall of space-bucks was just too tempting for producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli (pronounced just like the vegetable) to ignore. He shelved For Your Eyes Only and rifled through his copies of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels for the only title vaguely space related. In fact, the Moonraker novel is more about ballistic missiles and Cold War tensions in a plot Broccoli’s successors would use as the basis for Die Another Day. The novel also features an antagonist named Hugo Drax. So Broccoli jettisoned everything except the title and the villain’s name. But with a tight deadline, screenwriter Christopher Wood and returning director Lewis Gilbert were forced to recycle The Spy Who Loved Me; building new set pieces around it and beefing up the role of Jaws.
Debuting in The Spy Who Loved Me, Jaws found great popularity with children despite being a villain. Broccoli requested that the character be given a heroic arc to appeal to the kids; like the same ones who also made Star Wars a giant money maker. If it all strikes you as a cynical ploy, that’s because it is.
But, as often happens in this column, that cynicism is part of the charm. In attempting to outdo the stunts from The Spy Who Loved Me — and distract you from the fact you’re watching a remake of that film — Gilbert stages and shoots the action in a much more cartoonish way. The film makes Looney Tunes-style musical references to 2001: a space odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Jaws, for his part, is transformed into a cartoon character as well. He can no longer kill, survives impossible falls and even finds a lady love. Moore’s aloof reactions to any threat or romantic situation get turned up to their max setting; making him a strangely unknowable protagonist amid the animated chaos and zero-g antics of the climax.
The result, somehow, is still thrilling. While not delivering the Bond movie you really want, Moonraker creates a self-parody of Bond’s excesses up to that point. The quips are terrible, the Bond girl is such a non-starter that I’ve neglected to really mention her, Moore’s Bond is ludicrously disconnected from events and impervious to harm, and Q’s gadgets are just too perfect for any given situation. And yet, they all make sense in the context of the series, if you forgive the cynical motivations behind the film’s existence of course. If you’re willing to run with it, the movie has fun with the outlandish cliches and conventions of the series; almost acting as a cleanse. In fact, when the next film — the delayed For Your Eyes Only — finally materialized, it saw a back-to-basics approach for the Moore Era bond. Now that’s some truly powerful cheese.
Moonraker is available as part of the Starz subscription channel on Amazon Prime Video. It’s also available for sale on that service, iTunes and other digital platforms. If you’re still investing in disc formats, it can be found on the James Bond Blu-ray Collection: Volume Three Blu-ray set and as its own individual Blu-ray release.