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MGM Home Entertainment / 1979 / 121 Minutes / Rated PG
Street Date: March 24, 2009
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Reviewed by Joshua Zyber
Monday, April 13, 2009
"Mr. Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you."
During his heyday in the 1960s, James Bond was a cinematic trendsetter. Countless imitators tried to copy the success of the 007 franchise. By the 1970s, those tables had turned. Bond's adventures, even the better entries, had grown repetitive and formulaic. The world's greatest secret agent was no longer on the cutting edge of popular culture, and instead found himself following other popular trends of the day. As soon as Roger Moore took the reins from Sean Connery in 1973, his debut 'Live and Let Die' attempted to cash-in on the Blaxploitation fad that had started a few years earlier.
The end credits of 1977's 'The Spy Who Loved Me' announced that, "JAMES BOND will return in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY." But then a little movie called 'Star Wars' brought about an unexpected resurgence of the science fiction genre. Suddenly, everyone wanted to make a sci-fi epic, even James Bond. Around this same time, NASA built and test flew its first space shuttle, reigniting public interest in the space program. It just so happened that author Ian Fleming had written a Bond novel about nuclear rockets back in 1955. The book had nothing to do with space, but did include the word "moon" in the title, which was more than enough excuse for producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli. Thus converged a perfect storm of bad ideas. 'For Your Eyes Only' was put on the backburner, while 'Moonraker' was rushed into production. James Bond was going to outer space, and nothing could stop him.
In most fans' estimation, 'Moonraker' is the worst of all the 007 movies. It's certainly an easy mark for that title. The film has one of the dumbest storylines of the entire series, and its mixture of the spy and science fiction genres is goofy at best. It also exemplifies all the worst traits of the Roger Moore years, namely an over-reliance on silly gadgets, bloated spectacle, and bad comic relief. One of the most-effective elements of 'The Spy Who Loved Me', the hulking evil henchman named Jaws (Richard Kiel), makes a return appearance and is immediately turned into a cartoonish mockery of his formerly menacing self. Worse, he's even given a love interest -- a mute, possibly-retarded girl in blonde pigtails and glasses. The jokey meta-movie references that had plagued earlier Moore pictures are also back, in the form of musical cues from both '2001' and 'Close Encounters', plus one costume straight out of a Spaghetti Western. Despite a nomination for the Best Visual Effects Academy Award, I find it difficult to believe that Derek Meddings' cornball models and miniatures were very impressive even in 1979. They look like leftovers from his 'Thunderbirds' children's show. The effects in 'Star Wars' and 'Close Encounters' outclass these by light years.
Truth be told, the first 3/4 of 'Moonraker' actually aren't that bad. After the opening, laughable special effects showcase in which a pair of no-goodniks hijack a space shuttle right off the back of its transport jet, we're given a quite exciting skydiving stunt sequence before Maurice Binder's typically provocative titles. Shirley Bassey belts out the theme song, her third for the series after 'Goldfinger' and 'Diamonds Are Forever'. It's far from the most iconic of tunes, but has a nice melody and a tendency to get stuck in your head.
Bond's globetrotting adventures take him from California to Venice to Rio de Janeiro on the trail of evil industrialist billionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), who has been collecting space shuttles for nefarious purposes. Lois Chiles makes a fetching Bond girl with the double-take name of Dr. Holly Goodhead. John Barry contributes another great score. If you can get past the 'Buck Rogers'-quality models, the sizable budget was put to good use in Ken Adam's lavish sets, some of the best of his career. 'Moonraker' would mark Adam's last Bond outing, as well as that of supporting actor Bernard Lee as M.
Among the gadgets supplied by Q branch are a wristband that shoots poison darts, a Venetian gondola that converts into a hovercraft (the source of not just the worst action scene in this film, but perhaps the worst of any Bond film), a speedboat that converts into a hang glider, and a cache of laser pistols and rifles. In addition to Jaws, Drax also has an Asian henchman whose samurai fighting skills are no match for Moore's ridiculous karate-chopping.
The film really goes off the rails during its last half hour. After tracking Drax to a rainforest hideaway and fighting a giant rubber snake, Bond discovers the villain's devious plan. Drax intends to escape into space and then launch a biological attack that will wipe all human life off the planet, after which he and his cadre of genetically superior volunteers will return to repopulate the Earth. Naturally, Bond and Goodhead will need to commandeer one of the shuttles, travel to Drax's stealth space station, and foil the plot. Conveniently, the U.S. military just happens to have a battalion of space marines (really!) at the ready to help them out. Obviously, they'd been preparing for this exact scenario for years. Much slo-mo miming of zero gravity movements, exploding of model spaceships on strings, and Pew! Pew! Pew! laser battles commence.
'Moonraker' is, in many ways, an absurdly awful movie. But that's not to say that it isn't entertaining. As a James Bond film, it's downright terrible. As a thick slice of '70s sci-fi cheese, it has its charms. It may not be "good" in any objective, rational sense, but I'd still rather watch this one again than some later entries like 'A View to a Kill' or 'Die Another Day'.
The movie was, improbably, a huge box office hit, the most successful of Moore's run in the franchise. In the years after 'Star Wars' but before the home video boom, people were desperate for any sci-fi fix they could get. Nonetheless, it left an unmistakable sense that things had gone terribly wrong. When Moore returned two years later, the producers wisely made the much-delayed 'For Your Eyes Only' a stripped-down, back-to-basics affair. The result was one of the stronger efforts of the Moore era. If nothing else, 'Moonraker' proved that James Bond can truly survive any calamity, even the self-destructive tendencies of his own creators.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Moonraker' comes to Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment (distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) in a few packaging options. The movie is available singly in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with slipcover or in a Steelbook case exclusive to Amazon.com. 'Moonraker' is also included as part of the 'James Bond Collection: Volume 3' box set with 'Goldfinger' and 'The World Is Not Enough'.
'Moonraker' marks another impressive restoration effort from Lowry Digital. The movie is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio for the most part. Both the opening and end credits appear in a narrower ratio around 2.20:1 with pillarboxing on the sides. Lowry did the same thing for 'Thunderball'. When that disc was released, I speculated that the credits may have been shot on 65mm stock, but the appearance of circular moon imagery here plainly shows these to be horizontally squeezed. It's a foolish decision, and I wish they hadn't done it.
Putting that aside, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is otherwise quite sharp and detailed, remarkably so at times. The naked ladies in the opening credits have never been clearer. Unfortunately, neither have the obvious stunt doubles or the backup parachutes under the characters' clothes in the skydiving scene, the matte painting backdrops, or the wires holding up the space station model. 'Moonraker' was a sloppy production in many respects, and High Definition only makes its faults all the more obvious.
The image has both crisp whites and deep blacks. There is perhaps a little crush in shadow detail, but it's generally not objectionable. Colors and flesh tones are vivid and robust. The opening titles and the red-lit shuttle interior at the 2-hour mark have problems with banding, but those seem to be isolated incidents.
Some artificial sharpening has been applied, which leads to minor ringing artifacts throughout much of the movie. Window blinds at time code 17:40 exhibit moiré patterns. Digital Noise Reduction has also caused a few instances of frozen grain, and a loss of detail during motion. However, these artifacts sound more severe when I describe them than they actually appear on screen. Overall, this is a great-looking disc.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack has broad, sweeping, and loud music. On the other hand, dialogue is rather flat, and the ADR work is quite obvious. There's a fair amount of moderate bass action in the mains, but little to no deep LFE, which is disappointing during the shuttle launches and explosions. The overall fidelity of the track is a bit dull, though adequate for a movie of this vintage.
The film was originally recorded in Dolby Stereo. For the purists, Fox has provided a separate Dolby Digital 2.0 option. Even so, the lossless DTS track is preferable for its improved clarity. Unlike some 5.1 remixes of older movies (including some of the earlier Bond pictures), the Master Audio track is neither gimmicky nor inappropriate here. Surround activity remains mostly subdued, until the big laser battle in space, which immerses the room in fun Pew! Pew! sounds from every direction.
All of the bonus features from the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006 have been carried over to the Blu-ray. As with the other 007 Blu-rays, there's a lot of worthwhile content.
- MI6 Commentaries – Disc producer John Cork introduces the first commentary. However, this is not one of his usual assemblages of vintage interviews. Here, director Lewis Gilbert, writer Christopher Wood, and producers William P. Cartlidge and Michael G. Wilson sit down for a screen-specific chat. They have an amiable conversation, but it does ramble a bit and has a lot of gaps where the men search for things to talk about. A similar problem occurs in the second commentary by Sir Roger Moore. The actor admits up front that he doesn't remember the movie's production all that well. He instead takes the opportunity to reminisce about his entire career as Bond.
- Inside Moonraker (HD/SD, 42 min.) – Patrick Macnee narrates another excellent production documentary. Topics covered include the history of the project, changes made from the book (basically everything but the villain's name), shooting in France, locations, stunts, and of course visual effects. The piece ends with some very amusing outtakes.
- 007 in Rio – Original Production Featurette (HD-ish, 13 min.) – Although technically encoded at 1080p resolution, this is clearly a 4:3 pan & scan TV promo that doesn't exhibit any better than a standard-def level of detail. Vintage interviews with the cast and crew punctuate long, meandering clips from the movie.
- Bond '79 (HD, 12 min.) – A further collection of vintage interviews with "Cubby" Broccoli, Lewis Gilbert, Roger Moore, and Lois Chiles. Broccoli talks about the huge budget and states plainly that the Bond films were written by committee. Gilbert remarks about the comic relief and admits that no one on the production ever intended for James Bond movies to be treated seriously.
- Ken Adam's Production Films (SD, 12 min.) – The production designer narrates home movies shot during the location scouting and the filming.
- Learning to Freefall – Sky Diving Test Footage (SD, 4 min.) – Michael G. Wilson explains the difficulty and danger of choreographing the opening stunt.
- Sky Diving Storyboards (SD, 2 min.) – Exactly what it sounds like.
- Circus Footage (HD, 2 min.) – An unused alternate edit of the climax to pre-credits scene.
- Cable Car Alternate Storyboards (SD, 3 min.) – A look at the original concept for Jaws' girlfriend (who was to be as big and strong as he was), and another henchman named Rats who was eventually cut from the script.
- The Men Behind the Mayhem (HD, 19 min.) – An overview of the special effects artists who worked on the 007 films from 'Dr. No' up to 'Tomorrow Never Dies'.
- 007 Mission Control – The disc packaging describes this feature as an "interactive guide into the world of 'Moonraker'," which is a fancy way of saying that it's a simple Scene Selections menu to chapters from the feature arranged by theme. Of note is a textless version of the opening credits sequence in its original, unsqueezed aspect ratio.
- Release Trailer (HD, 4 min.) – This ad claims that, "Other films may promise you the moon, but we deliver!" Which I suppose is ironic, because the movie never actually goes to the moon.
- Image Database – A "retro photo gallery" of publicity stills, behind-the-scenes shots, and poster art. Most of the images are quite small.
- Disc Credits (SD, 2 min.)
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'Moonraker' may be widely regarded as the worst James Bond film, but that doesn't mean that it can't still entertain. The movie is a cheesetastic guilty pleasure. The Blu-ray looks great, sounds pretty good, and has a bunch of interesting supplements. Completist fans already know that they'll be buying this. For everyone else, it's worth a look.
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