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Moonraker: A 007 space odyssey


Following the success of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977), producer Albert R Broccoli was all set to produce ‘For Your Eyes Only’, the eleventh screen adventure in the James Bond series. However, the phenomenal success of ‘Star Wars’ (1977) forced him to rethink his decision. In order to capitalise on the stupendous triumph of this George Lucas’ science fiction tale with space as its backdrop, Broccoli decided to replace ‘For Your Eyes Only’ with ‘Moonraker’ and send James Bond out of this world – literally. Although the 1967 James Bond saga, ‘You Only Live Twice’ had a plot of disappearing spacecrafts, it did not provide Bond with the privilege of space travel.

By late 1970s, the Ian Fleming novel, ‘Moonraker’ had become too dated to be translated to the screen, and therefore, screenwriter of Bond films, Christopher Wood retained only the essence of the characters from the original novel and the premise of a megalomaniac using the space programme for his own scheme. Wood, however erred dramatically in reverting to the anything-for-a-laugh philosophy followed in the earlier Bond film, ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’ (1974). The emphasis on slapstick negated many thrilling sequences in ‘Moonraker’, thus exemplifying evidence that bigger is not necessarily better. ‘Moonraker’ was produced at a whopping budget of $34 million, having no expense spared, as against ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, which had a budget of $14 million.

Lewis Gilbert, who had earlier successfully directed two Bond films namely ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ was retained to steer ‘Moonraker’.

When the casting began, the role of the megalomaniac villain, Hugo Drax was offered to the noted British actor, James Mason. However, once the decision was made that the film would be an Anglo-French co-production under the 1965-79 film treaty, French actor, Michael Lonsdale was cast as Drax and further, French actress, Corinne Cléry was chosen for the part of Corinne Dufour, to comply with qualifying criteria of the agreement. Actors Stewart Granger and Louis Jourdan were also considered for the role of Drax.

Actress, Lois Chiles had originally been offered the role of Anya in the earlier Bond film, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, but turned down the part when she decided to take temporary retirement. She got the role of Dr Holly Goodhead in ‘Moonraker’ by chance when she was given the seat next to director, Lewis Gilbert on a flight, and he believed she would be ideal for the role as the CIA agent.

Drax’s henchman Chang, played by Japanese aikido instructor, Toshiro Suga was recommended for the role by the executive producer, Michael G Wilson, who was one of his pupils.

The character of Jaws played by actor, Richard Kiel makes a return, although in ‘Moonraker’ the role is played more for comic effect than in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. Jaws was intended to be a villain against Bond to the bitter end, but Gilbert stated that he received so much fan mail from small children saying, “Why can’t Jaws be a goodie not a baddie”, that as a result he was persuaded to make Jaws gradually become Bond’s ally at the end of the film.

‘Moonraker’ was shot at two major studios in France, Studio de Boulogne in Epinay and Eclair in Paris due to high taxation in England at the time. The production designer, Ken Adam constructed the largest sets ever seen in the French film industry. The crew worked 2,22,000 man hours to ensure the sets were ready in time for principal photography. The extensive special-effects shots however were done at the Pinewood Studios in London. The production of ‘Moonraker’ began on August 14, 1978.

‘Moonraker’ has one of the best scores in the Bond movies. Composer, John Barry provided some lovely atmospheric themes that perfectly reflected the film’s outer-space setting. The main title song sung by Bond veteran, Shirley Bassey – following ‘Goldfinger’ (1964) and ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (1971) – is a haunting melody. Barry also made liberal use of the stirring 007 theme during the boat chase filmed in Brazil.

The visual sweep of the film is magnificent and is enhanced by Jean Tournier’s impressive cinematography.

‘Moonraker’ was shot on exotic locations like Venice, Guatemala, and Brazil. It had beautiful faces, space-age technology, and finally, enough special effects to merit the Oscar nomination, which visual-effects supervisor, Derek Meddings and others ultimately received. Some portions of the Moonraker assembly plant were filmed on location at the Rockwell International manufacturing facilities in Palmdale, California, and at the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

‘Moonraker’ premiered on June 26, 1979, in the Odeon Leicester Square, United Kingdom, in the presence of the Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip. Three days after the UK release, it went on general release in the US, opening in 788 cinemas.

Despite lack of seriousness in it, ‘Moonraker’ was both a critical and financial success garnering $210.3 million at the Box Office, including $62 million in the US, making it the highest-grossing entry in the series until ‘GoldenEye’ (1995). The impressed critics described it as “a fun summer extravaganza”. However, some dissatisfied Bond purists made their protests clear to Broccoli, who agreeing that the film had gone overboard on comedy, promised to bring Bond “back to earth” in the next film.

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