I remember Moonraker coming out in 1979. I didn’t watch it, but I remember it coming out. My parents, at the time, thought that youth should only watch G-rated movies. At the time, there was no such thing as a PG-13 rating, so PG had a real range to it, relative to the suitability to pre-teens. Bond films probably exceeded what would be acceptable PG ratings today. In any case, I certainly found it pretty unfair in general but I don’t think Moonraker was on the top of my must see list. So, for this film in particular, I can’t say I was particularly upset.
I did, however, know that the movie had something to do with the Space Shuttle. I assumed that having Moon in the title, the action would somehow end up on the moon. That seemed kind of stupid to me. I may not have been old enough for my parents to endorse my attendance at PG movies, but I was old enough to know the Space Shuttle (which hadn’t actually launched yet, when the movie came out) wasn’t capable of flying to the moon. In fact, I remember being pretty turned off by the Extra Vehicular Activity scenes that made it into the promos.
I eventually did watch the movie, as and adult, although again I don’t remember any of it. Apparently, I did think it slightly better than Live and Let Die, based on my rating recorded in Netflix. Faint praise, perhaps. I also eventually looked up what a “moonraker” is. Being a nautical term (its the highest sail in a clipper ship), it probably had more resonance with the English audience of the 1950s, perhaps it even being seen as a clever play on words.
The novel, Moonraker remains, even today, a good read. It follows the formula of the modern techno-thriller. Unfortunately, today’s post-Roger Moore reader will know from the outset that Hugo Drax is the villain and perhaps even know the nature of his villainy. Even still, I was drawn in wondering what Drax was going to do and how he was going to do it.
In its day, reception was positive, although mixed. Some critics called it Fleming’s best works while other called it his worst. One criticism from Fleming’s growing fan base was the domestic location of the setting. Perhaps surprisingly, after only two novels preceding it, loyal readers already felt the key to a James Bond adventure was the exotic locales. In Moonraker, we find ourselves restricted to London and the Dover coast, from where the missile is to be launched.
Similarly to Casino Royale, the early part of the novel is dominated by a lengthy card-gambling sequence, described in exquisite detail. The game, this time around, is Bridge, a far more complicated rule set when compared to Baccarat. For the non-Bridge player, this makes the details of the gambling a little harder to follow, although the gambits used are simple enough that most readers should understand. It is the inside of the exclusive, high-end card club that provides this novels sense of the exotic; the food and the drink as well as the company.
Unlike the previous outing, the datedness of this writing isn’t quite so obvious. Bond’s love of cigarettes doesn’t quite fly today. His penchant for mixing amphetamines and Champagne to improve is cognitive abilities also seem, well, just really off. Bond also struggles, in perhaps a timeless fashion, to reconcile the competence and professionalism of this female partner with her attractiveness. The language itself may not pass modern PC muster but there is nothing so obviously archaic in its execution. Compare, for example, with its near contemporary Atlas Shrugged and Fleming clearly does a decent job with the balancing act of treatment of a working woman in a sexualized environment.
I found the treatment of the technology tolerable as well. When the book came out, the setting was plausible. England had access to the V-2 technology and had a program to develop a ballistic missile similar to the capabilities of Moonraker called Blue Streak (another play on words perhaps?). The fundamental plot point, that a missile larger than the V-2 would require a propulsion system impossible to construct from non-exotic materials, seems a little silly to the modern eye. On the other hand, the idea that wealthy businessmen will develop private launch systems is no longer the stuff of fiction. The fact that it is all mostly-plausible for its time an place allows it to work.
Moonraker provides an version early of the evil mastermind villain that we so closely associate with Bond, although once again Hugo Drax is grounded in modern (again, 1955 modern) geo-politics. Drax’s background and loyalties are, though clearly entirely fictional, nevertheless plausible, especially when put into a context only a decade after the end of the Second World War. Again, in stark contrast to the film James Bond, the world in which the books Bond and Drax operate is that of England and the Cold War. Does this mean Fleming is making a larger point about England and her Cold War capabilities and vulnerabilities? I’m not sure I can answer that. Critics have identified iconic British themes in the novel. St. George (that’s Bond) versus the Dragon (Drax is Drache, which translates to dragon), the English countryside, and the White Cliffs of Dover. Whether Fleming meant is a some deep literary symbolism or was just trying to create a setting that would translate well to a London-based film production, well, those questions are beyond my pay grade. I just take it as it comes.