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The FX of ’79 – MOONRAKER

We continue our journey through the Best Visual Effects nominees from 1979 (for the 1980 Oscars) with a movie that seems least likely to have used the effects that it used: Lewis Gilbert’s Moonraker, the 11th James Bond 007 film and the fourth to star Roger Moore. Whereas the movie from last week, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, tends to get derided by fans, although I think it’s actually very good and uses its various effects wonderfully, Moonraker tends to be derided by fans and is actually even worse than that. It’s in the bottom five Bond films of all time, according to me, and succumbs to that most duplicitous of movie traps – making it silly. Still, it does have pretty amazing visual effects, the bulk of which occur in the bizarre space finale.

Let’s dive in….

To start with, I should say that I’m a massive fan of the James Bond films and have seen them all multiple times and written essays about them for other publications. Maybe my least favorite James Bond, when looking at their entire output, is Roger Moore, which I’m aware is blasphemy. (Sure, George Lazenby wasn’t a great Bond, but his sole film happens to be one of the all-time best.) Of the seven films Moore made as Bond, only one, 1977′s The Spy Who Loved Me, is legitimately good – great, even. The other six fall somewhere between “Enjoyable Enough” and “Stick a Salad Fork in My Eye.” Moonraker, which immediately followed Spy, is definitely nearer that second distinction.

In the 1970s, Bond producers tried to reignite the franchise by pulling further and further away from Ian Fleming’s source material and relying on enormous, meaningless action, genre pastiches, and very broad comedy. When most people think of the Bond movies as ridiculous overblown camp-fests in which mustache-twirly villains try to destroy the world, it’s the Moore films they’re thinking of almost across the board.

Again, with the exception of The Spy Who Loved Me, all of Moore’s ’70s output consisted of movies attempting to be other popular types of movies; Blaxploitation movies were big in 1973, so that’s what Live and Let Die is; Enter the Dragon had just come out, so in 1974, The Man with the Golden Gun featured a lot of martial arts; and in 1979, nobody could ignore Star Wars, hence Moonraker, which wasn’t originally meant to be the next film at all. Moonraker also references a dozen other movies from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to The Magnificent Seven, just for shits and giggles.

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The “plot,” if it can be called that, has Bond investigating French aeronautics magnate Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), whose experimental Moonraker spacecraft gets hijacked en route to NASA. Drax doesn’t hide his disdain for Bond and pretty much admits to everything right away. Still, Bond snoops around Drax’s lair and meets the improbably named Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) with whom he eventually copulates, despite being very sexist and condescending to her throughout. Eventually, they discover Drax’s plan to wipe out humanity using a virus and rebuild it with young, attractive people he’s brought to his secret giant space station nobody can see. Jaws (Richard Kiel), who’d been very popular in the last movie, returns here, doesn’t die a million times, then turns into a good guy for no reason.

Okay, so I don’t like this movie, but the special effects are pretty marvelous. Bond movies were no stranger to effects, having been awarded an honorary Oscar for Thunderball in 1964. Here, the effects were headed up by Derek Meddings, a veteran model-building of Gerry Anderson’s programs, such as Thunderbirds and UFO. His models are incredibly intricate, and they’re shot in such a way that they look almost real. For most of the 126-minute movie, Meddings’ work is subtle, as in the opening shots of a Moonraker shuttle on the back of a 747.

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Or in this instance, where his models are used to show speed boats blowing up or going over waterfalls in place of actually having that happen to people and things:

However, this isn’t what got Meddings and his team an Oscar nomination. The final 30 minutes of Moonraker is an honest-to-goodness space adventure, with all kinds of shuttles and stations, and even features a squad of Drax’s men facing off with US military in a laser gun fight. A LASER GUN FIGHT, you guys! Meddings’ models are, again, incredibly detailed and shot in a really interesting way. The camera is in soft focus and there seems to be too much light on the object, but it blends together very nicely.

Here are some excellent shots of the shuttles taking off (after Bond wrestles with a fake anaconda):

And here is the aforementioned space battle. Notice especially how great the model soldiers look when they get shot and are flying away through deep space. Yes, you can tell they aren’t real people, but Meddings does about as well as possible in making them seem close to real, given the circumstances:

It’s very fitting that Meddings was rewarded with a nomination for Moonraker because his work is by far and away the best thing about it. It’s too good, almost; certainly too good to be in a movie that’s this all-around dumb. Model work is often looked down upon, especially today, because people don’t like to see that it’s a “toy”, but I think really solid, technically-impressive models, like those seen here, are far and away better than CGI. There’s a tangibility to models and miniatures and a level of craftsmanship that I think is largely lost today. Even as stupid a movie as Moonraker is, and it really is, impressive special effects make its last half-hour kind of a lot of fun.

Next week, we’ll be looking at the outlier of the group of Visual Effects Oscar nominees, and the only one of the films I, as of this writing, have never seen. Obviously I’ll watch it before next time. We go from futuristic space battles to a WWII comedy. It’s Steven Spielberg’s enormous bomb, 1941. Can’t wait!

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