Moonraker


In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

(1979) Sci-Fi Spy Action (United Artists) Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corinne Cléry, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell, Toshiro Suga, Emily Bolton, Blanche Ravalec, Walter Gotell, Arthur Howard, Michael Marshall, Brian Keith, Chichinou Kaeppler, Claude Carliez, Catherine Serre, Beatrice Libert.  Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Among James Bond fans, Moonraker remains even today a divisive subject. Some hail it as being among the best of the entire franchise (New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought it was even better than Goldfinger) while others look upon it as campy schlock with little redeeming value.

The plot is pure balderdash. A space shuttle, on loan to Britain from the U.S., is hijacked from a 747 on the way back to America. James Bond (Moore), MI-6 agent 007 is assigned the case by M (Lee, his last appearance in the franchise) and is sent to interview Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), the billionaire owner of Drax Industries who manufactured the shuttle. While on the French estate which the industrialist had moved stone by stone to the California desert, Bond meets Dr. Holly Goodhead (Chiles), an astronaut assigned to Drax and is nearly murdered by Chang (Suga), Drax’ bodyguard. With the assistance of Corinne Dufour (Cléry), Drax’ personal pilot, Bond discovers some blueprints to an unusual glass container.

Bond goes to Venice to find out the secret of the container and discovers that it is a vessel for a highly toxic nerve gas, accidentally killing several lab technicians in the process. Chang, however, he kills on purpose. He calls in the cavalry only to find the entire operation has disappeared. However, Bond kept a vial of the gas as proof and M keeps Bond on the case despite calls to take him off it. Under the guise of sending Bond on holiday, M sends him to Rio de Janeiro where Bond has discovered that Drax has moved his operations. There, with helpful contact Manuela (Bolton) he eventually learns that Drax has a secret base near Iguazu Falls on the Amazon.

Drax also has a new bodyguard, by the name of Jaws (Kiel) and a plan – to render Earth uninhabitable by humankind (the gas is harmless to animals and plants) and take the most beautiful specimens of humans onto a space station orbiting the Earth, kept hidden by a massive radar jamming device. Bond and Goodhead, who  turns out to be an ally, must stop Drax from wiping out all of humanity and beginning a new master race, one which he and his descendants will rule.

As Bond movies go this one is pretty ambitious. It had for its time an eyebrow-raising budget. In fact, For Your Eyes Only was supposed to follow The Spy Who Loved Me but as Star Wars had rendered the moviegoing public sci-fi crazy, producer Albert Broccoli decided to capitalize on the craze and send Bond into space. Utilizing series regular Derek Meddings on special effects (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Ken Adam for set design, this became one of the more visually spectacular of the Bond films, right up there with the volcano lair of You Only Live Twice.

Moore as Bond relied on witticisms more than Sean Connery ever did; here he approaches self-parody. By this time he was beginning to show his age (he was older than Connery was when he made Never Say Never Again) and becoming less believable in the role, although he would go on to make three more Bond films. This wasn’t his finest moment as Bond but he continued to make it through on charm and comic timing.

His main Bond mate, Chiles, was decidedly less successful. Many consider her the coldest Bond girl ever; she is decidedly unconvincing as a scientist and less so as a spy. She has almost no chemistry with Moore; Carole Bouquet would turn out to be a much better fit for Moore in For Your Eyes Only which wisely brought Bond back to basics when it came out in 1981.

Kiel, as Jaws, was already one of the most popular Bond villains of all time. Rather than being menacing, he became almost comic relief; his indestructibility becomes a running joke which might have been a tactical mistake by the writers. The movie desperately needed a sense of peril to Bond and you never get a sense he’s in any real danger other than a single sequence when Chang attempts to murder him in a G-force testing machine. Nonetheless Kiel is game and is one of the better elements in the film.

By this point in the series Bond films essentially wrote themselves and had become a little bit formulaic. Despite the popularity of this film, Broccoli knew that he had to break the franchise out of its rut and he would do so with the following film which would become one of the best of the Moore era; this one, while some loved it and audiences flocked to it, remains less highly thought of today. It is still impressive for its space battle sequence, it’s amazing sets and zero gravity sequences, even despite being somewhat dated. It, like nearly every Bond film, is solid entertainment by any scale.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects were nifty for their time. Moore remains the most witty of the Bonds. Jaws.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chilly Chiles. Lacks any sense of peril. Occasionally dull.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some sexual innuendo
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Would be the highest-grossing film of the series until Goldeneye broke the record in 1995.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Special Edition DVD includes a still gallery and a featurette on the Oscar-nominated special effects. The Blu-Ray edition includes these as well as some storyboards and test footage.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $210.3M on a $34M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

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Gravity


In space, nobody can hear you scream "OH CRAP!!!!"

In space, nobody can hear you scream “OH CRAP!!!!”

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice), Phaldut Sharma (voice), Orto Ignatiussen (voice), Amy Warren (voice), Basher Savage (voice). Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Some movies go for a visceral experience, using special effects to bedazzle and wow their audience. Others go for an emotional experience, using the dialogue and characters to create a response in their audience. It is a rare thing for filmmakers to attempt both in the same film.

Gravity is a game-changer in almost every sense of the word. Here, we are treated to a magnificent view of a space shuttle mission drifting in space with the curve of planet Earth hanging above them. It is breathtaking in and of itself. The mission to make some software updates and minor repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope is commanded by Matt Kowalski (Clooney), an affable, devilishly handsome country music fan on his last mission hoping to break a Russian cosmonaut’s record for longest space walk. With him is Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a mission specialist on her first trip into the great big out there. Kowalski is testing a brand new thruster pack that is working much better than the repairs and upgrade to the Hubble are.

Then Mission Control (Harris) orders them back to the shuttle for an emergency evacuation. It seems that the Russians have spontaneously decided to destroy one of their spy satellites but in typical Russian fashion haven’t really thought it through. The resulting explosion set off a chain reaction of debris impacting other satellites which in turn sends off more debris to impact more satellites. Small pieces of satellite are hurtling through orbit at speeds faster than bullets, wiping out everything in their path. GPS and communications satellites are going down rapidly as the debris approaches the shuttle and its crew.

The shuttle and the Hubble are destroyed in a silent, spectacular spray of debris. Only Ryan and Matt survive the initial disaster but they are far from out of the woods. Their ride home destroyed, they will need to find some other means of getting back. The International Space Station is near enough by that they can use the Soyuz craft as a lifeboat but that too has been hit by debris, leaving only a Chinese space station as a last hope. Dr. Stone, living with her own tragedy and with little experience, must summon up every bit of training she’s received and every ounce of courage she possesses to find a way back home against all odds.

Let’s look at the visual aspect of the film first – in a word, stunning. I think it’s safe to say that this is the most immersive special effects experience in any movie since Avatar. You are brought into a world that is made utterly believable and real and at the same time utterly alien. While in Avatar that world was Pandora, here it is outer space. You never for an instant doubt that these are astronauts floating in the weightlessness of zero gravity. It is an astonishing achievement of special effects. Don’t be surprised if there are Oscars awarded for it in February.

The collisions of debris and machine take place in absolute silence. Since sound doesn’t travel in space this is as it should be. It is also completely terrifying. Don’t let the sounds of collisions on the trailer fool you – the studio insisted on them for the trailer but they are absent in the final film. We are often treated to the point of view of Dr. Stone, seeing things through her helmet. We see her breath fogging the helmet glass; see the panic in her eyes and the spinning of her horizon as she hurtles through space in the initial cataclysm. It is breathtaking in its simplicity, devastating in consequence as the audience gradually realizes what these shots mean. The enormity of what these characters face is unstated; it is left to the imagination of the audience to conjure up their own conclusions.

Looking at the emotional aspect, we have to first start with Bullock. This is clearly her movie and she is the avatar of the audience, representing us in the film. She is inexperienced because we are as well; it is far more effective to have her trying to guess and figure out what to do rather than see things through the eyes of Kowalski who is better trained. He is there mainly to offer encouragement to Dr. Stone and a bit of comic relief here and there.

As impressive as the special effects are, this is a very human film. As we see the astronauts struggle to survive and figure out a way against all hope to get back home, we see our own struggle to survive in a world just as inhospitable and unforgiving and cold as that of outer space. We become invested in Dr. Stone and in no small part due to Bullock’s performance. This may well be her crowning achievement as an actress; it’s note-perfect capturing the flaws and frailties of a character who is brilliant but terrified. She is in fact brilliant enough to imagine the negative outcome of what is happening to her. Clooney gets to essentially play himself; wise-cracking and devilishly handsome but entirely competent at what he does.

In a nice little grace note, Cuaron casts Ed Harris to be the voice of Mission Control; Harris also played Flight Director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13. That aside, there isn’t much in terms of in-film references to please the fanboy contingent which I think has stuck in the craw of some of that ilk.

From a scientific standpoint, Cuaron has said that some liberties were taken with science in order to advance the story – one of the most egregious of these is that the journey from the Hubble to the ISS was not possible with the equipment shown in the film simply because of the distance involved. Simply put, if this had happened for real (and some scientists have warned that it potentially could), the chances are that the astronauts would perish right then and there. That would have made for a depressing film and wasn’t the story that Cuaron wanted to tell. Once again, this isn’t about the effects – it’s about the human beings inside them. From that standpoint, it’s a marvelous film. Whatever your feelings about the space program – gigantic boondoggle or absolute necessity – you will be blown away by the special effects but more importantly you will be moved by the human story, a rare achievement. This is one of the best films of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Phenomenal special effects. Tense, edge-of-your-seat throughout. Bravura performance by Bullock.

REASONS TO STAY: One or two nitpicks.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few images that are pretty rough and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The length of the movie at 90 minutes is exactly the time it takes for the actual International Space Station to make one complete orbit of the Earth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marooned

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Tigger Movie