James Bond's science fiction imaginary

By any standard, even by the standards of other Bond movies, Moonraker is a bad film. Though Roger Moore was yet to truly descend into his immobile, parodic, geriatric mid-1980s self, Moonraker carried on the flatulent, throwaway feel of The Spy Who Loved Me, an overlong bore of a film that traded on the curio attraction of Richard Kiel's 'Jaws' villain, the underwater Lotus Espirit and Ken Adam's grandiose sets (the interior of the sub-swallowing supertanker was one of the most expensive and largest sets ever constructed on a sound stage).

Moonraker, released in 1979 in the wake of the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, doubled-down on the spectacle and tried to avert our eyes from the plot holes. The film begins with a Space Shuttle being transported to Britain on the back of a 747, echoing NASA publicity footage of the late 70s (before the Shuttle's first orbital mission in 1981). The Shuttle was made by Drax Industries, and when the 747 crashes (but no trace of 'Britain's shuttle' can be found) Bond is sent to the United States to investigate Sir Hugo Drax, played by Michael Lonsdale as a man so consumed by dyspepsia and ennui that he transplants a French chateau to the American desert in order to shoot quail (in deerstalker and cape), and has cultic dreams of wiping out humanity and replacing them with a hand-picked group of new Adams and Eves. (Is he one? It's never made quite clear.)

Fleming's Moonraker is a different animal altogether. Set in Britain, Drax is an industrialist whose company makes the 'Moonraker', a nuclear missile. Bond investigates some goings on and discovers that Drax (who cheats at cards - always the sign of a villian, like Goldfinger) is in fact an ex-German Army commando officer who is bent on revenging the Third Reich by using the Moonraker to destroy London.

The Moonraker is essentially an upgraded V-2 rocket, and the shadow of Peenemunde is long over the Cold War and Space Race. It was Wernher von Braun, of course, the famous former V-2 rocket scientist, who was the architect of NASA's post-war ambitions to journey into space, and both Americans and Soviet military and scientific establishments co-opted former Third Reich rocket scientists into their own missile programs. The American Rocket State, as Dale Carter named it, was driven by V-missile technology.

Very different, then, to the 1979 film. For Britain in the late 1950s, remaining a player in the changing geo-political landscape of superpower conflict and Cold War (and low-intensity combat theatres) was contingent on the prestige and status accorded a 'nuclear power'. Britain obtained and detonated a nuclear device in 1952, but the dreams of an independent nuclear deterrent (along the lines of the French 'force de frappe') were laid to rest with the cancellation of the Blue Streak missile in 1960. Fleming's Moonraker missile is a clear analogue of the Blue Streak, and the narrative surrounding it in his novel attests to his usual mixture of geo-political adventurism and the anxieties attendent on the withdrawal from Empire, ongoing throughout the 1950s.

Cold War missile imagery, in Fleming's Moonraker, therefore has a political urgency entirely absent from the film. What exactly would the British government do with a Shuttle? They couldn't launch it. It becomes a status symbol ad absurdum, an entirely redundant piece of technology that could only be piggy-backed around airshows on a converted 747. By 1979, Britain's imperial dreams are reduced to the image of an orbital plane which could most usefully be deployed as a giant paperweight. Little wonder that in 1981's For Your Eyes Only, which deliberately cut back on the gadgetry despite Moonraker's big box office, the technological MacGuffin that Bond searches for is a missile command system that fits into a briefcase.

The plot of the Moonraker film deteriorates into outright absurdity towards the end. It is revealed that Drax has a huge launch complex hidden away in the Amazonian jungle, from which he has constructed a huge orbital space station: which no-one knows is there. It has, Bond says, radar-jamming technology. Clearly military intelligence, NASA, astronomers and so on did not record the number of space-flights needed to transport the materials from Earth into orbit in the first place, so no suspicion arose. And what happened to 'our' Shuttle? Drax faked the crash so he could steal back the Shuttle that his own corporation had built, sold and was delivering to the British! Why? Why didn't they build another, or even put off the British (who are used to long delays in the delivery of major military contracts)? Lonsdale almost seems to shrug his shoulders at this point. It's Bond villain as Homer Simpson-with-beard: 'I dunno.'

Of course, the spectacular finale has Bond and American astronauts (who seem to have formed a kind of NASA SEAL unit) battle it out with Drax's minions with laser rifles in orbit, and the Yanks win. It all seems much like the underwater battles in Bond films like Thunderball, whose overall effect is somewhat underwhelming. Instead of harpoon guns, substitute lasers; instead of frogmen, substitute astronauts in tin-foil spacesuits; instead of Curt Jurgens's underwater lair in The Spy Who Loved Me, substitute a massively expensive space station set.

Speaking of massively expensive sets, 1967's You Only Live Twice is the first truly Space Race Bond, where Donald Pleasance as Blofeld launches Mercury-capsule-eating rockets from a hollow volcano somewhere in Japan. (As in Moonraker, with all the tracking devices at work, you'd think someone in Intelligence would have noticed.) Bond's ascent into space is halted at the door of the capsule, in this film: Blofeld is suspicious and recalls the disguised would-be astronaut. While this film is curiously dominated by helicopter shots (and has an autogyro/ helicopter dogfight), it stays pretty much Earth-bound.

The first Bond film to really use NASA imagery is 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. This film is largely set in Las Vegas: the testing grounds of Groom Lake, and Edwards Air Force base, are close at hand. This is why, perhaps, along with the desert imagery that often accompanies NASA-inspired films (The Right Stuff, Capricorn One), that Bond in Diamonds Are Forever breaks into an aerospace facility, trespasses across a mock-up lunar landscape (while dodging 'moonwalking' men in environment suits) and finally steals a kind of moon buggy, outrunning security cars and trike-riding goons in his getaway across the dunes.

Diamonds Are Forever is a rotten film in many ways (in the way that Hunter Thompson would use the word 'rotten' about Las Vegas), but there's a gaudy vulgarity and even perverseness to it that I find quite entertaining. It was released while the Apollo missions were still ongoing, of course, and while the 'old' Las vegas of the Mob and the Rat Pack still stood, and Diamonds Are Forever - very much an American film - feels like the decadent days of a grand power going to ruin. The grand power is no longer Britain, and its narrative of post-imperial 'decline', but the USA.

Moonraker, by comparison, is a vapid bore. The entire film seems a set-up for the final, devastating double-entendre: disturbed in zero-g, mid-coitus, by a live satellite feed meant to congratulate him, shocked politicos ask what Bond thinks he is doing. 'Attempting re-entry, sir', says Q.

While Fleming's novel negotiates the science fictional imaginary also traversed by Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (V-2s, the Space Programme, the legacies of WW2), the film of Moonraker ascends to a hyperbolic realm where British post-imperial geo-political anxieties are articulated in a manner so palpably absurd, so science fictional, that they no longer seem meaningful. And that's the point of the film, really.

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