Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond movie in 50 years, is out, and people are calling it one of the best. It’s been raking in cash all over the world for the last two weeks, and after opening today in the U.S., it’s expected to be the highest grossing Bond movie of all time. But still the most important question lingers, a question no one has yet had the balls to answer in print: is it better than Moonraker?
Moonraker, you say? Isn’t Moonraker the worst Bond movie of all time? Doesn’t it end with dueling armies of astronauts floating in space, shooting one another with bright blue laser beams? I did, it isn’t, and it does. Whatever you might think of Moonraker now, when it was released in ’79 it quickly became the highest grossing movie in the series, a record it held until ‘95’s GoldenEye. Moonraker was huge. It was beloved. And without resorting to judgmental terms like “good,” “bad,” and “are you fucking kidding me?!,” Moonraker undeniably provides non-stop entertainment. Does Skyfall?
Skyfall opens with a blurry Daniel Craig, in his third outing as a very sweaty, squinty, miserable Bond, busting into a room full of dead guys to find the hard drive he’s after is gone. A wild chase through and on top of a Turkish bazaar follows, culminating with that old stand-by, the fight atop a moving train, which ends with Bond shot, seemingly dead. Not bad.
Moonraker starts with the highjacking of a space shuttle off the back of a plane. James Bond, the fiendishly dapper Roger Moore, we meet on another, unrelated plane as its evil pilot attempts to push him out. Bond pulls the pilot out with him and they struggle in free-fall to wrest away the lone parachute. Bond wins. But who’s that falling toward him, defying all known laws of physics? Is it that giant, metal-toothed freak, Jaws? It is! Hooray! More mid-air fighting. Bond pulls his chute. Jaws plummets into a circus tent. Whatever else you might say about Moonraker, this sequence is legitimately cool. It took stuntmen 88 separate skydives to film it.
Sorry, Skyfall, but I have to give the opener to Moonraker, with its actual falling from the sky. You can call a train-top fight a throwback to classic Bond if you want, but it felt a bit too desperate to me.
The song. The Moonraker theme song, despite being sung by Shirley Bassey, singer of the best Bond song ever, for Goldfinger, is so achingly dreadful I fell asleep halfway through it and dreamed of maniacally cackling zombie dwarves pouring carbolic acid in my ears. Skyfall’s theme song is some sort of generic who-gives-a-fuck song sung by Adele, who is famous. Winner: Skyfall.
The set-up in Skyfall is that a mysterious somebody has stolen a list of undercover operatives hiding out in war-zones all over the globe. Bond is presumed dead for like thirty seconds before we see him desultorily fucking some nobody chick he won’t even look at. Has there ever been a more depressed Bond? I liked Craig in Casino Royale (though the movie itself I found boring and silly, and ball torture? Really?), but by this point the “realism” he’s going for seems more ridiculous than the dopiest of Roger Moore outings. How depressed, unhappy, alone, unloved and plagued by inner demons and childhood trauma does Bond have to be for audiences to accept him as a person? What happened to the suave spy of old? Isn’t that who the character is? Why do we need all of this tired psychological background weighing him down? What happened to having fun?
There is about one minute of actual fun in Skyfall. It occurs late in the movie. Escaping with M (Judie Dench), Bond opens up a garage to reveal within a silver ’64 Aston Martin, complete with ejector-seat button in the gearshift and machine guns hidden in the headlights. They peel out to the strains of the James Bond theme music. This is the highlight of the movie, this reminder of when Bond was fun and cool. After that we’re back to unearthing the psychological trauma he suffered as a lonely Scottish orphan. What movie is this again?
Moore’s Bond in Moonraker marks the height of the series’ jokiness. The whole movie is played for comic relief. It’s completely absurd. But so what? That’s its charm. Moore plays unruffled better than anyone, and that’s the joke with his Bond. No matter what befalls him, he stays cool, whether he’s driving a wheeled Venetian gondola through St. Mark’s Square, racing a speedboat through the Amazon, or wrestling a giant snake. Yeah, that’s right, Bond wrestles a snake in Moonraker. Skyfall throws in a pair of Komodo dragons midway through, much to my delight. Will Bond wrestle one? I awaited the inevitable gleefully. Alas, it never came to pass.
Which the point is, Moore and Craig inhabit equal extremes in these two movies. Neither one comes closes to existing as a real person. I’m calling it a tie.
Despite having made enough money to pave the moon in gold, fans were upset with the last Bond flick, Quantum Of Solace. One complaint: none of the old Bond tropes were anywhere in sight. And so in Skyfall we get the above bit with the Aston Martin, we get a new Q, we get a few strained attempts at witty banter, and even an allusion to a martini, shaken not stirred, though Bond doesn’t actually say the line. I guess that’s asking too much. Then there’s the end of the movie, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The bit with Q made me angry. Q (Ben Whishaw) gives Bond a gun and a tiny radio tracker. That’s it. Bond notes this, and Q says, “What did you expect? An exploding pen?” Well–
YES, MOTHERFUCKERS! This is a JAMES BOND MOVIE. That’s exactly what I expect! What the fuck are we in here for? Realistic shoot-outs? Yawn. I get it, the joke is supposed to be that oh no, we live in the modern world, we’re cynical and savvy, we know exploding pens are dumb and old-fashioned. But you know what this really is? It’s a poke in the eye to James Bond fans. Where’s the creativity? Where’s the plausibly implausible futuristic gadget that saves his skin down the line? A fingerprint activated gun is supposed to be interesting? Gee, I wonder how that’s going to work out. What do you think? Will someone try to shoot Bond with it—only to find they can’t?! Oh my god! What a surprising turn of events!
All right, Moonraker, what have you got to offer? A wrist-muscle-activated dart gun? That’s it? At least Bond uses it twice. Still, that’s pretty thin gruel. In the gadget competition, another tie.
Movies with heroes fighting villians live or die by the villian. The hero is the straight man. The bad guy makes the movie. It baffles me how often filmmakers forget this. They think we’re there for Bond, and we are, in a way. We’re there to see Bond grapple with an amazing villian. The more nefarious the villian, the better Bond looks in defeating him.
What does Skyfall offer? Javier Bardem as Silva. We meet him on an abandoned, destroyed island, which somehow he scared everyone off of. He’s kind of gay and evil in that gay and evil bad-guy way. Bond is led there by a hot babe he fucked earlier, who Silva shoots dead rather unimaginatively. What’s Silva’s beef? What’s he up to? No surprise, he’s an ex-MI6 agent gone bad. His plan? He’s mad at M for cutting him loose, and wants to kill her. That’s it. That’s the whole plan. The rest of the movie features him trying in elaborately ludicrous ways to off M. Why not just sneak into her house at night and bop her on the head? Beats me. Showmanship?
That business with the list of undercover agents? Not mentioned ever again. It’s just Silva trying to kill M, with Bond getting in the way all the time. And now, SPOILER ALERT, people, read at your own risk:
In the end, M dies. Sure, Bond kills Silva too, but Silva was about to commit suicide. That’s right. The bad guy wins. Not kind of. He kills her and she dies and she’s dead. It’s no pyrrhic victory. He was suicidal anyway. And as for Bond’s childhood trauma? The last act of the movie takes place at his old Scottish home on the moors. It’s blown up at the end. Does that mean we never have to hear about Bond’s damaged psyche again? We can only pray.
In Moonraker the bad guy is Hugo Drax, a very low-key Michael Lonsdale. What’s his plan? He’s created a super-deadly toxin that kills humans but not animals. He flies giant globes of the stuff to his secret, radar-blocked space station in orbit around the Earth on the five space shuttles his company built. From there he will send the deadly poison into Earth’s atmosphere, totally wiping out humanity. Meanwhile, he’s also gathered together a group of genetically superior, shiny and attractive youngsters who will repopulate the planet with a super-race of sexy motherfuckers.
As mentioned above, the movie ends with an astronaut battle in space, the space station blowing up, and Bond and Goodhead chasing down killer orbs of deadly toxin in a space shuttle. Do I even have to say it? Winner: Moonraker.
There’s one sexy woman Bond gets it on with in Skyfall who actually has some lines, the aforementioned victim of Silva’s, Sévérine, played by Bérénice Marlohe. She looks hot in a black dress and overacts. In Moonraker the main babe is Dr. Holly Goodhead, played by a woman I’m stunned to learn has actually acted in other movies, Lois Chiles. I honestly think a well-sanded two-by-four could have given a better performance. Come to think of it, she’s not Sévérine’s counterpart. That honor goes to Corinne Cléry, who plays Drax’s pilot. Once Drax learns she’s been getting it on with Bond, he fires her…then releases the hounds! Which hounds chase her into the woods and tear her apart. Death by releasing the hounds? Another victory for Moonraker.
Skyfall has a nice look to it. It’s well directed by Sam Mendes. There’s a slick sequence in a Shanghai highrise full of reflected neon and deep, saturated colors I liked. But overall I found the movie boring. Bardem’s villian is totally uninvolving, his plan as bland as can be. I don’t care about Bond’s troubled chilhood, I don’t care about his love/hate relationship with M, and I don’t want to see him wrestling his inner demons. I want to see him wrestling a Komodo dragon. The end of the movie has fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) revealing that her last name is Moneypenny. Bond enters the office of the new M (Ralph Fiennes), and M says it’s time to get to work. Is it? Finally? After three movies of Craig crying and hurting and introspecting, will we finally be treated to an actual James Bond movie next time, instead of some generic sad spy flick?
Moonraker is absurd beyond belief. Jaws (Richard Kiel) is played entirely for comic relief, his every appearance capped by ever more epic falls to sure death, each of which he inexplicably survives. And as if that’s not enough, he falls in love with a tiny nerdy woman (Blanche Ravalec) midway through, and the pair save Bond at the end of the movie, just before they plummet back to Earth in a stray chunk of blown-up space station. They live. There are a few good action sequences, lots of hot, blank-faced babes standing around for the sole purpose of standing around looking hot, and an endless series of quips that make no sense at all. Simply put, the movie is fun. Genuinely fun? So bad it’s brilliant fun? Your call, but in either case, it’s hilarious.
And so, the ultimate winner of this competition? Moonraker.