- Director: Martin Campbell
- Writers: Screenplay by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein, Story by Michael France, Based on the character created by Ian Fleming
- Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Judi Dench, Joe Don Baker, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Cumming, and Desmond Llewellyn
- Where to Watch: Watch with subscription on Netflix, Buy or Rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV
Recent news reports have indicated that the enormous radio telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico has been declared to be structurally unsound and is scheduled to be torn down. One reader contacted us to say we should do a review of the movie Contact in the telescope’s honor. I sympathized with this idea, but for whatever reason I’ve had a glut of movies from the year 1997 recently, and also have done a few different movies lately from Robert Zemeckis. Then I remembered that the Arecibo telescope also featured prominently in another 1990s film, GoldenEye. The 17th James Bond movie filmed its climactic sequences there, though according to the story Arecibo is playing the part of a secret telescope hidden underwater by bad guys in the Cuban rainforest. The movie ends with the destruction of the main tower of the telescope after being hit by missiles from a helicopter, a quarter century early.
GoldenEye came after a six year gap in the James Bond movies, after United Artists, the movies’ previous distributor, went bankrupt and the rights to the series became tied up in court. The delay caused the contract of the previous actor playing the suave spy, Timothy Dalton, to expire, and he was replaced by the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan. During those six years, the world had changed quite a bit. The Cold War had ended, the Soviet Union broken up. Many felt that Bond was a relic of a bygone era. But GoldenEye took on the problem head on, setting much of its story in the new Russia, “free enterprise economy” and all, as criminals and hackers fight over the scraps. Its usual sexy girls title sequence features said girls taking sledgehammers to big, stone hammer and sickles. Subtle, it ain’t, but it works.
The movie also makes at least cursory efforts update the sexist, ass-slapping version of the character played by Sean Connery for the 1990s. Judi Dench steps into the role of Bond’s boss, M, the first woman in that role. This change was apparently inspired by Stella Rimington being recently appointed the real-world head of Mi5. She immediately calls Bond into her office and calls him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” During his usual flirting with Moneypenny (played for the first time by the ironically-named Samantha Bond), she tells him that it “could be considered sexual harassment.” Sean Connery never worried about sexual harassment. But this is also a movie with a villainess named Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), who seems to get off on squashing men to death between her thighs. Thematically, few could accuse GoldenEye of being particularly concise. Yet it generally works while it’s happening. From a pure movie standpoint, GoldenEye is by far the most successful of Brosnan’s four efforts in the Bond role.
In his first scenes as Bond, Brosnan bungee jumps off an enormous dam, then drives a motorcycle off a cliff so he can climb into a fighter plane that’s also falling, get into the cockpit, and start flying it in time not to crash. It’s not exactly Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a plane in Mission Impossible: Fallout, as Brosnan was not dumb enough to actually try to do this himself, but stunt men actually did. GoldenEye generally succeeds by going all out all the way through. Though the plot is designed to give the villain a “past” with Bond, Brosnan is never given a moment for angst. If he’s not jumping his motorcycle after planes, he’s getting into a car chase while driving a tank on the streets of St. Petersburg. Things he drives through include a well-placed truck of Perrier bottles (the product placement in this movie is not subtle, either) and a big old statue of a winged horse, which rides around on top of his tank for a while before he somehow manages to drop it on two pursuing cars. Brosnan plays the whole thing with a straight face. He has far fewer silly puns than his predecessors (don’t worry, they would return in subsequent films).
The primary “Bond girl” of the movie is a Russian programmer played by Izabella Scorupco, who was born in Poland and grew up Sweden, but is doing a very thick and silly Russian accent the whole time. Her look is very 90s, with tousled, short hair and shoulder pads, but she gives her performance a certain intensity and anger that leaves more of an impression than many of Bond’s other love interests. Probably a greater impression is left by Sean Bean, in his role as the villain Trevelyan. Bean’s plan is to hit London with an EMP and cause a global financial crisis, which for reasons I was somewhat unclear on meant he would become incredibly rich. At the start of the movie, he is “Agent 006,” but fakes his own death and starts a massive crime syndicate, or something. He also wants revenge on Great Britain for reasons that, again, I am not 100% clear on. Bean goes full out in his villainy, like everything else in this movie, up to and including lasciviously licking Scorupco’s face.
The biggest thing I always remember GoldenEye for is not the movie itself, which I definitely saw at some point over the past 25 years, but rather the video game based on the movie, which I spent many hours on playing with my friends. It was a first-person shooter you could play against one or more friends, with all the players stalking each other around corners. It is probably the first non-sports video game I found really fun. Somewhere around my middle school years it felt like the killer app of video games. It also included a level set on the big telescope, as I recall.
GoldenEye was the first Bond movie not to be ostensibly based on a novel or story by Ian Fleming. According to the story of the movie, it is the name of some sort of EMP satellite left over from the Soviet Union. But it was actually named for Ian Fleming’s Jamaica estate, where he spent his later years. And Fleming named his estate for “Operation Goldeneye,” which he was involved with during his spy days, involving monitoring Spanish republicanism after the Spanish Civil War. Fleming likely could not have imagined some of the nonsense Bond got up to over the years. Roger Moore fought a giant with an iron jaw in space at one point, unless I hallucinated that. But for the most part, Brosnan’s movies happened in the actual physical world as we know it. For all its bombast, GoldenEye brought the Bond movies into the modern world, and that it was a success is a major reason there are still Bond movies coming out today.
I do feel compelled here to mention 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, Brosnan’s third outing as Bond, which is unlikely to be featured in this space anytime soon. It has been repeatedly mentioned as one of the worst of the two dozen Bond movies to date, an assessment I’d probably agree with, though I also think it probably came out when I was the right age for this sort of thing. Denise Richards plays what Variety called “[t]he least believable nuclear physicist in the history of the movies,” though I personally did not care very much about the believability of her performance. The name of her character is “Christmas Jones,” seemingly solely so Brosnan can deliver one of the most ridiculous final lines in cinematic history. Bond having won the day once again, we see him and Jones in bed, at which point he quips, “I thought Christmas only came once each year.” Roll credits.