If “Thunderball” represents the first major hints of the Bond franchise’s declining quality, “You Only Live Twice” represents the dying gasps of that fun quality. It has signs that it’s the successor to “Goldfinger” and “Dr. No,” and it is certainly more fun than “Thunderball,” but it is by no means a good Bond film. It is often slow and too absorbed in stereotypes to match its predecessors.
The first warning signs that this will not be a good film come from the opening. In almost a parody of a Bond film, a rocket explodes from Earth, abducts a group of astronauts by devouring their capsule whole, and then descends back to Japan. It’s so ludicrous and unbelievable – even by Bond standards – that I couldn’t help but sit there in shock. I am aware that Bond is not meant to be realistic, nor do I expect it to be. However, when the plot takes the turns that I joke about and think would be hilarious, it becomes clear that this is not a film that can be taken seriously.
One particular problem with “You Only Live Twice” is that it’s difficult to view from a perspective of nearly fifty years later. What likely made it interesting and unique – like a volcano base – are now clichéd to the point of laughability. It’s difficult to say that there’s tension when Bond searches for the base because I, as a modern viewer, know it’s in the volcano and can’t understand why Bond doesn’t understand that as well. In some ways, the very age of the film makes it more difficult to take seriously.
However, there are greater problems than just age and the now clichéd plot twists. One such problem is Ernst Blofeld (Donald Pleasance). Previously a mysterious, off-screen presence with an imposing voice, he is here played by a man who looks miniscule beside his minions, and comes off more as a petulant, cat-obsessed child than an actual villain. He’s laughable, which, after all the time spent building him up and building up SPECTRE as something to be feared, is a death sentence for the organisation. It’s difficult to take them seriously knowing that the parodies of Blofeld are more intimidating than the actual character.
Even SPECTRE’s goal of causing nuclear war seems laughably shortsighted, as though no one really thought through the implications of a global thermo-nuclear war. I would attribute this to the age of the film and the lack of knowledge about nuclear war, but that isn’t the case – it was clearly understood that a nuclear war was a very bad thing for everyone involved. While SPECTRE does delight in very bad things, this particular one just raises the question of whether they actually thought this through, or if they preferred instead to make it up on the fly.
That said, sending James Bond (Sean Connery) to Japan wasn’t a bad choice. Despite his assertions that he is an expert in all things Asian, he relies on his partners, learning from them as much as he provides information. This film’s Bond girl, Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), isn’t bad, proving herself to be a capable part of a team. The gadgets, too, are very fun, with Little Nellie being one of the highlights of the film.
The opening – apart from the giant spaceship – is also very good, building up tension fabulously. It creates a perfect start for it. That said, the tension is dropped almost as soon as the credits finish, but for a brief time, “You Only Live Twice” seems to promise a return to form for the series. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
On the whole, “You Only Live Twice” isn’t terrible. Ernst Blofeld is a major disappointment and a low point of the film, but he is off-set by some excellent sets and by Little Nellie. Bond isn’t back in form yet, but at least “You Only Live Twice” is a marked improvement on “Thunderball.”Return to Bonding with Bond: Janneke Parrish Investigates an American Icon
June 13, 1967
1 hr. 57 min.
Action Adventure, Thriller
Sean Connery, Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama