The Science of James Bond

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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I owe Ian Fleming a great debt. Ian is my middle name, and when I was a kid, nobody knew how to pronounce or spell it, or had even heard of it. Many times I was asked if I was really sure there was such a name (I don't know my own name. Thanks a lot, folks.) Once James Bond came along, it stopped being a problem. I just said "Ian, like Ian Fleming," and they got it. The name James Bond comes from the author of a book on birds of the West Indies. Really. The book gets a cameo in Die Another Day.

What I Learned from Reading Reviews

Is that there is almost no consensus about James Bond films except that many feel Connery was better than anyone else, Goldfinger was the best film and Live and Let Die was near the bottom of a lot of people's lists. Beyond that, some reviewers raved about films that others bombed.

In fact, some of the reviewers I've read get worked up about such trivial details and omit such important points that I wonder if they actually watched the films at all. A few even manage to miss the point of a James Bond movie. Case in point, one who thought the stolen nuclear weapons in Tomorrow Never Dies were merely a rehash of Thunderball. Not so. Nuclear blackmail had nothing to do with it. In addition to fueling a British-Chinese war and propelling the villain media magnate to the top of the media, destroying Beijing would leave his Chinese ally the sole survivor of the Chinese government.

There are a bazillion Web pages on Bond films. If you want detailed plot synopses, lists of the Bond Girls, or cast and music credits, visit them. And of course there's the indispensable IMDb. This site deals with the science in the films.

My Personal Heresies

I will go see just about any Bond movie. It's a fun way to waste an evening. But they all blur together in my mind. Other action films - Under Siege True Lies The Rock - I can recall the plots in some detail. Not so most Bond films. There's a supervillain and a Bond Girl, but beyond that, most just aren't all that memorable.

The globe-trotting that enchants many viewers strikes me as contrived. Bond hears that the super-villain is headed to Monte Carlo, so he's off to Monte Carlo. There he sees a matchbook with a Hong Kong address, so he heads for Hong Kong. He overhears a chance remark that the villain likes ice in his drinks, so he goes to Greenland, except he recalls seeing him stirring the drink in the wrong direction, which means he has to go to Antarctica instead. Observing that the penguins look like they're wearing tuxedos reminds he he needs to see his tailor on Saville Row .....

And Now, The Greatest Heresy of All

I like Sean Connery. A lot. He just gets better as he gets older. In just about every role he's ever played, he's great.

But not as James Bond. Young Connery as Bond exuded all the traits that caused protestors of the Sixties to label society as "plastic" and artificial. Picture a Winston or Marlboro cigarette commercial of the early Sixties where the suave lounge lizard picks up women like dust bunnies because he has the sexiest cigarette, expand it to feature length, and you have a Connery Bond film.

Bond films are about seducing beautiful girls, gadgets, and defeating supervillains who never seem to learn that the way to deal with James Bond is simply to shoot him. Any suave, good looking British actor could be a credible Bond. David Niven and Cary Grant would probably have been excellent. The less famous Michael Rennie wouldn't have been a plausible action Bond but as a more cerebral Bond he would have been top-notch. In my view, Roger Moore captured the tongue-in-cheek style of the movie genre better than Connery. George Lazenby didn't do badly - his principal offense was not being Sean Connery and not having a big enough fan base like Roger Moore to weather the transition. As time goes by more and more people are giving Lazenby his due. Pierce Brosnan was good. Timothy Dalton was the least effective, not so much because of him as the poor plots of his two films. Some reviewers thought he captured the menacing side of James Bond as portrayed in the novels better than anyone. Sam Neill (of Jurassic Park) was reportedly considered, and while he might make a great secret agent, he wouldn't have fit the image of James Bond established by Connery and his successors.

I resisted the idea of Daniel Craig redefining the role, but he did a great job.

Dr. No (1962)

When I saw this film recently, I was amazed at what a laughably awful movie it is. Connery's Bond radiates all the charisma of formica.

Someone is knocking American space shots down (like we needed any help back then), a British agent is murdered, and Bond is sent to the Caribbean to sort it all out. As many commentators have noted, the early films went out of their way to avoid vilifying the Russians, but they needed somebody,  so they either made use of a private cartel or an unnamed Asian power (wink, wink). Dr. No is a mixture of German and Chinese.

Ursula Undress becomes the first Bond Girl, emerging from the water in her trademark white bikini. Her sole function in the film, apart from the obvious, is to get captured and get in Bond's way during their escape. The idea of a totally naive, gorgeous, uninhibited Child of Nature is a blatant appeal to male fantasies. Now I can enjoy a good fantasy, but I like it to be something that has at least a one in a trillion chance of actually happening. Does any male over the age of eleven actually have fantasies like this? Fantasizing about quantum tunneling into the Playboy Mansion is realistic in comparison.

This film marks the first appearance of Bond's CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter, played by Jack Lord. Lord, who went on to star in Hawaii Five-O, makes an effective partner. Unfortunately, the producers just couldn't maintain continuity in the role, and you never knew from one film to the next who would turn up as Felix Leiter. I think John Candy had a go at it once. They'd have been better off not trying, and just introducing new CIA figures as needed.

From Russia with Love (1963)

Another low-tech early entry. The struggle in this case is over a stolen Russian decoding device.

The howler in this film isn't scientific but geographic. Bond and his Turkish colleague descend into a cistern, row to the other end, and come up under the Russian Embassy in Istanbul. In the real Istanbul the cistern (shown at right) is only about fifty meters long and several miles from the Russian Embassy, and in between there is an arm of the Bosporus called the Golden Horn about a hundred feet below the level of either.

Besides, we're to believe that the utterly paranoid Soviet Union would build an embassy without knowing there were hidden tunnels underneath it? Isn't that one of the first lessons they teach in spy school?

Goldfinger (1964)

Now we're getting into familiar territory. The stakes are higher and Bond has his gadget-filled car. This is the quintessential Bond film. Ian Fleming was a real secret agent during World War II and the novels portray James Bond on realistic spy missions against sinister but fairly mundane villains. The films mutated Bond into a more tongue in cheek character heavily armed with gadgets and facing off against supervillains, and this film more than any other is responsible.

I seriously do not believe the most famous scene in the movie, where Bond's brief dalliance with Goldfinger's secretary causes her to be encased in gold paint and smothered, we are told, because her skin "couldn't breathe." Come on, every wet-suit scuba diver would be asphyxiated. I might believe that sealing all the pores in the skin could cause heat stroke, and maybe some toxic problems if the sweat glands couldn't excrete toxins, but not in an hour or so.

Lasers were very new and very cool in 1964 when the famous scene of Bond tied to a slab and about to be bisected by a laser was filmed. But why a slab of steel? It doesn't take nearly as much power to slice a human as a slab of steel, so why waste time cutting the steel? Also, need I add that laser beams are invisible unless there's something in the air to scatter light, like dust, smoke, or water droplets? Apparently I do.

This film also features Odd Job, the Asian henchman with a top hat that can be thrown like a Frisbee, and whose metal rim can slice through just about anything. I submit this is aerodynamically and metallurgically impossible.

1964 was so innocent. The producers actually believed that destroying Fort Knox would wreck the U.S. economy. Since then, we've seen so much fiscal bungling, yet still survived, that we'd almost welcome Auric Goldfinger. Compared to what we've seen since then, Goldinger seems like a rather tame threat.

Thunderball (1965)

Back in 1965 we thought secret cartels with the ability to engage in nuclear blackmail were a neat plot idea. That was before they actually became possible. This film marks the appearance of SPECTRE - the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.

Okay, you've stolen a jet from a major power, crashed it in shallow water, murdered its crew, and hijacked its nuclear payload. You have an army of trained scuba fighters and impressive underwater technology. What do you do with the plane?

  1. You dig a hole and bury it on the sea floor.
  2. You salvage the jet and hide it for future use in other nefarious plots
  3. You tow it beyond the edge of the continental shelf and drop it into deep water where it can't be found (especially in 1965)
  4. You dynamite the jet to smithereens to make it harder to find

And the correct answer is e. None of the above. You leave the jet where it is and cover it with a camouflage net.

Next question. Your agent masquerades as a NATO officer, successfully hijacks a jet with nuclear weapons, flies it to the exact correct spot in the ocean, executes a dangerous water landing, and waits patiently underwater for the bad guys to show up. What do you do?

  1. Promote the guy. He clearly has what it takes.
  2. Recruit him for future missions.
  3. Pay him handsomely and give him a new identity.
  4. Take him out for a Happy Meal.

And the correct answer is e. Kill him. No wonder it's so hard to find good evil henchmen these days.

You Only Live Twice (1967)

Somebody's knocking down American and Russian rockets with the intention of provoking a war and moving into the resulting vacuum.

There's a Maltese Falcon quality about this film. When I saw Maltese Falcon, I was constantly struck by the idea that it was one cliche after another, until I realized that Maltese Falcon was the original and that the cliches were cliches by virtue of being copied from Maltese Falcon. Similarly, ninjas are so old-hat now that you have to stop and remember they were very novel when they appeared in this film. The ultralight aircraft that Bond uses to infiltrate the villain's secret lair was very cool and very "secret agent" in 1967, even slightly unbelievable. Nowadays anyone can fly them.

The secret base is hidden under the crater of a Japanese volcano. The crater lake has a false bottom that slides open to allow the villain to fire his secret weapon. Considering how much it took to fix a simple leak in my roof, I doubt if even SPECTRE's budget could do it.

Casino Royale (1967)

Ian Fleming sold the rights to this story before James Bond really took off, so it was made for TV in the 1950's and again as a film. Then in 2006 it was re-made again, with Daniel Craig as the first blond Bond. Most memorable line: someone has stolen his riding crop made from a tree fern stem, prompting him to ask "where's my blond Bond frond wand gone?" Okay, I made that up.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

George Lazenby was tried for the capital crime of not being Sean Connery. He was found guilty. The sentence, death to his career as James Bond, was executed immediately. This is the film where Lazenby marries Diana Rigg, only to have her killed by Blofeld at the end of the film.

Diamonds are Forever (1971)

A thoroughly muddled mess of a film. In the most unsatisfying Bond escape ever, he's sealed inside a casket in a crematorium and the oven is fired up. Just in the nick of time, the Bond Girl discovers him inside and shuts it off. Talk about dea ex machina.

This film is also notable for Wint and Kidd, the two weirdest villains in any Bond film. They're flamingly gay, commit murders that have no imaginable purpose in the plot, and interact only peripherally with Bond. They never reappear in any other film. What is this all about?

The plot, such as it is, involves buying up every available diamond to build a super laser.

Live and Let Die (1973)

The most widely reviled Roger Moore film. The most astute review comment I found was one that asked "wasn't this screenplay originally written for Shaft?" To be sure, the idea of a lily-white British agent trying to dig up facts in Harlem, even if he's trying to bait the bad guy into showing himself, is pretty bizarre.

Do you really need to send your best secret agent to break up a drug ring?

One reviewer fairly frothed at the mouth over the "overacting" of the redneck Louisiana sheriff. This just in, folks, it's a James Bond movie. Plus he's supposed to be a stereotypical southern redneck. He's supposed to overact. If you want subtle, nuanced performances, you need to look someplace else. Try Sundance or Cannes.

The pseudoscience in this film involves Solitaire, the drug lord's tarot reader. She was played by Jane Seymour, who went on to star in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Women, the most gratingly Politically Correct Western of all time, something that made you yearn for the gritty, hard-edged cynicism of Little House on the Prairie. Solitaire, of course, gives the drug kingpin infallible guidance until she, er, loses the gift courtesy of James Bond (guess how?).

What I'd really like to see is a movie where the villain relies on paranormal assistance and the results are no better than random guessing, like they are in real life. I'd like to see a TV crime show where the psychic ends up being repeatedly wrong and finally charged with obstruction of justice. (A Law and Order - SVU episode where a "psychic" turned out to be a cold-reader and the actual villain was a start in the right direction.)

I don't care what you think. I think the boat chase is a hoot.

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

The only James Bond novel I have read. I found it to be a rather ho-hum piece about a fairly petty crook. I found myself wondering why they just didn't call the police. The locale is transplanted from the Caribbean to the Far East, instead of run of the mill racketeering and drug dealing the issue is now a stolen prototype of a super-efficient solar collector, and the redneck sheriff from Live and Let Die is back. Outside of that, it's a totally faithful adaptation of the novel.

Okay, guys, the gizmo is a prototype. That means it's a trial version. Plus it was stolen from the British. They still have all the plans and notes. So make another one already. So Scaramanga, the titular bad guy, has it and can use it as a weapon. Fine. First time he fires it, locate the source and bomb it. It's not like he can mount it on a moving vehicle.

The finale marks the first appearance of a locale that appears in several later films (and also in Revenge of the Sith, by the way), a spectacular submerged tower karst landscape that is actually on the coast of southern Thailand. If you hit the Web for references to tower karst in Thailand you will encounter some of the most garbled geology anywhere. Most of the sites (apart from a few by geologists who actually know what they're talking about) confuse the age of the rocks (260 million years) with the age of the eroded landforms (formed in the last couple of million years). It's like saying that the Lincoln Memorial is millions of years old because that's how old the marble is. But the best (worst) site is by a kayaking outfit that links the karst to plate tectonics:

The islands of Phang Nga Bay were formed by the movements of massive slabs of earth called "plates". These plates, however, were underwater. They were part of the coral reef. They were lifted out of the seas by the movement of the plates.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Underwater Moonraker. The evil villain is capturing American and Russian submarines with the intent of starting a global nuclear war and rebuilding the earth from his undersea hideout.

This film features Jaws, the villain with stainless steel teeth.

Moonraker (1979)

Maybe the second most-reviled Moore film, and certainly the most far-fetched plot. The bad guy is stealing space shuttles so he can launch a select crop of perfect people to his outer space hideout. Then he'll destroy the world and repopulate it with his servants.

The film opens with a space shuttle being ferried by its 747, only to have the shuttle engines fire, destroying the 747 and launching the shuttle. This is so scientifically ridiculous it's hard to know where to begin. A shuttle is so heavy that it will not carry any excess weight while being ferried. Certainly not fuel. Not only is it excess weight, but it's a safety hazard. Then, the fuel aboard a shuttle isn't sufficient to get it anywhere except moderate orbital maneuvering plus slowing down for re-entry. That's what the huge external tank and strap-on boosters are for.

Jaws is back. He and Bond get into it on the cable car above Rio de Janeiro, and Jaws bites through the cable. Now I don't care how strong and sharp Jaws' dentures are - his bite will only be as powerful as his jaw muscles, and no way will he be able to bite a thick steel cable. Jaws realizes he's about to be betrayed, switches sides and helps Bond escape, reforms and finds true love. (No kidding.)

Also, how do people slide down aerial cables and emerge with spotless hands and clothes? Every cable car I've ever ridden has had cables liberally slathered with grease for lubrication and protection from corrosion. That would make them pretty hard to hold onto. Even if the cables were totally dry, dust and metallic wear particles would make them positively filthy. Change your brakes in formal wear if you doubt it.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

A little unfinished business first. Bond snags Blofeld's wheelchair by helicopter and drops it down a smokestack. Only thing is, Blofeld is not mentioned by name. Seems that early on a collaborator of Fleming's was given partial rights to Thunderball, including, among other things, the right to use the name Blofeld. Since it was impossible to guarantee there would never be another film featuring Blofeld, there was never a revenge sequel to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in which Blofeld killed Bond's wife. So that loose end gets tidied up after a fashion.

Another lower-tech entry. This time the Hot Item is a prototype sub tracker, pursued by both Bond and the Russians. The chase finally leads to the spectacular clifftop monasteries of Meteora, in northern Greece. Bond, cornered, flings the gizmo over the cliff and says "now neither of us has it." The Russians, satisfied, leave.

Except that (a) it's a prototype. The British still have all the plans and data to make another one. Plus (b), if you really want it badly enough, you send a team to the base of the cliff and scour until you have every single microchip. This is not a cheap CD player, where if it breaks you throw it away.

Octopussy (1983)

A confusing rehash of Thunderball, about a plot to detonate a nuclear weapon at an American base in Germany and use the resulting fallout (real and political) to disband NATO.

Never Say Never Again (1983)

Bond, not authorized

A View to a Kill (1985)

This is one of the most science-rich entries in the series.

The pre-credit chase scene is one of the cooler ones. Bond recovers a microchip from a slain agent (003) in Siberia, then flees with Soviet ski troops in hot pursuit. He improvises the runner from a wrecked snowmobile into a snowboard (totally new and daring at the time) and escapes the last of his pursuers by skimming across a meltwater pond to a Beach Boys tune. A drifting ice floe offshore is actually a British mini-sub, piloted by a paunchy middle-aged male naval officer. Yeah, right.

The recovered chip is identical to ultra-modern Western chips immune to the electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear weapon, meaning the Russians are somehow getting them. This in reality would probably have been a good thing, since it would make both sides more immune to a first strike and thereby lessen the temptation for one.

The Russians are "somehow" getting them because the head of the company that makes them, Max Zorin, supposedly a former East German defector, is actually a KGB agent. He's also the result of a Nazi concentration camp experiment to produce ultra-intelligent babies. He was one of the rare examples that survived, and unfortunately, he is also not just a villain but thoroughly psychotic. In a career move that put him on a whole new track, the role is played by - you'll never guess - Christopher Walken (admittedly in 1985 he wasn't as entrenched in that persona as he later became).

His evil henchwoman is played by Grace Jones, who is truly menacing. She also seduces Bond, a concept that makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about it, except the scene is mercifully brief.

Bond infiltrates Zorin's chateau outside Paris in the guise of a would-be horse buyer. He discovers crates of Zorin's microchips, although it's never really explained why Zorin would ship crates of microchips to a horse-breeding chateau or why anyone would be suspicious about his having crates of his own company's chips even if he did. But Zorin decides Bond has to go, kills his chauffer (another agent), knocks Bond out, and sinks their car in a lake. Kudos to Zorin for actually coming up with a plan that would realistically kill Bond, then sticking around to make sure it's done. Although if you're going to sink someone's car in a lake to make it look like an unfortunate accident, it might help not to put the bodies in the back seat. Anyhow, Bond revives in time to get out of the sinking car, then, seeing Zorin still watching from under water, unscrews a tire valve and uses the air in the tire for breathing. One of the more intelligent Bond escapes.

Zorin meanwhile travels to San Francisco, where he reveals to his evil accomplices his plan to corner the world microchip market by destroying Silicon Valley. Apparently none of these guys knew about Route 128 around Boston, or all the Asian places that were making knock-off clones of chips even then. Destroying Silicon Valley would slow down the design of new chips for a while, but hardly make a dent in the production of existing chips.

While in France, Bond spotted Zorin writing a check to a beautiful American (Stacey Sutton, played by Tanya Roberts). When he spots her in San Francisco (it's never really made clear how or why Bond got to San Francisco) he - what else? - trails her. She is the heiress of an oil company taken over by Zorin, and also a geologist. The check was Zorin's offer to buy out her interest in the company. When Bond tells her that Zorin's oil wells along the Hayward Fault are pumping sea water into the fault, she becomes alarmed and volunteers to help Bond access the drilling records for Zorin's company. They are, of course, caught. Zorin traps them in an elevator and sets fire to the building (San Francisco City Hall). They escape and flee in a hijacked fire truck which makes good its final escape by jumping a drawbridge.

The fantasy geography here is something else. There are no oil or gas wells within many miles of San Francisco. I suppose you could imagine the California state geological survey being housed in City Hall in San Francisco, but since government agencies tend to take up room, it's unlikely (actually, the Bay Area office is down in Menlo Park with the U.S. Geological Survey). For the life of me I don't have a clue where there's a drawbridge leading out of San Francisco - all the major bridges are built high enough to accommodate any imaginable ship. The only place I can think of would be along the south bay shore of the city and you'd have to work fairly hard to get there. Plus pursuing police could simply go around and wait on the other side. Surely someone familiar with the area like Sutton would know a better way out of town. And I've never seen a drawbridge whose counterweight could crush a car parked in the wrong place.

Bond and Sutton end up at Zorin's mine on the San Andreas Fault, where they discover that his plot is to flood both the San Andreas and Hayward Faults, then blast the one remaining spur of solid rock restraining the faults. Both faults will then slip, flooding Silicon Valley. "He'll kill millions" says Sutton, and since flooding Silicon Valley would also involve submerging San Jose to the north, that's probably accurate. Apparently neither the producers nor their intended audience know the way to San Jose, since the location of Silicon Valley is always described in terms of San Francisco. This is a totally Rube Goldberg way of doing things. Surely someone with Zorin's wealth and access to ruthless henchmen could come up with a simpler way of cornering the global microchip market.

The plot to flood the fault involves dynamiting the floors of the reservoirs along the fault south of San Francisco, although why this would make the rocks along the fault any wetter than they already are isn't made clear. And the San Andreas Fault runs offshore for about 20 miles west of San Francisco without apparently being wet enough to slip. Still, I give the film credit for using a semi-plausible mechanism instead of setting off nukes or using some hypothetical magnetic field or seismic wave generator. Also the film deserves credit for knowing the name of another fault besides the San Andreas. But how exactly do we know the earthquakes will cause Silicon Valley to sink?

When Zorin discovers Bond is loose in his mine, he triggers the flooding, drowning his loyal workers and trapping Grace Jones, who exacts her revenge by helping Bond remove the explosive charge that would trigger the earthquake. She's done too much evil to be allowed to survive, so she redeems herself by blowing up with the charge as it rolls harmlessly out of the mine. Bond grabs the mooring line of Zorin's airship, whereupon Zorin decides to slam him into the Golden Gate Bridge. If it was me, I'd take him 20 or 30 miles out to sea, then drag him in the water until he fell off the rope. But then we wouldn't get to have a climactic fight scene atop the Golden Gate Bridge.

One bit character is a sexy horse trainer with the titillating name Jenny Flex, played by the unfortunately named Allison Doody, best known as the villainess in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. She and Bond leer at each other briefly, then she more or less vanishes for most of the film. Was she originally intended to have a bigger role?

The Living Daylights (1987)

The first Timothy Dalton film involved thwarting a Russian general who's trafficking in arms in Afghanistan. The general is in cahoots with a renegade American general turned drug trafficker, played by Joe Don Baker. These two just aren't big enough potatoes to warrant sending James Bond after them. Baker starred in the hideous Mitchell films, lovingly served up in satire by Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he makes a serviceable evil henchman. He will be best remembered as the truly creepy and relentless hit man in Charlie Varrick.

Licence to Kill (1989)

This time Dalton goes after a drug lord who has fed long-time pal Felix Leiter to the sharks. Aficionados of the novels claim that Dalton captures the personal menace of the literary Bond better than any other film, but the plot line is just too ho-hum.

The best scene happens early on when Leiter brings in the drug lord by snagging his plane from a helicopter, then lifting the tail straight up. At that point the plane has completely lost all lift and can do nothing to regain it. With no air speed the control surfaces are worthless. The propeller of the plane only has to pull the plane forward, while the blades of the chopper have to support its entire weight, so a tug of war between the two should be no contest. The drug lord doesn't stay arrested very long; his henchmen blow a bridge as he's being transported, then rescue him from under water.

GoldenEye (1995)

Brosnan's first outing as 007. It opens with him breaking into a chemical weapons plant, then driving a motorcycle off a cliff and skydiving to catch a diving airplane. Totally outrageous but fun because it is so over the top. During the assault on the weapons plant, his colleague, Agent 006, is killed.

The plot involves the theft of a Russian orbital weapon. Since the weapon deals a devastating electromagnetic pulse, the villains first hijack a prototype helicopter that is resistant to all electromagnetic warfare. They fly in to the Russian base that controls the weapon, kill everyone at the base, fire the weapon to destroy the base and the reaction force sent to investigate, and then escape. Okay, sit down and think of a hundred ways to do this with fewer complications.

MI6 suspects the work of a Russian crime cartel and sends Bond to St. Petersburg. Bond pursues and is pursued by the villains all over recently-renamed St. Petersburg, creating havoc and causing most of the population to wonder "those guys won the Cold War?. At one point Bond and the Bond Girl (survivor of the attack on the weapon station) are trapped in a helicopter that is programmed to launch missiles which will then home in on the chopper. Won't somebody please decide to just shoot him? Fortunately for Bond and the girl, the chopper has an ejection capsule. A bit later Bond derails an armored military train with a tank, to the serious detriment of the latter.

The head of the crime cartel turns out to be the former colleague, Agent 006, who had been thought killed. His motivation was that British Intelligence had betrayed his parents during World War II. How does he know this? Since he was at best a baby at the time, why does he care so intensely? And since he'd be at least 50 by the time this film takes place, wouldn't he be getting a bit old for the spy game? Anyway, he has a backup control station in Cuba, and a backup weapon in orbit. His plan, nyah-hah-hah, is to hack the Bank of England, drain all its funds, then fire the weapon to fry all the computers in London and destroy all the records of the transaction. Except, of course, for the memories of the employees who suddenly see all the bank's money transferred, and the records of the bank that receives the money. Surely somebody will be suspicious when the Bank of England loses $100 billion and a bank somewhere else gets $100 billion at the exact same instant, right?

Bond can't locate the transmitter until it suddenly begins emerging from under a lake, looking astonishingly like the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Bond breaks into the villain's operations center and the Bond Girl, who is also a computer programmer, triggers the retro-rockets on the weapon. The villain and his IT guy try frantically to save the weapon. Sorry, dudes. Unless you also have thrusters to accelerate the weapon, once the retros are fired, it's toast. Bond and 006 get into it atop the superstructure of the telescope. I am mildly puzzled as to how jamming the tracking mechanism will cause the entire transmitter to burst into flame and explode, but it does.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

The opening action sequence features Bond sneaking into a terrorist arms bazaar in Central Asia. The Brits order him out and launch a cruise missile, only to discover to their horror that there are Soviet nuclear missiles there. A Russian general who is helping is asked "Can't you people lock anything up?" He warns that even if the missiles don't explode in a nuclear blast, they have enough plutonium "to make Chernobyl look like picnic."

After a while you just plain get tired of repeating that nuclear weapons don't go off accidentally. The requirements for a nuclear explosion are very stringent and they don't happen accidentally simply because everything has to work perfectly. Plus, the bazaar is in the remote mountains of Central Asia. Who cares? Anyhow, Bond hijacks the plane with the missiles and takes off with one bad guy in hot pursuit and another in the back seat. The bad guy starts strangling Bond, who struggles with the wire while doing aerobatics with his knees. He finally ditches the bad guy by launching the ejection seat. The bad guy obligingly lets go of the garrote, rather than hanging on to it and taking off Bond's head when he goes up. And they're directly under the other plane, which is destroyed when the ejection seat launches.

Cross Ted Turner with Bill Gates and make them really nasty and you have this film's supervillain, who dreams of taking over the world's communications. His plan is to instigate a war between Britain and China, which he will use to propel his networks to dominance. Also, the war will help his Chinese co-conspirator (briefly seen) to stage a coup, after which he will give the supervillain a monopoly on Western trade with China.

Teri Hatcher is the supervillain's new trophy wife and former Bond lover, which gives her a life expectancy of about eight minutes. Joe Don Baker is back, this time as a good guy, a CIA agent buddy of Bond's named Jack Ward (he was also in Goldeneye).

When a British ship is sunk off China and the survivors machine-gunned, the British suspect the Chinese and tensions flare. Bond dives to the wreck from high altitude. An Air Force jumpmaster solemnly explains to Bond that he'll free fall five miles so he needs to use oxygen on the way down. Only problem: they're standing there in the plane with the hatch open and not using oxygen.

Aboard the sunken ship, Bond runs (swims) into his Chinese counterpart (Michelle Yeoh). In turn they are both captured and taken to the villain's headquarters in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). After being threatened with the usual lingering death, Bond engineers an escape and he and Yeoh leap from the roof, using the ripping of a huge banner to slow their fall. Workable? Who knows? Beats free-fall or being tortured to death.

Then there's a frantic chase through Saigon with the pair on a motor scooter and the pursuing bad guys in a helicopter. At one point Bond jumps the scooter across a street from rooftop to rooftop, over the helicopter. Neat scene, but why? On a scooter, they have to stay on the streets and remain visible from above. On foot they could disappear into the maze of alleys and stay under cover. Also, even an evil henchman helicopter pilot is not likely to risk hovering below roof level in a narrow street when it's just as effective to stay up higher. One ding of the rotor and you're toast. Just put a good sniper in the chopper. 

Turns out Chinese Intelligence has a sophisticated hidden center in Saigon. At the push of a button, ordinary furniture disappears and complex consoles pop up. Now how did they build this and move in all this gear, in a setting teeming with people, without blowing their cover wide open? They might as well have a red neon sign saying "Chinese Intelligence."

The bad guy's secret weapon is a stealth ship, which as usual is about a hundred feet long outside and three hundred inside. Brosnan and Yeoh track it down through the same submerged karst landscape as in Man With The Golden Gun, damage it enough to give it a radar reflection, and the British finish the job with the Chinese cheering them on.

Michelle Yeoh is beautiful, intelligent, witty, supremely competent and refuses to take a back seat to Bond. One of the very best Bond girls.

The World is Not Enough (1999)

This time it's an oil pipeline from the Caucasus to the Black Sea. Sophie Marceau is the owner of the pipeline, but with plans to ensure that her pipeline has a monopoly.

The villain, turns out, has a bullet in his brain that will eventually kill him. It has already deprived him of all feeling, which makes some of us, at least, wonder how he can hold a gun. At one point Marceau starts kissing him, but knowing that he has no feeling, tells him to "remember pleasure," Now if that isn't sadistic, I don't know what is.

Early on, Bond sees a helicopter rigged out with giant rotating saw blades for trimming tree branches along a road. It may not be the most effective tree trimmer (although it is a real device) but it comes in handy later on for slicing buildings and cars in half.

The nefarious plot involves taking over a Russian sub and detonating a nuclear warhead in the Bosporus to prevent tankers from entering the Black Sea. With that route closed off, Marceau's pipeline will have a monopoly. Except that:

  1. An ordinary nuclear weapon won't produce enough contamination.
  2. Even a dirty bomb will only contaminate the land. The water may be contaminated briefly, but currents will disperse the contamination.
  3. A tanker could still make the passage by staying in the center of the channel away from land and minimizing time in the contaminated area. A better idea would be to drop the two Bosporus bridges and block the straits.

Die Another Day (2002)

The scariest pseudoscience happened outside the film. A reader wrote Roger Ebert asking what "conflict diamonds" were. The reader complained he couldn't find any information anywhere - apparently this guy never reads the papers, Time, National Geographic, whatever. So I went to Google, typed in "conflict diamonds," and got a few hits. 86,000, to be exact. The first ten pages all referred to conflict diamonds in the correct sense: they're illicitly mined diamonds used to fund civil wars and terrorist movements, mostly in Africa. So here we have someone who can't even find things on the Internet. It's like losing a game of hide and seek with a moose in your living room. Still unsure? Go see the superb Blood Diamond.

We start off with Bond and some South Korean agents surfing into North Korea and going after a renegade North Korean colonel who is dealing in conflict diamonds with a South African smuggler. Bond manages to blow the attache case containing the diamonds to smithereens but is captured after a harrowing chase during which the renegade officer apparently is killed.

The problem here is that diamonds pretty much are forever, and most of them would survive the blast. They would be scattered over an area hundreds of yards across, but millions of dollars are at stake, and these diamonds would probably still be more concentrated than they were in the original deposit. So bulldoze all the dirt from a hundred yards around into a pile and start sifting.

Oh, yeah. We forgot the credits. They start rolling about 15 minutes into the film as we see a montage of silhouettes that suggest Bond is having a seriously bad time in prison. After 14 months he is traded for a North Korean agent. But his welcome home is muted. M says the cost of getting him back was too high, plus there are suspicions that he may have leaked information. So he's locked in a secure hospital room on a warship in Hong Kong harbor. Part of Bond's training is the ability to control his heart and breathing, and he uses this ability to play dead and escape.

Once ashore, he checks into his favorite hotel and promptly exposes the surveillance in his room. He tells the hotelier he's known for years the hotelier is tied to Chinese intelligence and says he wants information on the traded Korean agent. The Korean has killed some Chinese agents, so the Chinese are happy to comply and direct Bond to Cuba.

This is the 20th official Bond film and the 40th anniversary of the first one, so some homages are worked in. While Bond is in Cuba, we get a glimpse of Birds of the West Indies by James Bond (source of the name - really). Also Halle Berry reprises Ursula Andress' emergence from the sea in a bikini. Bond is led to a mysterious clinic that specializes in "gene therapy." This version of gene therapy is the ultimate makeover - a complete DNA overhaul described, in probably a grand understatement, as quite painful. Also probably quite fatal. Halle Berry turns up at the clinic, too, clearly on a mission of her own, but just what isn't clear. Between the two of them, though, the clinic gets blown up, but not before Bond turns up links to a mysterious billionaire diamond miner.

Bond pops back to London, reports his information, and is told he's once again useful. The diamond billionaire is in Iceland, ostensibly tending to a new mine and also preparing the grand unveiling of a secret project, and Bond is sent off to see what he's up to. To keep an eye on him, he's chaperoned by agent Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike). Bond is also outfitted with a stealth car that becomes virtually invisible.

Iceland is portrayed as a lifeless expanse of solid ice, although the island is mostly ice-free. As someone once said, Iceland is mostly green and Greenland is mostly ice. Also, Iceland is an exposed segment of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, made almost entirely of basalt, and about the last place on earth anyone would expect to find diamonds. And although there's a lot of fanciful speculation lately about making things invisible, it's a tall order, since you'd have to guarantee that light hitting one side of an object would somehow be retransmitted from the other side, for all possible viewing directions at once, and with the same intensity. Active camouflage that mimics ambient colors and patterns is possible (chameleons do it). There are some prototypes that achieve highly imperfect camouflage. Making an opaque object completely transparent; I'll believe it when I see it.

It turns out the special project is a grand orbiting solar mirror complex which can beam energy to earth, provide light at night, lengthen the growing season in the far North, and also make one heck of a weapon. It turns out that the diamond mines are merely a front for laundering conflict diamonds. Halle Berry is really an American agent, Miranda Frost is the mole who got Bond captured, and the billionaire diamond miner is the renegade North Korean colonel after a complete DNA remake. Also R2-D2 is really my old washing machine. The Good Guys and Bad Guys slug it out in a disintegrating jet over North Korea.

Between this one and Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond films are definitely more fun when Bond's female counterpart is as tough and resourceful as he is. This is actually quite a good film. Bond's relationship with his job and his bosses is a lot more ambivalent in this than any other film. I do concur with the reviewers who thought Rosamund Pike made a much better romantic interest for Bond than Halle Berry. Berry is a wonderful actress but Pike was a Bond Girl in the classic sense.

Casino Royale (2006)

I really wanted to hate this film. A blond James Bond? How dare they? But the critics were right. It's a very good movie and Daniel Craig makes a great Bond. Maybe it's time to reboot the franchise. On a 30 year remake cycle we could stretch the series out forever.

There's not much science here. Some of the most interesting is in the opening credits, where we see a playing card theme in which clubs evolve into fractals and there are some nifty envelope curves. The plot involves Le Chiffre, a secret banker for terrorists, warlords, and other antisocial types. He gets in deep doo-doo when his plot to bankrupt an airplane manufacturer goes haywire. His plan was to short the company's stock, then drive the price down by blowing up their prototype super jumbo jet. Again with the prototypes. Do people build prototypes of things and then burn the plans and shoot all the workers? But Bond foils the plot, in the process creating a disturbance even TSA can't miss. Considering all the movies where cars go off cliffs and explode in mid-air, Bond rides a careening tanker that's leaking aviation fuel all over the place and smashing into things, and there's not a single spark. The banker is out 100 million dollars, and plans to recoup it in a high stakes casino poker game. Now if I was banking for the sorts of sociopaths this guy is working for, I'd be very careful with their money - blue chips, mutual funds, gold, but this guy apparently likes to skate on the thin edge.

There's a little action, but mostly the story revolves around the poker game and its associated intrigues. The spiffiest gadget in Bond's car  is a portable defibrillator. No ejection seats, rocket launchers, or revolving license plates. If fact, we don't see Q at all.

The Bond Girl (Eva Green) is a Treasury official charged with overseeing Bond's stake in the poker game. Unfortunately, she's been co-opted by terrorists. When she refuses to release more money for the game, Bond is rescued by a CIA agent also in the game. Earlier I joked about the lack of continuity in the character of Felix Leiter, but even I wasn't prepared for a black Felix Leiter. Bond wins, but then he and the girl are captured by Le Chiffre, who wants his money back. Why they didn't anticipate Le Chiffre would be less than a good sport about losing is a mystery. Le Chiffre's angry customers storm in and kill him, leaving Bond and the girl alive (a red flag).

Bond takes a while to recover from his ordeal at the hands of Le Chiffre. He and the girl fall in love, Bond tenders his resignation, and the girl scoots out to run an errand. The errand is to withdraw the $100 million in poker winnings and turn it over to the terrorists (who are holding her other lover hostage). Even allowing for not knowing the girl has turned, this brings up a legion of questions like:

So Bond figures out the girl is working for the other side, follows her, gets into a major shootout with the bad guys, and in the process blows holes in the pontoons holding up a building. The building sinks, taking the girl with it. You work for the bad guys, even under duress, you die. It's the code. Unlike the Pirate Code, these are rules, not just guidelines.

I definitely do not believe the sinking building. Despite lots of poetic yammering about Venice being a "floating city," it's built on pilings, not pontoons. Shooting holes in a pontoon won't necessarily make the pontoon sink if the holes are above the water line. And I seriously doubt any canal in Venice is deep enough for an entire four-story building to sink all the way to the roof. Also, I really don't believe people drown as gracefully and poetically as the girl does.

As my son pointed out, when this Bond gets beat up, he stays beat up - he still has the scars next day. And when he gets a microchip injected, he goes "Ow." I think that's the first time I've ever heard James Bond say "Ow."


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Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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