Below The Surface: James Bond Finds Himself
Good films have subtext. In the last part of this series on the subtext of various James Bond films, we took a look at the subtext 1963's From Russia With Love and before that we took a look at 1967's You Only Live Twice.
In the third part of this series we'll take a look at the subtext of 1995's GoldenEye.
James Bond Finds Himself
The Subtext Of GoldenEye
By John Cox
If GoldenEye had not been a huge success when it was released in the fall of 1995, the James Bond series would have ended then and there. After the disappointment of License to Kill and a six-year hiatus, the question facing MGM and the Bond empire was "Is James Bond still relevant?" Cleverly enough, the filmmakers decided to make a James Bond film that was specifically ABOUT James Bond's struggle to find his place in the modern world. Not since YOLT was a Bond film so blatantly symbolic and so psychologically interesting.
As if to erase the Dalton years, GoldenEye starts in 1986 (a year before The Living Daylights) and then jumps "Nine Years Later," presumably to 1995, as a Bond film always takes place "today." This time passage device (the only time it has been used in a Bond film) tells us right off the bat that this is a movie which puts character ahead of plot. In other words, it's ABOUT James Bond and not the global repercussions of some event that we see in the pre-titles sequence or opening scene. And what's 007 doing when we meet him nine years later? He's TURNING A CORNER. But the old Bond is still very much in evidence. He seduces a girl, wears a tux, drives the Aston Martin DB5, gambles in a casino, orders a martini "shaken not stirred," and smokes out a crime syndicate — all this in the opening two scenes! He's also back in the personage of Pierce Brosnan, whom the public has associated with James Bond from the time he lost the role in 1986. (Hey, there's that year again.)
But after this nostalgic romp, Bond fails in his mission to stop the robbery of the Tiger helicopter, and we FADE OUT. Fade out? Is this the end of the movie? In a way, it is because now we begin the first postmodern James Bond film, a film in which James Bond is not the master of his universe. For the next hour, 007 is ridiculed for being a "sexist misogynist dinosaur," out of touch and irrelevant in the post Cold War world. Everyone Bond encounters in this film slams him in a similar way. Valentin asks him if he's "decided to join the 21st Century," Jack Wade makes fun of his "secret codes and passwords," Trevelyan suggests his martini intake is a means of escape, sexual harassment is even suggested in his treatment of Miss Moneypenny! In this modern world, M is more than just a woman, she's a mother! ("If I wanted sarcasm, I'd talk to my children," she tells Tanner.) Up to this point in the 33 year history of the James Bond series, the concept of motherhood has been as nonexistent as, well, children. As a rule, Bond conquers the girl, and we roll credits, fast. Any relationship beyond that short circuits the fantasy. How does Bond respond to all this? He doesn't.
Instead Bond embarks on a mission to defeat the cold warrior inside himself by going to the source: Russia, a former enemy now crippled (like Valentin Zukovsky). Here, the traditional Bond girls are split (as is everything in this film) into opposing halves. Natalya is a beauty with brains, and Xenia is pure danger with a kink for killing that's worthy of From Russia with Love. (For the first and only time in a Bond film, we get to see a woman achieve an orgasm. You've come a long way, baby.)
But it's in the graveyard of discarded Soviet statues (heavy symbolism, but, hey, it works) that Bond finally encounters the REAL enemy — his shadow. Like Bond, Alec Trevelyan, agent 006, is trapped in a time warp. Like Bond, he's become both a myth (Janus) and a real man. But Trevelyan's problem is he still clings to the hatred and suspicion that created the Cold War while Bond just clings to the sex appeal. Their struggle makes up the last half of the film, and the shadow nature of their relationship is so obvious that there's hardly any need for metaphor. "James and I shared everything," says Trevelyan. The most telling moment comes in the end of the film when Bond kills Trevelyan, not "for England" but "for me." The cold warrior is dead. Mission accomplished. Welcome to the 21st Century, Mr. Bond.