It’s a little bizarre that in the broader subconscious this film doesn’t register as strongly with the masses as some of the other Bond’s. Normally Goldfinger and The Spy Who Loved Me are the most well-remembered and quintessential flicks of the franchise but to my mind You Only Live Twice arguably trumps both of them in terms of pop culture legacy. The visuals, the setup, the structure and content of the action are perhaps the most Bondian of any Bond. It’s also probably the most ‘fun’ of the early, pre-wacky-Moore films. Some people may say that the old Bond movies are dated or boring but let me tell you, even after half a century there’s an undeniable joy to seeing a Scottish man in yellow-face lead a ninja army in an assault on a secret volcano lair. This retrospective could almost stop there, what more do you need? But I committed to a word count so let’s crack on.
Before entering the realm of qualifiers, let’s start with what has remained unambiguously good after all these decades. First off, the score. John Barry’s work on the franchise is nothing short of seminal and this film features some of his strongest, most distinct themes, with ‘Space March’ being the most memorable and arguably iconic. Similarly, Ken Adam’s production design remains a staggering accomplishment with the centrepiece, the hollowed-out volcano lair, having cost as much as the entire budget for Dr No and looking every penny of it. Then of course there’s the Little Nellie set piece – until the crocodile farm in Live and Let Die – perhaps the most successful example of this franchise’s penchant for having access to something exotic and then writing it into the screenplay after the fact. The agile camerawork and practical effects of the sequence make a for a gyrocopter-based action scene that’s still fun today. And that head-bangingly cheesy closing line from Bond is a delightful groaner for the ages. Being a gimmicky-inclusion, it’s an ultimately quite superfluous (albeit enjoyable) scene but this was the first of the truly excessive Bond films and a scene like this would become the norm so it’s commendable that screenwriter Roald Dahl – yes that one – was able to integrate it even somewhat organically into the plot.
To a not insignificant degree, the endurance of this film has more been in the parodies and references than in its own context. The aesthetic of the volcano lair is *the* shorthand go-to for evil abodes and can be clearly seen referenced in everything from ‘Kingsman’ to ‘The Simpsons’ and of course most memorably in Austin Powers. And speaking of that other well-known English spy, this film’s iteration of Blofeld is famously the basis for Dr Evil. What’s surprising is that despite this being one of those cases where more people probably know the parody than the source, it all still largely works in context. The volcano lair is an absurd but visually arresting location and Blofeld still manages to be a vaguely menacing and generally unsettling presence thanks to Donald Pleasance’s particular and disquieting performance. But the good doesn’t stop there. If you don’t get even a mild thrill from the needlessly long closing battle as SPECTRE henchman fight an army of ninjas while Bond tries to stop a rocket being eaten by a bigger rocket in order to avoid WW3 then I’m sorry but you must be clinically dead. The sight of several dozen stuntmen rappelling down from the lip of the volcano’s crater into an explosive fire fight is still as cool as it is unapologetically kitschy. And I haven’t even mentioned the earlier scene when Bond fights a goon while using a whole earthly couch as a battering ram.
If one were to sum up the film with a single moment from it, it would be when one character saddles up to Bond mid-ninja-training and kicks off act three by earnestly telling him there’s “bad news from outer space”. And if that hasn’t sold you on the continued and slightly dubious merits of this film, then there’s likely nothing that will. Before we go it’d be shameful not to mention the title song. Amongst the strongest and catchiest of the series, this karaoke mainstay was originally intended for Frank but he fobbed it off on his daughter and personally, I’m thankful he did. It’s a song far better suited to female vocals. I would say younger readers may recognise the melody from known pop song ‘Millennium’ by relevant music-person Robbie Williams but then it dawned on me that actual, contemporary young people probably don’t know who that is. For I am old. And will soon be dead.It’s a film of many peaks but the absolute top, the zenith of bad calls and weird choices is whoever decided they needed to make Big Sean “a Japanese”.
Obviously, this is offensive. But it’s *so* offensive, so utterly misguided, tone-deaf and ultimately crap-looking that it comes right back to being rather incredible. The icing on the racist cake being that he doesn’t even look remotely Asian; clearly afraid of making the whole affair look silly – God. Forbid. – they opt for “subtle” visual changes with the effect that it just looks like Sean Connery in a bad Spock cosplay. The sixties were quite a time. This is not an attempt to excuse any of this, it’s still a deeply sexist and racist product of its time, but more than that it’s a Bond product of its time where all those problematic elements are turned up to the max and as such almost come across as intentionally self-parodic. To be clear, they aren’t, but you can only laugh at this level of horrifying, wilfully blind offensiveness.