It’s been 20 years since the release of GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64. No James Bond video game has ever been better, not even close. Has any James Bond movie been better since then?
A question worth pondering, even if any answer is intangible. Ridiculous, maybe, to compare the franchise across the media. Developed by Rare, GoldenEye 007 is a game with a good single-player story mode and a good multiplayer mode, thus representing hours of entertainment for moody teen loners and raucous sleepover friend-groups. Any singular feature film can only be shorter, time-wise, but it also features actual humans, and the uncontrollable nature of un-interactive art demands your attention and your empathy and the fundamental denial of your own importance. (A single second from a great movie can loom larger in memory than fifty hours of multiplayer battles through well-traveled digital landscapes.)
The two decades post-GoldenEye have seen two acclaimed 007 films: Poker-Parkourist Casino Royale and Freudian-fantastical Skyfall. The video game ranks higher in cultural history than any of then-Bond Pierce Brosnan’s actual movies, but maybe that’s an unfair comparison, too. The movie GoldenEye has to at least pretend to take seriously the ridiculous story. (Renegade Cold War revenants bank-rob all England via EMP pulse, because Cossacks!) The game GoldenEye gets to make the movie’s plot more ridiculous, because anything dumb looks purposefully silly in 64-bit pixels.
The miracle of GoldenEye‘s creation comes up all the time in gamer circles. It remains the best licensed video game of all time, and most licensed video games aren’t even halfway decent. (The second Arkham game comes closest, and probably tops your list if you think more story is good story.) But it holds a strange, separate place in Bond history. The 007 movies under Craig get credit, sometimes undeserved, for reboot-y throat-clearing. But the films have trended self-referential since the millennium, becoming more laden with callbacks, the Goldfinger car, the bikini knife, SPECTRE, Blofeld.
Blofeld! [shakes fist at the vogue for unnecessary continuity and incoherent third-act twists] We know now that current star Daniel Craig will return for one last go-round as James Bond. There will be much hand-wringing over how this final film can improve or fix the previous film – as there was with Skyfall after Quantum of Solace, with Casino Royale after Die Another Day, with GoldenEye after Licence to Kill, with For Your Eyes Only after Moonraker, so on ever backwards. Are there things the Bond movies can learn from the single best Bond non-film thing of the last half-century? Consider this a fond list of the unusual successes of GoldenEye 007, some of them suggested playfully but all of them quite serious:
1. Have a sense of humor
Like many projects considered violent or intense upon release, GoldenEye 007 looks endearingly cartoonish in hindsight. Some of that is the natural evolution of video game aesthetics towards greater “realism,” but the game was always more lighthearted than contemporaneous shooters in the post-Doom era. The production team, led by director Martin Hollis, had a puckish anti-cool sensibility when it came to building the multiplayer modes – this was the game where you could literally select SLAPPERS ONLY as an option for weapons-free showdowns.
I’m not saying the Bond movies should, like, consider filling the agent’s weapons with paintballs, or film some scenes in Big Head mode. But the last few films have trended self-serious beyond absurdity – recall how Spectre featured a somber conversation about a meteorite. The Kingsman movies and the underrated (and wholly unnecessary) Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake are fine counterexamples of espionage thrillers with wit. And we know Craig’s funny – look at Logan Lucky!
2. Bring back the energetic music!
GoldenEye 007 composers Graeme Norgate, Grant Kirkhope, and Robin Beanland reimagined the die-hardiest of Bond anthems into infini-jazz technotronica. The music’s ardently goofy – the orchestra hits on the Frigate mission sound like a ten-year-old running wild with her big brother’s keyboard. It also has the kind of junk-rock swagger that the movie franchise’s music mostly lost years ago. Remember always that the original Bond theme depends on a surf-rock guitar played by a low-paid twentysomething.
Speaking as the lunatic who kind of likes Madonna’s “Die Another Day” song, I’m willing to admit that the only barely beloved Bond theme in the modern age is the one sung by your friend Adele. But beyond the “Skyfall” theme, the recent soundtracks have trended same-y, not particularly memorable, un-hummably “intense.” Thomas Newman’s percussive Day of the Dead theme from Spectre is a step in the right direction, but that direction points unmissably towards the funny-scary chorus hymns in Severnaya.
3. Unabashedly adore the character’s history…
Like most long-running franchises, the Bond movie saga has struggled a bit with its perspective on its own history. There are teasing references backwards – and Sean Connery was almost cast as a paternal-ish figure in Skyfall. But there’s also a general, very Dark Knight-y concern about paying homage to some of the character’s goofier traits. They brought back Q but the gadgets remain dull-y functional – a sign of realism, maybe, or to product-place wristwatches rather than jetpacks.
Say this for the GoldenEye game: It embraces all of Bond’s history. The final two secret levels sequelize Moonraker and The Man With the Golden Gun and Live and Let Die, three flavors of ’70s goofery. Unlockable characters from Bond myth assured that millennials probably know more about Jaws and Oddjob than any bad guy from an actual ’90s Bond movie. Maybe Craig’s version of going out strong is returning his version of the character back to grimdark zero, but you wonder if the franchise would benefit just as much from a touch of Doctor Whoification. (Consider: A Council of Bonds.)
4. …or at least root the character in actual history
The GoldenEye movie kicks off with a Soviet-era prologue before flashing forward to the then-“modern” day. One of the niftier narrative ideas added to the GoldenEye game is to extend that prologue into a complete Act One, following Bond on a mission to Perestroika-era Severnaya and Iron Curtain-era Kyrgyzstan.
Some of this was probably just a nifty shorthand towards more content; Bond returns to Severnaya in later levels, which means the developers could use the same map (with different post-Soviet colors!). But that decision builds up the idea of Bond as a character with a long-running history, who exists in some recognizable version of the real political world.
The Craig-era Bond movies have cycled a couple times through the notion of the character having an origin story: Fine. But that decision – mixed with the idea to continui-tize the villains into a collective cabal in Spectre – has also cut Bond off from all recent real-life geopolitical history. The character doesn’t need to be openly political, of course, but part of the fundamental appeal of the original Ian Fleming character was the suggestion that he’d been involved in real-world espionage events. Let’s give Craig’s Bond some real history, a sense of involvement in espionage activities that don’t involve Illuminati-ish conspiracies with acronymic names.
5. Get young, hungry talent
The GoldenEye 007 team was composed of wildly imaginative programmers, many of them essentially rookies. A programmer named David Doak recalled the experience of working on the game as “joyful naivete.” And, full credit to the Rare higher-ups, that team was given plenty of time to develop their end-product: The game hit stores two full years after the movie.
Recently, the Bond franchise has depended on old pros and established creators, hiring hot screenwriters like John Logan and Paul Haggis (and keeping Neal Purvis and Robert Wade around for rewrites.) Sam Mendes was a well-established director before he joined the Bond franchise. Experience is great until it isn’t: It either produces Skyfall or Spectre. While the producers plot a sendoff for the long-serving Craig, perhaps they should giving a younger director a turn behind the camera.
6. Think hard about how important objectification is
One of the best things about the Daniel Craig films is how willing the actor has been to turn his own body into an impressive special effect. There is no comparison in earlier incarnations of the franchise; where Craig goes shirtless, Moore went with turtlenecks. This is a happy evolution, I think, for a franchise that turned “psychedelic hot-chick dreamscapes” into a title-sequence trope. Equal-opportunity objectification beats the alternative!
Then again, worth remembering that the best James Bond thing of the ’90s ends with a chaste forest make-out between two androgynous pixel-wax figures. In the Deadpool era, what’s bolder than a G rating?