In praise of You Only Live Twice, which has the best villain's lair in movie history
Hard to remember the plot of 1967's You Only Live Twice even while you're watching it. For about 85 minutes, James Bond (Sean Connery) tumbles through a techno-erotic hallucination of the Cold War. There are spaceships and submarines, because this was the fifth film in a very successful franchise. You could tell yourself Connery's obvious boredom was a character choice, but Twice is probably his least defensible outing as 007. (Bond goes undercover as a Japanese fellow, and that's just the racist stuff that isn't sexist.)
Then, though, the final act. Bond is newly fake-married to another secret agent (Mie Hama), for vague subterfuge reasons. They're investigating mysterious doings around a dormant volcano. Right about now would be the perfect time to start watching the movie, if you're channel-surfing through cable in 1994. The pair go on a long hike over rocky terrain. Connery wears fishing clothes; Hama wears a white bikini. The fate of the world is at stake, so they only almost have sex, before a helicopter passes overhead. It disappears downwards into the volcano's basin. From high up, the lake looks merely beautiful, like any astounding place that's hard to visit. The water is a metal mirage, though. Underneath, the most evil people on Earth are planning World War III.
The volcano is real. (Actually, Mount Shinemoedake erupted just a few years ago.) The Bond producers could afford location shooting in southernmost Japan. They could also afford to build a $1 million on a massive set in London, and production designer Ken Adam outdid himself. The helipad's adjacent to a rocketship platform. A monorail circumferences the whole HQ. There are men in yellow uniforms and men in red uniforms. It's futuristic in a way that probably looked retro by mid-January 1970. The place is so lushly ornate — bespoke, specific, pop, organic — that it subtly makes villainous Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) seem much more interesting. He comes off like a cold fish, but wow, he really wanted those impressive stairways. Everything's carved right out of pure rock, like the living room of any freshly divorced Nixon-boosting tycoon. "ASTRONAUTS TO DRESSING ROOMS! ASTRONAUTS TO DRESSING ROOMS!" the loudspeaker announces; the astronauts have dressing rooms.
Director Lewis Gilbert was no genius, but there was no wrong way to point the camera. So the last 25 minutes of Twice are majestic beyond parody. A rocket fires upwards out of the volcanic crevasse, a helplessly phallic visual that invents Austin Powers but also supersedes Austin Powers. We see heroic Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurō Tamba) lead his ninja army over the real mountain — and then we see them rappel down into the set. They throw grenades until it's time for swords.)
It's this cut-together clash of screen reality — the actual place you could go on expensive vacation, the fantasy you could only build for movie cameras — that makes You Only Live Twice a still-crucial piece of cinema history. Will any silly action movie ever build a set like this again? Do modern movie heroes go anywhere that doesn't offer a sweetheart tax break? The fake lake doesn't look even remotely like actual water. A 2020s movie would digitalize it: "argh, they have holograms!" But its tangible physicality carries a secret authenticity. You have to respect SPECTRE. They hire the best phony-water painters.
In my lifetime, the Bond franchise has struggled between self-aware comedy and self-aware seriousness, a problem reflected in the places that latter-day Bond baddies build themselves. GoldeneEye tummy-nudged Twice with a base hidden underneath a lake, a potentially fun HQ crushed by the inevitable '90s notion that satellite dishes would ever be cool. I have a terrible fondness for Die Another Day's ice castle, but that interior set looks somehow too realistic. It comes off onscreen like an actual nightclub built out of frosted glass: A fun place to throw a wrap party, not an appropriate duelspace for sexy good and monstrous evil. Spectre tried to reintroduce comic spectacle with a new Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who conducts his global nefariousness from a crater. That film was a crater, all right.
Return, forever, to the sublime layout of Blofeld's study in Twice. Or maybe it's his foyer? A rumpus room? Does he sleep there? The floor perches over a heavily succulented piranha tank, making room for a fireplace and a chandelier and the kind of couches certain European nightclubs stuff in the corner for mid-bacchanal naps. Great no-doubt-stolen works of art hang on the rock face. The quill might be ornamental, but work certainly gets done at that desk. No one who criticizes the James Bond franchise on moral grounds will ever be wrong. But at least You Only Live Twice built its man a glorious cave.
Read more from EW's 25 Days of Bond, a celebration of all things 007 ahead of the release of No Time to Die.
You Only Live Twice