Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)


A British ship in international waters is challenged by two Chinese MIGs, who claim that it's trespassing on their territory. Moments later the ship is sinking and one of the planes have been shot out of the sky. This is the doing of media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), who plans to start a war between the two countries, so he can sell newspapers.

James Bond is dispatched to investigate Carver, via his "connection" to Carver's wife (Teri Hatcher), and there he runs into a Chinese operative, Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), who seems to have her own agenda. Of course Bond finds the time to briefly flirt with Moneypenny, the secretary, he sleeps with his Danish teacher (Yay Danes!) and with Teri Hatcher! He also gets a brand new remote controlled BMW, and a mobile phone with some very impressive features.


Mr. Elliot Carver. Though, actually I don't think he deserves an award. His plan is just too stupid. We deserves a better class of bad guys, don't we? This one has even hired a silly blond henchman! Come on, how clichéd can you get? On a more positive note, magician Ricky Jay also shows up, as some sort of electronic weapon gizmo expert. Personally I prefer when he's flinging cards.


So the revived James Bond returns, but can he live up to the expectations following the near perfect GoldenEye? In a word: No.

The biggest problem with Tomorrow Never Dies is the villain. Plain and simple. It's just not believable that a person can be in charge of a giant company and be so obviously insane at the same time. Jonathan Pryce does what he can with the character of Elliot Carver, but it's a lost cause. I mean, how would you manage to keep this so-called plan a secret, when it relies on the collaboration of so many people? And what kind of business model is a world war? Do you honestly believe that more people would buy newspapers in the middle of a nuclear-freakin'-war, than during times of peace?

Was GoldenEye just a flash in the pan? It would seem that way, because even Bond himself is back to the incompetent style of the Connery efforts. Twice he walks into obvious traps. One time the bad guys even call him and tell him it's a trap! And still he proceeds undeterred. Further evidence can be found in the film's unsuccessful attempt to copy the added emotional depth of GoldenEye, by setting up a relationship with Carver's wife. It's a nice idea, but just doesn't ring true.

It's too bad, because there's actually a lot to like here. Pierce Brosnan is on par with his GoldenEye performance, the film looks great, it has the added benefit of digital effects, and the action scenes are generally very competent. The motorcycle chase through downtown Saigon, where Bond is handcuffed to Michelle Yeoh, is inspired. Oddly, tough, the one action scene that couldn't possibly fail - Michelle Yeoh demonstrating her fighting abilities - is very badly choreographed, and poorly shot.

I've grown to like much of Tomorrow Never Dies, despite my initial hate for it. I've come to terms with the fact that it's the worst Bond film since the Roger Moore days. However, nothing can save the film, when the already problematic plot culminates in a noisy, utterly boring showdown onboard Carvers stealth boat. Even if we ignore the fact that this vessel seems to be several sizes larger on the inside than it appears from the outside, the whole finale is still so bloody ridiculous! Nothing more than pointless shooting, explosions, and boring fist fights. When it's all over, you're left with an empty, sinking feeling. A worldwide media empire, the threat of a third world war, and all you give us is a fist fight? Come on...

I will leave you with this conversation I had with a friend shortly after watching the movie for the first time back in 1997. We were pondering the qualities of the film, and he suddenly said:

"James Bond doesn't scream."
"James Bond doesn't scream! When they use the banner to slide down the side of the building he screams like a girl. James Bond doesn't scream."

Think about it. It's true. If they can't get that simple, little fact right, how can they hope to make a whole film that works?


GoldenEye (1995)


James Bond is back! Again. In the opening sequence 007 (Pierce Brosnan) is on a mission in Russia with his old pal Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) aka 006. Something goes wrong, Alex is killed and Bond barely escapes. Flash-forward 9 years.

A new high tech helicopter is stolen and Bond suspects this is one piece of a larger puzzle. Shortly thereafter the helicopter is used to attack a Russian radar installation, and the top secret GoldenEye energy weapon is stolen. Only a young programmer, Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), survives. Bond is charged with finding the GoldenEye, and thwarting whatever sinister plain lies behind the theft.

Of course Bond flirts with Moneypenny, the secretary, who seems far less impressed with his sexual prowess than usually. He also takes one for the team, by bedding a mousy girl sent to evaluate him, and he sleeps with the Russian programmer (it's alright, she's sort of Swedish). Then there's the title song, performed by Tina Turner, M is a woman, and Minnie Driver screams her way through "Stand by Your Man" with a thick Russian accent.


Janus. The devious underworld weapon smuggler who's responsible for the GoldenEye theft, and of course he's in cahoots with a crazy Russian general. They plan to send England back to the stone age, with an electronic blast that will destroy all financial records. Famke Janssen shows up with a dangerously naughty Russian accent, and steals the show as Xenia Onatopp, the bad guys' henchman. She is perhaps the all time best Bond girl! She will literally kill you during sex, but it'll be SO worth it.


A lot was riding on those first couple of minutes of GoldenEye. MGM's powerful franchise had been lying dormant for 6 years, and that's a long time in the action movie game. Returning from this extended leave Bond had to prove himself all over again. Adding to this was the fact that we had to break in yet another new Bond actor. This time Pierce Brosnan took the lead.

So with audiences everywhere holding their breath in anticipation, we're reintroduced to James Bond as he bungee jumps from the top of a dam! After this the film slowly reveals Bond's face: A close-up of the eyes, then a silhouette. When we get the first full view of his face, he's hanging upside down, and THEN we finally get to to see Brosnan's 007. This cheeky approach puts me at ease. It tell's me that the filmmakers are fully aware of what they're doing, and that they know they have to earn my trust.

The opening scene is also perfect, because Bond doesn't wink non-stop at the camera, he has one or two funny lines, but then he shifts to lethal mode. There's also a strange energy in the rest of the scene, as if Bond can sense something's wrong. His bitterness, when his friend dies, is unmistakable. As is the look of ruthless determination during his getaway. This Bond will not escape in a pink rubber duck, or whatever nonsense they came up with in the other films, and he doesn't rely on luck to complete his mission.

While the story of GoldenEye could easily have been told in the moronic Bond style of the Sean Connery or the Roger Moore days, director Martin Campbell keeps the plot on a tight leash. He has the time and patience to set up two separate story lines. First there's Bond's investigation - actual investigation, where he talks to people and follows clues. Then there's the second, where the programmer attempts to figure out what went wrong. The two lines develop concurrently and naturally, until they meet in the middle of the film, to reveal the true scope of the plot. It's not rocket science or the reinvention of the wheel, it's just straight-up solid storytelling. Luckily GoldenEye also has a fair share of spectacular and entertaining action sequences, the high point being the tank chase through the streets of St. Petersburg. An elaborate, inventive, almost Jackie Chan like set-piece, full of crazy stunts and humor.

GoldenEye isn't just a return to form, because it features some great action, it also works, because it dares to dig a little bit deeper into the character. Most notable is the confrontation between the newly appointed M (Judi Dench) and Bond. "You're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War," she says, straight to his face. The verbal showdown between them is far beyond anything else previously attempted by the franchise. Not only is this conversation cool, but it raises the stakes immeasurably, because it allows Bond to consider his own mortality and relevance in the modern world. Similarly, later in the film, Bond and Natalya have a heartfelt discussion about his chosen lifestyle, before the final showdown begins. "How can you be so cold?" she demands. "It's what keeps me alive," Bond explains. "No, it's what keeps you alone," she retorts. Imagine that conversation with any previous Bond actor.

I wonder if GoldenEye is my favorite Bond film. It's certainly a fantastic, brutally effective action movie. Pierce Brosnan eradicates all competition, with the best silver screen interpretation of the secret agent to date. He's the perfect mix of killer, detective, and ladies man, with just the right dash of humor, and a hint of regret. It's a bit of a mystery how Bond made it this far, through 33 years and 17 mostly mediocre films, but I'm really glad he did. For the first time the caption "Bond will return" seems like a promise, not a warning.


The Easter Marathon 2012

It's Easter once again. That wonderful time of the year when we're supposed to celebrate that a semi-fictional conman faked his own death, and then ran away. As you can tell by this opening bravado, I'm not part of "that club".

People used to be superstitious, because they didn't know any better. They invented gods and religion to make sense of a world they couldn't understand. Today we know better, today there is no excuse to believe in nonsense and magic. And yet we live in perilous times .

On a daily basis religious nutbaggery and intelligent design join forces with criminally stupid nonsense such as acupuncture and homeopathy to ruin any progress made by the human race, with a wall of ignorance. It's never been more important to stay alert. So for this Easter film-marathon we're going to put on our thinking caps, and watch four films that remind us to stay critical and skeptical.

Without further ado, here is your program:


Film #1: Life of Brian (1979)

"Hail Messiah!"
"I'm not the Messiah!"
"I say You are, Lord, and I should know. I've followed a few."

Life of Brian is one of the best films ever made, full of wonderful sharp humor that tears an irreparable hole in the giant windbag of religion. With just a few perfect sketches (and an awful lot of silliness) the Pythons manage to expose the hypocrisy of blind faith. Not faith overall, mind you, because we need to believe in something, just blind faith. It's the single best thing the Monty Python troupe ever did, and now that I think about it, it should be required viewing every Easter.

Film #2: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

"Never theorize before you have data. Invariably, you end up twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

Sherlock Holmes was always the iconic skeptic - though ironically his creator Arthur Conan Doyle was not. Admittedly this modern incarnation from Guy Ritchie is more style than substance, but it's still comforting to watch Holmes battle against the dull-minded superstitious of his time, refusing to surrender his wits, even at the brink of madness.

The film teaches us that if all you're left with, after all facts have been examined, is the supernatural, then you need more facts or more examination.

Film #3: The Illusionist (2006)

"Everything you've seen is an illusion, it's a trick."

I know, I know, this could easily be dismissed as nothing more than a sappy love story, but there's a lot more than meets the eye. This turn-of-the-century magician, not only admits that he's merely performing tricks, but he also challenges authority with his wicked ways, AND uses magic to reclaim his girl. You can't beat that. After all, love is the only true magic of this world.

This is not the only magic themed movie from that year, there's also Christopher Nolan's fantastic The Prestige (2006), if you're in the mood for something a bit more flashy, but unfortunately it's got that major plot-point that disqualifies it from skeptic status.

Film #4: The Usual Suspects (1995)

"To a cop the explanation is never that complicated. It's always simple. There's no mystery to the street, no arch criminal behind it all. If you got a dead body and you think his brother did it, you're gonna find out you're right. "

The Usual Suspects is one of my all-time favorite films. Of course it's well-written, a study in precision storytelling, perfectly acted, and all that, but in this context it's particularly relevant, because it teaches us to be alert and observant.

The entire plot relies on one simple fact: That the obtuse detective is so convinced of his own theory and powers of observations, he literally never bothers to take a look around, and examine his world from a different vantage point. Which is ultimately his undoing.

This story is a deceptively complicated as it is beautiful.

BONUS: F for Fake (1973)

And finally, if you can handle another film after all this, I suggest Orson Wells' fraud documentary F for Fake. Now, this is sort of breaking my own rule, because I haven't actually seen it myself. Not yet anyway, but hopefully I will have a chance to pop it in the player very soon.



And there you have it.

If you need more skeptical entertainment, I recommending listing to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast (link) aka The One Podcast To Rule Them All. Or perhaps tune in to the BBC panel show QI (link) or Discovery's Mythbusters (link), two excellent examples of how critical thinking can be fun and engaging, even in primetime.

Let's end with a quote from Mythbuster Adam Savage. He said it as a joke, when he came up short during an experiment, which must be why it sounds like it could have come from any old non-skeptical fool.

"I reject your reality. And substitute my own."