October 26, 2012 7:21 pm

A Bond villain for our times

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Events of 2008 have given today’s evil genius a hard act to follow

It used to be such a straightforward affair. The villain in a James Bond film rarely made an effort to disguise his malign intentions. He would have a long scar down the side of his face and be stroking a white cat sitting on his lap. Or he would be 8ft tall and possess a mouthful of menacing, metal teeth. He would invariably be a member of a secret organisation that helpfully listed its aims in a catchy acronym.

“I’m a member of Spectre,” Dr No says to Bond in the very first film in the franchise, released 50 years ago. “Spectre?” asks Bond. “Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.” What a candid bunch they were, those would-be dominators of a new world order. Was espionage ever so easy?

It’s different today. In Skyfall, the new Bond film released this week, the spy’s antagonist is Raoul Silva, a former MI6 agent turned cyberterrorist, who rises against his betrayal by former colleagues. Bond himself is conflicted, depressed. It’s a more nuanced moral universe. Where there used to be the ethical clarity of a medieval morality play, there is now duplicity, ambiguity, confusion. This is a Bond film for our infernally complicated times.

The Bond films were born in the year of the Cuban missile crisis, and of “Love Me Do”. In the early 1960s, both international relations and romance were conducted in the language of the primary school playground. There was mutually assured destruction (take me out and I’ll take you out) and domino theory (don’t let that one fall because the one next to it will fall). They were scary, but not over-sophisticated times.

Bond villains were correspondingly monomaniacal in their ambitions. The first of them, Dr No, was in charge of Spectre’s attempts to disrupt the US space programme. In From Russia With Love, the organisation set out to steal a Soviet decoding machine. This was cold war tension at its most fraught. Happily, communist dullards could always be taken down by Bond’s devastating suavity. “Red wine with fish,” says 007 drily to From Russia’s gun-toting hitman, Red Grant, before disarming him. “That should have told me something.”

Bond’s next nemesis, Auric Goldfinger, at least had the physique of a gastronome. He was the first Bond villain to act out of personal greed rather than political ideology, wanting to detonate an atomic device inside Fort Knox to destroy the US gold supply. “My plan is foolproof. I call it Operation Grand Slam,” he tells cohorts. But he was playing hard economics: tamper with the supply of a valuable resource and you can manipulate the markets to your advantage.

Goldfinger at least had a rational plan, in contrast to the succession of increasingly barmy miscreants whom Bond was forced to confront. The shipping magnate of The Spy Who Loved Me wanted to destroy civilisation so he could rule the planet from his city beneath the sea. Moonraker’s Drax sought to spray nerve gas over the globe from his space station, so that his master race could take over the world.

These were the years of detente, when it was no longer enough to be Russian and ugly to denote a threat to world peace. Octopussy’s General Orlov, played in a spirit of high camp by Steven Berkoff in 1983, bordered on self-satire, a nostalgic throwback to the crudity of early cold war exchanges. Bond villains had become mannered and ridiculous. It was computers that came to the rescue. A View to a Kill’s Max Zorin was traditionally lunatic in the magnitude of his destructive urges, wanting to destroy Silicon Valley with an earthquake, but his ulterior motive was more subtle: he was aiming to control the world microchip market. The new world order was now controllable on a laptop. There was no further need to build nuclear missile launch pads in Thunderbirds-style island hideaways.

Bond villains became chillier, more cerebral, better dressed. Their aspirations began to have some connection with the real world. In Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond was confronted by Elliot Carver, a rapacious media mogul out to control the world’s news flow. “The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success,” says Carver, with a glint in his eye that was eerily recognisable from reality.

Die Another Day marked a brief return to the halcyon days of geopolitical mayhem, involving space mirrors, gene therapy and some nonsense between the two Koreas. But it was a halfhearted effort, the villainy lapsed fatally into caricature.

The well-publicised Bond reboot of 2006 featured a tauter-muscled 007, and a tauter plot. Casino Royale’s villain was Le Chiffre, a mathematics wizard and expert poker player, out to manipulate stock values through the blowing up of an aircraft. The climax of the film featured a frantic search for a computer password, which is not a million miles from how most of us spend our days.

The modern Bond villain is an evolved creature: computer-literate, business-savvy, Bond’s near equal in social finesse. Of course he is still a member of a sinister organisation (Quantum has replaced Spectre), bent on world domination, and insane. He needs to be. The events of 2008 showed that global meltdown was a more credible threat than we ever thought possible. It is that streak of madness that keeps Bond’s enemies a step ahead of our wildest nightmares. It is no easy task.

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