Coming after the thematic daring and exceptional craft of Licence to Kill and GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies is something of a letdown. Instead of radically pushing forward the technical filmmaking of the Bond series or digging deeper into the character like its predecessors, Tomorrow Never Dies gives us business as usual. The fact that business as usual for a Bond film is superior action entertainment means that Tomorrow Never Dies remains an effective action film—both elegant and superbly entertaining in moments. But it has lost any of the thematic edge it had at the time of its release. Tomorrow Never Dies is stranded in its decade, and as a result, is one of the most dated entries in the entire franchise.
After the grand success of GoldenEye, MGM producers leveled immense pressure on the Eon Productions team to recreate that success. Initially the script was intended to deal with the transfer of Hong Kong from Britain back to China, but as the film was set to open at the end of 1997 (after the transfer had occurred), Bruce Feirstein instead worked on a script exploring the changing news media landscape.
The resulting story follows James Bond as he investigates the nefarious activities of the Carver Media Group, a news conglomerate run by the megalomaniac, Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). Carver seeks to manipulate China and the U.K. into warfare so as to oust the current Chinese government in favour of a new government that’ll grant him exclusive media rights for the next century (a kind of new media colonial deal). After a British vessel and a Chinese fighter jet are downed in the South China Sea, presumably sinking each other, M (Judi Dench) sends Bond to investigate Carver’s links to the event. It turns out that Carver’s newspaper ran headlines about the sinking mere hours after it occurred and before any information had been disseminated to the news media. Bond, who’s an old flame of Carver’s wife, Paris (Teri Hatcher), uses his prior relationship with her to infiltrate Carver’s media organization. This leads him to Hamburg, the South China Sea, and Ho Chi Minh City in an effort to uncover Carver’s plot. His investigation also forces him to cross paths with a rival agent, Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), who’s investigating Carver for the Chinese.
Tomorrow Never Dies follows the Bond formula to a tee. In fact, it’s so reminiscent of previous films in the Bond franchise that it’s practically a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me. Like the 1977 Roger Moore entry, Tomorrow Never Dies sees Bond investigating a wealthy capitalist who is manipulating two world powers against each other. In The Spy Who Loved Me it’s Karl Stromberg (Curt Jürgens) manipulating the United States and the Soviet Union in order to instigate nuclear war so he can start a new world underneath the ocean. In Tomorrow Never Dies, Elliot Carver seeks to force China and the U.K. into open warfare so he can organize a coup of the Chinese government and negotiate media rights for Chinese broadcasting. (It’s worth noting that in the fallout of the Cold War, China fills the antagonistic void left by the Soviet Union.) In both of these films the audience is privy to the villain’s true nature before Bond is. Just as we see Stromberg feeding his scientists to sharks early in the film, the first scene in Tomorrow Never Dies after the opening credits sees Carver’s men luring a British frigate into Chinese territorial waters and sinking it, along with the Chinese fighter jet that investigated the frigate. The scene ends with Carver’s acrobatic henchman, Stamper (Götz Otto), calling Carver, who puts together a sensational newspaper headline about the frigate’s sinking.
However, the similarities between the two films go further than the two villains and their maniacal plots resembling each other. Each films also pair Bond up with a female secret agent from the rival power: Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) in The Spy Who Loved Me and Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies. Both of these relationships start out antagonistically: in The Spy Who Loved Me, Anya wants to get revenge on Bond for killing her lover, while in Tomorrow Never Dies, Wai Lin merely wants to beat Bond to Carver. But in both films the women warm to Bond, and each film ends with Bond getting and bedding the girl (as most Bond films are wont to end).
Beyond this, both films have a focus on underwater action scenes—a common enough thread in the Bond films going back to Thunderball, but especially noteworthy in these films since the midpoint action scene in both takes place underwater: the Lotus Esprit escape in The Spy Who Loved Me and the HALO jump and investigation of the sunken frigate in Tomorrow Never Dies. Both films even end with a massive assault on the villain’s aquatic base: Stromberg’s underwater fortress, Atlantis, and Carver’s stealth warship. The structural and plot similarities between The Spy Who Loved Me and Tomorrow Never Dies are too numerous to be mere coincidence. Instead, these similarities help us understand that after the enormous success of GoldenEye, the production team likely found themselves without enough time to craft a story with suitable thematic heft and action potential to follow it up. This being the case, they turned back to what had worked for the franchise in the past and modelled it after one of the most successful entries from the most popular phase of James Bond films.
As well, the choice clarifies Pierce Brosnan’s similarities to Roger Moore, as Brosnan plays the character more in the vein of Moore than Connery: portraying Bond’s sexual appeal as a result of his charm and good looks, and not of some lurking animal nature. Brosnan has a higher kill count than Moore, but this has more to do with his favouring machine guns than any violence inherent to Brosnan’s characterization. Like Moore, he gets far more pleasure out of bedding women than killing bad guys. In fact, Brosnan’s era is a deliberate callback to the popular perception of a Bond film and a distancing from the grittier, more serious, and less amorous work of Timothy Dalton. All of this helps us understand that Tomorrow Never Dies is essentially Pierce Brosnan starring in a Roger Moore Bond movie. However, without Moore’s light touch and Lewis Gilbert’s vigour for spectacle, the film is a lesser version of its classic seventies counterparts (Moonraker in addition to The Spy Who Loved Me).
However, the film’s thematic emptiness is no fault of Pierce Brosnan, who’s more comfortable here than he was in GoldenEye, even if the script gives him less dramatic meat to chew on. His Northern Irish accent is less noticeable, and he’s more confident and cool in the film’s lighthearted moments. He leans into the one liners (and there are many one-liners in this film, another example of the production team recalling the Roger Moore era where Bond’s appeal seemed proportional to his humour) and lets his good looks and charm do most of the work. It’s as if he’s channeling Roger Moore’s unflappable nature.
What’s supposed to be supplying Tomorrow Never Dies with its thematic heft is not Brosnan’s performance but the script’s examination of the 24-hour news media cycle. Sadly, this is where the film feels the most horribly dated. The notion of a villain who manipulates news events in order to produce sensational headlines is a clever idea—and Jonathan Pryce has fun with the role, leaning into the character’s megalomania and relishing every scene where he can lord his technological dominance over others. Feirstein modeled the character after Mirror Group Newspapers owner, Robert Maxwell, but to a contemporary viewer he plays as a more obviously villainous version of Rupert Murdoch, with his wardrobe taking a hint from Steve Jobs.
Tomorrow Never Dies is right on the nose in satirizing the notion of objectivity and ethics in contemporary news. However, the film’s depiction of cutting edge news and its potential in the new millennium looks prehistoric from the modern perspective. Carver’s grand plan is to acquire exclusive broadcast rights in China for the next century, dominating the television airwaves along with traditional newsprint, but not once does he mention the Internet as a part of that plan. That Carver, the most powerful news media man in the world and someone presented as a radical forward thinker and champion of broadcast innovation, would fail to see even a glimmer of potential in the Internet is a grand oversight. The Internet may not have been as prevalent in 1997 as it is today, but it did exist, and the failure of Tomorrow Never Dies to incorporate it into its thematic scheme in any manner contributes greatly to its contemporary irrelevance.
However, its handling of the media is not the only component of Tomorrow Never Dies that feels dated. For instance, the BMW 750i that Bond drives by using the trackpad on his mobile phone felt like the coolest gadget in the world at the time. Now, however, it just seems like a Google Car that Bond can drive with his iPhone—something that exists today, even if it isn’t available to consumers yet. The action scene as it remains is still exciting—it’s one of the many moments in Tomorrow Never Dies that supplies shallow pleasure. But it no longer excites with the thrill of future technology. The gadgets in the older Bond films have a retro appeal to them, while also being just outlandish enough to appeal to the viewer’s fanciful imagination; but the gadgets in the Brosnan films, and Tomorrow Never Dies in particular, operate too much within the realms of reality. By trying to be flashy and cool, they’re merely showing existing tech as it will likely appear in a few years, which means they don’t age nearly as well as the more ludicrous gadgets from the old films.
At least Tomorrow Never Dies supplies some more shallow pleasures to compensate for its thematic shortfall. Teri Hatcher is appropriately sultry as Paris Carver. There’s a sufficient depth to her that registers in her few scenes with Bond, a notion of a shared history that brings out a personal side to Brosnan’s Bond. It’s too bad, then, that she’s offed within a few scenes of her introduction. Michelle Yeoh is also very good as Wai Lin. Unlike Paris, Wai Lin gets plenty of screentime, but without the depth that should accompany it. However, Yeoh is such an entertainingly physical actress that she makes up for any character deficiencies. Unlike Barbara Bach or Carole Bouquet, you can actually believe that Yeoh is deadly. In many ways, she seems even more dangerous than Brosnan. If her character isn’t allowed much personal depth, she’s at least allowed to be physically and professionally capable. She’s the most believable of Bond’s female agent counterparts in the entire series—largely because of Yeoh’s status as an international, action superstar.
Most everything on the surface of Tomorrow Never Dies is entertaining. Roger Spottiswoode is competent in his direction, playing the conventions straight and hearkening back to the clean, unfussy visuals of John Glen and Guy Hamilton. He never innovates the composition like Martin Campbell or embraces scope as well as Lewis Gilbert, but he’s a steady hand at the wheel. The final firefight aboard Carver’s stealth ship, for example, is a perfectly adequate action scene, mining tension in the standoff between Stamper and Bond and making sure that the pace never lags.
Tomorrow Never Dies might register as worse now than it did when it came out in 1997, but it’s still a Bond film and manages to embody many of the franchise’s virtues. It’s neither sloppy nor dull, even if it lacks the personality of its immediate predecessors. It’s just too bad then that even though the Bond films have often been stubbornly rooted in the past and embraced outdated technology and themes, Tomorrow Never Dies feels the most dated.
6 out of 10
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997, UK)
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode; written by Bruce Feirstein, based on the character by Ian Fleming; starring Pierce Brosnan, Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Yeoh, Teri Hatcher, Joe Don Baker, Götz Otto, Ricky Jay, Vincent Schiavelli, Desmond Llewelyn, Samantha Bond, and Judi Dench.