GoldenEye was my introduction to cinema’s most famous superspy, James Bond. It’s not a movie I can review just like any other, as I associate it with an entire era of personal and multimedia experiences. For this essay, I’m going to break those experiences down into four categories.
I was 4 years old when GoldenEye came out. In the weeks leading up to its release, I quickly found myself immersed in the lore of the legendary character. Blockbuster displayed beautiful Bond box sets on its shelves. TNT aired a weekend-long Bond marathon. The buildup to GoldenEye offered a feast for the senses: blonde bombshells, cool cars, exotic expanses, groundbreaking gadgets, lethal lasers, magnificent martinis, you name it.
When I saw the film in the theater, it seemed as though my generation was in for a darker, edgier Bond. I remember the opening sequence having a menacing quality, as Bond ran with urgency and sneaked through shadowy corridors of a Russian chemical weapons facility. For weeks after seeing the film, I sneaked around my house in what I thought was a similar fashion.
I later owned GoldenEye on VHS and wore that tape out. For me, it’s one of the more rewatchable Bond films. Revisiting it is like taking a trip down memory lane with an old friend. My latest rewatch was no exception.
GoldenEye still shines brightly as one of the best Bond films. As a kid, I appreciated it mostly for its moody atmosphere — the cold, tech-noir Russian settings in which Eric Serra’s ominous synth-heavy score hums like a hacker cracking code.
Now I appreciate the film for its emotionally downbeat tone, which it establishes right off the bat with Bond’s friend and fellow agent, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), dying at the hands of the Russians. Here, within the first 10 minutes of the film, Bond’s eyes well up with guilt, sorrow and fear. Prior to this moment in the franchise, we’ve never seen him drop his emotional armor so soon.
Later on, in a nighttime meeting with Bond at a park, Alec rises among monuments of the Soviet Age, revealing his faked death and collusion with the Russians. Bean and Brosnan make you feel the enormous weight of Alec’s betrayal. Not only did he betray Bond, but we soon discover that he seeks revenge against Britain for repatriating his Cossack parents to the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II, which led them to suicide. With this plot, GoldenEye stands as a prime example of how Bond films work best when the stakes are personal rather than merely political.
Bond hardly comes off as a saint in comparison to Alec, and the film deserves kudos for hitting 007 with the hard questions — the most cutting of which come from his former friend and partner. When Bond questions him about his criminal coping methods, Alec fires back: “I might as well ask if all those vodka martinis silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed … or if you’ve found forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for the dead ones you failed to protect.”
This confrontation seems to foreshadow the questioning of Bond’s morality in 2006’s Casino Royale, particularly the scene in which he stares into a mirror after killing two men with his bare hands, unable to recognize the bloody bruiser staring back.
“How can you be so cold?” he probably asked himself, as Bond’s love interest, Natalya (Izabella Scorupco), does in GoldenEye. Brosnan’s Bond has an answer: “It’s what keeps me alive.”
GoldenEye is one of the more progressive installments in the franchise in that it finds female characters taking Bond to task for his signature sleaziness. In a fleeting yet important moment, Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) deromanticizes Bond’s behavior by calling it what it is — sexual harassment. Of course, the film also features a character named Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) — get it, “on top?” — who gets her wires crossed and orgasms when she inflicts violence the same way George Costanza jizzes over pastrami on rye. But GoldenEye is still commendable for taking steps toward an ultimately less salacious direction.
This film holds up not just as a Bond movie but as an action movie period. From a swan dive off a dam to an explosive game of chicken between a tank and a train, director Martin Campbell infuses each setpiece with an infectious, exciting energy that makes you want to be part of the action. Fortunately, Rare and Nintendo made that possible with the Nintendo 64 game GoldenEye 007.
My parents bought my brother and me an N64 for Christmas in 1997 and wisely chose GoldenEye 007 as our first game, which we already dabbled in a bit with friends.
I never grew to be much of a gamer, but as a kid, I loved GoldenEye 007. Of course, the graphics pale in comparison to today’s standards. But at the time, the levels of the game beautifully mirrored the settings of the film. Just like Bond, you could crawl through the air ducts of a chemical weapons facility and scare the crap out of a Russian soldier in the bathroom. You could also fly a plane, drive a tank and mow down your friends in multiplayer mode. (I was always particularly deadly with the Moonraker laser gun.)
Now, I can’t disassociate the film from the game. It’s like the way I can’t hear the song “Stuck in the Middle with You” without thinking about Mr. Blonde cutting the cop’s ear off in Reservoir Dogs.
Speaking of songs …
The GoldenEye theme is special to me because it’s written by Bono and the Edge. (I fell in love with U2 as a boy, and it’s been my all-time favorite band ever since.) Tina Turner belts it out wonderfully.
The lyrics are so cool: See reflections on the water / More than darkness in the depths / See him surface in every shadow / On the wind I feel his breath.
One verse even seems to allude to Alec’s lifelong bitterness toward Britain for wronging his parents, who subsequently abandoned him: You’ll never know how I watched you / From the shadows as a child / You’ll never know how it feels to be the one / Who’s left behind.
I adore this song for the same reason I enjoy the film and the James Bond series in general: It reminds me of things I’ve loved for a long time.