- Directed by Lewis Gilbert
- June 12, 1967 (London, premiere) / June 13, 1967 (UK & US)
- Loosely based on Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice
Bond is sent to Japan after Russian and American spacecraft disappear in orbit with each nation blaming the other.
You Only Live Twice is a great bit of stylized James Bond though not my favorite film in the series. It’s a little less spy and a little bit more romance than preceding films. As much of the film as Bond spends trying to thwart the plans of Blofeld and SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) he spends trying to woo Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi). A romantic subplot can be good but one that takes up as much time as the spy story itself slows things down. You watch James Bond for the action and excitement and not something that pulls on your heart strings. And more importantly at this point in the series you knew Aki wasn’t coming back for another movie so why spend so much time trying to build up a romance?
We get our first real look at Ernst Stavro Blofeld who is the head of the nefarious organization SPECTRE. Brilliantly played by Donald Pleasence who makes him frightening and intimidating with just his acting and not much in the way of threatening physical action all the while stroking a white cat. His nearly emotionless voice is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the character and there is an angry look in Pleasence’s eyes the whole time. Truly a great performance and not only a good Bond villain but the template for so many others.
The plot is pure Cold War. SPECTRE plans on starting a war between the United States and Russia and stepping in to pick up the pieces and take over the planet. How? By launching reusable rockets from a volcanic crater in Japan that are capable of capturing space capsules in orbit. The Russians will blame the Americans and vice versa and a nuclear holocaust. Holy science-fiction Batman! It’s a cool idea but when you really think about it highly implausible. People complain about Moonraker and its science fiction elements, but nobody complains about You Only Live Twice. Some of what you get is as goofy if not more so as what you get in the former. At one point the reusable rocket sprouts legs when it lands!
The big thing of this whole movie is the appearance of Blofeld after having seen him in preceding movies be little more than a guy in a gray Nehru jacket stroking a white cat. The story itself is relatively minimal. You Only Live Twice is more focused on the relationship between Bond and Aki and an assortment of training montages. It’s not the most exciting of the stories nor is it the most engaging. It’s not bad but it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of Goldfinger or even the lower budgeted Dr. No. This movie was reportedly less successful than its predecessors and that has been blamed on a glut of imitators but honestly it is just not as good as the first four.
The chemistry between Bond and Aki, a strong element of the movie given the romantic plot, is mediocre. Aki is supposed to be a great romance in this film, but she is a good pal instead. She barely gets to being to the level of a one-night stand. She’s good at the banter but she’s not much of an equal character to Bond. In fact she doesn’t do much at all in the story other than chauffer James Bond around.
The way they fake Bond’s death was rather creative but ultimately unimportant to everything. I’m not sure how it plays into the narrative and how it protects him really from SPECTRE or anything. M (Bernard Lee) says it will give him some elbow room and get some of his enemies off his back but that certainly goes out the window once Blofeld knows he is Bond. I’ve seen this numerous times and I do enjoy it but that bit has always left me significantly puzzled. It’s certainly a great super spy element but nothing that really helps the story.
The romance with Aki as well as the faking of death are extraneous elements that could’ve been excised from the story and not harmed anything but their removal would’ve really cut down on the run time. This movie probably would’ve been about an hour without either one.
The film is well directed even if there isn’t much story. Connery turns in a fine performance that’s a little more self-assured as well as a little more suave and a touch less sexist than he was in say Goldfinger where he dismisses a woman because he’s about ready to have man talk with Felix Leiter.
And the opening sequence is probably one of the weaker ones of the entire series. It’s not particularly visually stunning or sexy or much of anything. It’s as if they didn’t have an idea what to do and just went with a placeholder rather than an actual opening. What saves this ultimately is the old-school James Bond style and that sense of fun they all had. Exotic locales and great clothes set in an action-oriented spy film makes something enjoyable.
You Only Live Twice is not the best of the Connery Bond films but it’s not a complete disappointment. It’s enjoyable and you will like it though I will strongly recommend this only mostly for the payoff of finally seeing Blofeld in all his bald Donald Pleasence glory.