Maturity in the Age of Modernity: James Bond in Silicon Valley

In 1985, for the 007th and final time in his career, Roger Moore assumed the role of iconic British secret agent James Bond. A View to a Kill was the fourteenth installment in Eon Productions’ highly popular and profitable Bond franchise, and grossed a respectable $152 million in the worldwide box office. Yet the film was critically derided, a central complaint being that Moore, 57, was simply too old to play the super-spy. “It’s not double-oh-seven anymore, but double-oh-seventy, the best argument yet for the mandatory retirement age,” quipped the Washington Post.  Even Moore himself later admitted that he was “only about 400 years too old for the part.”

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Screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, having already worked on eleven Bond films between them, faced a difficult task in adapting the Bond formula to a framework not inspired by the character’s original creator, Ian Fleming. The vast majority of Fleming’s source material had already been depicted in previous films. A View to a Kill was only the second Bond film to have a completely original screenplay. Wilson came up with the idea to center the main plot on the destruction of Silicon Valley, California. Both writers hoped to play upon culture’s growing fascination with computers and technology, reflected in the successes of other 80s films such as Blade Runner and Tron.

Silicon Valley may have seemed like a trendy setting to the average moviegoer of the era. The term had only been coined ten years before. During the film, the first utterance of the phrase “Silicon Valley” is qualified with “near San Francisco,” as if anticipating that viewers would need a reminder. It is a myth, however, that the hi-tech paradise seemed to rise rapidly out of thin air in the 1970s and 80s with the popularization of companies like Apple and IBM. A vibrant electronics industry had already existed in the San Francisco/San Jose environs from the earliest days of television and radio. In the ensuing years, its image increasingly became one of young entrepreneurship, fueled by the Valley’s close ties with local research universities like Stanford.  Friendly business cooperation, tolerance, and the feeling of being “distinct” geographically from the deep-rooted corporations of the East Coast all contributed to Silicon Valley’s mythos.

A demonstration of Zorins

The decision to cast an aging Moore was rooted in both the Silicon Valley setting and its relation to Bond’s adversary. Christopher Walken plays Maximillian “Max” Zorin, a wealthy, psychopathic businessman who plans to decimate the Valley’s microchip industry by using explosives to trigger a catastrophic earthquake on the San Andreas and Hayward faults. Bond foils the plan and defeats Zorin in a climactic showdown atop the Golden Gate Bridge. A View to a Kill premiered in San Francisco itself, the first time in history a Bond film premiere was hosted outside of the United Kingdom. This underscores the importance of the San Francisco Bay Area to the film’s identity.

Gene Siskel, one of the most well-known movie critics of the time, hated A View to a Kill’s modernity. He believed that the microchips were “visually boring” when compared to other precious metals typical of the Bond franchise, like diamonds and gold. He also commented that “most moviegoers have mixed feelings at best for those rich Silicon Valley kids in their 20s who have made zillions with computers. Why were they so lucky? So who cares if they`re hit by a tidal wave?” Siskel’s words imply two things. First, that the filmmakers had not yet perfected the art of making realistic hi-tech objects compelling without a healthy dose of science fiction (as Blade Runner and Tron had done). Second, that the public at large had a generally negative or ambivalent view of the young “upstarts” that seemed to be running the show in Silicon Valley.

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If the filmmakers were so willing to incorporate modern technologies into the screenplay, why would they be interested in having “Roger Mortis” return as an almost sixty-year-old James Bond? On the surface, they simply might not have expected the vehement criticism.  Moore was still a proven box-office draw. His previous film, Octopussy, won 1983’s so-called “Battle of the Bonds” by out-grossing Never Say Never Again, Kevin McClory’s unofficial Bond film starring Sean Connery.  Connery, too, was in his 50s at the time.

Clipboard35A deeper explanation is that Moore’s casting was a deliberate attempt to reinforce tradition in the midst of an evolving culture. When A View to a Kill was released, the Cold War was beginning its decline. The Cold War was a setting that Bond, a symbol of British nationalism and patriotism, thrived in. Soviets had also been the producers’ go-to villains since the second Bond installment, 1963’s From Russia with Love. Faced with the unfamiliar prospect of a changing world, the filmmakers presented Bond as a model of consistency. Walken, 16 years Moore’s junior and hair dyed peroxide-blonde, provided the perfect manic counterpoint to the stalwart spy. At one point during the film, Zorin is even reprimanded by his old KGB mentor for attempting to kill Bond without permission. He becomes a villain of the new world order: stateless and impulsive, unable to be controlled.

These impulses are demonstrated in shocking fashion during a scene in which the young villain guns down his underlings in a gleeful, spontaneous rage. Moore himself later revealed that he detested the inclusion of this scene. “I was horrified on the last Bond I did,” Moore commented. “I said ‘That wasn’t Bond, those weren’t Bond films.’ It stopped being what they were all about. You didn’t dwell on the blood and the brains spewing all over the place.” Moore’s instinctual reaction bleeds into the character that we see on screen, and in this sense, Bond becomes the pivot point between the nostalgic past and a younger, less certain future.

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Another way that A View to a Kill illustrates this generational conflict is through the characterization of Zorin as a narcissistic yuppie in the same vein as the “rich Silicon Valley kids” he wants to destroy. He brags to Bond that computers are “indispensable” to him, just as the machines were on the cusp of becoming ubiquitous in public life. His villainy is cultivated within an industry that was still yet to be trusted and firmly established. Bond, of course, has no response to Zorin’s boast. He sits cool and collected, perhaps slightly amused, and says nothing back. Against the potentially disorienting influence of new computer technology, Moore’s Bond is a confident push against the tide of uncertainty represented in Silicon Valley and its products.

The casting of Roger Moore in A View to a Kill was not a mistake. It represents an almost unprecedented opportunity to meld characterization and location with larger cultural forces. The filmmakers’ treatment of a shifting history is unsubtle and uncompromising. In the opening sequence of the movie, Bond is chased down a tall snowy mountain. After wrecking his old-fashioned skis, the secret agent hops on a piece of debris and begins snowboarding, the new sport of a new generation. The music changes from a symphonic instrumental to the Beach Boys song “California Girls.” Everything is a little bit absurd, but it is still going to be all right. James Bond is timeless and eternally relevant. Like a fine Napa Valley wine, he only gets better with age.

A precarious battle between generations on the spans of the Golden Gate Bridge.

A precarious battle between generations on the spans of the Golden Gate Bridge.

References

Alan Barnes and Marcus Hearn, Kiss Kiss Bang! Bang!: The Unofficial James Bond Film Companion (London: Batsford Books, 1997), 154.

“A View to a Bond Baddie: Max Zorin,” The Movie Blog, October 5, 2012.

“A View to a Kill (1985),” Internet Movie Database.

Paul Attanasio, “As Bond, Moore is Less,” The Washington Post, May 14, 1985.

Joe Fay, “Target Silicon Valley: Why A View to a Kill Actually Made Sense,” The Register, October 8, 2012.

Gene Siskel, “The New Bond Film is a View to a Big Yawn,” Chicago Tribune, May 24, 1985.

Timothy J. Sturgeon, “How Silicon Valley Came to Be”, in Understanding Silicon Valley: Anatomy of an Entrepreneurial Region, ed. Martin Kenney, (California: Stanford University Press, 2003), 15-47.

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