Monday, May 24, 2021

The Orwellian Nature of 'Tomorrow Never Dies'


Many could argue that, out of all the James Bond films of the Pierce Brosnan era, Tomorrow Never Dies is the most simplistic one. By no means I'm saying that makes it a bad film and I immensely enjoy it with every rewatch, since I love its pacing and action scenes although, in comparison with GoldenEye, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, the film feels a bit more urbane and rough when taking into account areas like the cinematography and editing - understandable, as production was very rushed with EON compromising to deliver the product for a Christmas 1997 release (a far cry from 2020!)

However, I have been recently re-reading George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984, and I found more than one connection to the 18th instalment in the Bond series. Previously, in my book The Bond of The Millennium, I pointed out a few similarities starting with the fact that Allan Cameron, the film's production designer, had previously worked in the big screen adaptation of Orwell's novel starring John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton and Richard Burton, appropriately released the year the novel written in 1948 was set. I found out a couple extra connections that will make you think twice before saying Tomorrow Never Dies is a shallow action film from the 90s.
Onboard a MIG jet containing a nuclear torpedo, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) escapes
from a missile fired by his own people!

One minute into the story, a small candid camera appears taking footage from a terrorist arms bazaar near the Russian border. The footage is received live and direct on the other side of the world: the Situation Room at the MI6 Headquarters in London. James Bond has infiltrated the improvised "terrorist supermarket" to identify the terrorists and the weapons present at the exchange. The material Bond is providing through the cameras causes a stir up at the British situation room: Admiral Roebuck from the British Navy insists in firing a cruise missile, while M, Head of the British Intelligence, wants 007 to finish his job. This is just the beginning of the underlying theme of the movie: the fight of a human being against technology. And, literally, once the missile is fired, Bond will have to evacuate a nuclear missile stored in a MIG fighter to avoid a catastrophe. 
The man goes against the technology that is meant to protect him as the weapon is in fact fired not by his enemies but his own people. In Orwell's classic, the protagonist Winston Smith begins a silent crusade against the ruling party and is constantly trying to hide his thoughts and reactions from the telescreen: a device operating simultaneously as TV screens, security cameras and microphones installed supposedly to "protect" citizens, although these are actually used purposedly for surveillance and to detect enemies of the Party ruled by the Big Brother.
Cybergirls are made attractive when TV screens slide over them in
Daniel Kleinman's main title sequence for
Tomorrow Never Dies.

Moving on after Daniel Kleinman's main title sequence, which shows us a couple of bald cybergirls looking enticingly attractive as a TV screen slides over their faces, we are introduced to the main villain: Elliot Carver, played by Jonathan Pryce. A media mogul whose biggest ambition is to "reach every human being on Earth", something he could have achieved if the Chinese hadn't refused broadcasting rights to their country.

Reach every human being on Earth. Isn't that Orwellian? More specifically, this is precisely what the Big Brother has achieved in the dystopian Oceania: through the telescreens installed at workplaces and residences of the members of the Exterior Party, he can go as far as detecting small unconscious tells that could give away a conspirator. One of the members is even imprisoned and ditched to oblivion because he muttered "Down with Big Brother" in a dreaming state. The only difference between the Big Brother and Carver could be that while the leader of Oceania completely disregards the proles (lower-class) and treats them as subhumans, the media mogul will always want to control any kind of audience and it's precisely this rejection from the Chinese government that makes him put his plan in motion.

Elliot Carver offers his "impartial" services to China and the United Kingdom during the launch of a new Carver Media Group Network satellite - hours after lighting the fuse between both powers.

Aided by American technoterrorist Henry Gupta, Carver tampers the position of a British warship on the South China Sea to pit the tripulation against the Chinese Air Force. Then, using a stealth boat universally undetected by radars, he sinks the warship with a torpedo/drill and destroys one of the Chinese jet fighters with a missile. Both countries are at the brink of war while Carver "has fun" making up the headlines for the new edition of his newspaper Tomorrow
The sighting of the villain in a dark room only illuminated by huge TV screens is quite reminiscent of the actions of the Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth, where Winston works to modify old articles from the Times when a news archive might compromise the apparent integrity of today's leaders. "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past," is one of the Party's slogans which justifies the Ministry of Truth's actions. Carver's plan relies precisely on manipulating the truth and making things look in a completely different way than how they really are. In 1984, Winston and Julia discuss at a point in the novel if the battles between Oceania and Eurasia are really taking place, and she argues that these "wars" actually don't exist but serve a purpose to manipulate society. The media mogul from Tomorrow Never Dies also uses a war instigated by him to provoke a state of chaos where he could act as an "impartial" middleman between the belligerent powers, improving his rating numbers and facilitating the rise to power of General Chang in China, which would grant him the broadcasting rights he had been refused. Written in 1948, during the post-war depression in England, 1984 offers a grim and hopeless perspective provoked by a post-war period in which a totalitarian and mighty man took advantage of the power granted to him in order to subdue society. Most likely, a China ruled by General Chang would feel pretty much similar to the Big Brother's Oceania with the Carver Media Group acting as an unconditional ally to the new, unelected government in a win-win situation.

Bond visits two of Carver's headquarters in Tomorrow Never Dies: one is located in Hamburg, where he holds a party to announce the launch of a new satellite, and there's another one which is a tower in Saigon, where 007 and his ally Wai Lin are taken after being captured in the aftermath of investigating the wreckage of the Devonshire - the warship sunk under orders of the media mogul. In both places, something in the decoration stands proudly: a huge banner featuring the face of Caver.
A heated "Two Minutes Hate" session in Michael Radford's big screen adaptation of
1984, which is about to turn into relief when the face of Big Brother is shown on the screens.

In 1984, Orwell frequently mentions the impact that the face of the Big Brother -which is prominently featured in banners or posters at working places and public buildings- produces in the members of the External Party: it's not really important what he says or if what he says is true, but everyone seems to be relieved by his presence as perceived during the Two Minutes Hate session that opens the novel:
"Drawing a deep sigh of relief from everybody, the hostile figure melted into the face of Big Brother, (...) full of power and mysterious calm, and so vast that it almost filled up the screen. Nobody heard what Big Brother was saying. It was merely a few words of encouragement, the sort of words that are uttered in the din of battle, not distinguishable individually but restoring confidence by the fact of being spoken."

It is clear that Carver wants to provoke similar feelings with his building in Saigon, a feeling that Bond and Wai Lin openly disrespect when they escape from the top floor of the edifice by using the banner as an improvised elevator, ripping off the media mogul's man. With more grace and style, but without any other kind of fear than the fear of heights as both agents are clinging to the edge of the banner hung on the building, hanging in the air meters away of the ground floor, this way, 007 can extend the courtesy of loud disrespect to Carver that Winston Smith couldn't extend to the Big Brother, which was limited to writing DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER in bold, capital letters on a page of his illegally acquired notebook.

When James Bond attends Carver's party in Hamburg, posing as a banker, he comes across the media tycoon's wife, Paris, who had a past with 007 years before their reencounter. Of course, Bond's womanizing attributes and line of work deteriorated the relationship and the secret agent ended up walking out on her in the still of the night, leaving Paris alone and eventually leading her to marry this powerful man because "he told her he loved her". Mrs Carver greets her former boyfriend with a loud slap, and eventually senses that he isn't there to socialize: "Tell me, James, do you still sleep with a gun under your pillow?"

In order to protect Bond, Paris doesn't reveal to her husband the real identity of the secret agent, although Carver senses she's "a terrible liar". As the woman decides to forgive 007's actions and spends a night of passion with him in the posh Atlantic Hotel, Henry Gupta has been sitting before the monitors and analyzing the camera footage only to catch Paris' innocent quip about Bond's signature weapon and report to his boss. Comparing this to 1984, Gupta would be acting as the Thought Police who was tasked to detect and expose traitors to the regime in order to vaporize them: wiping them away from society, which was another way to say they were locked up, tortured and "re-educated" before they were killed. "Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up (...). There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to."
Winston Smith (John Hurt) avoids the two-way telescreen to write words against
the Big Brother on his notebook in
1984. It would be the beginning of the end for him, just
as it happens to Paris Carver in
Tomorrow Never Dies.

Near the third part of the novel, Winston and Julia are about to make love only to be discovered by a telescreen hidden beneath a picture framed on the wall of the apparently safe location they chose for their encounters. The telescreen, of course, was registering everything they were talking about as well as their intimate interactions, both things condemning them forever as they were breaking rules established in this dystopian version of London.

In the case of Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond discovers Paris Carver dead in his suite, the same place where they made love the night before. Paris' "crimes" were not only betraying her husband (or tacit "Big Brother") sentimentally, but also betraying his trust by hiding the fact Bond was a government spy. It was through her actions and words that she gave herself away, much like Julia in the novel who was a member of the Anti-Sex League and, like Winston, member of the External Party. During the event at Hamburg, Paris friendly chatted with Bond indistinct to the fact that her husband had this kind of "Thought Police" handled by none other than cyber-terrorist Gupta, who, despite the uncomfortable ambient noise, could isolate the conversation between the two and the woman's reference to 007 being a man who carried weapons - also disclosing that she knew him so intimately that she was aware he hid them under his pillow. That was crucial for Carver to sentence her to death.

Bond (Pierce Brosnan) gives the people what they want during his
final confrontation with Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce)

We move to the final minutes of the film and the final pages of the novel, both with a remarkably different ending: while Winston and Julia have succumbed to the torment imposed by the Ministry of Love, have betrayed each other and "re-educated" themselves into loving the Big Brother; Bond and Wai Lin share a big kiss underwater as Carver's stealth ship explodes in a massive ball of fire over the South China Sea, provoked by the detonation of the cruise missile he intended to fire into China. Moments earlier, the media mogul was confronted by 007 and left to be shredded by the Sea-vac, a gigantic drill he used to sink the HMS Devonshire. "You forgot the first rule of mass media, Elliot. Give the people what they want!", the secret agent yells before sending the tycoon to his inevitable doom. 
This is the exact opposite of 1984's climax, where readers aren't given what they want: we hope the protagonist and his girl to defeat the totalitarian regime, sending the Big Brother and his perverse intelligence apparatus to oblivion, imprisonment or even death, but in the end, the bad guys triumph and the "heroes" can do nothing to thwart this grim status quo they live in, not even the proles can do anything to do so. Tomorrow Never Dies, in contrast, is ruled by the laws of the action movies of the 90s and the formula of the (classic) James Bond films where the hero saves the world and gets the girl, thus giving us exactly what we want. What Bond tells Carver could very well have been said aloud on a board meeting of any media group or in a brainstorming session done between screenwriters, directors and producers: "Bond must kill the villain and get the girl, give the people what they want!".
As an epitaph for Elliot Carver and his broken dreams, we have the exaggeratedly Orwellian end credits song: "Surrender", performed by k.d. Lang and written by Don Black. "Your life is a story I've already written. The news is that I am in control. And I have the power to make you surrender. Not only your body, but your soul", Lang's enticing voice sings, evoking something that the Big Brother himself would have said. In fact, Winston Smith is tortured by the treacherous O'Brien to the point his soul is controlled, and he is forced to betray the woman he loved, which is at a point the debate the couple had: "They can make you say anything, but they can't make you believe it. They can't get inside you."

"The truth is now what I say. I've taken care of yesterday", the song says, bringing us back to the essential function of the Ministry of Truth where Winston worked: taking care of yesterday to make sure what the Big Brother said was established and confirmed as the truth - particularly with political promises he made or allegiances he had in the past. 
While many think Tomorrow Never Dies wasn't a worthy follow-up to Martin Camobell's hit actioner GoldenEye, the truth is that the Roger Spottiswoode film dealt with a subject that is quite relevant today as it evidences the power these media moguls have. Not so long ago, there was a debate on how the businessmen behind social media platforms could limit some of the most powerful leaders of the world, or how some of these leaders accused mass media of spreading "fake news". Two decades earlier, the eighteenth James Bond adventure brought that to the table and reinforced the key ideas of mass surveillance present in George Orwell's classic. Therefore, next time you watch it, you should take Tomorrow Never Dies far more seriously.
Nicolás Suszczyk