The Fascinating Prescience of Tomorrow Never Dies

It's 20 years today that Tomorrow Never DIes first landed in UK cinemas. But was it, in its own way, ahead of its time?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Imagine a world in which deceitful news reporters and mysterious computer hackers are conspiring to destabilize the geopolitical status quo. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has developed delusions of grandeur about its place in the world, and begun to embark upon an effort to restore itself to former imperial greatness. All this might seem a little familiar to anyone who has glanced at a newspaper recently, but it’s not a summary of recent events – this is a synopsis for the seventeenth James Bond film, Roger Spottiswoode’s Tomorrow Never Dies, which has just turned 20 years old.

We’ve called this “the forgotten middle child of the Brosnan era”, Tomorrow Never Dies proved to be a disappointing follow-up to 1995’s Goldeneye, and is not fondly remembered by much of the Bond fandom.

And yet, two decades since its release, it is a film which feels disconcertingly relevant. The plot, while admittedly far-fetched, deals with threats which have become all-too recognisable in 2017, including cyberterrorism and an institutionally dishonest news media. It might make for a thoroughly mediocre Bond film, but, somehow, Tomorrow Never Dies seems to have accidentally predicted the alarming state of the world today.

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The villain of the piece is Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), a maniacal media mogul and thinly veiled caricature of Rupert Murdoch. Described as being able to ‘topple governments with a single broadcast’, his efforts are supported by a global news empire, a state-of-the-art satellite network and, um, an advanced stealth boat. Carver delights in pushing what would now be described as ‘fake news’ and, like any media tycoon with too much time on his hands, he plots to improve his ratings by fermenting a war between Britain and China.

The concept of misleading and sensationalized news reporting is older than the printing press itself, but Tomorrow Never Dies presents a world faced with a new breed of unscrupulous journalism and advanced communications technologies. Carver uses his network to confuse British and Chinese Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), intending to bring the two countries into conflict, while his newspapers aggravate from the sidelines. It’s an improbable set-up which was likely intended as a satire of Murdoch’s unaccountable media empire, but the risks of such technological manipulation have since proved to be frighteningly plausible.

Indeed, recent developments across the western world have suggested that foreign hackers and internet bots have a vice-like grip upon the most basic functions of democracy. Whether they hail from Russia, North Korea, or a basement in Norwich (it could happen), malevolent influences are allegedly hard at work undermining sovereign powers and spreading misinformation across the internet, all at the expense of a crumbling liberal democratic order.

Of course, Tomorrow Never Dies wasn’t the first film, or even the first Bond film, to focus on technological terrorism. John Badham’s 1983 film WarGames had popularized the concept some 17 years prior, and the mid-1990s were a golden age for the techno-thriller genre. Iain Softley’s Hackers is a notorious example from this period, which also included The Net, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, and Enemy Of The State. What makes Tomorrow Never Dies so relevant today, however, is that it explicitly associates cyberterrorism with a complicit and morally bankrupt news media industry. There are obvious parallels to be drawn with real-life phone hacking scandals and the recent growth of ‘alternative’ media and fake news websites, even if Britain is yet to go to war with China.

Technology wasn’t the only modern danger to be pre-empted by Tomorrow Never Dies – it also offers a revealing peak into the confused state of the British national psyche, which might help to explain the country’s ongoing Brexit debates. The film’s emphasis on Sino-British relations was topical upon release, opening mere months after China had reclaimed sovereignty over the former British colony of Hong Kong. Often considered the final nail in the coffin of the British Empire, this was a diplomatic humiliation which Tomorrow Never Dies seeks to redress with a skirmish between the Royal Navy and the People’s Liberation Army.

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In the film, after a British warship is sunk in what they believe to be international waters, the British admiralty push for immediate and forceful retaliation against the Chinese, as if restaging the Opium Wars of the 19th century. With the newspapers and naval authorities ‘screaming for blood’, it falls to James Bond to prevent an escalation into full-scale war.

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Such a demonstration of British military might would have been fanciful in the real world, but James Bond has never existed in the real world. He is a fantasy figure rooted in Britain’s post-imperial anxiety, invented in the early 1950s as a projection of British power at a time when the county’s influence was rapidly disintegrating. This popular unease over Britain’s diminished status in the world and the loss of its overseas territories has been a process lasting decades, with Brexit being the latest attempt to return to an invented ideal of former greatness.

The war with China which is narrowly averted in Tomorrow Never Dies might be an improbable development, but it works as a manifestation of Britain’s subconscious desire to resume its place as a leading world power. This is the same desire which has brought about recurring nostalgia for the Empire and the ‘blitz spirit’, including the recent pandemic of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters. Likewise, the Brexit vote has caused much talk of Britain resuming its historic role as a great trading nation. The referendum result might not be as calamitous as a fictional war with China, but it is at least partially guided by the same nationalistic impulse.

If all this tells us anything, it’s that the dangers and instabilities of the world today weren’t conjured from nothing, but have been sewn into our society over the course of decades. James Bond films might be a poor substitute for Nostradamus, but they can help us to understand how we got into such a situation. In many ways, of course, the world in 1997 was a very different place. New Labour had soared to power on the promise that “things can only get better”, the Spice Girls were at the height of their power, and Oasis had ushered in the end of Britpop with their album Be Here Now. The government and the music charts have changed, but the villains of today are still much as they were 20 years ago. Where’s James Bond when you need him…?