On September 25th, 2012, MGM Home Entertainment released the 'Bond 50' collection, a box set that contains no less than 22 films from the James Bond franchise's first 50 years. In order to provide the most comprehensive coverage, High-Def Digest will review each of the discs in this package separately. For the index of all reviews in this series, as well as details regarding bonus content exclusive to the box set, see our 'Bond 50' hub review.
"You have a lot of energy for a dead man, Mr. Bond."
James Bond dies! James Bond gets married! James Bond… turns Japanese? After four phenomenally successful films, each bigger and better than the last, the producers of the James Bond franchise felt enormous pressure to devise even more outrageous situations to throw their famous secret agent into. At the same time, they believed that audiences of the day responded most enthusiastically to the lighter, more tongue-in-cheek aspects of the series, and wanted to play those up. Agent 007's fifth adventure would be his most expensive and elaborate yet, but unfortunately would also mark a downturn in quality that would recur periodically in later entries. 'You Only Live Twice' is James Bond's first dud.
The film starts off on a bad foot. Eager to exploit then-relevant headlines about the space race, screenwriter Roald Dahl (yes, author of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', and apparently also a good friend of Ian Fleming) concocted a plot not found in the novel from which the movie takes its name. The picture opens in Earth orbit, where an American space capsule is hunted and swallowed by a larger rocket. While ambitious in concept, the scene's models and special effects are embarrassingly cheesy, even by 1967 standards. (This was just one year before '2001: A Space Odyssey', mind you.)
The Americans believe that Russia is behind this dastardly scheme. When a Russian capsule is captured next, the Commies blame Uncle Sam. Both nations seem ready to wage World War III. The British, on the other hand, theorize that a third power has instigated the conflict, and trace the mysterious rocket to a launching point somewhere in Japan. Our man Bond is dispatched to investigate, but only after faking his own murder first to avert attention. Swiftly recovering from a burial at sea, James Bond remains unflappable, even in death.
The staged assassination ultimately comes to nothing, and has no particular bearing on the rest of the plot. The bad guys learn that Bond is onto them in no time at all. Even worse is an uncomfortable and racially insensitive storyline in which Bond attempts to go undercover in a Japanese fishing village by wearing "yellowface" and slanty eye makeup. He then pretends to marry an adorable Japanese agent named Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) in an elaborate wedding ceremony for no discernable reason. His actions only draw extra attention to the hulking Englishman who towers over the local villagers.
Bond eventually tracks the rocket's origin to a massive S.P.E.C.T.R.E. fortress hidden within a dormant volcano. Naturally, it has a monorail and a piranha tank inside, as the secret lair of any good international criminal organization should. After sneaking in, Bond has his first face-to-face encounter with the devious mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld, whom we had only seen in previous pictures from the neck down. As the first of three very different actors to tackle the role, Donald Pleasence plays Blofeld as an eccentric bald man in a gray tunic who carries a cat wherever he goes, thus setting the template for Mike Myers' "Dr. Evil" parody in the much-later 'Austin Powers' films.
In addition to its erratic plotting, sloppy production values (the rear-projection and process shots are really bad this time out) and complete disregard for plausible science or basic physics (the rocket's reverse-thrust landing back onto the launch pad is a hoot), 'You Only Live Twice' is also heavily reliant on goofy humor and bad puns, much more so than its predecessors. At the beginning of production, Sean Connery had announced that this would be his last James Bond film. Clearly just coasting to pick up another big paycheck, he looks visibly bored much of the time.
Despite this, 'You Only Live Twice' has a few points in its favor as well. The Nancy Sinatra theme song is rather lovely, and John Barry contributes another great score. The movie's enormous budget was mostly expended on Ken Adam's sets. The volcano base is one of his largest and most elaborate, and lends the film a tremendous sense of scale. The Japanese locations also provide plenty of exotic color. For better or worse, the "Little Nellie" gyrocopter, a silly and frail contraption that carries about two tons of heavy ordnance on its rickety frame, is one of James Bond's most famous gadgets.
In his first of three 007 films, director Lewis Gilbert ('Alfie') does an effective job of staging most of the action sequences, including Bond's energetic fight with a henchman in the Osato Corporation headquarters, a terrific sweeping crane shot as Bond is chased across a building roof, and the climactic raid on the volcano compound. The latter, which features an army of ninjas with assault rifles rappelling from the ceiling rafters, is an iconic scene that inevitably appears in any clip montage of the franchise's highlights.
Although a disappointment on many levels, 'You Only Live Twice' also offers a fair amount of entertainment value. It's far from the series' worst movie. In fact, it's not even Sean Connery's worst Bond film. That would come later, after the actor who'd sworn off any further involvement with the character reneged on his word.
The 'Bond 50' box set marks the first appearance of 'You Only Live Twice' on the Blu-ray format. A standalone edition (initially exclusive to the Best Buy retail chain) will also be released later this month.
Even though all of the discs in the box set that had previously been released back in 2008 remain locked to Region A, first-time Blu-rays such as this one are region-free. The menus on the disc have the same layout and design as the other Bond titles.
When Lowry Digital remastered the Bond catalog for the 2006 Ultimate Edition DVDs, some titles received new 4k film scans while others were merely tweaked from older video masters. According to the transfer credits at the end of the feature, 'You Only Live Twice' was one of the lucky entries to get the 4k treatment. Unfortunately, that alone is not a guarantee of the final quality. Lowry did a better job on some titles than others.
That's not to say that 'You Only Live Twice' looks terrible by any means. At times, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is quite good, even excellent. Close-up shots, for example, tend to look great. Some scenes, including the scenic location photography of the Japanese countryside, have excellent detail and clarity even in wide shots. However, judged as a whole, the transfer is very uneven and problematic
The 2.35:1 image suffers from recurring edge ringing artifacts pretty much all through the movie. The conversation with Moneypenny around the 12-minute mark is really bad for this. I can't say for certain whether this is the result of artificial sharpening or the downconversion from 4k to 1080p, but it's distracting in many scenes.
The color balance also looks off. Sometimes it's too cool and bluish, while other times whites have a slight pink tinge. Although most of the dirt and age-related damage has been cleaned up, several scenes have vertical scratches that seemingly could have been painted out digitally. One of the worst examples of this is at time code 1:12:00.
Undoubtedly, even with its issues, the Blu-ray is a big upgrade from DVD. I can't speak to what condition the film elements were in before Lowry got to work on them. It's possible that getting the disc even to this watchable state may have required a considerable amount of effort. On balance, the strengths still outweigh the weaknesses, but I suspect that some of the weaknesses (especially the edge ringing) could have been avoided.
Like all of the early Bond films, 'You Only Live Twice' was originally released to theaters with a monaural soundtrack. The primary audio option on this Blu-ray is a 5.1 remix encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format. The original mono mix has also been provided as an alternative, but only in lossy Dolby Digital.
The 5.1 remixes on these films are really hit-or-miss. Some, like 'Dr. No' and 'From Russia with Love', are very artificial and obnoxious, with aggressive noise reduction that severely rolls-off the high end. Fortunately, 'You Only Live Twice' is one of the better efforts. John Barry's musical score sounds pretty great. I'm not sure whether it was remastered from original stereo recording stems or just processed into surround, but it has a pleasing breadth and stereo presence. Directional effects are skillfully integrated without seeming too gimmicky. In fact, the Little Nellie helicopter battle is a lot of fun as the choppers fly convincingly around the room.
Fidelity is generally good, though some sound effects (especially the rocket launches and explosions) are too loud. Volume and bass have been pumped up in those scenes, which leaves the dynamic range of the track unbalanced.
Even if not perfect, I still find the 5.1 mix preferable to the original mono, which sounds too narrow and confined for a production of this scale.
The bonus features on the Blu-ray first appeared on the Ultimate Edition DVD released in 2006. Even though they're all technically encoded on disc at 1080i resolution, the majority appear to have been upconverted from standard definition.
Some fans tend to look back at the Sean Connery years of the James Bond franchise with rose-colored glasses, as if the star could do no wrong. Sadly, 'You Only Live Twice' proves otherwise. Regardless, even the bad Bond films are fun, and this one has some classic moments.
The Blu-ray has uneven video, but generally strong audio and some good bonus features. Whether on its own or as part of the 'Bond 50' package, this disc is a solid recommendation for any 007 fan.
James Bond will return.