Face Off: James Bond and Star Wars

Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

Every single time a Star Wars movie comes to theaters, a James Bond adventure always accompanies it within a year of release. That’s a weird bit of trivia, no? Two of the most gigantic franchises of all time, both in popularity and in cold hard box-office revenue, and the jaunts through a galaxy far, far away are always paired with some good old British womanizing. I smell a conspiracy. Maybe old Bond is just insecure about his lack of Force-wielding prowess and feels the need to release a movie every time a new Star Wars flick hits cinemas.

Regardless, it gives us an opportunity — nay, begs us — to revisit those years and the state of the respective franchises. With the trend continuing this year upon the release of Spectre and The Force Awakens, let’s zip back almost four decades ago to the beginning of the phenomenon.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and A New Hope (1977)

SHLM and NH

A brief look at the weekly box office number-ones throughout 1977 betrays what you’d expect: Star Wars absolutely dominated, reclaiming the top spot again and again weeks after the original release. Great films like SorcererBobby Deerfield, and Cross of Iron have since been relegated to obscurity in the looming shadow of A New Hope. And The Spy Who Loved Me? It’s not even in the Top 10 highest-grossing Bond films (and yet Octopussy is, somehow).

And still The Spy Who Loved Me is one of the better entires in the long-standing franchise, certainly one of the better outings for Roger Moore’s 007. After the idiocy of Live and Let Die and the beautiful weirdness of The Man with the Golden Gun, Moore’s Bond got relatively straightforward in a collaboration with the Russians against the maniacal Karl Stromberg and his trusty metal-toothed henchman. It seemed like Moore’s Bond was finally coming into his own, like the franchise was on its feet again after a long string of so-so spy shindigs. To this day it’s one of the most revered Moore outings.

Moonraker (1979)/For Your Eyes Only (1981) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

MR and ESB

Considering Moonraker in the context of Star Wars is a bit cringeworthy, like watching your dad trying to be cool around your friends. In many ways it’s a direct response to the craze induced by George Lucas’s space adventure; production stopped on For Your Eyes Only before it really began in order to make way for a hasty tale of Bond going to space. And just like that, all the good done by The Spy Who Loved Me was undone just as quickly by Moonraker, because the latter felt reactive while the former just tried to be a decent movie.

It probably didn’t help the Bond franchise that The Empire Strikes Back exceeded pretty much everyone’s already-sky-high expectations. Now that Star Wars stood at two installments and people rabidly anticipated the third, the chinks in the Bond armor were clear: Bond films are episodic, meaning that you don’t need to see all of them to “get it”. The only reason you’d need to see a Bond flick would be if someone told you it was good, and the people who said that about Moonraker were few and far between.

For Your Eyes Only was released the following year; the villain was played by Julian Glover, who also had a role in Empire.

Octopussy (1983)/Never Say Never Again (1983) and Return of the Jedi (1983)

O and ROJ

…the picture pretty much sums it all up on this one, yeah? This is the point where the Bond franchise stops being your embarrassing dad and starts being…well, a dumbstruck circus clown. Roger Moore has his champions, and indeed even a Bond fan tied to the earlier Connery iteration or the later Brosnan or Craig iterations can still enjoy The Spy Who Loved Me or The Man with the Golden Gun. But Octopussy is just…well, it’s just…oh, just look at the picture.

Then there’s Never Say Never Again, the unsanctioned return of Sean Connery to the Bond role in an outing directed by Empire‘s Irvin Kershner. At this point the franchises nearly cease to be comparable, with Star Wars concluding a three-film arc and Bond(s) just sort of being all over the place. All in all, a bad year for 007.

[Semi-related note #1: The drought between the original Star Wars trilogy and the prequel trilogy coincides with the longest drought in the Bond franchise, too, following the more-than-lukewarm reception to Timothy Dalton’s time in the tuxedo.]

The World Is Not Enough (1999) and The Phantom Menace (1999)

TWINE and TPM

Bond had a big resurgence with GoldenEye. Pierce Brosnan was a different kind of Bond, slightly more emotional, slightly more flappable, but every bit the kind of capable superspy that Moore could never muster. A great many critics dismiss The World Is Not Enough, Brosnan’s third and penultimate outing as 007, but whatever the faults in the movie it might be the first time that people accepted Brosnan as Bond without thinking twice about it.

Enough might also mark the first time in this strange trend that a Bond movie would give a Star Wars movie a run for its money in the Good Movie department, and indeed most would elect to rewatch Enough over The Phantom Menace. And that’s not the only reason the franchises become comparable again. Anticipation is a huge part of the film industry today, when we learn about a superhero flick that going to be released five years from now, and in 1999 anticipation for Episode I was astronomical. When the film turned out to be a bit of a drag, one might picture the people running the Bond franchise leaning back in their seats and going, “See? It’s hard, isn’t it?”

Die Another Day (2002) and Attack of the Clones (2002)

DAD and AOTC

That difficulty would continue with Attack of the Clones, but, hey, it’s Star Wars: you fool us twice, three times, whatever, we’ll still make sure your online ticketing system crashes when you release tickets to the next one. And besides, we all learned a lot from Clones. Darth Vader, most powerful dude in the galaxy, hates sand. He hates sand. Who knew?

Why do the stakes seem so low in both Clones and Die Another Day, a Bond movie where Bond seems abnormally impervious to death (even for him)? The onset of CGI is certainly a factor in both franchises, allowing audiences to enter an expanded world but also allowing them to sense that the danger has been digitized. At first glance the nighttime speeders scene on Coruscant is one of the best things about Clones, but on second viewing no one’s really in any actual peril, are they? We know Anakin and Obi-Wan will survive through the prequels, but we might still like some intimation that they won’t. Ditto Bond in Die Another Day — we know he’ll be back, sure, but we’re here now.

DAD was Brosnan’s final time as Bond, and so there was an element of uncertainty to the character’s future; Clones also suggested uncertainty with regards to the upcoming Episode III, so the franchises shared that shaky footing for a while. Oh, and Christopher Lee starring in Attack of the Clones as Count Dooku further solidified the Bond/Wars connection, having played Fransisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun.

Casino Royale (2006) and Revenge of the Sith (2005)

CR and ROTS

Again, you can’t really compare two of the most popular franchises of all time on scales that include the words “good”, “better”, “best”; if you could, though, then Casino Royale might be the only Bond movie that outdoes the Star Wars movie with which it’s paired. Most Jedi-lovers agreed that Revenge of the Sith was a vast improvement over the previous two sequels, if still not nearly as good as the original films. And yet that aforementioned anticipation kind of necessitated that — people needed Sith to be good, to bridge the gap, to at the very least make Star Wars palatable again.

Casino Royale, on the other hand, surprised pretty much everyone. James Blonde got a lot of flak in the casting days and the days leading up to the international release, but the reworked and modernized format somehow worked with this tough-as-nails version of Bond. If you could compare the two, you’d have to admit that the tables were turned for once: Bond seemed to have a solid future ahead of him, while Star Wars had simply gone quietly into history.

[Semi-related note #2: The trend at the heart of this article even applies to the 2008 release of both Quantum of Solace and the animated feature Star Wars: The Clone Wars, technically a part of the Star Wars canon and thus applicable here. As both of those movies are pretty stupendously bad, we’ll leave it at that.]

Spectre (2015) and The Force Awakens (2015)

S and TFA

Undoubtedly the two most widely-anticipated films of the year, Spectre and The Force Awakens are arguably two of the most widely-anticipated films in history. The Force Awakens is certainly a cinematic event of…well, of Star Wars proportions, possibly even on par with the rabid anticipation that preceded Phantom Menace. There’s a bit more hesitation due to the prequels, but everything J.J. Abrams and Co. have put out so far seems to be right on the money.

And Spectre is out next week in the States, with Craig’s Bond battling the villainous organization that has been absent from the franchise for decades due to rights issues. Rumor has it that the actor will be back for one last time post-Spectre, and now that Disney and Lucasfilm plan to release a Star Wars film every year or so it looks like the pairing trend at hand will be safe for the foreseeable future. Oddly enough, 2015 could be the year that brings the trend back around to 1977, to The Spy Who Loved Me and A New Hope, to a year when both Bond and Star Wars can prove they’re franchises that deserve to last forever.

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