Since Bond films subsist on set pieces, most of the Sean Connery and Roger Moore releases had a distinct spatial signature. No director managed to innovate with space quite like Guy Hamilton, and the apex of his oeuvre was The Man With The Golden Gun, begging the question of what Lewis Gilbert would do when he returned to the helm with The Spy Who Loved Me. Gilbert’s solution was simple yet ingenious – since Hamilton had exhausted space, he would build a Bond film around empty space. From the incredible opening stunt, which sees a stunt double leap over a mountain ledge and fall a disarmingly long way before finally opening a parachute, The Spy Who Loved Me is fascinated with spectacles that are suspended in huge fields of vacant space. We see this right away in the opening credits, which feature a plethora of aerial motifs – bodies bouncing and leaping, air blowing through the Union Jack.
Most of the film unfolds on massive sets, or is shot on location, against vast voids of desert, sea and sky. It’s the kind of Bond film you can imagine Denis Villeneuve making, since there’s very little specific topography, just a kind of undulating, undifferentiated blankness that raises everything to a cosmic pitch. When the film does venture into the built environment, Gilbert depopulates every space that he can, most spectacularly in the opening act, which transforms Cairo into a deserted city, distilled down to the most primal sightlines. Even the cluttered indoor spaces are largely empty, or feel empty, due to the most minimal soundtrack in any Bond film to date. Little by little, Gilbert introduces people into his mise-en-scene, but the film still feels vacant, partly because he tends to compensate for crowds by propelling us into even starker spaces. One of the busiest sequences quickly gives way to a car ride deep into the desert, followed by a silent chase in an ancient temple that dwarfs human agency. Similarly, the film can’t escalate too much without dispersing us into this emptiness, as in a car chase that ends with Bond and his sidekick Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) breaking down, and walking all the way home across the desert as the landscape grows emptier and emptier.
Gilbert also builds the basic narrative cues of the film into this fixation with empty space. We learn, early on, that the Russians can now trace nuclear submarines by mapping their wake, an innovation that has “totally undermined” Western defence strategy. In effect, the Soviet Union has learned to map empty space in a new way, which is apparently significant enough to accelerate and exhaust the Cold War as Bond and Amasova join forces to combat a new kind of criminal, Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens). We don’t learn much about Stromberg’s agenda in the first two acts, although it’s clear that he is also bound up with the film’s approach to space. When we first meet him, he’s watching a traitor as she is suspended over a shark tank on a television screen, which he then conceals behind a replica of Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, one of the most stately visions of a figure suspended in space. When Bond finally meets Stromberg, in the third act, he’s disarmed by the fact that he doesn’t care to shake hands, and instead holds his arms suspended in space in his own greeting ritual.
It’s only a matter of time before this fixation with empty space segues into a yearning for outer space. The next film in the franchise was meant to be For Your Eyes Only, and official history tells us that the producers opted for Moonraker instead on the back of the enormous success of Star Wars. While that may be true, it’s equally true that the galactic visions of Moonraker are already present, in spirit, in The Spy Who Loved Me. Stromberg’s oceanic lair, for example, is part submersible and part spaceship, poised on the surface of the water as if uncertain whether to dive to the depths of sea or launch into the vast voids of the universe.
However, this nexus between empty space and outer space is most beautifully articulated in an early set piece in Egypt, when Bond tracks Stromberg’s henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel) to a light show at the Pyramids and Sphinx. As tourists sit in cinema-like rows of folding chairs, Bond and Jaws play cat-and-mouse amidst the great structures as they are illuminated and obscured by abstract patches of luridly coloured light. This could almost be an outtake from 2001: A Space Odyssey, since it’s ancient and cosmic at the same time, while the swelling crescendo of classical music also harkens back to the moment in Kubrick’s film when we shift from Earth to space, much as Bond himself yearns for the galaxies. As the lights settle on an otherworldly green, Jaws emerges in the guise of an alien, thanks in part to his metallic teeth, and the entire spectacle becomes a reflexive commentary on the Bond franchise itself. Like the people who are watching the light display, with occasional glimpses of Bond, we’re invited to gaze on this film as a new threshold in science fiction, and as a rebranding of the Bond look.
These allusions to 2001 are no coincidence, since Kubrick helped with the production design of the final sequence, although the film as a whole feels inspired by his signature from the very start. Gilles Deleuze noted that Kubrick had a knack for mind-images, or brain-images, vast spaces that suggested a post-human cognition. We see it in the command deck of Dr. Strangelove, HAL’s control over the spaceship in 2001, the supernatural agency of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, and in the vast but sentient emptinesses of The Spy Who Loved Me as well. Since Stromberg is at the helm of these mind-spaces, he doesn’t have to be as charismatic as Kubrick’s other villains. In fact, it works better for him to be calm, rather than charismatic, suffused with a post-human serenity in the spatial schemes that he commands, which also happen to be those of the film itself, as it collapses increasingly into his schemes.
Stromberg’s calm is just one of the features that flow on from Gilbert’s recourse to empty spaces, which creates a remarkably unique atmosphere in the Bond franchise. For one thing, the typically convoluted Bond narrative is extremely easy to follow here, since it has so much cavernous space to echo against. Bond’s cockiness is also offset by the sheer number of scenes that dwarf human agency, even as the pacing means that his rapport with Amasova is genuinely sexy. In fact, The Spy Who Loved Me makes you realise that, although Bond is often suave, his rapport with women is rarely genuinely sexy. Perhaps that’s because he’s not often vulnerable like he is here, cast adrift from MI6, with even the utopian prospect of a “new era of Anglo-Sovet cooperation” overridden by the Ozymandias-like ruins of the opening act. Since these are also active archaeological sites (although always unmanned), they evoke a whole professional world outside MI6’s purview, even or especially when MI6 sets up shop inside them as the hub of their Egyptian operations, which disappear as soon as they emerge.
In other words, The Spy Who Loves Me seems prescient of a shift in both the way we register space and in the global world order, a shift that is personified by Stromberg and crystallised in the closing act, which takes place in the ocean around Sardinia. Gilbert introduces this act with a chase scene that rivals and exceeds the speedboat sequence in Live and Let Die for the sheer dexterity with which it blends land, sea and sky into a new fluidity. The first part of this chase sees Bond pursued,in a car, by Stromberg’s henchmen, in a motorcycle. First, the motorcycle side-carriage breaks off and turns into a missile, then the motorcyclist hits a mattress truck, and careens over a cliff face: “All those feathers and he still can’t fly.” Then, one of Stromberg’s other henchmen continues the chase in a car, which also flies off a cliff and land, Fellini-style, in a house full of Italian men, who greet it as a quasi-religious visitation.
This fusion of driving and flying is already restless to exceed the sublime freefall of the film’s opening stunt, but Gilbert takes it up a notch with the next part of the chase, which sees Bond pursued by a helicopter. He responds by making a rapid 180-degree turn to expose the comparative ungainliness of the helicopter in the air, and then sets his sights on a jetty, launching off into the water, where his car transitions into a submarine, and flies beneath the surface of the ocean even more adeptly than the helicopter can fly above it. In a single moment of sublime suspension, Gilbert fuses land, sea and sky into a new fluidity, as Bond looks out his window to see giant manta rays and jellyfish floating-flying with the same dexterity. In this moment, the film leaves the earth, in spirit, and stretches for a fluidity that’s only available in outer space, ushering in the science fictional exposition of Stromberg’s plan.
For, unlike previous Bond villains, Stromberg is neither motivated by political alliances nor by simple megalomania. Instead, he has a spatial vision, which he formulates in terms of a new Atlantis. Since humans can’t move fluidly enough on land, he reasons, he needs to build a new kingdom under the sea. In order to construct this kingdom, however, he has to eradicate all life on land, so that the “new era” of submarine life starts as purely and cleanly as possible. While Stromberg’s eyes may be as vividly blue as the ocean he craves to inhabit, his whole manifesto plays more like a plan for populating outer space, just because his Kubrick-consulted lair is so clearly modelled on the spacecraft of 2001. Constructed as a hyper-symmetrical series of loading docks, manned by red-uniformed minions, this is the moment at which Bond truly becomes sci-fi, and ushers in a new kind of third act and closing set piece.
Rather than pitting Bond against Stromberg, Gilbert pits Bond, Amasova, and a series of captured submarine officers from both America and Russia against the new fluidity of space that Stromberg personifies. The final sequence simply takes this focus on empty space to a new suspenseful pitch, starting with Bond removing a magnetic bomb component and guiding it through a narrow void with just the right amount of dexterity to prevent an immediate explosion. From there he rides on top of a suspended surveillance camera to suspend this component, itself recovered through suspension, on the very cusp of Stromberg’s headquarters, and even then he’s temporarily suspended on the camera track before he manages to get out of the blast zone at the last minute. In every part of this process, he has to draw on the most precise possible modulations of aerial suspension to outwit Stromberg’s Kubrickian mind-space, much as the final denouement hinges on the tiny space between two bombs that only just miss each other in the air, bringing this new Atlantis to an abrupt halt.
Having disposed of Stromberg’s spatial scheme, Bond can dispose of the two actual criminals in a fairly relaxed way – killing Stromberg before he can pontificate too much, and calmly suspending Jaws over the shark pen where so many other people have been suspended in the name of new Atlantis. Yet this new kind of space, and its continuity with outer space, can never be fully repressed, since Bond and Amasova only escape Stromberg’s lair in a pod that looks as if it’s dropped from the galaxy when MI6 finally recover it in the middle of the ocean. And fifty years later, Elon Musk owns the car-submarine that sets this third act in motion, cementing it as a prophecy, albeit an anxious prophecy, of the future of space exploration.