Die Another Day, and how the invisible car helped change James Bond

Die Another Day
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The infamous invisible car of Die Another Day proved to be something of a turning point for James Bond 007.

The before and after of the 20th James Bond film, Die Another Day, worked out really rather well for those making it. Contrasting with the sizeable delays between Daniel Craig-headlined 007 adventures, the film was on schedule, arriving just three years after The World Is Not Enough. Stunt legend Vic Armstrong recalls the screenplay by Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade was “a good one”. And when the movie was ultimately released in November 2002, it would become the highest grossing James Bond film of all time. There was even talk of a spin-off movie for Halle Berry’s Jinx character, such was its success.

It would also, however, in the midst of that become one of the most critically lambasted 007 films. The subsequent badging it as the worst Bond film, that’s happened in some quarters, feels a little harsh. But certainly there were problems, with one or two moments that felt, charitably, a little elevated from reality.

Chief amongst them being the invisible car. A device that’s now a notable touchpoint in James Bond movie lore, used generally to describe a bizarre and unrealistic gadget that  barely passes close to Planet Earth. Certainly, it’s hard not to see the grit and down to Earth elements of the Craig era as a partial response to the more ambitious gadgets of Brosnan’s tenure, and to this day, none receives anywhere near the discussion of the vehicle in question.

The car, then, was an Aston Martin Vanquish, that as was explained in the film, came complete with a cloaking device. That device made the car unseeable to the naked eye, we’re told, thus effectively rendering it invisible. Here’s the car in the movie..

What comes across in that scene is the feeling that they knew what they were doing. As Bond declares, “you must be joking”. They knew they were pushing it. As the film’s special effects supervisor Chris Corbould would tell The Register, “where we stretched it was on Die Another Day and the invisible car. I wasn’t keen on that from day one. We went too far

The moment quickly became a target of ridicule, and critics of the gadget were not in short supply. The late, great Roger Moore, for one, argued “I thought it just went too far – and that’s from me, the first Bond in space!”

It didn’t help that Die Another Day also attracted criticism for its lurch towards CG effects for some of its stunt work. That whereas Bond films have traditionally been hailed for their practical work, here there was an overt jump to digital in one or two key sequences.

Vic Armstrong for one slams the CG choices in his memoir, The True Adventures Of The World’s Greatest Stuntman. He describes a moment involving hanging over the precipice of a glacier as “one of the worst sequences in Bond industry” when it moves to 007 paragliding on a giant wave. “That was absolute garbage, appalling CGI nonsense”, he wrote. “I think if you lose the trust of the audience, then you’re screwed”.

Yet it was the car that kept being the butt of the criticisms, even more so than the CG (I remember the panel show Have I Got News For You having a discussion about it, pondering such questions as how do you fill it with petrol if you can’t see it?). And here’s the irony: there was some very loose science behind it.

For all the notices that Bond had lost the plot, in this instance, the car was just a little ahead of its time. In 2014, Land Rover revealed the ‘invisible bonnet’ for its Discovery Vision vehicle. Just two years before that, Mercedes used an effect in a promotional stunt that also replicated to a degree the effect. Thing is too, the producers knew this technology was coming, and they certainly hadn’t plucked it out of thin air. Producer Barbara Broccoli revealed that the actual idea for the car – in an interview with Yahoo back in 2013 – came from the military. “It was the cutting edge of technology”, she explained, and at that stage, it was a tech the military was exploring.

But go back to Chris Corbould. He argued that the technology was just too “out there” for audiences to accept it. None of the other gadgets in M’s presentation, you note, got the same kind of pushback. Never mind the fact the car was closer to reality than many realised. The film simply never sold it as believable.

Instead, the invisible car became a symptom of the problem with the Bond movies at that stage, ultimately leading to the decision to release Pierce Brosnan from the role and to effectively reboot the series. Around the same time, the first Jason Bourne movie – The Bourne Identity – landed, and that felt closer to reality, threatening to seize the initiative. Bond, not for the first time, had to evolve.

“We got too fantastical”, producer Michael G Wilson admitted in an interview earlier this year. “We had to come back to Earth”. He wasn’t alone in thinking that. As Brosnan would tell Total Film, “there were things I read in the script that were so ridiculous, like the invisible car, but I just tried to act my way through it and believe in it”. Brosnan admitted that he’d identified too the films were getting more and more fantastical against a backdrop of a world going the other way. And that was a far bigger problem than an Aston Martin with some cameras on it.

Yet it’s often overlooked that Bond threatened with this film to go far grittier, years before Daniel Craig slipped into his tuxedo.

What tends to be forgotten about Die Another Day is just how its opening suggests a much darker film. That when we meet 007, he’s been held captive for over a year, and a deal has been done for his return. The potential and concept was there for a damaged Bond, with genuine resentment for his employers. And then it was soon off to ice palaces and gadgets again. It’s as if it lost confidence in its concept, because I maintain that the opening is really something.

I’ll go further. There’s an argument with the back three Brosnan Bonds that the first hour of each is interesting, before the action kicks in and story takes its place down the priority list. That’d be a lesson learned too when Casino Royale came around.

And not the only lesson, either. The main one  appeared to be to bring things back to a reality the audience would feel is reachable, with the car regarded as the biggest symptom as to how far things had strayed from an audience perception of reality. It’s telling that the question marks over realism in Casino Royale would be more about how accurate the game of cards was in the middle of it was.

Bond has, of course, gone heightened since. There’s technology in Skyfall that question marks could be added to. Would Bond really be able to take out a helicopter with a handgun in Spectre?

But the difference is the movies concerned at least make it feel believable. And that was the Die Another Day mistake. No matter how close to reality the technology in question may have been, when you’ve even got your central character at the sight of it thinking it’s taking the piss a bit, the hard truth is that it probably is and you know you have a problem. Films since have sold the whole invisibility idea better. 007, understandably, has gone off in the other direction…

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