Thunderball stars Sean Connery, Claudine Auger, and Adolfo Celi and was directed by Terence Young. Based on Ian Fleming’s 1961 novel of the same name, it tells the continuing story of MI6 agent James Bond, once again played by Sean Connery, as he’s sent on a mission to retrieve stolen nuclear warheads before SPECTRE can set them off.
Before I get into Thunderball specifically, I want to point out how generally impressed I am by the early Bond output. Dr. No was a bit of an odd start for the franchise, but the first three films were consistently entertaining. And that wasn’t the only consistent thing about them, they were also consistently released. A Bond a year? 62, 63, 64, and now 65 with Thunderball ñ not many modern franchises can boast that type of output quantity while mostly maintaining quality as well. But, about this fourth installment in the franchiseÖ I don’t know if it’s just cause it came immediately on the heels of Goldfinger, but Thunderball has just never done it for me.
It’s a little hard for me to explain cause it’s not one big thing that makes this movie disappointing for me, but rather a bunch of smaller things. On their own, those issues wouldn’t be enough to knock the movie down for me, but when they’re all put together, it just makes for a rough viewing experience. We’re only four films in and we’ve already reached yet another Caribbean-set Bond story. It was initially an unexpected shock for me to see Jamaica in Dr. No, but this time around, the tropical setting doesn’t add much brightness or intrigue to the film. Instead, most of the movie’s shrouded in dark murkiness.
There are moments where that darkness works to enhance the espionage qualities of the film ñ like Bond’s infiltration of the Palmyra estate – but for the most part, it just creates a dull visual aesthetic. And speaking of dullÖ that’s probably the best adjective I can use to describe this film as a whole. There are certainly moments I like, but this is one strangely paced film. It definitely ups the action of the previous Bond films, which seems like something that should be a positive, but unfortunately most of it’s done in fairly uninteresting ways.
The biggest culprit here has gotta be the incredibly numerous underwater scenes. Those sequences are actually unique at first, but quickly become one of the most tiresome aspects of this film. I imagine that at the time of its release, the underwater scenes were an incredibly cool and innovative spectacle for audiences. But today, anything more than a few minutes of this water-slowed fighting and dodgy sound effects is overkill. It’s clear that the filmmakers tried to impart a more serious tone on Thunderball, stepping away from the comedy of Goldfinger and back towards typical action spy fare.
That in itself isn’t a problem. While I really enjoy Goldfinger, I also like the more serious-toned From Russia With Love almost as much. Thunderball somehow manages to miss both marks though and surfaces in the murky water somewhere off the coast of mediocrity. As far as the characters go, there’s not all that much to like here. The main villain’s okay, but he’s certainly not memorable in the broader Bond context. The same thing applies to the lesser antagonists as well as the Bond girls. And Bond himself? Well, he’s the worst he’s been so far in the franchise and comes across as especially sleazy.
The Connery version of Bond has always had a little of that sleaziness to him, but it’s kinda uncomfortable to watch here as he starts off this film’s conquest quota with some ìplayfulî blackmail assault in a sauna. I’ve been talking a lot about the negatives, but Thunderball isn’t all bad and there were some things that I did like. Some of Bond’s more espionage-inspired gadgetry was pretty cool and I did enjoy the aforementioned infiltration of the Palmyra estate. I also think the title sequence is greatly improved ñ silhouettes are much better than body projections. Shirley Bassey’s musical contributions are sorely missed here though. There’s nothing inherently terrible about Thunderball, but despite its two plus hour runtime, there just isn’t much to it.
There are some extremely unintentionally goofy sequences and the filmmakers and actors all feel like they’re on autopilot which makes for a fairly dull and unengaging story, lacking in truly memorable characters. Thunderball has its moments and is a mostly inoffensive experience, but it’s definitely the first entry in the Bond franchise that I don’t particularly care for. Alright let’s talk about the pros and cons. The only real pro of this film for me is the shark pool. I know that might be an odd and specific thing to like about this movie, but it provided for some of my favorite scenes, both for Bond and our main villain, Largo.
The shark pool also establishes a precedent for animal-based dispatching of enemies in the Bond franchise. Largo’s the first Bond villain to have animals on hand for such a purpose, but he certainly isn’t the last. On the con side, my biggest issue with this movie has to be the underwater sequences.
They’re just so tedious! Like I said before, the first couple underwater fights are kinda cool and although they’re extremely dated now, you can tell how unique and innovative they were at the time. But then you get another underwater sequence. And then another and another and they just don’t stop. So, they get incredibly repetitive and it makes for exceptionally dull action. My second con jumps off from the first a bit, but is even more simple: this movie is so dull.
The earlier Bond films had moments of dullness, but were still mostly engaging ventures. But here, nearly the entirety of the film is such a slog to get through. It starts off very slow and then never really ramps up all that much. There are occasional moments of intrigue or excitement, but then we’re thrown into another monotonous scuba sequence that absolutely kills any momentum that might have been building. I’m gonna give Thunderball 2 out of 5 paws. This one’s the first real misstep in the franchise for me and I just find it to be a very dull and repetitive experience that offers very little in terms of story or character.
I would recommend Thunderball only to serious Bond fans and franchise completionistsÖ and maybe to scuba enthusiasts. This is a fairly tedious entry in the franchise, so it’s probably not a great place for Bond newbies to start. It’s certainly a major step down from Goldfinger, so it’ll likely be underwhelming for most fans as well. If early underwater photography or scuba diving are things you enjoy, you might get a bit more enjoyment out of this than the average viewer will. If you liked Thunderball, I would recommend Dr. No. It was the first Bond film and also features a tropical Caribbean setting as well as some labored pacing.
Interestingly enough, Thunderball was originally slated to be the first Bond film, but copyright issues pushed Dr. No into that honored spot. If you liked this story and want to see a slightly different adaptation of it, you might want to check out Never Say Never Again. It’s one of only two non-Eon produced Bond films, but was adapted from the same novel as this movie and marks Connery’s brief return to the role of BondÖ at the age of 52. And if that isn’t enough Bond scuba for you, you might want to check out Roger Moore trying his hand at the task in the 12th Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. Alright, a couple questions for you guys.
Number one: Have you seen Thunderball? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: What’s your favorite movie that involves scuba diving? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.