News & Politics

Quantum of Solace: New Bond Film an Enviro Thriller?

The scary fact is that the plot of the new Bond film is eerily true and an environmental nightmare.

Chasing a nefarious mastermind feverishly around the globe in the action-crammed Quantum of Solace, James Bond works up quite a thirst.

The hero requires just two manly swallows to down a hefty helping of top-shelf Scotch after evading a pair of automatic weapon-wielding bad guys in the tense opening car chase in and around picturesque Siena, Italy.

A few escapades later and in need of an ally, Bond savors a glass of white wine on a cliff-top island villa overlooking the bluer-than-blue sea with an Italian spy he hopes to lure out of retirement.

Gearing himself for future combat aboard a jet to South America, Bond's drink of choice is a designer martini. Well, not just one, if you must know, but six.

The invigorating beverage the British superspy is never seen quaffing, however, is water. Going all the way back to Dr. No in 1962, jet-setters with sophisticated tastes in the Bond movies wouldn't be caught dead drinking plain old water.

It's a bit strange, however, that the Quantum of Solace filmmakers don't break the unwritten rule and have 007 knock back at least one glass of H2O. After all, the evil megalomaniac Dominic Greene's heinous plot involves (spoiler alert) covertly cornering a certain South American country's fresh water. If it's such a vitally important resource, worth killing and dying for, shouldn't Bond—played by the maximally hunky Daniel Craig—at least knock back a chaser of the stuff? It would be an especially effective endorsement given Craig's impressive physique: Water. It does a body good.

Greene's name is perfect, since he uses the claim to being a great environmentalist to cover up his Bolivian land acquisitions and pipeline orders. It's called greenwashing, and it's all the rage among water and oil companies that buy TV and newspaper ads trumpeting their concern and commitment to saving a planet they continue to maraud and plunder for private profit.

By revealing Greene's game, incidentally, I have in no way affected your enjoyment of the movie. Nobody goes to a James Bond movie to see what crazily ambitious multinational crime the British agent is assigned to break up. Bond fans and casual moviegoers alike can instantly name their favorite villains in the long-running series, but it's the rare obsessive who can relate two plans for global domination in the entire wacky canon. (I set the bar at two, because Auric Goldfinger's Fort Knox scheme sticks in everyone's mind.)

For many, many moons now, the lunatic enterprises Bond's been called upon to foil have been unapologetically ludicrous in real-world terms and borderline irrelevant within the movies. Alfred Hitchcock famously used the term "MacGuffin" to describe the whatzit in his films that the principals are smuggling, chasing and fighting over, and is of decreasing importance in keeping the audience interested as the story unfolds.

All of which is to say that the veteran hands in charge of the James Bond franchise don't slow down for a nanosecond in Quantum of Solace to lecture us about water scarcity and the dangers of privatization. To the contrary, Greene's plan is described so vaguely, and fleetingly, that it will slip right by most moviegoers unless they've seen documentaries such as Thirst, which recounts the efforts of Bolivians and many others to resist the efforts of multinational corporations to privatize water.

But even if entertainment (and, a short ways down the road, DVD sales) is the producers' top priority, one discerns they are at least minimally knowledgeable about the issue of water. There is a germ of scary truth submerged in the film, along with a number of subtle references to the ongoing campaign of a few large companies to convert drinking water from a basic human right into a grossly profitable commodity.

Two of the biggest and most aggressive players in the world water market are the French companies Veolia and Suez. The casting of a leading French actor, Mathieu Almaric, as the creepy Greene seems like more than a coincidence, especially given the film's large European and Asian audiences who have direct experience with those water titans. U.S. audiences won't get the association, alas, and will simply view Greene as generic Eurotrash in the mold of Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale and Klaus Maria Brandauer in Never Say Never Again.

The tentacles of rapacious, ruthless profiteering do extend to the U.K. and the U.S. in Quantum of Solace, but you have to be alert to spot them. Greene's hidden network of investors and partners reaches all the way to a British minister's office, a detail meant to illustrate the obstacles Bond's MI6 intelligence service faces in thwarting the plot. But it also raises the specter (pun intended) of Thames Water, the British giant that made a few notorious and ill-advised forays into the U.S. market, notably in Stockton, California.

The American interests are represented by a rogue CIA agent secretly in Greene's employ, but the knowledgeable viewer won't be put off by that smokescreen. In devising Greene's ambitious stratagem, the screenwriters would seem to have been inspired by the machinations of Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, who recently bought 200,000 acres above the Ogallala Aquifer with the long-term goal of pumping and piping its water to Dallas and El Paso.

Pickens, like Thames and Veolia and any other company that aspires to control a municipality's water supply, needs a lot of friends (paid or otherwise) in city councils, state legislatures and the courts. This low-key, largely unseen band of accomplices likewise has its shadowy parallel in Quantum of Solace.

In previous Bond films, the chief bad guy typically commanded a well-paid army of thugs and scientists. Dominic Greene has no such strength in numbers, at least not that we see. But in lieu of battalions of uniformed minions, Greene has infiltrated every key office—even MI6—and has a confederate in place. It's an understated but cutting metaphor for the curiously large number of public officials under the sway of the private water companies.

The key reveal in Quantum of Solace, from a water standpoint, is the choice of Bolivia as the flashpoint for Greene's scam. It was Cochabamba, in Bolivia, where arguably the most concerted and unflinching protest ever against water privatization took place in 2000.

The World Bank had impelled the city to lease its public water system to a private company; the newly installed Bechtel subsidiary then jacked up the rates. Without the immeasurable benefit of a superspy, the people of Cochabamba refused to back down, eventually forcing Bechtel to bail out.

Cochabamba's citizens are now part of the annals of global people-powered democracy. For all the good James Bond does in Bolivia in Quantum of Solace, working up a sweat and a thirst dispatching a ruthless egomaniac bent on upsetting the world order, he's doesn't attain their level of heroism.

Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic and journalist, and the co-author with Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman of "Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water" (2007).