The box office business can be cutthroat, and that was particularly true for 007 when another contender wanted to enter the market with a non-official James Bond movie. In fact, this rival film was scheduled to be released just months after the proper 007 entry of the year had already taken flight. It’s exactly the scenario that happened in 1983, as Roger Moore was on the big screen with Octopussy in the summer and Sean Connery learned to Never Say Never Again in the fall. But which was the superior Bond of 1983?
That’s exactly what we’re about to discuss here today, as we’ll be looking at the history of both James Bond films, and crowning one a winner overall. But this isn’t going to just be a contest of numbers, as this argument is going to be weighed the same way that saw us evaluate Timothy Dalton’s duology of Bond movies. Let’s jump back to the time when two titans of espionage went head to head, and see which James Bond comes out on top.
James Bond In 1983: By The Numbers
Looking at sheer box office numbers, Octopussy and Never Say Never Again enjoyed individual success rather nicely. Premiering on June 6, 1983, Roger Moore’s sixth James Bond adventure raked in $187.5 million on a $27.5 million budget. Looking back on its reviews upon initial release, Rotten Tomatoes has the film logged at a 42% freshness rating, with the consensus stating that while the action was fun, the rest of the Bond formula felt like it had run its course. Which is funny, considering the pedigree of the competition.
As Never Say Never Again is, literally, a remake of Thunderball with Sean Connery back as James Bond, you’d think this film could put people on the fence. Its October 7, 1983 release saw the film eventually raking in $160 million on a $36 million budget. So technically, Octopussy wins in the regard that it cost less, made more money, and actually had the official EON Productions stamp of Albert R. Broccoli. That being said, critics were surprisingly kind to the film, with Janet Maslin of the New York Times’ own review inspiring this comparison in the first place. Never Say Never Again, which she heralded “the better Bond, and by a wide margin” actually sits at a 69% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes through contemporary reviews.
However, both films have an interesting outlier that manages to make comparing Octopussy and Never Say Never Again a worthy enterprise. When it comes to the audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Moore’s adventure has a 47% rating, while Sean Connery’s unlikely return earned a 37% rating. So who got it right: the critics, or the fans? Before we can truly know, it’s time to pause for a quick history lesson.
Wait, How Does Never Say Never Again Even Exist?
Previously, in the 007 saga, author Ian Fleming and producer Kevin McClory worked on a concept that would eventually become Thunderball. The only problem was, McClory thought that Fleming stole his ideas to create SPECTRE, as well as the tale of atomic threat at the hands of one Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and his villainous front of the moment, Maximillian Largo. After a legal battle that eventually saw Kevin McClory win the rights to SPECTRE, Blofeld, and the story of Thunderball, the producer made it his mission to remake the film as many times as he possibly could.
Out of several attempts, one of which was co-scripted by Sean Connery himself, Never Say Never Again was the only one that actually succeeded. (Though past that film’s existence, there’s several other attempts that saw everyone from Timothy Dalton to Liam Neeson potentially playing 007. We’ll save that story for another day though, as this ends our quick lesson, and allows us to launch into comparing James Bond’s official antics against his legally allowed, but still off brand hijinks.)
Which 1983 James Bond Film Has The Better Story?
This may feel like a simple open and shut case. By its very nature, Never Say Never Again is a remake, taking Thunderball and updating it for the 1980s. With a killer (literally) video game sequence, Kim Basinger as the new incarnation of Bond Woman Domino Petachi, and some humor added at the expense of Sean Connery’s aging 007, it seems like Never Say Never Again would likely be the loser.
However, Octopussy has the ultimate strike against its own case of nuclear panic: it just happened to follow For Your Eyes Only, the best Roger Moore Bond film of all time. Mostly returning to the wit and charm of Moore’s sillier qualities, the story does have serious moments of tension that harken back to the killer edge Sir Roger had just shown two years ago. Unfortunately, the tale drags on all eight tentacles, despite actually giving James Bond an atypical partner in Maud Adams’ titular smuggler/anti-hero.
We can kind of put both of these films on an equal footing, as the basic structure for both stories sees 007 trying to stop an atomic bomb from ruining the world. But while Octopussy falls back into autopilot through Roger Moore’s one-liners and disarming charm, Never Say Never Again leans into the plot of James Bond getting older. It may not be a particularly effective strategy individually, but I begrudgingly give the win to Never Say Never Again’s story, as it at least tries to imagine what Old Man Bond would be like.
Which 1983 James Bond Film Has The Better Villains?
You can tell a good story all you want, but if you don’t have a proper villain for a 007 adventure, you’re really missing a major beat. Just as there are two James Bond stories we’re examining here, each tale has two villains working toward common goals. From the start, it feels like Never Say Never Again has the advantage once more, as it’s working with one of the most iconic baddies in Bond history.
Through Max Von Sydow’s incarnation of Blofeld, we saw a version of James Bond’s nemesis in Never Say Never Again that didn’t hide in the shadows. Nor did Von Sydow -- an acting titan who still stands as a legend -- try to imitate the official EON version of the character. The same goes for Klaus Maria Brandauer, whose version of Largo mixes the psychotic jealousy of Adolfo Celi’s Thunderball variant with a soft facade that makes him look like he wouldn’t be much of a threat.
Still, fresh villains are to be had in Octopussy! And there’s technically three parties working together to help undermine Western diplomacy, in order to launch East and West into a Cold War conflict. With Prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jordan) and General Orloff (Steven Berkoff) trade stolen Russian jewels/Faberge eggs for nuclear warheads, the traveling circus of Octopussy (Maud Adams) is the unwitting vehicle for the film’s climactic third act.
To be honest, it’s all a bit much when you try to break it down; it almost sounds like a partial re-spinning of Bond’s relationship with Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. The choices between Never Say Never Again and Octopussy’s villains is one of familiar and reworked versus new, but under-baked. Here, another surprising victory lands in the hands of Sean Connery and Kevin McClory, as the contender takes the crown again.
Which 1983 James Bond Film Has The Better Romance?
Surely Octopussy has to win on some sort of grounds, right? It’s almost disheartening to see Never Say Never Again winning the race so far, even with its very reality owing a large debt to ownership of intellectual property. But there is a factor that has given Sir Roger Moore’s outing the upper hand: the central romantic plotline.
Never Say Never Again has a problem that the Bond series had run into throughout the Moore era in particular: the age difference between the lead and his romantic interest led to some interesting comparisons. While the film rightfully provided the talented Kim Basinger with her breakout role as the second Domino, it kind of felt weird when paired with the movie’s prime source of humor coming from an aging 007. Yes, Sean Connery was still charming as hell, but in hindsight, the casting still feels a bit iffy.
While the age difference between Roger Moore and Maud Adams in Octopussy was only a couple years shy of the Connery/Basinger window, Octopussy wasn’t written as young ingenue. Though she may not top any lists of Bond Women who could hold their own against James Bond, the chemistry was that of more equally cunning opponents. It’s for this major reason that Octopussy takes the honors of the better Bond romance.
Which 1983 James Bond Film Is The Better Adventure?
Before I hand down the final verdict, I just want to clarify that this wasn’t a walk in the park, even as a loyal 007 fan. It’s no secret that the James Bond movies hit a rut in Roger Moore’s later adventures, and Never Say Never Again is still not an official Bond movie. Nor is the return of Sean Connery the better version of what was arguably one of his best entries in the series, as Thunderball is a hell of an act to beat.
However, there’s a clear winner here, and director Irwin Kirshner’s Never Say Never Again is the victor in this battle royale. Yes, it’s a remake that was spurred on by a grudge, and it definitely has issues of its own in terms of pacing and the ability to take it seriously. But even as a sub-par James Bond adventure, enlisting an impressive cast and adding a little bit of cheek allowed Sean Connery to deliver another comparative win when compared to the muddy cocktail of elements that made Octopussy the harder slog.
Of course, this is a debate; and what I say doesn’t necessarily have to go. If you Bond fans feel differently about Octopussy, or if you want to join in to support Never Say Never Again, there’s a poll included for you to log your votes in either case. It wouldn’t be as much fun to debate this couple of James Bond adventures without some fan feedback, no matter how wrong you may feel the other side of the fence may be.