This review of Skyfall (2012) was originally published on 21 Novemember, 2012.
In 1962’s Dr. No—the first of now 24 James Bond films made by Albert Broccoli and EON Productions—the Nordic beauty Ursula Andress strides along a beach into Bond’s gaze. Clad in a bikini and with a shelling knife strapped to her hip, Andress’s pose became one of the most iconic images of 20th-century popular cinema.
Some 44 years later, Daniel Craig emerged from similar waters. In Casino Royal (2006), he surfaces sporting skin-tight trunks and a Gold’s Gym body. The new Bond was no longer “just looking,” but had himself become a sex object. Deconstructing James Bond’s masculinity appears to be an important task for Gender Propagandists. To celebrate International Woman’s Day in 2011, Craig was dressed in drag and lectured about inequality.
Casino Royal was, much like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, a self-conscious “re-boot” of a franchise that had drifted into parody. (The previous Bond film, _Die Another Day _(2002), features an invisible car and scenes in which 007 goes surfing.)
The Bond character had originally been about snobbery, sex, and violence. He could appreciate fine wines, shoot adversaries in cold blood (and with a certain pleasure), and acquire information on his enemies by seducing their mistresses (who usually ended up dead as a result). Daniel Craig’s Bond was mainly about violence, particularly in his charmless second adventure, Quantum of Solace (2008).
Beginning as a callow, uncontrollable “blunt instrument” (as Judi Dench’s “M” described him), Bond transforms over the course of two films into, briefly, a sensitive beta-male who wants to give up the spy game and become a stay-at-home husband and, ultimately, a cold and ruthless bastard. Bond should be ruthless, of course, but he is also a fantasy of Old Europe. It’s difficult to imagine Craig’s character discerning a foreign agent by his gauche choice of wines (as Connery’s Bond did in From Russia with Love (1963)). The new 007 might have a Gold’s Gym membership, but he would be out of place in Royale-Les-Eaux or Blades Club of London. He’s not even appreciably English.
With Skyfall, the latest and quite celebrated installment in the series, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes has attempted yet another reboot—and to get it right this time. Though snobbery and English chauvinism might be impossible in 2012, Mendes strives to give us something like the James Bond of his childhood. In its low-tech closing scene, Skyfall, consciously takes the audience back in time . . . back to the 1960s of gunplay, fist fights, and Bond’s familial Scottish manor. Even an Aston Martin DB5 makes an appearance. (In an interview, Mendes admits to being inspired by the James Bond toys he treasured as a youth.)
In Craig’s latest characterization, Bond isn’t exactly . . . sophisticated . . . but six years after Casino Royal, he is now an experienced (indeed, all but burned-out) agent. The film is quite aware that this more traditional character doesn’t quite “fit in” with Cool Britannia. Much of the film’s dialogue is based on the joke that Bond is a fossil in comparison to the young, chipper, multiracial faces of the MI-6.
By the film’s close, Mendes’s reboot is complete: Bond enters M’s wood-paneled office—MI-6 once again resembles the drawing room we’re used to—engages in witty banter with Ms. Moneypenny, and learns about his latest mission. In other words, Mendes has readied the series for decades of TBS marathons!
Mendes & co. tried to be more “relevant,” however, in their choice of villains. Shortly after a trailer was released last summer, which revealed that Skyfall’s plot revolves around the leaking onto YouTube of the names of NATO agents embedded in terrorists groups, many began to speculate that the film’s villain, “Silva” (Javier Bardem), was a play on Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Blond hair was in effect, and scenes of large industrial spaces filled with monitors and server racks is what WikiLeaks HQ looks like in most people’s imagination.
No mere bit-torrent pirate, Silva is, in fact, targeting MI-6 and its division of spies for destruction. His chief motivation is revenge. In another life, he was a MI-6 agent in Shanghai, and he holds M responsible for allowing him to be captured by the Chinese and subsequently tortured and disfigured.
Surviving the ordeal, Silva transformed himself into a hacker, as well as a kind of anarcho-leftist; beholden to no government, he spreads panic and engages in terrorism via the intertubes. When Silva captures Bond half-way through the film, he mocks him with a world-weary sarcasm: “Chasing spies. England. The Empire. MI-6. So old-fashioned!”
The Silva character throws into relief some crucial meta-political assumptions embedded in the Bond mythos. Throughout the series, MI-6 and its “secret agents” enjoy an almost unlimited license to spy, investigate, and kill. Bond is accountable to M, sometimes the Minister of Defense. Civilian authorities rarely question MI-6’s methods; if politicians appear on screen at all, it is in some gag where they encounter 007 in flagrante delicto with the leading lady.
In Skyfall, on the other hand, MI-6 seems in danger of being shut down by Britain’s bossy female Prime Minister, who, in a key scene, berates M at a public hearing for failing to prevent the data leaks.
Interestingly, the PM’s criticism is quite similar to Silva’s: MI-6 is “old-fashioned”; spying harkens back to the Bad Old Days of patriarchy and state power, before the benign reign of postmodern female heads-of-state.
In Skyfall, the enemy of state power is not a mad man with a death ray or hijacked nuclear submarine; it is instead what Carl Schmitt refers to as the “neutralization” of the political sphere. This is the notion that the state has no right to operate “in the shadows,” outside legality—that it has no interests or duties not defined by the legislative process. James Bond is a secret agent; both the PM and Silva demand absolute transparency. (Despite Julian Assange’s celebrity, Mendes’s sympathies are clearly with the authorities.)
James Bond is a child of the Cold War. But unlike the other patriotic spies of film and fiction beloved by conservatives, his most memorable adversaries are not leaders of the Soviet Union or “World Communism.” The Bond villain—whose archetype is Ernst Stavro Blofeld and the SPECTRE organization—operates outside the bipolar world. Indeed, SPECTRE’s objectives are usually to pit Moscow and Washington against one another, ruling the globe after the victors of the Second World War are dispensed with. Blofeld et al. are a counter-establishment, a counter-elite to both Washington and Moscow.
In his methods, the Bond villain is anarchistic and nihilistic—he doesn’t expect the world to talk; he expects it to die! In his style and worldview, it’s hard not to view the villain prototype as an avatar of the regime and ideology Washington and Moscow had united to defeat.
A key figure in this regard is Hugo Drax. When he first appeared in Fleming’s 1955 novel Moonraker, he was, in fact, a crypto-Nazi. Posing as a Everyman millionaire from Liverpool, Drax offers to help Britain build a new rocket (“the Moonraker”), whose deadliness will guarantee national security. Beneath the disguise, Drax is a German aristocrat and fervent Nazi who plans on using the Moonraker on London, exacting revenge for the Third Reich’s defeat.
In the campy and much-maligned 1979 film version, Drax is updated as a space-age industrialists and “meta-Nazi” (if that’s the right word.) Drax’s objective is massive depopulation and the creation a global eugenics program. The resultant “super race,” Drax dreams, will finally “be able to look up and know that there is law and order in the heavens.” (There are many variations on this theme. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Karl Stromberg (another German) strives to create a techo-futurist Atlantis under the sea.)
However outlandish such schemes might be, the Bond villain is compelling when he presents an “alternative modernity”—and one that some part of the audience finds . . . tempting. Vis-a-vis such men, James Bond is a small-minded reactionary.
In crafting Silva, Skyfall’s creators seem aware of this aspect of the Bond mythos, without being quite willing to embrace it. When M is being grilled by the PM about her old-fashioned spy agency, she relates that, in the post-Cold War 21st century, “our enemies are individuals” (that is, they are criminal masterminds, not foreign governments.)
Unfortunately, the film’s climatic actions sequence, which takes place at Bond’s estate in Scotland, is reduced to being merelypersonal. Nothing is at stake outside the lives of the characters. (As Bond sums it up: “Some men are coming to kill us; we’re going to kill them first.”) Though Silva bragged about his ability to shatter worlds with a click of the mouse, in film’s climax, he strives only to commit suicide with M. For the true Bond villain, the world is not enough. Silva, on the other hand, is engaged in a hysteric personal feud.
The success of Skyfall indicates that the world still wants a James Bond. Despite the end of the Cold War, the character remains a cultural icon . . . an advertisement for British tourism . . . and one of the precious few Anglo-Saxons who’s still considered cool. Perhaps Bond’s staying power indicates a lingering desire that behind the therapeutic welfare-states of the West stands patriotic White men ready and willing to kick ass.
Whatever it may be, in a society that can barely imagine an alternative to “democracy,” “tolerance,” and consumerism, we don’t seem to have the imagination for great villains.