2012 was a big year for Bond. It was the 50th anniversary of the franchise, and Quantum of Solace had dragged the series down an overly-mundane dead end. After half a century, how could a quinquagenarian spy prove that he deserved our respect?
A milestone celebration can sometimes lead to 120 minutes of shallow fanservice, and while there’s a lot of that in Skyfall, what’s not all there is. Yeah, it’s jam-packed full of continuity references (some of which don’t make a whole lotta sense in context, but whatever) and still has to check the required boxes. But Skyfall takes advantage of Bond’s birthday by trying to tell a much more mature story. Namely, by questioning his place in the modern world.
Goldeneye did much the same thing, but proved JB’s cultural importance around the halfway mark by having him drive a tank through the streets of Moscow, and called it a day. Skyfall’s script is a lot more contemplative, melancholic, and navel-gazing, and it’s not until the very end, when the premise of the series has re-established the familiar tropes of the classic era, that Bond is secure in himself.
The movie begins with a bit of a fuck-up, when Bond is shot by Miss Moneypenny while on a mission in Istanbul. No, she’s not just sick of his sexual harassment. This Moneypenny is actually an agent in her own right, and she snipes Bond by accident while he’s fighting a mook on top of a train. Wounded, Bond falls into a ravine, and fakes his death to go on a wee holiday. Considering that he spends most of his missions day-drinking while being incredibly conspicuous, I’m not sure why he felt such an urgent need for a vacation, but I digress.
While Bond is working on his tan and getting his cock sucked dry, a bomb goes off in MI6 headquarters, destroying their offices, and presumably several famous gay bars in the Vauxhall area. Suffering from a major case of FOMO, Bond returns to Blighty, breaks into M’s house again, and moans about the fact that Judi Dench is his commanding officer and not his mummy. Then he’s reinstated back into the secret service and charged with investigating the attack.
The confrontation in M’s house is outwardly similar to a lot of briefing scenes in the previous movies, with Bond butting heads with the movie’s main authority figure. But look at how different it is compared with License To Kill. Bond isn’t just flouting authority because he’s a natural rebel, but because he feels rejected and betrayed by M. M tries to insist that their relationship is purely professional, but we can see that it’s already crossed a line in some subtle sense. The conflict between them is much more personal, and more dramatic as a result.
Bond is put through a humiliating sequence of performance tests to determine whether or not he’s fit to return to the field. As he’s spent the last 12 weeks loafing about, still riddled with shrapnel, he’s out of shape and shaking so much from alcohol withdrawal that he’s barely able to hit the targets in the firing range. His counselling sessions confirm (finally) that he’s addict with some serious psychological skeletons in his closet. It’s worth looking at the dialogue in the word-association scene, because it manages to tell us a hell of a lot about Bond’s character and background in this movie in an efficiently minimalist way:
DR HALL: I’d like to start with some simple word associations. Just tell me the first word that pops into your head. For example, I might say 'day', and you might say- BOND: Wasted. DR HAll: Alright. Gun? BOND: Shot. DR HAll: Agent. BOND: Provocateur. DR HAll: Woman. BOND: Provocatrix. DR HAll: Heart. BOND: Target. DR HAll: Bird. BOND: Sky. DR HAll: M. BOND: Bitch. DR HAll: Sunlight. BOND: Swim. DR HAll: Moonlight. BOND: Dance. DR HAll: Murder. BOND: Employment. DR HAll: Country. BOND: England. DR HAll: Skyfall. (BOND looks shocked.) DR HAll: Skyfall. BOND: Done.
Get all that? It’s amazing how, by limiting themselves, competent screenwriters can actually tell us so much more about characters than with conventional dialogue. The above exchange informs us of Bond’s values, his fears, his resentment of M, patriotism, and clinical detachment from the bloody business of his job. It also teases us with an important title drop, and throws in some jokes for good measure. At the end of this scene I felt I knew James Bond better than I ever did during the entire classic era.
I’ve said before that I think James Bond works best as a character when he’s put on the back foot, and all of the above serves to achieve just that. Craig’s Bond looks older and more exhausted than we’ve ever seen him before: with bloodshot eyes and trembling hands and more than a few new wrinkles. M has left him feeling disposable, and his piss-poor test results give him the anxiety of a knackered horse fit for the abattoir. Bond has never seemed so vulnerable, and his teeth and buttocks seem to be clenched throughout the movie (although maybe that’s just Craig’s own fatigue showing through). The main action hasn’t even begun, and for the first time ever, we’re seriously left wondering whether Bond is even up to the job.
Interestingly, Bond’s situation is paralleled with M’s, who is facing a lot of pressure to retire after the whole ‘MI6 Kablooie’ SNAFU. In a way, Bond and M are going through the same wringer in different ways. It’s a really nice touch. Wade and Purvis didn’t need to include this extra dimension. But they did, and it gives the whole script a thematic consistency that I really like.
Bond’s preoccupation with age and irrelevance culminates in another fantastic scene: his rendezvous with Q at the National Gallery. Nerdy gadgeteer Q hands Bond a couple of useful Chekov’s Implements, explains how they work, and does a bit of snarking. Nothing new under the sun, right? But Sam Mendes made the rather brilliant decision of casting everyone’s favourite sexy dork Ben Wishaw as Q.
Wishaw is pitch-perfect at Desmond Lewellyn’s successor in the Craig era deconstruction/reconstruction of his character. Any tech boffin working for Her Majesty’s Government nowadays is gonna be a zit-faced whizz kid, and a young Q only heightens Bond’s concerns about his age and importance. In the classic films, Q’s interactions with Bond felt like an elderly uncle chiding his tearaway nephew. With our new Q handing out the gadgets, it’s a complete role-reversal, with Bond as the grumpy auld yin and Q as the arrogant twink. Take a look at the dialogue between em:
(Bond sits in the National Gallery, looking at Turner's 'The Fighting Temeraire.' Q sits next to him.) Q: Always makes me feel a little melancholy. A grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don't you think? What do you see? BOND: A bloody big ship. Excuse me. Q: 007, I'm your new Quartermaster. BOND: You must be joking. Q: Why? Because I'm not wearing a lab coat? BOND: Because you still have spots. Q: My complexion is hardly relevant. BOND: Well, your competence is. Q: Age is no guarantee of efficiency. BOND: And youth is no guarantee of innovation. Q: I'll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop, sitting in my pyjamas before my first cup of Earl Grey, than you can do in a year in the field. BOND: So why do you need me? Q: ...Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled. BOND: Or not pulled. It's hard to know which in your pyjamas. Q: 007. (Handing him papers) Ticket to Shanghai. Documentation and passport. BOND: Thank you. Q: And this. (Handing him a gun) Walther PPK. There's a micro-dermal sensor in the grip. It's been coded to your palm print so only you can fire it. Less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement. BOND: And this? Q: Standard issue radio transmitter. Activate it and it broadcasts your location; distress signal ... And that's it. BOND: A gun and a radio. Not exactly Christmas, is it? Q: Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that anymore. Good luck out there in the field. And please return the equipment in one piece. BOND (To himself) Brave new world.
Bond jets off to China to track down (not co-incidentally) the same mercenary who got him shot in Turkey, but after an action sequence in a skyscraper, the merc ends up dead. Oopsie-poopsies. Still, he finds a chip on the corpse which leads him to (where else?) a casino, where he meets up with Femme Fatale Sévérine.
Sévérine is the weakest part of Skyfall. Never has a Bond girl felt so arbitrary. Yet she has a really dark backstory. Put simply, she’s a former sex slave who has been coerced into working for former MI6 Agent-turned terrorist Raoul Silva. Predictably, the instant she bones Bond she winds up dead, and Bond is pretty callous about it even by his borderline-sociopathic standards.
Considering that the screenwriters consciously didn’t have Bond screw Olga Kurlyenko because the writers felt it would be creepy for their hero to seduce a traumatised rape victim, I’m not entirely sure why they elected to have him do exactly that this time around. This plot point ended up having exactly the kind of controversial reception that anyone and their dog would have predicted. But hey, this is an anniversary movie, and it just wouldn’t be a James Bond film without fridging, gratuitous titillation, and dicey sexual politics, now would it?
Meeting Sévérine leads to Bond getting captured by Silva, played disturbingly by Javier Barden. Silva is another Anti-Bond antagonist, but whereas Sean Bean was just Bond made a little bit badder, Silva is a total inversion of him. He’s coded as aggressively homosexual where Bond is aggressively heterosexual, he’s flamboyant and peacockish where Bond is understated, and he has a much better handle on what being a spy means in the information age. He also suffered a betrayal by M and was brutally tortured, and loathes her because of it. Not only that, but he also reveals himself to be deformed as a result of his botched cyanide suicide (his dentures conjure Jaws to mind) which plays with the whole Bondian notion of disfigurement symbolising corruption in a clever way.
Yet again, Craig’s Bond ends up tied to a chair while a villain homoerotically intimidates him. This led to another controversial moment, where Silva appears to sexually threaten him, and Bond responds with the quip: “What makes you think this is my first time?” Now, I’m sure that there’s plenty of Bond purists who had a knee-jerk reaction to this line, spluttering ale all over their roast beef and wiping their tears with a Union Jack. But it didn’t seem very surprising to me.
Look at James Bond. We’ve all known since nineteen-canteen that he’s a right dirty bastard, and I sensed plenty of sexual tension between him and some male villains from the start. I watched these movies working on the assumption that Bond can, and will, fuck anything with a pulse, gender or genitals be damned. Real-life spies presumably seduce members of the same sex all the time: makes it far easier for governments to blackmail people. Do we really think Bond managed to avoid gay sex all through his sordid career? Of course he didn’t. Anyway, the real question will always be this: is Bond a top or a bottom? Answers on a postcard please.
Luckily, one of Q’s radio transmitters leads the cavalry straight to Bond. They rescue him, apprehend Silva in the nick of time (or not, if you happen to be a trafficking victim with a heart of gold) and whisk him back to London. Now we go through the Act Two set-up that all movies in the 2010s seemed to go for by default: putting the bad guy in a glass box to interrogate him, only for him to reveal that getting captured was part of his scheme all along. (Seriously: The Avengers, The Dark Knight, Star Trek: Into Darkness, everyone was at it).
Although this idea is now a bit clichéd, it gives Wade and Purvis the opportunity to pivot the plot and take things in a new direction. After roughly 50 minutes of globetrotting, the screenwriters set the remainder of the film in Britain, which was an ingenious move. Think about it: how long does Bond usually spend in his home turf? Usually just long enough for a chinwag with M before packing his backs and jumping on the first flight to anywhere else.
So Silva escapes and tries to assassinate M at her formal hearing while disguised as a bobby. This leads to a scene where Bond chases Silva up and down the London Underground, which is lots of fun if you’re a resident like I am. You get to play that game that all non-London-dwelling people rightly despise, where you say: “Oh look! It’s Charing Cross!” and feel terribly pleased with yourself.
But the actual point of all this is to take Bond out of his element, ironically by forcing him to go back home. Bond suits schmoozing in casinos in Montenegro, cutting through the jungles of Jamaica, diving through wreckage off the Greek coast, and avoiding hit-men in the canals of Venice. But navigating the tube during rush hour, something millions of us do every day, almost proves to be too much for him.
Not only is he now too clapped-out to serve as a spy, he also seems ill-equipped to be an average Joe. It’s a really subtle way of showing us that Bond’s journey now has to be a physical and symbolic homecoming. All through the film, we’ve got the sense that Bond has been avoid his past, keeping it secret from the cast and the audience alike. Now, on his 50th birthday, the screenwriters give us a little glimpse of his childhood. It’s like they get to do another prequel. CR showed us how Bond became a spy, and Skyfall shows us how he became a person. If you don’t like postmodernism, then turn away now, because things are about to get really meta.
Their lives endangered, Bond and M steal away in the night and recover Bond’s old Aston Martin. Yes, that Aston Martin. This is a way of showing that we’re taking a journey not just into the past of Bond the character, but also into mythic past of the franchise itself. After all, we’ve never seen Craig in this car before, and judging by the time frame of his era, it’s unlikely he’d have driven it in his youth. But it doesn’t matter: symbols are more important than hard logic.
With no plan, no backup, armed only with relics of his own history, Bond and M make for Skyfall, and travel back in time.
What is Skyfall? Well, if you want to be literal about it, Skyfall itself is a large and secluded manor house in the chilly highlands of Scotland. But it represents more than that. It’s Bond’s childhood, his family, his heritage. Bringing M here is a big deal for Bond: painful memories lurk in the shadows, and unfulfilled legacies lie in the ashes of unlit fireplaces.
Outwardly, Skyfall seems to be completely contrary to Bond’s nature. It’s not cool, or sexy, or glamorous. But Skyfall is cold, remote and isolated. Strong and proud, with a long history. But it’s also old, and crumbling, and has seen better days. Bearing that in mind, it’s more like the House of Usher: matching Bond’s character at this stage in his life perfectly. Maybe when Bond says that he “always hated this place”, he’s really just addressing his own self-loathing.
This alone cements the importance of Bond’s relationship with M, showing that (aside from maybe Tracy and Vesper) she always has been the most important woman in his life. After all, he’s never taken any of his one-night stands to this crumbling lodge in Glencoe. Only M earns the right to be invited in here, and this amps up the emotional stakes of the story even more.
We also meet the badass and elderly gamekeeper Kincade, played by Albert Finney, who is an amazing character (“Welcome to Scotland!” … I can get patriotic, okay?) and it’s in keeping with the themes of the movie for Bond’s only allies to be two seniors. But one of the biggest ‘What-Might-Have-Been’ moments was that the movie’s producers apparently wanted Sean Connery have this part. I’m pretty divided on whether or not this would be a good thing. There’s no doubt that it would have been impossible to keep Connery’s appearance in the film a secret, and his reappearance in the Bond anniversary movie might well have overshadowed Craig himself. Also, Connery himself is a little bit more on-the-nose as a reference. A car is fine: but the man himself? It probably wouldn’t have worked…
… But come on. As a Doctor Who fan, I love all the multi-Doctor episodes, and wouldn’t it have been cool to have an oblique multi-Bond team up? If Connery had played Kincade, then the immortal line: “I was born ready son,” would have had some real weight. Alas, we can only wonder.
After a short meander down memory lane, Silva and his goons attack Skyfall. Some people have criticised this sequence as being a bit too Home Alone, what with the booby-traps and all. But I liked it. It’s something that we’ve never seen done in a Bond film before, it puts Bond at a severe disadvantage, and it makes his triumph all the more satisfying. M and Kincade escape through some secret tunnels and emerge in a wee chapel, and Bond blows up his family home and kills all Silva’s mooks.
There’s just one hitch: Silva is still alive, and he manages to kill M before Bond kills him. M dies in Bond’s arms, and he loses the mother figure he spent more than a decade butting heads with. But it’s not a tragedy in the same way that Vesper and Tracy’s deaths were. We get a sense that this is M’s last stand, a way for her to go out fighting, proving she was still capable of greatness.
You can argue that M’s death means Bond failed his mission, and that this was all a waste of time. But that misses the point. Bond has confronted his past, the childhood he spurned for so long, and has overcome it, obliterating the family museum in a shower of burning splinters. Sometimes a Pyrrhic victory is the best one can hope for.
Bond returns to London, wearing a fresh suit, surveying the cityscape with that old smirk on his chops. He’s reinvigorated and ready to face the future. But then the script makes a curious choice: Gareth Mallory (played by Ralph Fiennes) is instated as the new M, and Miss Moneypenny retires from field work and slots back into her old sexy secretary role. Even M’s office looks the same as it did way-back-when.
Bond just blew up the past: you’d expect the ending of this film to be about him striding forward into a fresh future, unburdened by his own legacy. Instead, the movie ends by fulfilling the same promise that Casino Royale did. There was a deconstruction: sieving Bond down to his constituent parts. Now we see the reconstruction: bringing all the things that were critiques back in a new way, and making the, work better.
We’re now right back where we started in Dr No. We have an Aston Martin, an (ostensibly) Scottish man. A mahogany office, a middle-aged male boss, a brainy boffin, and an alluring receptionist. There’s just one element missing.
You know who I’m talking about. The man in the Nerhu suit. The cat-stroker. Number One. The MasterMind of MasterMinds, to which all the others have been mere pretenders. His influence was far reaching, and yet his absence has hung over the series, a lacuna every bit as disquieting as a missing step on a dark staircase. But now, the old evil is coming back. It’s time for the devil himself to step out of the shadows.
“Hello world. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? You might not remember be, but I just couldn’t stay away. The name’s Blofeld. Ernst Stavro Blofeld.”