In the new James Bond film Skyfall, there’s a scene at the London National Gallery where Bond meets his much younger counterpart Q for the first time. They are two men who are attractive in different ways. Daniel Craig is ruggedly handsome, well-built, and donning a traditional tailored suit; Q, played by the boyish Ben Whishaw, has a skinnier frame, a tighter suit (later he will have a brown cardigan), and thick, two-tone hipster glasses. Q’s deliberately and beautifully tussled mop is a stark contrast to Bond’s jagged crew cut.
After a quick, hushed introduction (they are spies after all), Bond questions the competency of his young tech and weapons expert. Q says, “Age is no guarantee of efficiency”; Bond retorts that “youth is no guarantee of innovation.” This is the film’s central conflict: new vs. old, technology against tradition — a fitting theme for a sequel in a rebooted series.
The past decade has seen a number of commercial action film reboots, four of which I would consider successes: Batman Begins, Spider-Man, Star Trek, and Casino Royale. Director Christopher Nolan’s re-imagining of the Batman franchise is the most popular, but in many ways, it’s the least ambitious, since the films are based on a wealth of darker, grittier Batman material that had already gained popularity in the late ‘80s. The 2002 Spider-Man did the opposite by placing its web-slinging hero in a bright palette of colors and slapstick. Star Trek was more interested in being a funny, smartly self-conscious film than an homage to the series’ thoughtful sci-fi dilemmas.
Casino Royale was poorly paced and uneven in spots, but its aspirations and audacity are the reasons I think it’s the best of these reboots. Royale wasn’t simply a darker, meaner James Bond. It played with our expectations and familiarity of the Bond franchise, often for the sake of humor (“Shaken or stirred” a waiter asks Bond, who replies “Does it look like I give a damn?”) and for narrative (the torture scene, where villain Le Chiffre threatens to emasculate Bond in the most literal way possible), all while maintaining the central elements of a Bond film.
After the misstep of Quantum of Solace, a film that suffered from the writer’s strike and a miscast director, Skyfall successfully explores and breaks down the Bond tradition again. It lacks some of the inventiveness and humor of Casino Royale, but its plot is stronger and more consistent.
(Fair warning: I’m about to spoil most of the movie.)
Skyfall opens with a thrilling chase sequence in Turkey that ends with Bond getting shot and plummeting from the top of a moving train car, off a bridge, a hundred feet into the river below (told you it was thrilling). Bond doesn’t die, but when he returns to MI6, he is not quite himself. He’s out of shape and his reflexes are not as sharp, creating a new self-doubt in a character that has, throughout franchise history, been defined by an unshakable overconfidence. Has a Bond film ever made the audience question how good of a shot he is? Or how fit he is to be in the field? Or whether his role is even necessary?
These questions are raised by Skyfall’s villain Raoul Silva. I tend to judge an action film not by how compelling its protagonist is, but by its bad guy. Luckily, Javier Bardem is terrific as Silva, a former MI6 agent whose bleach blond hair is supposed to evoke Julian Assange. Silva is charming, unhinged, and smart enough to throw Bond off his game. He teases Bond by sensually touching his leg and his chest (a postmodern nod to “a huge homoerotic undertow in a lot of Bond movies,” according to director Sam Mendes).
An extremist cyberterrorist, Silva is able to hack into MI6’s databases; to send a message to MI6 boss M, he exposes the identities of undercover agents and blows up her office, all from his computer. At one point, there’s talk about how difficult it is for spies to operate in a world where there are no longer any shadows, another reference to the Wikileaks ideal that government should be transparent to its core. The film’s biggest missed opportunity is confronting these ideas. It turns out Silva’s motives are much simpler: revenge.
But this actually opens up an interesting reversal in the role of women in Bond films. There are two pretty young women featured in Skyfall, which is standard in classic James Bond films to A) give him the opportunity to sleep with two women and B) make him wonder which one will betray him. But the film’s central Bond girl turns out not to be either of these sexy women, but wrinkled, shrewd M. That’s right: Judi Dench is the movie’s true Bond girl, who garners nearly as much screen time as Bond himself. Though there thankfully isn’t any romantic tension between Bond and M, Silva is able to disrupt their relationship by making them mistrust each other.
The young women are more or less helpless, while M’s hardened wisdom becomes the most effective weapon against Silva. She’s is also braver than the other Bond Girls, willing to play bait after Silva announces he will move heaven and earth to kill her (M, it turns out, sold him out to the Chinese government after he performed some unauthorized hacking).
But it’s their similarities that bring Bond and his boss back together. M is under attack by Silva’s men, and like 007, under pressure from a world that is no longer interested in her old-fashioned methodology. Advances in technology have rendered her Cold War thinking obsolete; the use of violence and force is now considered barbaric when so much spy work can be done via the internet. As far as I can remember, this is the first Bond movie that questions the use of violence, and a rare blockbuster that does.
Internet espionage, of course, would not making for very compelling cinema. Skyfall features plenty of spy business carried out through fist fights, shoot outs, and motorcycle chases. But the best action sequence is the film’s finale. Skyfall turns out not to be a space station or a satellite weapon but, in the movie’s strongest narrative twist, is revealed to be the name of the estate where Bond was raised. Skyfall is set in an isolated, rural Scottish countryside, the most impressive cinematographic set piece in the film and a contrast to the rest of the movie’s urban locales (Istanbul, Shanghai, London).
This is also more of Bond’s past than we’ve ever seen before, something that the classic films deliberately omitted, perhaps to make their hero appear innately charming and talented. There are passing references to his dead parents, and Bond’s difficult upbringing as an orphan (hinted at by the perceptive Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale). Here is a Bond that struggled growing up, and now, struggles to adapt to the modern world; Craig represents a far weightier, more human Bond than the arrogant effortlessness of Sean Connery or the unserious self-parody of Roger Moore. An origin story evolves the Bond film franchise to a heroic mythology.
Skyfall is an expressionistic battleground. Classic Bond films end with a raid on the villain’s secret hideout or base. In Skyfall, Bond, M, and the estate’s caretaker Kincade play hold-the-fort with hunting rifles and improvised explosives while the mansion is being assaulted by Silva and his men. After a grueling fight, Bond triumphs, but M passes on. It’s a bittersweet victory, as is the end of any era.
Though the characters‘ fear of the future and resistance to change is perhaps overstated throughout the film, Skyfall doesn’t land on a lesson that glorifies the good old days. It’s a film that boldly questions and acknowledges the irrelevance of its central hero. In the final few scenes, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) takes over as the new M; Eve (Naomie Harris, one of the Bond girls) becomes the new Moneypenny. These reveals promise exciting changes in the next Bond installment.
At the beginning of Skyfall, Mallory says that MI6 operatives have a short lifespan. Bond acknowledges that he won’t be around for much longer, and perhaps that speaks to the franchise as a whole: this incarnation of Bond won’t be relevant forever. When it’s time, Bond will die and be reborn — a reboot always ready to be rebooted again.