M (Judi Dench) is nothing if not pragmatic. Before the opening credits of Skyfall have even rolled, she has allowed not one, but two of her spies to die in service of the greater good. First, she orders 007 (Daniel Craig) to leave behind a wounded colleague in order to pursue a villain. Then, when agent Eve (Naomi Harris) can’t pull the trigger on said villain without risking Bond’s life too, M orders her to take the shot. The bullet hits Bond in the chest, and he plummets into the river below.
Much is Taken, Much Abides
Warning: contains plot spoilers
He isn’t really dead, of course. When a sinister hacker breaks into MI6’s computer systems and causes a huge explosion at their headquarters, Bond comes out of hiding and returns to London. Tired and bullet-scarred, he shows up at his boss’s apartment late at night, and is clearly perturbed when he’s told to go and find a hotel. "Well", M tells him coldly, "you’re not staying here."
Is the head of the secret service too callous towards her loyal agents? Why do they remain loyal – and what is the personal cost of their loyalty? These uncomfortable questions, raised in Skyfall’s opening minutes, will be answered as the plot unfolds. "Think on your sins", reads the message which the hacker plants on M’s computer, and she will certainly have cause to do just that.
Skyfall comes at a key moment in Bond history. The cinema franchise is now fifty years old, and director Sam Mendes faced the challenge of making a film which acknowledged this legacy while also offering something fresh. Casino Royale (2006) had whetted fans’ appetites for a 21st Century Bond, but after the disappointing Quantum of Solace (2008), they needed reassuring that their favourite spy was still in good shape. These factors help to explain Skyfall’s preoccupation with contrasting the old and the new, and with questioning the ageing Bond’s own competence.
The film finds M and Bond clinging to their ‘antiquated’ ideas about espionage in a world which has increasingly turned to technology as its hope. Where previous Bond films flaunted their gadgets, Skyfall deliberately plays down their role, with Q (Ben Wishaw) handing 007 just "a gun and a radio" before he sets off on his latest mission. The heroes fight with simple weapons; it’s the villain (Javier Bardem) who’s obsessed with technology, even turning Q’s own technical expertise against him. As well as being an attempt to return to the comparative realism of Fleming’s novels, this perhaps signifies a shift in cultural perceptions of technology itself. Once we thought that it would be our saviour, helping us to transcend our human limitations and build a better world. Now we have to acknowledge that our faith may have been misplaced.
Skyfall asks whether people like M and Bond still have a place now that wars are fought at computer keyboards. We see Bond’s physical and mental frailty exposed like never before, casting doubt on whether even the most competent of human beings stands a chance in a fight where the rules are changing. But even as our certainty is broken down, it’s eventually built up again. Bond confronts Silva, not by gaining technological superiority, but by wholeheartedly embracing the old ways. "[We’re going] back in time", he tells M, before making a getaway drive in a vintage car familiar from classic Bond. "It’s the only place we’ll have the advantage."
The trouble with heading into the past – rather than into a dehumanised digital future – is that the past is personal. And however much M tries to keep her job impersonal, making decisions based on tough-minded pragmatism, she can’t escape the consequences which her choices have had for individuals.
The MI6 hacker turns out to be Raoul Silva (Bardem), an ex-agent whose life M once traded for the lives of six other spies, leaving him to be tortured, if not killed, by the enemy. Quite literally eaten away on the inside by this betrayal, Silva has returned to kill M, and also to turn her best agent against her. Once M’s favourite in his own day, he recognises the somewhat warped maternal connection which she shares with Bond, and is determined to strip 007 of his illusions.
Still bruised by M’s decision to disregard his own life, Bond sees echoes of himself in Silva. The physical resemblance caused by giving Bardem blonde hair is deliberate: Silva is Bond’s mirror image, his disturbing potential future if he continues to put his faith in M. Perhaps personal relationships are to be trusted even less than technology, since they leave us open to being hurt and abandoned. It’s telling that, whilst free-associating words during a psychological test, Bond immediately pairs the word ‘heart’ with ‘target’. He learned in Casino Royale that love can be a dangerous weakness.
It’s interesting, however, given Casino Royale’s suggestion that Bond’s inhumanity made him an effective spy, to see Skyfall return to the importance of his humanity. He might be vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, but the strength of his deep personal loyalty to M is what carries him through.
"We’re frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us", says M, describing the battles which MI6 must now fight in a digital age. "They’re not nations, they’re individuals ... Our world is not more transparent now, it’s more opaque. It’s in the shadows." Bond is the perfect spy for this shadowy era, she claims: and it’s precisely because he’s human. All the things which make human beings a liability – their unpredictability, their ambiguity, their tendency to be swayed by emotional factors – can also make them an asset.
Skyfall seems to argue that, even in an information age, it’s relational interactions which matter more than anything. At their worst, such as in the fallout between M and Silva, they can be the root cause of enormous conflict and bloodshed. But at their best, they can be our sole remaining source of hope and strength.The film walks a line between cynicism at the failure and irrelevancy of transcendent values like courage and loyalty, and faith that these must still mean something, in order for us to have anything left.
As M says, quoting the poet Tennyson in her defence of old-style espionage:
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Film title: Skyfall
Keywords: Technology, humanity, past, loyalty, weakness, relationships
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing (UK); Columbia Pictures (USA
Cinema Release Date: 26 October 2012 (UK); 9 November 2012 (USA)
Certificate: PG-13 (USA); 12A (UK) Contains moderate action violence and one use of strong language
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© 2012 Sophie Lister