If there is such as thing as spoilers for a James Bond movie.
I saw Skyfall this Saturday in the company of my sister, who had never seen a James Bond film herself. For me it was the tenth or fifteenth (dad’s a fan), so I went in knowing what to expect. To prepare my sister for what was to come, I told her – from memory – what would happen, because it always happens:
- James Bond blows up something in a spectacular fashion
- Opening credits with song by Cool singer-songwriter
- JB gets an assignment from M after flirting with Moneypenny
- JB gets some neat gadgets from Q
- JB goes to Exotic Locale no. 1
- JB hunts down information with his two most trusted instruments (ahum), meeting Bad Guy 1 and Girl 1 in the progress
- Girl 1 dies in a way that’s both gruesome and strangely sexy at the hands of Bad Guy 1. JB hangs his head in grief for two seconds, and moves on.
- JB kills Bad Guy 1.
- JB goes to Exotic Locale 2
- JB does some sleuthing, finds out where Big Bad Guy’s hideyhole is, shoots some people, drinks a martini, meets Girl 2.
- JB makes stupid pun.
- JB invades the bad guy’s lair.
- JB gets captured and is inserted into a ridiculous deathtrap, breaks free
- JB blows up everything, kills off Big Bad Guy in a spectacular way, gets the girl.
And that’s it. With very little variation, that is the storyline of all 23 James Bond films that have appeared in the last 50 years.
Now, I’m not claiming I’m some sort of analytical genius for figuring out how James Bond films work. As a matter of fact, everybody knows this. Ask anyone who has even the remotest interest in the series, and they’ll tell you how this works. Girls, guns, martini’s. The works. You could set your own, heavily product-placed Omega watch to it.
This is interesting for several reasons, but the one I want to focus on now is the fact that James Bond is one of the longest-running franchises in the history of film. For five decades, these movies have been pumped out, all with the same exact beats. James Bond is so formulaic that making jokes about how James Bond is formulaic is formulaic in itself. This is perhaps also the reason the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies felt so insincere. We, the audience, knew what was going to happen so long in advance that it became harder and harder for the filmmakers to suspend disbelief.
The reason for this is quite simple. When we go into an action film, we know that the hero is going to win in the end. What makes the film exciting is throwing something against the hero that for a moment make it seem like he might not succeed. And this was James Bonds’ problem. We know so well what was going to happen to him, that we didn’t believe this anymore. He became omnipotent, almost. This forced the writers to make their villains more and more psychopathic and the girls more and more reluctant to Bond’s advances. In the end it all just became cynical and joyless, despite the generally good crew.
But I think it’s by embracing the fact that we all knew what was going to happen beforehand that Casino Royale and Skyfall have turned into not just two of the best films of the series, but two of the most interesting films of the past few years. But before we delve into that, let’s talk a little about postmodernism, and in particular: about metafiction.
“Meta” is a word that gets used a lot lately, although oftentimes just to mean “clever”. But what it really means is “Self-referential”. If we get a more technically, it means that a media text (a story, a tv episode, a movie, a play, whatever) refers to its own status as a story. Often just as a clever joke, like the Simpsons referring to the fact that they’re living in a cartoon universe. But sometimes this goes a little further. Someone once described Rio Bravo as being about “three guys who are making a Western”, and while that movie itself might not be explicitly meta, there are some great examples of metafiction in recent pop culture. Community is about seven people who are making a sitcom. Edgar Wright’s movies are about three guys making a zombie movie, cop movie, or video game movie, in that order. Synecdoche, New York is about… okay, let’s not get into that for now.
The reason metafiction exists is that we have become so aware of media that we, as a culture, became more and more aware of the stories we are watching. And then people from that culture became filmmakers themselves. These days, audiences are much more aware of the tropes and codes in popular stories, and creators know that we know this. We know what a guy in a suit who orders a martini is going to do once he’s up on screen, and creators can play with this, spoof this, or bend it down into itself. That’s when you get metafiction.
Metafiction does a few things. First, it shows to us in the audience that the characters in a movie have the same cultural reference points that we. This can create a bond between them and us (High Fidelity, When Harry Met Sally), but it can also create an ironic distance to these reference points (most of South Park). In the past few years, however, metafiction has been exploring another possibility: that the cliches of these reference points have become so deeply embedded in the fabric of our shared culture that we have begun to live them. Abed from Community makes a conscious effort to make everyone around him behave like they are in a sitcom, because sitcom behavior is the only sort of behavior he can completely understand.
So, what has this to do with James Bond? Well, I would argue that Casino Royale is basically about a guy becoming James Bond, and that Skyfall is basically about five people making a James Bond movie.
Most of the mistakes that get Bond in the soup in Casino come from the fact that he doesn’t quite seem to know how to behave like James Bond. The “shaken-or stirred, do-I-look-like-I-give-a-damn” line was a pretty clear indication of this. We knew what the ’real’ James Bond would have done, and, consequently, the things this Bond was doing were ‘wrong’. But at the end of the movie, he had become the James Bond we all know and love. Quantum of Solace fails to do anything interesting with this, however, and it’s by far the least interesting of the three Craig films.
But Skyfall became something more: a movie about five people (give or take) making a James Bond movie, and by doing so, questioning not only the fabric but the very existence of… James Bond movies. Let me go over this by way of bullet points:
1. The References
Because Dr. No is fifty years old, the whole film is peppered with clever little shoutouts to other Bond films. They’re mainly cute on a surface level, but on a deeper level, they constantly remind us of the kind of movies we’re watching, and what everyone familiar with the archplot sketched above can expect to come.
2. The Hearings
A big plotpoint is that M, played as always by the unconquerable Judi Dench, is called to order by the defense minister to explain what in the hell she thinks she’s doing. Agents like James Bond, many people in the movie explicitly say, are old-fashioned. Antiques. Of another era. Why does James Bond need to exist, they ask. Well, dear reader, and dear watcher of the film, why indeed? This is basically the meat and potatoes of the second act, and although the answer might divide some viewers, it’s damn near mystifying to realize that we are watching an action movie that questions its own legitimacy. Which, of course, wouldn’t have been possible in the first place if we in the audience didn’t know exactly what it was that we were coming in from. We knew what we were getting, and precisely that allowed the writers to turn introspective.
3. The Bad Guy
And while we’re on the matter of introspection, let’s talk Silva (Javier Bardem). Forget for a moment the stupidly stereotypical portrayal of a demented gay villain, and think of what he represents to James Bond. The best villains are those that hold up a mirror to their hero, and in this Silva definitely succeeds. Through him, we see what a wreck this hero of ours really is, and always has been. He’s in terrible shape. He’s old. He can’t commit emotionally. He’s got an alcohol problem. And then there’s the slightly weird relationship both he and Bond have to M. These used to be amused observations by sharp fans, but here, they’re turned into actual character flaws.
And then there are these two very telling moments. The second-act chase, which normally takes place in Exotic Locale number 2, now takes place in the London Subway, a place, as Q points out, completely foreign to Bond. The man might have class and skill and gadgets, but he’s also a pampered private-school oaf, so out of touch with the 99% percent (to use a phrase) that he can’t even properly use the subway.
But perhaps even more telling is the fact that the final shootout, which normally takes place in the lair of the supervillain, now takes place in Bond’s old family home. Instead of Bond storming into someone else’s house and raising all sorts of hell, Silva now comes into his house and drives him into a corner. The symbolic importance of this is that Bond, not Silva, is the one who is under attack. Bond is not the one leading the charge. He actually has to defend himself, with everything he has. James Bond has to defend his own existence, both in a literal sense, and in a metafictional sense. Instead of just thwarting evil, Skyfall has James Bond defend his very existence, both to his own fiction universe and to ours.
Skyfall is, for lack of a better word, an anti-James Bond movie. It flips all the central characters 180 degrees and makes the aggressors the ones under siege. The effect of this is that the series clears house, internalized the criticism it received, and answered it within the movie itself. Skyfall is the closest thing the James Bond series has ever come to a full-on thesis statement. None of which I would have noticed, of course, if I went in like my sister, completely oblivious of what to expect. I noticed this because I notice things in movies. And so did the screenwriters.
P.S. I know actions films are a little… hawkish by nature, but the politics in Skyfall bothered me. Silva’s character is quite obviously a shoutout to Julian Assange (blonde hairdo, computer wiz, ‘the largest security break in modern history’), and it irked me that they basically turned him into a full-on terrorist. I mean, love him or hate him, but Assange never went round shooting people with helicopter guns. Not that it’s all that important to the movie or this analysis, but I just wanted to get it off my chest.