Skyfall at 10: Sympathy for Mr. Empire

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<i>Skyfall</i> at 10: Sympathy for Mr. Empire

“Take the bloody shot.” So commands M (Judi Dench) into the earpieces of her agents as James Bond (Daniel Craig) is stuck in a life-or-death struggle atop a speeding train. His opponent is the target, but 007 is the one hit, and we watch that virile body become immediately lifeless, falling from a viaduct like Toy Story’s Andy discarding one of his prized toys—which is exactly what’s happened. Bond, should he survive, will have learned the crucial lesson and contradiction that defines his role: 00 agents must be prepared to do more than any other operative on Earth, but what they do is far more important than the human being doing them. James Bond is necessary, but disposable. 10 years ago Skyfall asked us, does the modern world need James Bond? Why are we so compelled to keep him around?

It’s impossible to separate Skyfall from the context of its release. After the misfire of Craig’s sophomore outing, the WGA strike-affected Quantum of Solace, Bond’s distributor MGM looked dangerously on the verge of folding entirely. When Skyfall eventually released, it was part of the 50th anniversary of the Bond film franchise; 2012 also commemorated the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension and the London Olympic Games. Elizabeth II and Craig’s Bond filmed a crossover for Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony. Bond, Britain, dominion—these inseparable elements were all on the brain.

James Bond was created not in the height of Britain’s global dominance, but in the aftermath of its dissolution. Ian Fleming, a staunch conservative imperialist whose writing showed deep insecurities with Britain (read: England) being trounced on the international stage, wrote Bond to serve as “imperial wish fulfillment,” as Nicholas Cull argues. According to Benjamin Welton, “Spy fiction not only spoke to anxieties over the emergent cold war, but also mitigated the fear of international decline in an era of swingeing cuts to British armed forces and costly conflicts in Malaya, Kenya, Aden and Suez, suggesting to the reading public that a vanishing empire was never more secure. Spies such as Fleming’s Bond in particular satisfied the need for reassurance that Britain was still as much of a player on the global stage as it had ever been.”

This highlights the difficulties of Bond movies trying to comment on real-life sociopolitical changes and movements within the text of the film; what Bond represents and the country he fights for are complete constructs. They do not exist, and thus cannot be read concurrently with our own world. This is why Skyfall’s attempts to discuss and explore faceless, technological terrorism falls flat, but the film’s broader imperial nostalgia has a lot more clarity. One is spoken in dialogue between characters in an unrecognizable world of villains and superspies; the other is the result of comparing the film’s fictional world to our own.

Skyfall was notable not simply for emulating Bond’s high points but for reevaluating the character. After he’s shot and left for dead by M’s authority, the stubbled, resentful spy returns, and after a steely reunion with his instructor, he undergoes physical and psychological testing. Bond is prodded like a dissected frog to see how much of a cohesive whole he’s remained after being killed, and despite failing the tests, he returns to the field, looking hollowed and gaunt in the garish, revealing lights of Hong Kong. He’s to hunt down a former agent with a vast technocratic reach and a burning vengeance against M. It furthers the themes of abandonment Bond experienced at the start of the film, fleshing out M’s characterization in what will be the swansong for this iteration of the character.

Skyfall is notable for all its nods to the shifting conscience of a late-era British Empire. Britain’s military sanction over Hong Kong and Ireland are key backstory locations, and the post-colonial themes of art like Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Turner’s painting “The Fighting Temeraire” are both alluded to. Despite all these, and despite featuring a government inquiry directed at the relevance of M and 00 agents in the modern world, Skyfall only uses the history of imperial might as a thin metaphor to argue for continuing the old-school thrills of Bond films. No matter how passingly you reference the British Empire, its specter will dominate proceedings, and as we start to see cracks in the facades of Bond and his commanders, Skyfall spends its time assessing Bond’s condition to serve his country, rather than considering if the country is fit to serve anymore. Skyfall’s imagery hits a wall by not considering the full extent of its symbolism, asking for sympathy for characters and agencies that were built on insecurities about Britain’s diminished importance in geopolitics, who are now haunted by the harm they caused.

Take the villain, Silva (Javier Bardem), an agent M left for dead in Hong Kong before Bond’s time. After extended torture from the Chinese and an attempted suicide, he vows to ruin M through a mission of generalized, unspecified destabilization through the limitless reach of cybercrime. Skyfall pointedly, in dialogue, comments on how the world—and Bond films—have moved on from Cold War nations to shadowy individuals, which handily removes the need to engage in the messiness of morally politicizing in an age where the once-thought “good guys” have revealed to have done a lot of bad things. This is despite the 7/7 attacks being directly invoked by Silva bombing the London Underground a mere five years after they happened, recalling the emotional response to terror without letting its context complicate a supervillain’s ideology. In many ways, Skyfall has a lot in common with Top Gun: Maverick: These are stylishly made propaganda vehicles, but while Maverick is too earnest to ever acknowledge how sand-polished and identity-free its enemy is, Skyfall ties itself in knots trying to make a point about the type of people Bond has to fight.

Silva’s fallen agent is nothing new for Bond—Brosnan fans will remember Sean Bean’s 005 going turncoat in GoldenEye, a film where Dench’s M also references how outdated Bond has become. But just because Skyfall’s past-coming-back-to-haunt-you narrative makes its themes of imperial revenge explicit (Silva’s target is someone very closely associated with on-screen royalty), it doesn’t mean the Bond series has only recently focused on threats directly caused by his superiors—any time he’s fought in Jamaica, India, any current or former British colonies, we see British agents get involved with plots that would not have happened were it not for the direct actions of his empire.

The post-imperial motifs in Bond’s golden anniversary only grow more explicit as the film continues. Bond courageously races through Westminster as M recites Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” evoking the sentiment that Britain’s empire lives on in the resilience and courage of its staunchest defenders. Bond’s childhood home Skyfall is located in the Scottish highlands, the site of a Scottish rebel massacre, and his estate is only so large because the native peasants were forcibly relocated hundreds of years prior. We’re constantly reminded of what Bond represented when created, and asked to feel melancholy over such ideas becoming redundant. “The world is changing! Our mistakes come to haunt us!” Such reflections are much more stirring when they’re not coming from symbols of one of the most brutal empires to ever exist.

Skyfall works as a well-crafted spy thriller, boasting more psychological weight than most other Bond films, but there’s a hard ceiling to its conflation of an aging Bond and a dying empire. When we’re metaphorically asked, “Should this decrepit, flawed and irrelevant authority continue?” there’s a different answer depending on whether or not the question refers to “British imperial values” or “a very cool spy.” When Skyfall ends with the tragic death of Bond’s queen/mother and his return to active service with all the recognizable elements from the old series—Q, a male M, Moneypenny—complete with the famous Bond music, it feels like an enthusiastic commitment to what made Bond movies so iconic. It makes sense as the conclusion to a film that asks if the fictional character of James Bond has a place in this world, and makes much less as one to a film that toys with the idea of imperialism facing consequences.

Bond films are fun, but they are not relevant, and for a series that has had to reinvent itself every few movies in order to appeal to modern sensibilities, there’s no reason why the regressive views that originated the character can’t be abandoned as well. Otherwise, you’re left with Skyfall, a film that asks us to exult in James Bond while only paying lip service to the questionable facets of what he represents.


Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.