Many action movies are about nothing in particular. They have a plot of course, but usually no deeper message beyond the idea that good shall somehow overcome evil. Heroes will triumph, villains will not. Same old story.
This basic assumption (good beats evil) is often modified with some other relevant themes about becoming a hero, fulfilling one’s personal duty, the importance of mentors, opposite personalities attracting, the value of family, etc. These are all nice and well, but it’s not often that a “mindless action movie” attempts to make a more personal thematic statement. They are mostly just noise. Visually exciting and fun noise, but more of the same stuff.
But if there’s one recent action movie that really reaches down deep and comes up with something to say, and even pulls it off well, it is Skyfall. And it’s something I never would have expected. The Bond franchise is not known for its subtlety. While the Daniel Craig films have certainly made strides forward, at its core these stories are about an invincible superspy bashing in bad guys, seducing supermodels, and epitomizing a certain kind of masculine fantasy. Bond is a glorified stunt man, not the kind of figure you expect to deliver nuanced reflections on life.
Yet Skyfall delivers. It resonates with theme and introspection, balancing the heavier action pieces with raw character moments and poignant conversations. The story is ABOUT something. And that something is the theme.
Ostensibly Skyfall is about recovering a hard drive with a list of names. But thematically speaking, it’s just an interchangeable MacGuffin. The theme doesn’t even have to do with stopping Silva, although that’s important to the plot. Skyfall is about stopping what Silva represents: displacement.
We’ll get to displacement later on, but in order to get there we have to lay a foundation and build upward. Despite Silva being a great villain, it’s the ideology behind him and how it connects to the larger ideas at play that form the real meat of the story. Instead of a battle between good and evil, we’re given a battle between relevance and irrelevance, usefulness and uselessness, tradition and innovation.
Perhaps nowhere is this better seen than in a simple but extremely demonstrative moment of the movie: the shaving scene. Eve shows up at Bond’s room and soon after presses a sharp razor blade against Bond’s throat. It’s an old-fashioned razor blade designed for a man of old-fashioned sensibilities. The type of man who orders the same drink for fifty years.
At the end of their conversation Eve tells Bond that he looks the part. When Bond inquires what part, she tells him, “Old dog, new tricks.” But the maxim she refers to is meant to be ironic: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Although Eve doesn’t actually mean that Bond has outlived his usefulness, she presents the film’s main thesis.
This movie is about old dogs.
Bond is past his prime, both his physical aptitude and psychological health seriously compromised. M is an old dog as well, her tenure coming to a close with an early forced retirement. MI6 is an organization of old dogs, practicing a peculiar brand of Cold War espionage in an era where nations are no longer openly belligerent.
How can these old dogs adapt to the world’s present challenges? Can they change their nature? Can they prove their usefulness? Not if they can’t adapt to the uncertain challenges that lay ahead.
If Bond, M, and MI6 represent the old dogs who struggle to learn their new tricks in the modern world, then Q and Mallory represent the new dogs, ready to embrace the rapidly changing circumstances they find themselves in. There are few things as scary as waking up and realizing that you have outlived your life’s purpose. These are the literal questions Skyfall is concerned with:
Does espionage have a place in a world of increasing globalization, technological change, terrorism, and uncertainty?
Does 007 have a place in this new world? Is he still capable of defending Britain against her enemies?
Does M have a place in this new world? Can she keep up with the radical transformations in information technology, government accountability, and the complexity of decision making in her job?
The real enemy of Skyfall is not Silva, who is not even introduced until halfway through the movie. Although Silva pulls the strings and rigs the explosions, he’s not the real threat. The true villain is change. Bond, M, and MI6 are old dogs struggling to learn the new tricks that Silva has seemingly mastered: breaking firewalls, infiltrating secure systems, and exploiting computer technology to tip the balance of power.
This theme is solidified during Bond’s first introduction to Q at the art gallery. Expecting another old dog with an array of dazzling gadgets, Bond instead meets a young computer technician who does his best work in his pajamas. The wide generation gap is reinforced by Q’s commentary on the painting: “A grand old warship, being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think?”
Bond’s days are numbered. He is that grand old warship. Though Bond knows how to pull triggers, Q is the new face of espionage. How long before British intelligence operates primarily from remote sites without a need for field agents?
Mallory joins the chorus of voices reminding Bond that he is the grand old warship, not the able-bodied agent he used to be:
“You don’t need to be an operative to see the obvious. It’s a young man’s game. Look, you’ve been seriously injured, there’s no shame in saying you’ve lost a step. The only shame will be in not admitting it until it’s too late.”
Soon it will be no use for some off-the-books washed up Cold War spy to neutralize threats with a gun and a martini. Bond admits this predicament sighing, “Brave new world”. However 007 is not the only one to lose a step. M faces the same predicament, her failures leading to both the loss of the list of undercover agents and the catastrophic bombing of her own headquarters. Mallory is coming for her too:
Gareth Mallory: The Prime Minister’s ordered an inquiry. You’ll have to appear.
M: Oh, standing in the stock at midday. Who’s antiquated now?
Gareth Mallory: For Christ’s sake, listen to yourself. We’re a democracy and we’re accountable to the people we’re trying to defend. We can’t keep working in the shadows, there are no more shadows.
M: You don’t get this, do you? Whoever’s behind this, whoever’s doing it, he knows us. He’s one of us. He comes from the same place as Bond. The place you say doesn’t exist. The shadows.
M awaits a public inquiry over her controversial decisions as head of MI6. Of course, she is also expected to resign her post. Now at the precipice of total irrelevance, M finds her time-worn methods and long career about to crumble into a disgraceful retirement. At this point of crisis, she sticks to her guns. She knows this threat comes from the world of covert intelligence. MI6 operates in the shadows, outside of regular government channels from a place of uncertain legal and moral culpability. This is Silva’s world, and it will take someone like Bond to root him out.
Bond and M no longer belong to the prestigious British intelligence agency as it once was. MI6’s best days appear to be behind them. They have become redundant. And as Silva proudly boasts on his island, “There’s nothing… nothing superfluous in my life. When a thing is redundant, it is eliminated.”
The golden age of espionage has ended. New dogs like Mallory and Q have stepped up to replace the old dogs. Extinction, not resurrection, seems the likely outcome of this change. Yet this is not a film that only makes to Britons. Skyfall is the 8th highest grossing film of all time. It made over a billion dollars worldwide. This story of a decrepit intelligence agency and its fallible agent resonated with people across the globe. Why? Because these thematic issues are not unique to British intelligence agencies. They are deeply human issues.
At some point every person finds themselves on the verge of obsolescence. The jobs and skills we acquired yesterday provide no guarantee of usefulness tomorrow. Rapid technological change seems to be the only constant in our modern world. Our knowledge of computers, networks, and programming can barely keep up. Our bodies age, decay, and die. With every year we grow closer to physical and mental frailty. Time outruns us all.
This is displacement. Mallory will replace the Ms of this world. Q will replace the Bonds of this world. Programmers will replace spies. And we will all find ourselves displaced by the next thing. We all will have to cope with the next generation gunning for our role in the cosmos. And when it happens, we will find ourselves uncertain of our purpose.
In a sense this sentiment is a perfect metaphor for the Bond franchise as a whole. So far 007 has been around for half a century and starred in 23 movies, the longest run of any film character. The iconic villains, chases, fight sequences, and locales of the Bond films has already been reappropriated into many more mature forms. At what point is it time to retire this outdated womanizing alcoholic government-funded hitman? In a spy genre filled with fresh more exciting competitors like the frenetic chaos of the Jason Bourne series, the non-stop thrills of counter-terrorist Jack Bauer, and the mindbending capers like Inceptiona, does Bond matter anymore?
Skyfall addresses its own existential predicament with the story of a dying agency, its outdated director, and its diminished top agent. In an industry filled with gritty reboots and endless sequels, Skyfall earns its place by investing wholeheartedly in its theme instead of trying to be the next cool thing. It asks, how much is too much? When is it time to give up? How long can the human spirit endure the tests of time? How long can we go on when our bodily youth and former energy has left us?
Ultimately Skyfall encapsulates its central theme and the answer to the above questions in the form of a poem. Skyfall selects several verses from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem Ulysses concerning the Greek hero of Homer’s epic, better known as Odysseus. He is after all a man who spent his entire life trying to find his way home to Ithaca, plagued the entire way by misfortune and the wrath of the gods. Ulysses had his best years stolen from him. Here in these verses M hits the emotional climax of the film:
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.
In other words, the best days are over for M, Bond, and MI6. They will never again have the youthful strength that moved earth and heaven in their prime. The challenges of future will be tackled by better men and women, younger men and women. Yet despite these undeniable facts, M and her organization are not resigned to face death quietly. They are not to yield. However long they have left, be it two months or two days, MI6 will commit itself to its purpose: protecting Britain and stopping terrorists.
Whatever happens next is unimportant. Whether Silva wins or loses, he cannot defeat them. They have found their resolve. The old dogs might be on their way out, but there is fight left in them yet. Their relevance has faded but not their spirit.
This franchise has at times journeyed to some rather tasteless places, yet here it stands, defiant as ever. The last words are a fitting end, a promise of how Bond will choose to conduct himself in an uncertain days ahead.
Gareth Mallory: So, 007. Lots to be done. Are you ready to get back to work?
James Bond: With pleasure, M. With pleasure.