The narrative settings in Skyfall do not so much advance the plot as reflect the concerns and fears of its audience. Istanbul and its rooftops portray an urban culture of mixed religion, race and ethnicity for Western audiences
Betrayed by M and left for dead, 007 retreats and nearly retires to a seedy paradise island of sex and alcohol.
Shanghai’s skyline is a fantastical mix of bright lights and glass skyscrapers. It represents the future of Western culture.
Shanghai is also an incomprehensible maze, what with its reflective glass and mirrored surfaces.
Macau, with its gambling casino, is an upscale paradise. It is an amusement park for the wealthy in a global economy that ignores state boundaries.
The island inhabited by the villain, Raoul Silva, shows Western civilization in the process of urban decay. It portrays simultaneously a deteriorating infrastructure, the bombed out remains of a civil war, and an island occupied by the undead.
Under attack, London has gone underground, exemplified both by MI6’s new base and the crowds in the Tube during rush hour.
Daniel Craig as Bond retreats backward in time to Sean Connery’s castle-like home in Scotland. It is a primitive, isolated world and as such a stark contrast to the computer networked crowds of contemporary civilization.
With Bond seemingly triumphant over “evil,” London’s skyline offers a relief from the underground. It is, however, a gray skyline, colorless except for the many flags fluttering in the distance, England’s flag most prominent among them.
Gadgets have consistently played a central role in the Bond mythology, and no gadget— or product placement—has been more prominent than Bond’s Aston Martin. Sean Connery, the first in a line of actors to portray 007, poses next to his Aston Martin.
Daniel Craig, Bond’s current reincarnation, poses next to his Aston Martin. Like Sean Connery’s version in Goldfinger (1964), Craig’s comes equipped with machine guns in the front.
Silva, as villain, instructs his men in a helicopter to destroy Bond’s Aston Martin, pointing at his audience as though to underscore the audacity of his gesture.
Bond watches in disbelief as his Aston Martin is destroyed. In retaliation he prepares a counter-attack by destroying Skyfall, his childhood home.
We watch Silva watching Bond watching the destruction of the Aston Martin.
The Aston Martin explodes. Will there be a “resurrection” of Bond's Aston Martin?
Sex has consistently played a central role in the 007 mythology. In the pre-credit sequence, a fellow agent, “Eve,” takes her shot on instructions from M and seemingly kills Bond.
Having failed in her job, Eve is suspended from field work. Nevertheless, she temporarily assists Bond in Shanghai at the instruction of MI6. “You look the part now,” she tells him, an “old dog with new tricks,” namely kinky sex.
Skyfall has entertained audiences worldwide, reflected in gross revenues of over $1.1 billion. The movie’s commercial success is, in part, not surprising, considering that its director, British-born Sam Mendes, won six Oscars for his first movie, American Beauty (1999), including both Best Picture and Best Director. He is clearly attuned to Hollywood and the demands of its audience. The movie’s commercial success is also, in part, not surprising, due to the presence of actor Daniel Crain in his third portrayal of secret agent 007. Yet Skyfall’s commercial success is, in part, also surprising, considering its narrative obsession with the aging and death of its characters.
Skyfall adheres to the classic formula of James Bond movies, Hollywood’s longest running franchise. Thus, it begins with a pre-credit action sequence in an “exotic” locale, Istanbul, and ends with Bond triumphant over the villain. It also announces the continuation of the franchise with Bond confirming his return to “fieldwork” and the introduction of a new “M” (Gareth Mallory as played by Ralph Fiennes) and a new “Eve” Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). Yet the movie darkens that formula. The pre-credit sequence opens with the Bond character approaching the audience from the shadows of a long hallway, initially observing, “Ronson’s down,” and shortly thereafter leaving that agent to die. The movie ends with the death of the old M played for 17 years by Judi Dench. While the movie reaffirms the franchise formula, it also exposes exposes through a darkening of that formula its audience’s craving for a cathartic mythology in a contemporary, global environment no longer understood by that audience. In a post-9/11 world in which technology has overtaken privacy and nation states have increasingly merged with global, corporate interests, Skyfall self-consciously subverts its audience’s expectations about the triumph of good over evil even as it simultaneously caters emotionally to those expectations.
Skyfall is a fantasy reflecting the zeitgeist of its historical moment rather than a documentary about its time. Thus, the settings for Bond’s exploits in defeating his latest villain function not to advance the plot but rather to mirror the contemporary concerns of its Western audience.
Nothing, however, could be further from the meaning of the narrative than this retreat backwards into time and Bond’s supposed triumph as the result of his recapturing of such times past. Globetrotting has been a consistent element of the Bond movie franchise. The exoticism, at least to Western eyes, of different places around the world is what early on attracted an audience to the franchise. It entertained by enabling its audience to travel conveniently, that is, to enjoy the visual pleasures of different cities and countrysides without the unpleasantness of travel itself, let alone the need to experience cultural differences inconsistent with and sometimes hostile to the Hollywood-created experience.
The passage of time has, however, necessarily changed what is considered exotic. For example, in From Russia with Love (Terrence Young 1963) Bond also traveled to Istanbul as well as Venice, and these locales acted at attractive backdrops for his Cold War exploits when the primary market for the franchise consisted of a U.S. audience. Fifty years later the audience for Hollywood’s movies, such as Skyfall, is far more global, with profits dependent upon international markets. With the advent of technology, especially the Internet, that international audience is already familiar with what decades ago would have been considered exotic. Indeed, much of that audience now resides in what for U.S. audiences in the 1960s was an exotic locale. China, for example, is now the largest theatrical market for U.S. produced films outside of the U.S./Canadian market. Its audience surely does not view the Shanghai sequence in the same manner as a U.S. audience, and the reaction of a viewer to this sequence depends, too, on his or her social and economic class. Thus, Bond’s globetrotting functions today less as visual entertainment than as a cultural trope for the varied concerns of a far more global audience in a world strikingly different from the one in which the Bond franchise originated. In a more global economy geography plays less of a role in perception than the viewer’s place in that economy.
Cartoons, fairy tales and a good story are more readily enjoyed and passively absorbed by a global audience than realistic, complex or ambiguous enactments of stories about viewers’ fears, hopes, aspirations, difficulties and other concerns. Escapist entertainment, a cultural product no different than a Big Mac, sells. Globetrotting alone does not. Thus, a movie such as Syriana (Stephen Gaghan 2005) jumps with seeming incoherence from Geneva to Tehran to Lebanon to Washington, DC. It also develops several storylines simultaneously to demonstrate the interconnectedness of global corporations and their employment of government bureaucracies and technologies that advance corporate commercial interests. Likewise, Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow 2012) intercuts its narrative about torture and the CIA’s efforts to find Osama bin Laden with scenes of terrorism and counter-terrorism in Saudi Arabia, London, Islamabad, Kuwait City, NYC’s Times Square, Nevada and Afghanistan. It thereby encourages its audience to draw the narrative connections between the obsessiveness of its lead character, the CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), and the commitment of Osama bin Laden to his anti-Western cause. The film’s audience is expected to draw its own conclusions, as, for example, when the killing of Bin Laden is confirmed with the verbal transmission, “Geronimo. For god and country.” Both movies either failed or were far less successful financially than Skyfall, because both insisted that their audiences work at and consciously unravel the pieces of each film’s global puzzle. Entertainment, however, drives box office returns, not political statements. Skyfall entertains in that it requires little of its audience other than that viewers passively “enjoy the show.” Nevertheless, its success in creating a pleasurable show is also dependent upon evoking the contemporary, emotional concerns of its global audience, letting its politics wash passively over viewers. Skyfall’s politics is embedded in its narrative’s DNA.
MGM, the Hollywood studio that produced the movie, and Sony, its distribution partner, celebrated in their marketing campaign for Skyfall that this film represented the fiftieth anniversary of the Bond franchise. Unsurprisingly the movie is filled with references to earlier Bond movies. Those references, however, consistently highlight the effect of the passage of time on the Bond mythology and thereby evoke a nostalgia for a time when moral clarity seemed to accompany the events enacted onscreen. Ian Fleming began writing the Bond novels in the early 1950s and Sean Connery first enacted the role of 007 ten years later at a time when global conflict could be understood as a Cold War between two nation states—the United States and the Soviet Union—and in which commercial globalization was only in its early stage. As such, the references in Skyfall to those earlier enactments are on their surface emotionally comforting to or resonant with its audience.
Take, for example, the reference to Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton 1964). When Bond touts to M his ownership of an Aston Martin, the musical theme from the 1960s movie plays and we overhear knowing banter between Bond and M about the car’s passenger-side ejection seat. The in-joke speaks to an audience knowledgeable about the most celebrated, ritualistic moments in the Bond franchise. In contrast to “company cars,” one of the perks of contemporary business, the Aston Martin has no “tracking device.” In a later sequence, following several shots in Scotland that spatially establish the car’s role as character, the car’s built-in machine guns perform their anticipated role in readily killing many of the disposable “bad guys.” Yet what are we to make of the fact that Silva, the movie’s villain, in a gesture both deliberate and seemingly gratuitous instructs that his men in a helicopter destroy the car? Silva momentarily stares at Bond at the moment of the car’s destruction, as though acknowledging the Aston Martin was not simply a car. Silva, too, is aware of the in-joke, and Bond’s subsequent destruction of Silva’s helicopter is appropriately framed by shots of the Aston Martin.
If the Aston Martin, a fetishistic object of the Bond mythology, today is ripe for destruction, then are Bond, the character, and his mythology, both gadgets and supporting characters, no less so? Bond identifies his “hobby” as “resurrection.” And for the studio, the incentive to “resurrect” his franchise and its mythology is commercially compelling. Nevertheless, as Silva, the supposed villain, observes, Bond’s activities as a “field agent” are outmoded in a world of “point and click” computers—a world now also described as “flat.” The Bond movie formula was born in the 1950s and 1960s when country mattered far more than one’s economic place in a global economy, and Bond, in particular, exemplified British “fortitude,” the term M uses for Bond’s obituary when she believes him dead. Culture has gone global. From that perspective, if popular culture consists of a working out of myths only unconsciously absorbed, let alone understood, then Skyfall evidences an anxious Western culture, implicitly rejecting its past and questioning both its present and future.
The movie seems to tout the continued viability of, or at least evoke nostalgia for, a culture in which the “old ways,” that is, the myth of the white, heterosexual male, remains intact and in which that character remains both invincible and fully cable of solving his audience’s problems. Indeed, a number of critics have responded positively to the movie’s seeming endorsement of the “old ways.” From that perspective Skyfall is consistent with the many, commercially successful blockbuster movies in which the cartoon-like hero prevails against what seem initially like overwhelming odds. As M says upon Bond’s return to service after his near death experience —“enjoying death,” as he puts it—Bond came back “because we’re under attack” and “we need you.” There is both clarity and an emotional attraction to these “old ways.” At the government hearing investigating MI6’s security breaches, M opines that the world has become more, not less, opaque and hence the greater need for the British intelligence branch, MI6, including its 00 agents. Nevertheless, her 00 agent of choice, Bond, ironically employs the opaqueness of gas from fire extinguishers to save M when she is under attack at that hearing by Silva and his men, and they, in turn, are disguised as police officers.