NRH’s Weekly Analysis: Skyfall’s metanarrative


Skyfall is a Bond film about Bond, both genre and man. Sam Mendes and company created a truly all-encompassing, retrospective-filled 50th Anniversary celebration. Skyfall is the type of film that shouldn’t happen and it’s the type of Bond film that seems too much for the franchise. There’s a whole variety of ‘parody’ movies, even the Bond spy sub-genre has been mocked by the likes of Johnny English. For the absolute talisman of the sub-genre itself to launch a vanguard of meta-commentary is mind-bending, and it’s even more brutally stunning in that it works so so well.

The Bond franchise has now lasted over a half-century and, well, no other series could’ve reached such a peak. Filled now with cliches and a real weight of history, Skyfall is perfectly timed to comment on the elements on the Bond films and the place that James Bond has in our modern world of Bournes and Tom Cruises. Skyfall is, on top of this, a pretty good action movie with cinematography to make you dribble. Except today I want to talk purely about the metanarrative at play.

The film’s advertising set up Skyfall perfectly. There seemed to be a wider emphasis on the ‘elements’ of the Bond film; fast cars (there were several television specials on them over here in the UK), glamorous women and exotic locations. It was largely perhaps out of the franchise’s 50th Anniversary with Skyfall being the firm flag to mark the series’ long history. A reaffirmation of what constitutes as a ‘Bond’ film. At the same time it’s an absolutely perfect entry point for newcomers, refusing to have zero Quantum or Casino narrative baggage. To ‘get’ Skyfall‘s metanarrative doesn’t require an encyclopedic knowledge of Bond but just an awareness of what a Bond film ‘is’. Given its ubiquitous existence in film culture it’s hard for anyone not to be clued in, and this is something Skyfall takes a looksie to too.

From the film’s opening moments we find Bond failing to do his job. Failing to defeat someone in a basic chase and shooty sequence that doesn’t seem out of place at all. This is again a setup because the camera then shoots Bond to his death with a sniper rifle. Bond is shot in the first fifteen minutes to give us a sense that he’s not worthwhile and that he can’t keep up in the “young man”s game; he has no place. There’s even a degree of antagonism shown towards Bond. Indeed, the next time we see Bond he’s necking alcohol and making love to some nameless woman, with zero romanticized edge placed upon the scenes. The film makes a definite swipe towards Bond’s martini indulgence and painkiller needs, reminding us that Bond is practically indulging in “Substance abuse” and “Alcohol” abuse in order to keep trucking. He is not exactly someone that men need to aspire to be. All of his failures in the first thirty minutes shatter a core principle of the Bond franchise: the macho male power fantasy. 

The very root fact of most long-standing ‘action movie’ protagonists is the projection of the ideal man. The perfect man. Strong, handsome, muscular, witty, clever, well-traveled with arms around big-breasted babes and toes dipped in gold. ‘Men want to be him, women want to sleep with him’; Nietzsche’s ‘ubermensch’. Skyfall puts James Bond, the character, and all of his traits in a modern context in order to destroy our belief in the macho male power fantasy. Do we really want to be alike a man who sexes strangers, necks alcohol, pounds the painkillers and touches over his wrinkles. For the first time Bond is shown to be nothing but a pathetic and aged waste of man.  He’s called “Old dog” by Moneypenny and Silva remarks that he’s “Not bad for a physical wreck”, that the franchise itself might be too tired and past its sell-by-date. All of these insults remind me of M telling him “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War” in Goldeneye, and it’s a truth that the series has gradually become more and more self-aware as its evolved. Over the course of the film, however, the attitudes change and we begin to see truth behind the nostalgia, that indeed “Sometimes the old ways are the best.” 

One scene which deserves analysis in itself is the introductory sequence between Q and 007. Note the huge disparity of age, I agree with other commentary that age and youth is a recurring theme of the picture, but I think it’s more important to see what they both look at in the scene. “An old warship” being “hauled off” for “scrap”, as if the filmmakers are telling us that pieces of Bond from fast cars to chases will be just cannibalized by other films. What does Bond see though? “A bloody big ship.” Q explains, in this age of cyber-terrorism, that Bond’s role is simply to fill the shoes of something almost expendable; “Now and then a trigger has to be pulled” joking about Bond perhaps expecting an “exploding pen” in the modern film world. The actual painting comes back at the film’s final scene in the background of Mallory’s office, confirming that he succeeds in gaining his place in the new world. 

To perfectly reaffirm this journey into James Bond’s character construction, we go straight to Skyfall manor, the very genesis of Bond. Only when Bond wields his father’s old rifle does he truly get his aim back. Only when he dips into his own history does the film’s Bondish flair flare up into celebratory action. There’s an underwater sequence at both the beginning and ending of the film, probably noting the continual ‘rebirth’ of Bond himself. The often touted ‘exotic locations’ pillar of the franchise is reduced, in the third act, to be encased in the British Isles. Skyfall chooses to search inwards to find the truth and meaning behind the Bond franchise’s traits rather than simply repeat them to what must be ad nauseum by now.

Further still, the first sequence between Bond and Silva takes a sexually-charged hammer to another pillar of the Bond franchise; the feverish heterosexually exclusive intercourse-conquests. Silva feels him up and even Bond remarks “How do you know this would be my first time?” which directly brings Bond into a modern sexually conscious age. Bond’s very sexuality crumbles under the weight of Skyfall‘s prods into the genre’s elements as he has to face more modern facts. One could comment it’s an attempt to modernize Bond, that he should always encompass our times and our society. 

What is Skyfall? It’s a self-conscious Bond film about Bond. Not just the man but the man beyond the man. The figurehead agent who has become a figure of British cinema and irreversibly influenced the ‘action movie’ forever. You may see the film differently, and I encourage you to do so, but the film’s approach to common Bond elements certainly directs it to be both a critique and celebration. Even when Adele is channeling Shirley Bassey with her ‘Skyfall’ song, the purest kind of Bond theme, there’s a sense of over-indulgence. The women, the quips, the physical wreck, the alcohol; “Age is no guarantee of efficiency”. Skyfall points out just how ridiculous it is to believe in this genre, to believe that it is of any worth. The macho-male power fantasy crumbles in wake of the film’s smashing criticism, it literally slaughters Bond only to bring him back to life and push him to find his place in the modern world. 

Bond remarks himself that his hobby is “Resurrection”, a double nod both to his Skyfall comeback and the very fact of the franchise. Like a Timelord he resurfaces with a new face, film after film, actor after actor, year after year after year. He keeps coming back, I really wonder if there’s a sense of agony in his meta-immortality. Alike Deckard in Blade Runner he may be stuck across versions – in some being human and in some being Replicant – never free or sure of who he is. He is trapped in ambiguity, across faces and spaces and forms from the film franchise to Fleming’s spy masterpieces. The film is Bond turned up to eleven and while it tells us that the modern action film is “a young man’s game” it still shows us that James Bond, and all of his story traits, have a place in the world. 

I think this was both the most impossible and appropriate Bond to make at its fifty-year inning. It’s a film that takes an axe to the genre but, by its end, enjoys itself. It lets Bond win because he is worth more than just a “trigger” in this world. He is a figure of the past, present and indeed future. To Skyfall, Bond is an ‘icon’ and one that can be used; it chooses to let him live so that he can go on to embody new ideas and cultures. Existing long past history. It’s a re-evaluation and celebration of the genre and this is the film’s greatest triumph. It belongs beyond the genre as both an onlooking critique and a sharp romp through its heart. 

Skyfall is, in short, a metanarrative exercise in seeking the life and worth behind modern Bond. It looks into the tropes from heterosexual-conquests, fast cars, exotic locales and action efficiency and modernizes them so that Bond can survive. Sam Mendes managed to reinvent Bond by having him take a good hard look at his raggedy self with the film itself being a commentary on the sub-genres entire history. Era after era, Bond changes for us. At its 50th year, Skyfall is the true transitory capstone that finally takes the franchise beyond all others and into the age of post-modernism.