The impact that Ian Fleming’s James Bond has had on our culture is so deep that even a person who has never seen a 007 movie before knows the character’s trademarks. There’s the shaken-not-stirred vodka martini, his power over the ladies and the fun gadgets, but even the smaller details, like the silver Aston Martin and the Walther PPK. It’s these trademarks that make the superspy more than a cool hero; he's a legendary one.
But the interesting thing about the Bond franchise is that they’ve been making the films continuously for exactly 50 years now, and not only has the medium of film and the action genre completely changed since 1962, so has the entire world. Only the oldest generations of today were alive to see nations fight each other during World War II, and the fear of the USSR and the spread of Communism has waned. So for a character like James Bond – one who is so closely related to the sphere of global politics – the motto becomes “adapt or die.” That’s the amazing, poignant message at the heart of director Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, and it’s what makes the movie unlike anything we’ve ever seen from the Bond franchise.
Not surprisingly, it all starts with a resurrection. At the start of the film, Bond (played by Daniel Craig for the third time) is shot during a failed mission in Turkey and left missing and presumed dead. After spending time away and off the grid, however, he finds himself compelled to return to London when a deadly terrorist attack hits the heart of MI6 and M (Dame Judi Dench) is threatened and told to “think on your sins.” Despite being physically and mentally unfit for service, Bond jumps into the game to try and find who is responsible and in his search discovers not only the man pulling the strings, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), but the horrifying motives behind his actions.
The plot itself is actually rather ordinary, but it’s the thematic balancing act that Mendes creates that makes Skyfall such an interesting work. On the one side you have all of the elements that make a true Bond film, and not only do they provide great moments of nostalgia, Mendes and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan introduce them in a way that doesn’t feel forced or stale. The fan-favorite character Q is finally introduced after a two film absence and provides our hero with a few high-tech toys to play with; Bond adds multiple new notches to his bedpost; a casino once again becomes a great place to dig up information; more than a few bon mots are dispensed after the disposal of an enemy; and sales of vodka, vermouth and olives will surely once again see a spike. It’s effective and necessary, preventing the latest 007 title from blending in with all of the other anonymous action franchises out there right now.
But it's not just the film itself working to stand out-- the central character actually evolves to keep Skyfall from becoming a typical Bond film. Q is no longer an old man in a white lab coat-- he's played by the rather young Ben Whishaw, who quips about the exploding pens the old Q used to hand out, explaining that it's a tool of another age. During their confrontations Silva mocks Bond for his devotion to Queen and country and openly laughs at the cat and mouse game being played between protagonist and antagonist. This even plays on a larger scale, as M makes a speech about how the days of wars against nations have gone and have been replaced by wars both made by and fought against individuals in the shadows. The movie regularly points out the old fashioned and outdated ideas typically associated with Bond, even going as far as to reference the long-past “golden age of espionage.” It’s not cynical or mocking in any way – just the recognition of a need for progression, with Skyfall accomplishes while also warmly regarding the past.
In many ways Skyfall is the movie that Casino Royale, the purported franchise reboot, should have been. With his film Mendes not only resurrects 007, but makes the character’s defining trademarks make more sense in a modern world. It’s important that James Bond always remains James Bond, but it must also be recognized that Dr. No is a much different kind of action film than the ones being made today – and there’s nothing wrong with that. All characters need to grow and change, and the ultimate British superspy is no exception.