Why is No Time to Die still trying to prove James Bond’s relevance?
There is palpable insecurity in the most recent James Bond films directed by Daniel Craig, including No time to die. One of the big thematic concerns of Craig’s tenure has been the tired old debate over whether a veteran spy like James Bond is of any use in the modern world.
Casino Royale reintroduced the character of James Bond as “a blunt instrument” fallen into a world of financial wickedness and “shorting airline stocks”. Quantum of Consolation juxtaposes the character’s action-packed journey into the heart of a dark conspiracy with the more mundane realpolitik alignment between UK and US intelligence agencies and sinister private interests, with Bond’s discovery of a traditional supervillain scheme introducing welcome moral clarity.
In Fall from the sky, the metaphor is more explicit. Bond meets his new quartermaster (Ben Whishaw) at the National Gallery, looking at Joseph Turner’s The Fighter Temeraire and contemplate a “great old ignominiously carried away warship for the scrap”. Following a series of public humiliations and losses under his supervision, M (Judi Dench) is dragged to the Intelligence and Security Committee and accused of being nostalgic for a ‘golden age of l ‘espionage’ lost.
Spectrum continues this trend, as M’s replacement Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself caught in the midst of “the greatest upheaval in British intelligence history”. Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) has been promoted to head of a merged intelligence service. Believing that human agents are redundant and that “drones could do all (their) dirty work overseas”, Denbigh advocates for the adoption of a radical “Nine Eyes” surveillance initiative “to abandon the program forever. double-0 “.
This theme is found in No time to die, when a daring raid on a top secret government lab reveals that Mallory was working on his own potential replacement for classic espionage: a set of deadly, programmable nanobots known as “Heracles” that could kill enemies without no collateral damage and no need for trained agents to pull the trigger. If James Bond was not retired at the start of No time to die, it seems likely that he will be fired.
In these three most recent films, the alternative to James Bond’s old-fashioned spy profession is presented as monstrous. In Fall from the sky, the villainous Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) is a former agent whose skills were more rooted in computer hacking than in practical espionage work and whose ambition led him to be captured by the Chinese. In Spectrum, Denbigh ultimately works with the villainous Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). In No time to die, “Heracles” is transformed into “a weapon of mass destruction”.
Inevitably, Bond is thrown into conflict with these existential challenges for his continued relevance. In Fall from the sky, Bond is the only person who can protect Mr. de Silva. In Spectrum, Mallory and Bond work together to prevent the release of “Nine Eyes”. In No time to die, Bond personally leads an expedition to stop Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) from releasing the nanobots to the world. In each case, Bond wins the token battle – often at a high price. It proves its lasting utility.
There is something unconvincing about this, especially as a recurring concern. It feels contrived on a basic character level. In Spectrum, Mallory argues with Denbigh over the need for the double-0 program, over the value of looking an enemy “in the eye” and having to “make the call”, something that cannot be automated using ” all the drones, bugs, cameras, transcripts, all the surveillance in the world. So it’s a surprise when Mallory kisses “Heracles” in No time to die.
This anxiety runs deep, so it’s worth unpacking and exploring. At a basic and literal level in the narrative, this recurring tension is absurd. James Bond has a specific skill set, and his missions often rely on infiltration and interrogation. These are not skills that can be replicated by hackers, drones, or nanobots. It is hard to imagine Silva, “Nine Eyes” or “Heracles” succeeding in solving the kidnapping of the spaceship of You only live twice or the voodoo drug trafficking of Live and Let Die.
Even updating previous franchise entries, Casino Royale emphasizes the importance for Bond of being able to sit across from Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) and play poker. (“You never play your hand,” Bond explains of the game. “You play the man in front of you.”) The entire plot of Quantum of Consolation depends on Bond unraveling a vast conspiracy around Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) who is completely hidden from computers and readings in Whitehall.
This argument is reinforced by advancing outside the world of cinema. Bond is a fictional character. Aside from the occasional unexplained rocket launch into the Pacific Ocean, Bond’s villains aren’t a real problem to the world. The public is smart enough to know that. They know how a James Bond movie works and bought a ticket knowing it was entertainment. Everyone in a theater is watching No time to die literally bought into the premise.
There are debates to be had about the proliferation of drone strikes in modern government gear, the overbreadth of state surveillance, and the implications of artificial intelligence and technological advancements. These are real issues and they deserve to be addressed. However, Fall from the sky, Spectrum, and No time to die are not Actually engage with these real world topics. The bottom line is always that these elements are inherently inferior to a fictional super-spy. At the very least, they would be a lot less fun to watch.
As such, it seems safe to admit that this existential crisis isn’t literal anxiety about the state of the intelligence community in the real world. These movies don’t make the point that real-life spies face redundancy in the age of automation, because no one would confuse Bond with a real-life spy (maybe Bond should “learn to code. “). Instead, these intrigues appear to be linked to deeper uncertainty over Bond’s enduring relevance as intellectual property.
These questions about Bond’s relevance as a fictional character make some sense in the context of the Daniel Craig era. Much of Craig’s tenure is defined as a reaction to what came before him. Casino Royale exists as a strong backlash against the previous film in the franchise, Die another day with Pierce Brosnan. Die another day was the twentieth in the official series and was intended as a big celebration. It has become a spectacular embarrassment.
In The Los Angeles TimesManohla Dargis noted that the film was “uncomfortable between the lingering self-parody and the filmmakers’ clear desire for a Bond vehicle to be taken seriously as an action film.” In The Washington PostAnn Hornaday argued that the franchise “was starting to creak not only with age, but also with the tension of constant one-upmanship.” While acknowledging that he had a great time shooting the film, Brosnan himself admitted that the film was “so ridiculous”.
It didn’t help the things that Die another day was released towards the end of 2002. That was before superhero movies took over Hollywood. Instead, the blockbusters of the year were dominated by spy films: The sum of All Fears, XXX, Ballistics: Ecks vs. Sever, Bad company, Austin Powers in Goldmember, I spy, and The suit. Not all were good, but many were decidedly modern and were used to make Die another day (and the character of James Bond) look like a relic.
Spy Thriller of the Year was Doug Liman’s Bourne’s identity. It was cheap, vital and well founded. It made James Bond outdated. In The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern boasted: “There is no way you would mistake this for James Bond, and no reason you would want to.” Press coverage for Casino Royale explained how the character was reinvented to compete with “modern icons such as Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne”. Director Martin Campbell was faced with questions about how the Bourne the franchise “was going to affect the James Bond films”.
The franchise had faced these challenges before. One of the central tensions of Golden eye was the question of what it meant to make a James bond film in the aftermath of the cold war. So it makes sense that Casino Royale would ask what the franchise looked like as a result of Bourne’s identity and XXX. One of the smartest things about Casino Royale is how the film doubles down as Bond as a much better performing spy.
However, Casino Royale has been a huge critical and commercial success. Fall from the sky was also praised and became the first film in the franchise to earn over $ 1 billion at the global box office. While Quantum of Consolation and Spectrum were more divided among fans and critics, they performed well at the global box office. Even corrected for inflation, Spectrum is the fourth highest grossing film in the series. Meanwhile, aside from the occasional rumor of a sequel, the Bourne the franchise seems to be at a standstill.
The James bond the franchise is secure. It’s lucrative. It is a creative and commercial success. As such, it’s odd that the series seems so preoccupied with asserting its relevance. Fall from the sky at least approached the subject in a convincing way, but it has since become a diminishing returns exercise. By the time the franchise arrives Spectrum, it is Denbigh’s sarcastic complaints about “a man on the ground” “running around with his license to kill” that need to retire.
There’s a lot to appreciate in Craig’s tenure as an iconic secret agent, including the franchise’s increased willingness to be introspective. At their best, these five films question what it means to be James Bond in a rapidly changing world with shifting cultural values. These are questions worth exploring when it comes to a cultural icon, and there is a lot of drama to be exploited there. It’s much more convincing than considering Bond’s potential replacement with a drone or nanobot.