James Bond’s ‘Skyfall’, or the decadence of the West

Is ‘Skyfall’ telling us that, like Bond, Europe should to go back to its roots for regeneration?

Bond movies consistently emphasised the "superiority of the West over the rest" [AP]

Skyfall, the new installment of the James Bond movie series, is already one of the most successful films of 2012. It was the highest grossing movie of the year thus far in the United Kingdom, where it was released on October 26, and has grossed more than any other Bond movie in the United States since its debut on November 8. 

Yet, the film lacks some of the trademark ingredients of the Bond series: It features surprisingly few high-tech gadgets, a relatively terse display of Alpha-male sexuality on the part of Bond (Daniel Craig) and, most of all, a Bond-girl (Berenice Marlohe) who fails to be rescued by 007 and is killed shortly after making her grand entrance. Why, then, the astounding popularity and critical acclaim that met the movie? The answer is that, if Bond has changed, so have we. 

The plot of Skyfall is a variation on the age-old myth of the phoenix, as Bond makes a comeback from the realm of the dead, first literally and then metaphorically. After being presumably killed in the film’s action-packed opening sequence, the spy who never dies reappears in London ready to protect his country under attack. Yet this is an enervated Bond well past his prime, his physical decline accompanied by the psychological scars resulting from so many years of chasing bad guys. 

M (Judi Dench) is not herself, either. Underneath her steely demeanour, she suffers from pangs of conscience and doubts whether she still has what it takes to get the job of saving England done. If it seems to be too late for the old M to pick herself up, the film proves that it is certainly not too late for Bond. He regenerates, overcomes his decaying slumber, and goes back to being his brash, assured self in the final part of the movie. 

Obsession with old age

It is difficult not to recognise in Skyfall‘s obsession with old age, decadence and ruin a not-so-veiled reference to the ongoing Euro-crisis and, more broadly, to the waning of the West’s preponderance in world affairs. This is perhaps the key to understanding the film’s success. Viewers instinctively identified with the movie’s plot of collapse and regeneration and secretly hoped that reality would imitate art. 

 James Bond exhibition examines his image

Let us analyse this parallel step by step. From the release of Dr No in 1962, the Bond series has always been Eurocentric. Non-Western countries appeared, at best, as exotic backdrops to 007’s adventures. At worst, they were the hiding place of bandits, often renegade Westerners themselves. Coinciding with the post-war optimism that accompanied European reconstruction and, later, with the Cold War fight against communism, Bond movies consistently emphasised the superiority of the West over the rest. 

In Skyfall, however, we quickly realise that something is wrong on the Western front. It is not just Bond and M’s physical and moral decay that mirror the decline of England. Much to the disappointment of technology buffs, we learn, for instance, that 007’s gadgets are out because of budget cuts, in an obvious stab at austerity measures throughout Europe. And when Bond is unable to fight back after a bomb strikes at the heart of MI6, the headquarters of the British foreign intelligence services, shortly followed by an attack on the offices of the British government, we cannot help but long for the good old days. 

In other details, too, the movie includes some telling twists to the staple Bond material. The villain, Silva, a peroxide-blond Xavier Bardem that some critics have linked to Julian Assange, is a former MI6 spy who fell out with M. His hiding place is on an island somewhere off the coast of mainland China, from where he carefully plans the demise of the United Kingdom. The lesson to be drawn here is that Europe’s problems result from internal squabbles; Europe will only be defeated by Asian might if it allows dissent within its ranks. 

More interesting still, is the film’s suggestion on how to overcome the crisis. Unable to defeat the more technologically savvy Silva on his own ground, Bond decides to return to his ancestral home Skyfall, an isolated estate in the Scottish highlands. It is here that the final showdown takes place. Armed with old-fashioned hunting rifles, knives and an artisanal gas bomb, and aided by the ageing overseer of the property, Bond predictably defeats the villain. 

Europe’s losing battle

That 007, who used to carry the most high-tech equipment, is outdone by the Asian-made paraphernalia of Silva, speaks to Europe’s losing battle in today’s fast-paced technological race. It is telling that, in order to annihilate Silva, Bond requires a location and weapons that bring us back to the 19th century, the heyday of British dominance worldwide. 

“The Bond series has always been Eurocentric; non-Western countries appeared, at best, as exotic backdrops to 007’s adventures.”

This return to the roots at a time of crisis signals the need to rethink the West’s foundational fictions of permanent progress and increasing prosperity. The second, metaphorical rebirth of 007 only happens after Silva and his thugs destroy his ancestral home. Struggling to come to terms with the obliteration of his origins, Bond informs viewers, in a classical Freudian quip, that he really never liked the old mansion. 

Is Skyfall telling us that, like Bond, Europe should to go back to its roots for regeneration? Or is the film’s subliminal message more progressive? Could Skyfall be intimating that, in order for renewal to occur, some of darkest European myths, including that of Western superiority upon which much of the Bond series is built, need to be demolished? 

The finale of the movie points in the direction of a more conservative interpretation. We learn that sacrifices – M’s demise, in this case – have to be made for decadence to be overcome. Yet, the newly reborn MI6 that arises from her ashes is clearly a return to tradition and the status quo

A male M played by Ralph Fiennes replaces the strong female M of the last seven Bond films. Moneypenny, M’s female secretary, reappears after being absent in the last two movies, as does a male Q. We are back to 1960s Bond turf with clearly demarcated gender roles.  

As 007 cheerfully enters the new headquarters of the MI6, viewers feel confident that another installment of the series is sure to be released in the next few years. Too bad that, for England and the West, which Bond still stands for, the times of confidence and optimism do not seem to be coming back.

Patricia Vieira teaches at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese of Georgetown University. She is the author of Seeing Politics Otherwise: Vision in Latin American and Iberian Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011); Portuguese Film 1930-1960: The Staging of the New State Regime (Lisbon: Colibri, 2011; forthcoming with Continuum, 2013); and co-editor of Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought (New York and London: Continuum, 2011). For more information, check here