You know that there are too many gadgets in our lives when even James Bond is sick of them. Yesterday, when I received the Skyfall DVD from Netflix, and watched it on my widescreen TV, I figured I would be seeing just another James Bond movie. And on the surface, it is just that, a pretty good movie featuring the most famous super-spy of all time. But its deeper, hidden meaning expresses an unconscious revulsion against the very gadgetry in which this franchise once gloried. Before examining this deeper, hidden meaning, I provide the obligatory spoiler alert.
The first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962), had no gadget. In that film, a man from Q-branch gives Bond a Walther PPK, to replace the Beretta, which the man dismisses as being fine for a lady’s handbag. It would not be until From Russia with Love (1963) that Bond would get his first gadget from Q, a black briefcase, with all sorts of nifty stuff in it. But the die was really cast in Goldfinger (1964), when Bond was given an Aston Martin, with machine guns, an ejection-seat, and I forget what all else. After that, no Bond movie was complete until Q performed the ritual of giving Bond his gadget. By the time we got to Thunderball (1965), we had begun to weary a bit of this routine, but by then it was too late. Like technology itself, it had acquired a life of its own. But in Skyfall, Q gives Bond another Walther PPK, to replace the one he lost, thereby bringing us full circle, back to that first movie, when all a spy really needed was a gun.
The movie starts with Bond chasing a bad guy. The bad guy has stolen an important hard drive, and Bond is getting lots of assistance from a technological control center. This is just to get us in the mood, to remind us of the technology that now saturates our lives. Then Bond is shot and falls to his death. I do not say this simply because no one could survive being shot twice, and then falling hundreds of feet into a river, where he is knocked unconscious, while suspended deep below the surface. It is also because the movie just leaves him there. We never see him coming to and swimming to the surface, or being rescued by some bikini-clad Bond girl, as would usually be the case. The rest of the movie is Bond’s hallucinatory fantasy in the final moments of his life, where he dreams of a return to a simpler world. This is suggested by the theme song, which has the lyrics, “For this is the end / I've drowned and dreamt this moment.”
When we next see Bond, he seems to be in some tropical paradise, safe from the world of gadgets, where he is content to spend the rest of his days. But then he realizes it is not enough to hide from those gadgets. He must return to London and stamp them out. It is after he gets back that he has the encounter with Q. When Q gives Bond the Walther PPK, plus a routine tracking device that is really no big deal, Bond seems surprised. Q asks him if he was expecting an exploding pen, and then notes derisively that they don’t do that anymore. Well, thank goodness for that. It’s not just that we are tired of that cliché. In a world full of gadgets, what could Q have possibly given Bond that would have stood out from all the technological clutter that now constitutes just so much background scenery? Nothing short of a little box with a button on it that if pressed would destroy the God particle could possibly get our attention nowadays.
Later in the movie, there is a parliamentary inquiry, at which M is the key witness. The argument being made by one of the ministers is that we don’t need secret agents anymore, because now we have technology. Just then, the bad guys burst in the door and begin shooting up the place, almost killing the contemptuous MP, until that obsolete secret agent James Bond shows up to save the day. Looks like that parliamentary inquiry is over.
MI6 had by this time already retreated underground in an effort to be technologically inaccessible, but now Bond decides to go all the way, and retreat to his childhood home in Scotland. Ultimately, this expresses a desire to return to the safety of his mother’s womb, where not even an ultrasound can get to him. But first, he goes to a secret garage, where he and M get in the old Aston Martin of Goldfinger days, because that way they cannot be tracked. But then he arranges things with Q so that he can be tracked. Well, how much logic do you expect in a man’s hallucinatory dream? Besides, it’s just another expression of his ambivalence to technology. In order for Bond’s plan to work, he needs the very technology he is fleeing from. Later, we find out the real reason for his bringing the Aston Martin. It’s so the goddamn thing can finally be destroyed. In this way, Bond avenges himself on the gadget that really started it all.
When Bond and M get to the house, they encounter the gamekeeper, from whom we learn that Bond has been an orphan since childhood, and he is thus incapable of having the maternal protection that he unconsciously seeks. In fact, the situation is reversed. M becomes his mother-substitute, and he must protect her, instead of the other way around. In any event, the house has not changed in all these years. Bond, M, and the gamekeeper lay their weapons on the table. Aside from Bond’s pistol, there is an old rifle, a shotgun, and a big old knife, the most primitive weapon of the bunch. Right then, we know that it will be the knife that kills the villain, a slap in the face to all the gadgetry Bond has had to endure for fifty years now.
When M, his mother-substitute, dies, Bond realizes that he will never be able to escape from this gadget-saturated world, that there is no going back to those days of innocence, when you could go a whole year without someone inventing something. The movie should have ended with M dying in his arms, as Bond’s dream comes to an end, and death, not his mother, embraces him, giving him the sanctuary of the grave.
Instead, the final scenes, which are not part of his dream, are merely a device to suggest that there will be more Bond movies to come. I suspect that in the next one, Q will be back with a real gadget again. There is just no getting away from them.