Skyfall is bitter sweet. There's an appropriate hang-dog nostalgia in the air for the 50th anniversary of James Bond. Of course, on the one hand, it's an auspicious occasion and we are all celebrating. But, like the much trumpeted criticism of what consumerism has done to Jesus' birthday, we now celebrate Bond without really giving a shit about his 'true meaning'. Bond is bigger than Britain and he is understandably a little bit apologetic.
That is not to suggest that the film is all wringing-hands and waving linen hankies, on the contrary it opens with the most impressive action sequence I have ever seen - one that references every cheap thrill and daredevil raise ever made in film.
Swooping off a motorcycle over the edge of a bridge in pursuit of a bad guy, Bond is suddenly atop a train, wrestling with the enemy, hurtling toward a low tunnel. Another agent is covering them with firepower. If she takes the shot she might hit Bond, if she doesn't both he and his opponent will disappear into the tunnel and be off the radar and out of the sight-line of the watching commanders back home.
'What should I do?' she asks M, the ruler of the mi6 British intelligence super-squad. Heartless Mummy to a legion of orphans. Matriarch symbol for the whole darn British empire. Lover of shortbreads and baths and bulldogs and all that is good and right.
'Take the shot', says M.
A second later James Bond is falling from the speeding train and into the opening credits. Agent down.
It's an odd start to a movie, a fake kill, a shot of adrenaline delivered to an audience who know darn well it's just for fun. Bond isn't dead. He just turned 50. And we only just opened our Jaffas ferchristsake.
Perhaps what this opening foreshadows is the eschewing of the double blind, of the script trickery that rises and plunges, sacrificing emotional complexity for the sake of rouse and surprise.
In Skyfall the audience can relax. It's assumed that we already know what going to happen. Bond will defeat his opponent, fuck a few broads, drink a martini and drive a flash car. This is what we are here for. The real surprise is that while we are letting all this glamour and formula wash over us, we will also be prompted to do some actual thinking, not about what is about to happen on screen but about what is going on right now, in the world, and what happened to bring us to this point.
Birthdays, when the party has calmed to a lull and the gin is tapped out, are a great time for reflection.
In the aftermath of the fake death of Bond, while our hero does tequila shots while balancing a scorpion on his wrist in some bar in Thailand, the British secret service is experiencing a leadership crisis.
Bureaucrats want answers. What makes M think she can go around giving orders that get agents shot? And who was it that leaked the document containing the list of names of all British undercover operatives in the global terrorist network?
The empire has become a joke. They keep talking about 'firewalls' like computer security were a new issue. They are operating out of 2001. They need to update their IOS and get with the future.
Especially since there is a traumatised cyber terrorist on the loose hacking into their shit and blowing up their headquarters.
The villain in SkyfallI is unforgettable. Javier Bardem plays Raoul Silva. An ex MI6 operative who fell victim to the Chinese in Hong Kong. He lost half his face when his cyanide capsule proved dodgy. He blames his Mummy of course. His Maam. M. And now, what with the aforementioned firewalls and internet smarts he is ready to reap his revenge. M, the cold bitch, must pay.
Silva then, with his stop-at-nothing deranged revenge drive, becomes the symbolic brother of Bond, who was also betrayed by M, who also acknowledges that she is a bitch. They are a Cain and Abel of the empire. The true sons of patriotism and colonialism.
Silva is what Bond could become if it wasn't for loyalty, steadfastness, 'a little thing called love of country'.
When Bond sees the smoking ruins of the MI6 office on the news he puts down the brunette and the scorpion. Time to get back to business.
The question of why Bond would go back to work after yet another near-miss death at the hands of the crown is of course the same thing that distinguishes him from brother Raoul. Unflinching, unapologetic patriotism.
Silva loves the wrong way, with embarrassing, feminine, distinctly Latin sentiment. He blames M for his disfiguration instead of seeing his fate as noble service of country. He's bisexual. Oedipally inconsolable. Aching for a Mummy who only spreads her legs for England.
Bond gets it. He'll let bygones be bloody bygones. But then, Bond is British and British is not something you become. You are born into it.
Silva's opening speech, a gloriously delivered deranged creep monologue is also a testimony about colonial violence. He tells us how, in order to stem a plague of coconut eating rats, his (native) grandmother trapped and starved them (of coconut, of love) until they cannibalistically devoured each other. Then, when only two rats remained - the survivors - she let them go. Though now, they've lost their taste for coconut. Now they only eat rat.
It's a chilling allegory, a nice parody on the philosophically profound tale-of-the-primitive so often evoked in colonial rhetoric, academia and literature. This tale unmistakably points to the civil unrest that accompanies colonial rule while also biting sharply at the husk of capitalism, that global neo-colonialism predicated on a cannibalism of resources. The starving many feed the fattening few.
Now, after a lifetime of colonial oppression, Silva is the ultimate anarchist. He knows that digital technology means the tools of oppression are accessible to the masses. Destruction is as beautiful as construction. Webs more malleable than borders.
'England!' he laughs at Bond, 'The Empire! You are living in ruins there too.'
We have all heard the argument that, as far as colonisers go, the Brits were a pretty fair bunch. Indigenous Australians, for example, should not whinge so much. Rather, they should count themselves lucky that in the inevitable process of colonisation they did not happen instead upon the blood thirsty Spaniards. And besides, a modern nation can't be taken to task for the sins of history.
Or at least, that used to be the line. But the line is becoming as hard to walk as it always was to swallow.
Raoul Silva's Mexican sugar skull insignia clings to the hacked screen of the British security system above the banner: think on your sins.
It's significant that Silva is from South America, a continent with an extensive and bloody colonial history with the British Empire. In a related aside, Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond wrote much of his bestselling prose from his expatriate estate in British Jamaica, right on the cusp of the countries successful bid for independence.
The Bond franchise has a fraught history with colonialism and empire thinking. When the USA prevented Britain from intervening in the Egyptian nationalising of the Suez Canal in 1956, the empire had a rude awakening to the dawning of what would become post-colonial consciousness. Suddenly it was not simply okay to annex territories for the good of the empire. The empire, in fact, was somewhat of a joke label as the world turned attentions to the superpowers of the USSR and USA engaging in a race to colonise the wider solar system. It's probably no surprise then that Ian Fleming's Bond books and the movies that they inspired gained massive popularity throughout the 50s and 60s. Here was a narrative of British relevancy at a time when such a thing was strictly past tense. A palliative bedtime story for Brits coming to terms with their status as second-class empire.
In 2012, Britain is in as much need of a quantum of solace as ever before. Only a few months ago, in October, the first court case for colonial violence was brought against the British Sovereign. Three Kenyans sought restitution for torture and detention at the hands of the Brits during the eight year so-called 'Kenyan Emergency' in which colonial powers sought to quash the rebel uprising of the Mao Mao, a secret society opposed to British rule.
The Mao Mao were a picture perfect bunch of 'villains'. They ritualistically drank blood and swore farmers to oaths of dissidence. Unafraid of breaking eggs to make omelettes, the British plan for beating the Mao Mao entailed the imprisonment of over 150,000 Kenyans. Torture, starvation and tens of thousands of deaths resulted from this measure. This was all going on right through the 50s and into the 60s. You know, the Bond years.
Fifty years later, colonial history went on trial and the Kenyans won. For once the losers got their hands on the history books. The ruling opens the British to an unimaginable number of potential future lawsuits regarding past colonial atrocities. Think on your sins has become a legal imperative.
Colonially speaking, Britain has been 'a very bad Mummy'.
In Skyfall, M is under fire not only by super-villain Silva but by the British parliament. A minister who so doesn't get it is asking her to assume accountability for the shemozzle that the secret service has become.
'It's like you are still living in a golden age of espionage', says the minister, 'where intelligence is out only resource'.
The tone here is strictly sentimental. 'If only', the unspoken answer.
Postmodernity, postcolonialism, all those prefixes just muddy the mustard. It's so hard to protect the empire in a broadbanded, post-empire world.
Although M makes a pretty noble speech about country etc. it's clear her time is drawing to a close. The whole of her operation has in fact been driven underground, in to 'Winston Churchill's tunnels', a wry, metaphoric office.
Knowing that although parliamentary accusations hurt at least a little, vengeful machine guns break skulls for real, Bond drives M to refuge, somewhere on the set of Heartbeat, the manor where he grew up.
Here, they get down to a lot of talk about doing things the old fashioned way. Knives when guns won't suffice. British nous and bravery and somewhere, on the edge of this, a distinctly colonial nostalgia.
It's a harking back to, if not feudalism, at least the working manor system, a place of distinct hierarchies uninterrupted by the confusion and drifting power lines of digital networks.
Say what you will about the British Empire, they got the job done. Anyone for omelette?
The final show down is bitter sweet. Silva turns out to have a real eye for symbolism but ultimately, he too is guilty of looking back at the past. Only Bond remains unsentimental. He reveals his true feeling for the family manor as he blows it to smithereens.
Burn the ruins. The future is Bond. The new Bond. Daniel Craig’s Bond.
While we could say that this ending points to the endurance of patriotism against all odds, I think rather, Bond's survival proves that while empires rise and fall on their ideologies, corporate entertainment franchises will prevail.
While British films often struggle to make a dent in the corporate sector, Skyfall a truly international entity, is set to be the highest grossing film ever.
For the Bond franchise, even if it has to eat itself - it's worth it for all those sweet, sweet coconuts.