“You only live twice, or so it says,” croons Nancy Sinatra over the titles of You Only Live Twice, the fifth film featuring super spy James Bond — a character whose existential quandaries have, to some degree, become the subject of the entire franchise. Not unlike the classic noir films of the ‘40s and ‘50s, existential angst has always been the subtext of these films; when the Berlin Wall fell (1995’s GoldenEye) and the Twin Towers fell (2006’s Casino Royale), subtext became super text. It becomes a focal point of the most recent James Bond adventure, Spectre, a film that places Bond at the center of a changing world, where the fate of that world comes second to the fate of the character. As he rides off in his spiffy Aston Martin DB5, there’s a tacit suggestion that maybe we don’t need James Bond anymore. But I have an idea for the next 007 film, which might sound borrowed from Blofeld’s blueprints: they should kill off James Bond.
It sounds mad, yes, but what seems overlooked in Spectre is not how the film recontextulizes Bond’s love life and personal journey (however important that may be), but how it recontextulizes him as a character and as an icon in a modern world. With the series’ reboot in 2006, the back-to-basics approach meant not only updating the character’s tone or even illustration, but also considering what place James Bond has in contemporary society. He is at heart an anachronism, and those aspects begin to reveal themselves with each successive film. The tech in Casino Royale is relatively lo-fi: no gadgets, save for a capsule that’s inserted into Bond’s arm that allows MI6 to keep track of him.
But part of Bond’s appeal is his ability to vacillate between iconography and faux-anonymity. Everyone knows who he is, but the gift of being 007 is the illusion that he can disappear, go undercover, and become a part of the shadows like any other spy. His ability to go back and forth between Nationalist Hero and Rogue Gentleman Agent has made that aspect of technology all the more compelling. But in these films, he faces a form of power that uses technology as an all-encompassing tool: money, geopolitics, terrorism, and, yes, world domination.
Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) relied on money in a basic form of gamesmanship, but, as M mentions, he also played the stock market, taking advantage of impending financial crisis following the event of 9/11. Dominic Greene’s (Mathieu Amalric) diplomatic tactics allowed him to cause a draught in Bolivia, raising the prices of water, thus funding SPECTRE’s future projects. Silva (Javier Bardem) presents his threat through cyberterrorism, leaking the photos of MI6 agents on the Internet, taking a torch to the Union Jack digitally. And Blofeld is the culmination of this, using SPECTRE as a dominant power to break down global democracy as we know it through digital technology, including global surveillance.
Spectre actually presents a mirror image of Skyfall: in the latter film, Silva walks down a nearly empty walkway towards the camera, where Bond is seated, his hands tied. On both sides, against the walls, are dusty computer servers, their newness juxtaposed with the aging, decrepit walls. Silva looks clean and tidy; Bond, worn and broken down. In Spectre, Blofeld leads Bond and Swann down a pathway in his lair, where computers, monitors, and cronies line the walls. But Bond is, comparably, alone in his power. You can barely teach an old dog new tricks here.
What you see in the Daniel Craig Cycle, as it were, is a gradual progression and evolution of how technology is used to acquire power. Bond has never been necessarily behind technology in the past, but what he presents is a single person on the field, one man against the world. Spectre’s bureaucratic antagonist Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) declares the Double O program defunct, the ultimate sign that Bond isn’t needed after all; he suggests that dominance in New World Order means an even more dispassionate way of getting things done for the government, even if it means employing drones and surveilling everyone. Bond and M’s Snowden-esque attitudes may be present, but they don’t actually change the course of what occurs.
Films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Eagle Eye have broached the subject of the surveillance state, but Spectre resonates differently because that subject matter is crucial to the protagonist’s very existence. Grounding Bond in a gritty version of reality was one thing; here, the series confronts the idea that espionage is no longer fought on the ground, and therefore someone like James Bond is irrelevant.
Sure, James Bond saves the day at the end of the film, as he always does, but to what end? 007 rides off with Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux), implicitly abject from modern spying. Or maybe Bond’s already dead. Either way, in the battle between analog and digital, digital has won.
In the next James Bond film, it’s safe to assume that digital technology will once again rear its ugly head. If Daniel Craig’s James Bond weren’t to survive this outing, it would be the most daring decision the series would ever make. It would mean reconciling the inherent anachronistic qualities of Bond not only as a character, but as a representative of a dated old world ideal. It may feel like a concession, but on a dramatic level, it could be a game changer.
But just because James Bond is a dated character doesn’t mean he can’t exist. There’s pleasure to be found in acknowledging 007 as a cultural artifact, an escapist adventurer that can make fantasies of glamor, danger, and conventional hetero masculinity come true. The uncomfortable tension between Bond as anachronism and the modern world makes for good storytelling. A retro period piece could works just as well. So, once James Bond dies, we could return to the days of the Cold War, perhaps, with a secret agent tied to old-fashioned romanticism of spying. Maybe Bond will always be around, but he’s a man who might have to die another day.