Film, James Bond, Writing

The Spectre of Death in NO TIME TO DIE

Death is everywhere in the James Bond franchise.

This has always been true, from the existential nihilism and accidie of Ian Fleming’s original novelised character through to the carefree deadliness of how Cubby Broccoli & Harry Saltzman translated him to the big screen. “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six” voiced Sean Connery’s 007 as far back as Dr. No in 1962. Bond’s license to kill remains one of the core tenets of the character, a chilling aspect that can be forgotten in our hero worship of the man. He is, ultimately, a killer.

In No Time to Die, we find a paradox. Bond has given up his life in the British Secret Service, his life as an assassin, and yet the spectre of death pervades his world in a deeper manner than ever before. Even the title references death, for the first time since 2002’s Die Another Day, and here suggests the fateful understanding that there is no good time to die. It comes for us all, and in this film it even comes for Bond himself, but we almost never anticipate or even sometimes expect it. Death is a constant now in a way it never was for 007 before.

Previously he would die ‘another day’, tomorrow ‘never dies’, or he could ‘live and let’ die. Bond made his peace with death as something that happened to others, not to him. No Time to Die changes that forever.

The film establishes immediately the importance and power of death in No Time to Die, as it presents a pre-credits pre-credits sequence almost, introducing the villain Lyutsifer Safin in stark terms.

Safin is the victim of a horrific, cold-blooded murder of his entire family. He later tells Bond that he watched his mother die in his arms. He is a villain born of death, and he visits that same tragedy upon young Madeleine Swann by murdering her mother in vengeance. Yet he seems, in this sequence, as immortal and unstoppable as Bond once was. Madeline shoots him repeatedly in the chest and yet he sits up and breathes, mask covering most of his scarred face.

Phil Nobile Jr has outlined elsewhere how this ascribes more to the horror genre than it does the deadly glamour of Bond, and indeed Safin presents as more than a little Michael Myers from Halloween in this sequence:

Jump scares, a bit of cat-and-mouse, and even a “killer we think is dead but really isn’t” moment all unfold in a dread-filled tableau. That the whole thing takes place in broad daylight makes it all the more chilling, and the imagery that arises out of the scene could easily have been pulled from some terrifying European darling of the horror fest circuit.

The conversation at the end of the film between Bond and Safin further adds to the personification of Safin as something more than human.

“Your skills die with your body. Mine will survive long after I’m gone…” he suggests, discussing the virus he helps fashion in terms of a legacy left behind. Bond creates a different legacy of course in Mathilde, one that Safin works to appropriate in the final act, but the contrast here is clear. Safin creates death while Bond ends up creating life, which itself is a contrast to how he deals in death. The last person he kills, appropriately, is Safin, and it is in a beautifully tired way. Bond looks away and he pumps bullets into the man, not out of horror or fear, rather simple exhaustion.

If Safin is therefore established as much as vengeful monster than villain, No Time to Die contrasts this with Bond’s character arc being about letting go of the vengeance we saw him bear in Quantum of Solace.

The pre-credits sequence proper in Matera, sees Bond among the grand, ornate tombstones of a classical hillside cemetery on the hot Italian slopes, in a pilgrimage to the Lynd tomb holding the rest place of his beloved Vesper, who betrayed and later gave his life for him in Casino Royale. “I miss you” Bond states before asking for forgiveness. Her ghost has pervaded Daniel Craig’s entire run of the character, she being mentioned in every film bar Skyfall, and he is never truly afforded the opportunity to move past the trauma of her death. The fact SPECTRE bomb her tomb to try and kill Bond is proof enough. Even in death, Vesper has no rest.

We have seen Bond die, in a sense, in Skyfall. That film ‘kills’ the traditional 007 we expect at the end of the pre-credits sequence and he is ‘reborn’ in a purgatory of sorts, a half-broken visage wondering the sands of Turkey, and only facing the ghosts of his childhood does he find the physical and emotional strength to return to the peak 007 we see in Spectre. No Time to Die presents this differently once he has retired. He is in as close to an afterlife as Bond can probably get in a lush, quiet Jamaica with a beautiful lake house, spending his days sailing, fishing, drinking and picking up willing women. There is, nonetheless, a loneliness. A need for connection.

Can we see Felix Leiter as, in some way, the Reaper come for him in this film?

It is Felix who pulls him away from this ‘afterlife’ back into the game, a game that ultimately leads to his death, even if Felix isn’t the one that claims him. Moreover, Felix himself is claimed, suffering the noble death of the friend, the ‘brother’, who Bond forged a connection with. It is the logical extension of the same relationship that License to Kill teased by mailing David Hedison’s Felix and having his bride murdered, but No Time to Die carries it through with Jeffrey Wright’s more geopolitically tormented character. Cary Fukunaga pointedly mirrors Felix’s final moments with Vesper’s as he sinks into the water away from Bond in the boat. The shots are almost identical, the intent similar. Bond loses another person who penetrated the ‘armour’.

Death works its way in a more literal sense into the story of Heracles the virus in No Time to Die, too. Heracles is, of course, the famed Greek hero later bastardised by the Romans into perhaps the more well-known Hercules, but in mythology he is considered the protector and saviour of mankind. M, in developing the virus secretly as a targeted DNA bio-weapon to eliminate threats in advance, surely imagined and named the weapon with this in mind, hence the irony. Heracles is more appropriately a Pandora; a box of deadliness corrupted by SPECTRE and later Safin into a weapon of mass destruction to be sold to the highest bidder. This is a pointed change from the Craig-era Bond plots of the last fifteen years, this specific focus on the mass production and distribution of death.

Casino Royale was about the financing of terrorism in the wake of 9/11 more than it was terrorism itself, while Quantum of Solace explored the corruption of national government in areas where natural resources will be at a premium (that film will appreciate in prescience year on year). Skyfall and Spectre in differing ways then became about global security through the power of information, of either compromising the net of online secrecy or gaining control of the technological mechanisms that govern our democracies. Those films saw Bond face threats that were expressly about changing the world for the worst.

No Time to Die introduces a threat which is more acute and immediate in Heracles, an agent of death in a different way to 007 himself, and one that is potently and unexpectedly timed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Indeed, Heracles—much like Covid—is a virus that is undetectable to the human eye, passed on by contact and can live in someone’s system without people knowing.

Granted, it is immediately fatal, it is impossible to rid from the system, and it is bespoke initially, but Safin does transform Heracles into a weapon of mass destruction he is willing to sell to agents of nefarious governments to spread death across the world. It becomes what we could consider an even more lethal variant of what we’ve experienced in Covid, and in that sense the impact and power of the deadly threat in No Time to Die is palpable in a way the more exotic viral threat in a film such as Moonraker can never be. Heracles, like 007, is a silent killer you might never know was there until it was too late.

The allusions to Greek mythology continue in the treatment of SPECTRE across the film. If M creates Heracles, therefore making him Zeus, then Ernst Stavro Blofeld could be read as Hades – God of the underworld, sending death and destruction from his underground Belmarsh cell. “We will rise like the Gods of Olympus” he declares to his SPECTRE agents during the party in Cuba, placing himself in the pantheon of classical deities. Blofeld even uses a henchman Bond terms as ‘Cyclops’, the giant, one-eyed creature from Greek myth. Blofeld’s disembodied eye allows him to see all and bear witness to Heracles slaying his own agents, rising up and killing the ‘Gods’ before they can ascend, in the key demonstration of the death the virus is capable of visiting.

We are led into No Time to Die believing that Madeleine is marked for death. She is, after all, the woman Bond loves. We saw the last two women in the last 60 years to affect him so—Vesper and before her Contessa Tracy di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service—end up dead. Many fans were convinced Madeleine would die during the opening pre-credits sequence. Yet in many ways, the film intentionally delivers a slight of hand. The scripts reprise of the iconic “we have all the time in the world” line from OHMSS does not presage Madeleine’s death but rather Bond’s.

We becomes “you” have all the time in the world come the end, as 007 finds his no good time to die.

Much will be written on the death of James Bond, certainly in this iteration, but you cannot watch No Time to Die once aware his passing is how it ends in the same way. It takes on a deeper significance in relation to death of any previous Bond movie.

Even aware that our hero will return in a new guise in a few years time, the very fact 007 can die on screen makes him more of a vulnerable, modern hero. Granted, the method of his death might be rather contrived—infected with Heracles he chooses to allow British missiles to fall on him in Safin’s base rather than escape, knowing he can never again hold his child and her mother—but it thematically caps everything No Time to Die has explored across the film. How death is often swift and cannot be reckoned with.

It ends with 007 as myth. “I’m going to tell you a story about a man. His name was Bond, James Bond…” so begins Madeleine to 007’s daughter Mathilde as they drive his Aston Martin to the strains of Louis Armstrong. His death turns Bond into legend, into Heracles himself, in the eyes of his daughter. Safin suggests they are both heroes but we know the truth. The hero remains Bond, even if No Time to Die positions him as a different character in some ways than Bond movies past. Statues may never be built of him or records kept of his achievements but those who loved him will know and remember. It is an ending that could only happen if Bond dies and, in some ways, would work as the end of the entire franchise. What else could Bond become than myth? Is that not the destiny of all heroes?

James Bond will return, and he will of course bring death with him. We simply now know that there is time for him to die, and not even 007 can escape what he deals in the most.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s