by Anastasia Arkhipova
No Time To Die, the twenty-fifth movie in the James Bond series, after a long and painful wait has been finally released in September and succeeded in becoming one of the highest-grossing films in 2021. Though, it still needs to gross close to $900 million just to break even – the cost of the numerous delays of the premiere due to the pandemic. For once, the financial strategy of Hollywood, usually meticulously calculating all the risks, transforms into the grandiose Native American rite of potlatch, a fascinating festival of destroying wealth. But is it not exactly what James Bond’s lifestyle is, when he brutally smashes yet another version of his legendary Austin Martin, or spectacularly demolishes ancient Venetian palazzos into dust, or squanders eye-watering amounts of dough on casinos, ridiculously luxurious digs, and booze?
In NTTD, the narrative arc that connects all five films with Daniel Craig, Bond’s avatar for the last 15 years, comes to its end. In the final story all the (Gordian) knots have been severed, and death caught up with Bond as well as his lifetime associates that accompanied him since the early 1960s –– the archenemy Stavro Blofeld and the American counterpart Felix Leiter. This makes the future plans of Eon, the company responsible for adaptations of Ian Flemings’ novels since 1962, even more intriguing, when they seek to pull themselves out from such a tight place while creating the new adventures of the superspy. The Craig-starred episodes marked a relaunch of the Bond series, with the hero becoming more fleshed out, realistic, and complex. Even his body has changed into something we have not seen in the previous incarnations of Bond, when the steel athleticism of a battle machine is amalgamated with the beguiling beauty of an ancient Greek statue, revealing a paradox of the feminine in the utmost masculine (this has already been pointed out by a number of academic scholars cited by Esquire UK). The camera is openly admiring Bond rather than his girls. Eva Green who plays Vesper Lynd, Bond’s paramour in Casino Royale, has hit the nail on the head when she quipped in an interview saying that “he’s the Bond girl, not me. He’s the one who comes out of the sea with his top off.” In NTTD, the camera, following the flow of an improvised tropical shower, seductively slides down Bond’s naked body, freezing on the very boundary of the permissible, right under the perfectly shaped Apollo’s belt. Flawless as it is, this divine flesh exists in the implacable earthly time: the antique statue is given a vulnerable human face where deep lines and creases become more and more visible. Bond is a ruthless killer, a cyborg with the icy azure gaze – and yet he can seamlessly transfigure into an utter human, capable of profound attachments and great tenderness.
While attempting to grasp the not-so-trivial poetics of the Bond series, it is better not to dwell on the professional critics’ lamentations about the incoherency of the backstory or the lack of credibility in the depiction of the romantic plotline. Instead, we should embrace the fan wisdom and appreciate all these diligently and lovingly collected Easter eggs. The Bond fans have taken stock of every reference to previous films, starting from locations, wardrobe, make-up, car models and number plates, through plot turns and literal quotations, opening credits and whole scenes, to behind-the-scenes incidents. For instance, young and impertinent Nomi, assigned as a new double-oh-seven in place of a retired “oldster” Bond, threatens to put a bullet into his knee, “the one that works,” alluding to Craig’s knee surgery that occurred during the shooting of Spectre. Easter eggs are not sophisticated cultural references; rather, they reveal a smart interplay of material signs, being the building blocks of imaginary worlds, condensers of the spectator’s intense pleasure. Even words acquire tangible non-metaphorical reality of their own: Lyutsifer Safin, the main antagonist in NTTD, first appears wearing a Noh mask, yet another elegant detail hinting at his affinity with a nefarious Doctor No from the very first film in the Bond series.
Sensual and excessive, the visual and sound landscapes of the latest Bondiana shatter into a myriad of resplendent planes, tinctures, and textures and explode into a pandemonium of noises. We are enchanted by the cascades of waterfalls, the veil of fire, the mounds of snow, and the erotic curves of sand hills; and bewitched by the milky sea, the water flecks dancing on the walls, the forest-green mist, and the translucent icy lakes. We marvel at the fluorescent luxury of exotic megacities, the grey bulk of imperial London, the golden dusk and grained limestone of centuries-old towns. The black silhouettes, set against the backdrop of the purple dawn, choreographically glide down the mirrorlike skyscrapers like some uncannily alive Rorschach inkblots. The solid mass of human crowd gives way to the glossy equine flanks, and the shaggy sheep fleece. The aquamarine high-tech glow of the MI-6 headquarters merges into the amber incandescence of a secret lab, and the gleaming chrome and polish of sleek cars. The infernal vermillion of a pirate-like schooner is breathtakingly counterpointed with the cadaveric vitriol of oceanic depths. A giant Boeing bathes in cobalt shadows, and the bright-helmeted Royal Cavalry trots along the Mall. A cyclopean building collapses with a visceral moan. A technological miracle, the steel swift, cuts through the foamy clouds and, like a smooth bullet, penetrates the oily mass of waters. James Bond, the true spy who blends with his surroundings, is fascinated by the space – a spotted jaguar in the motley foliage, a butterfly undistinguishable against the tree bark, a transparent fish hovering over the sea floor. His women belong to this ecosystem, be they noble prey or force of nature; they are partners, sisters-in-arms, or mother figures having irrevocably moved away from the image of disempowered Barbies of the previous era. The space pulsates, keels over, shrinks and stretches, consumed by the murderous pace. While gliding along its Moebius-like bends, Bond both submits to and rules the elements; in fact, he is the elements personified. Having fallen from a great height, with a bullet lodged in his shoulder, he is brought back alive by the benevolent river. When hanging upside down with his foot caught in a bell rope after the hot chase, he takes it as a fortunate opportunity to find the perfect angle for a fatal shot.
Craig’s Bond is a man of powerful affects: love, wrath, grief, revenge, and fierce protectiveness. This corporeal passion is expressed through acting rather than reflection, as if the very surface of the being was lifting the hero up on the crest of a mighty wave, with the world swirling around him in obedient vortex. Similarly Achilles, in his rage, refuses to take part in the Trojan War and therefore tips the scales in the Trojans’ favor; but later, consumed with grief over Patroclus’ death, he joins the battle and the fate of Ilion is sealed. In Spectre, after catching Blofeld, Bond quits without looking back, eager to be with his new girl, Dr. Madeleine Swann. In NTTD, he dumps Madeleine in the blink of an eye having suspected her of betraying him to the Spectre assassins. With the full intent of scaring the wits out of her, he pushes the unfaithful lover into his Aston Martin and deliberately stops the car in the middle of the chase to let the chasers pepper the unbreakable glasses of the wondrous vehicle with bullets. Several years later, it is revealed that Madeleine had been set up, that she has a child from Bond, a little girl whose name is Mathilde. And as for Bond, he is going to have to save the humankind from MI-6’s classified project, a biological weapon called Heracles. The virus-like nanobots had fallen into Safin’s hands who, in the megalomaniac manner of the Olympian gods, wants to “unburden the Earth” by means of the full-scale cleansing of the planet.
Bond belongs to the world of epic heroes, where even the head of MI-6, Gareth Mallory, bears the name of one of the knights of the Round Table, a nephew of the mythical lord of the Brits, and the surname of the author of Le Morte d’Arthur, a novel written during the War of the Roses. The epic hero does not waste time on refined psychological impulses: after all, Homer does not care much about subtle nuances of the relationship between Hector and Andromache and yet he loves going into gory details of heroic bloodbaths. An epic poem is also not concerned about the twenty-year separation of Odysseus and Penelope, or a fifteen-year age gap between James and Madeleine, for that matter. A semi-god, semi-mortal hero is inexorably moving towards his tragic and sublime death. Heracles, that’s who James Bond really is. Just like Heracles, he single-handedly performs incredible tasks, with his superpowers being exploited by various governmental institutions. Just like Heracles, he thinks that his labors are over, and yet he is being drawn into the game again. Dr. Swann, then, is Heracles’ wife Deianira, while Safin, the main villain, whose face is disfigured by poison, is Nessus the Centaur. For an attempt on Deianira’s honor, the Greek giant has mortally wounded him with an arrow steeped in the poison of Lernaean Hydra. The dying centaur persuaded Deianira that his poisoned blood would make a powerful love potion; one day the deceived woman would smear the potion on her husband’s clothes in hope of winning his love back. This is exactly how Bond gets infected with nanobots for the first time, when touching Madeleine who was wearing a perfume forced upon her by Safin. The poison of Lernaean Hydra in Nessus’ blood is bound to become the cause of Heracles’ death – ironically, Bond gets poisoned with the virus created by his own agency. The dying Safin infects him with the nanobots programmed to respond to Madeleine and Mathilde’s DNA. Any physical contact with him from now on would be lethal for them – so Bond makes a decision to stay on the island which is about to be showered with missiles.
Tormented with the unbearable pain, Heracles throws himself in a funeral pyre. Set ablaze by a flame from heaven, James Bond reaches his own spectacular apotheosis. Though his mortal shadow is doomed to languish in Hades, the immortal side of Heracles rises to Olympus. There is always a mysterious gap between Bond as a brand – a bundle of unimaginable skills, kaleidoscopic whirl of dazzling surfaces – and “the real Bond”. Born Alcides, Heracles has acquired his name, which means “glory of the goddess Hera”, as an honorific. Could it be that “James Bond” is simply a codename, similarly to M or Q? Be that as it may, but the final credits roll with the promise: James Bond will return.