Fukunaga: No Time to Die (2021)
No Time to Die is the last Bond film in the Daniel Craig era, and it’s a decisive conclusion. Rather than retire Bond, or allow him to sail off into the sunset, director Cary Joji Fukunaga, and his team of writers, kill off Craig’s Bond completely. From a distance, that might seem an excessive gesture, but it’s a symbolic death as much as anything else – a prescience that the franchise simply cannot continue in its current form. From start to finish, No Time to Die realises a new Bond must emerge – and more than any transition the franchise to date, this change in actors is tantamount to a death, but a death that brings the possibility of rebirth.
That awareness of death and rebirth make for a remarkably evocative opening sequence, shot through with a rich sense of change, mutability, and seasons shifting. We start in the past, where a young Madeleine Swann flees a home invader by running out of her family house and out onto the surface of a vast frozen lake. She can only travel so far into the centre of the lake before she falls through, and is forced to stare up at her captor, Lyutsifer Safin, through the ice. The ice becomes a cipher for the screen, paving the way for a film that will be as richly textured as the surface of the lake, and driven by thresholds between solid and liquid states. This scene also introduces Safin, played by Rami Malek, as a new iteration of the Bond villain.
From here, Fukunaga shifts back to the present, where Bond and Madeleine are celebrating his retirement in Maleta, in the south of Italy. This is easily the most beautiful sequence in the Craig era, introduced by the sweeping curves of Bond’s Aston Martin as it rounds one rocky outcrop after another, and luxuriating in an Italian decadence that often recalls mid-period Bertolucci. It’s deeply romantic, with bonfires perpetually in the distance, but overlaid with an elegiac sense that the present is almost done. Clad in the rich light of late summer and early evening Bond visits the grave of his ex-lover, appropriately named “Vesper,” against a rocky landscape that feels like it should lead our eyes down to the ocean, but instead only presents us with more desert, as if the Mediterranean coast had been transplanted inland.
This sense of an absent ocean, or a missing sea, evokes a rich new aridity in Bond’s older age, but it also paves the way for a film that is peculiarly preoccupied with fluidity and liquidity. We see it in the opening scene on the alpine lake, which is then mirrored in the exquisite textural play of bullets as they hit the bulletproof windows of Bond’s Aston Martin, when the languor of this Matera sequence inevitably gives way to action. We also see it in the fluid movement of the train that takes Madeleine far away, when Bond realises she has betrayed him, and then in the opening credit sequence, which pairs a low-key Billie Eilish anthem with images of waves and water. Finally, when the credits have ended, Fukunaga introduces London as a watery dusk reflection in the glass face of a skyscraper. This liquid surface grows even more mercurial as a group of henchman silently and methodically commandeer their way down the building, throwing their ropes before them like so many streams in a waterfall.
These liquid motifs aren’t just a matter of style but an acknowledgment that the franchise must become more fluid if it’s going to survive. In the buildup to the film, Fukunaga been quite pointed about Bond’s blind spots, frankly referring to Connery’s Bond, in particular, as an unrepentant racist. Yet he doesn’t exactly reinvent the franchise so much as liquify it, blending all its ingredients together to see if he can produce a Bond more attuned to the demands of the 21st century. As a result, Fukunaga tends to couch his more revisionist moments with these liquid motifs – most notably in the case of Nomi, the new 007 agent, played by Lashana Lynch, a black woman. When Bond meets Nomi, he’s retired to Jamaica, where he lives in a house-jetty surrounded by water, and spends most of his time fishing or boating. Nomi meets him in a local club, and first introduces herself as a diver, before disclosing her 007 status. Where Bond retires by the water, the new 007 can dive beneath it, making her one of many women, throughout the film, who seem more at home in this new fluid space – most notably a contact in Cuba who downs Bond’s signature martini in one go.
No surprise, then, that the film tends to be most vital when the action takes place in or around water. In fact, Fukunaga’s moody blue-green lighting scheme feels like his way of ensuring that, in spirit, the action is always taking place beneath the waves. This submarine focus also tends to contour most of the key emotional events, such as an early scene in Cuba that’s a bit dull when the action remains landbound, but quickly peaks when Bond escapes a nefarious party by flying a seaplane out to a tug where CIA ally Felix Leiter, played by Jeffrey Wright, is waiting for him. No sooner have they reconnected, however, than they’re betrayed by contact Logan Ash, played by Billy Magnussen, who shoots Felix, and traps him with Bond in the brig, leaving them both to drown as he leaves by seaplane. The first great emotional beat of the film unfolds as the brig is filling with water, forcing Bond to leave Felix for a very close escape.
Water, then, forms the syntax of No Time to Die – the connective tissue that ties its disparate scenes together, from the speedboat Bond takes to his retirement home in Jamaica, to the lifeboat where he’s picked up after escaping from the brig. As the film proceeds, this watery tissue congeals into the film’s central proposition – that a new Bond needs a new adversary. We first glimpse this proposition in the Cuba scene, which sees Bond turn up to a party of Spectre antagonists, only to witness them dying all around him, when an unseen assailant sprays the room with a viral mist that somehow leaves Bond untouched. While we don’t yet know Safin’s motivations, or even really know much about Safin himself, it’s clear that Spectre is no longer enough to evoke the global threat, the fear of a new world order, that has driven Bond films in the past. The job, for the future, is to imagine a threat that exceeds even Spectre.
To achieve this, Fukunaga, and the other writers, present us with a more viral antagonist – a psychopath, in the form of Safin, whose primary goal is to start a global pandemic. Bond films typically work best when they have a villain of truly global proportions – a villain who taps into our most precarious and anxious conception of ourselves as global citizens. In the early Bond films, this took the form of nuclear arsenals, and in recent Bond films it has drawn more from terrorist cells. No Time to Die draws equally from Covid conspiracy and the spread of Covid itself, converging information and misinformation into a new paranoid global field. Bond learns that M, played by Ralph Fiennes, set up a covert operation called the Heracles Project, in order to farm smallpox as a viable weapon. However, the Heracles brand of smallpox was modified so it could be selectively neutered against specific DNA profiles. In doing so, Heracles weaponised both the virus and vaccination process, evoking a global landscape driven by the twin fears of Covid and the fears roused by anti-vaxx conspiracists.
Interestingly, while Safin represents this new form of viral predator, he’s not the main antagonist – or not exactly. For while Spectre has been largely eradicated, there is still one figure left – Blofeld, played by Christoph Waltz, who is now housed in Belmarsh in maximum security. Since we previously experienced Spectre as a network, it takes on a different quality now that there is only one member left. While Blofeld is isolated in a new way, he’s also more potent, just as Waltz’s brief appearance is infinitely more memorable than Malek’s fairly forgettable role. As the one remaining member of Spectre, Blofeld is like the last extant sample of a virus. Like a virus, he inhabits the bodies of his targets directly, through a bionic eye, which replaces his regular eyepatch, indicating a new era of direct body-to-body criminal virality. Approaching Blofeld is thus like entering a Biosafety Level 4 environment – Bond has to traverse one austere security threshold after another, until Blofeld emerges in a swathe of white smoke, totally rigid, like he’s returning, still somewhat inert, from deep freeze storage.
In other words, No Time to Die cloaks Blofeld in the aura of Covid, by way of Safin, imagining him as a virus more than a regular antagonist. This changes the role of Q, played by Ben Whishaw, who’s less involved in producing gadgets here than in decoding genetic and medical information. His first job is to hack into a DNA database, and from then on he’s more of a contact tracer – and, more generally, a biochemist, invested in the mechanics of the human body itself in a new way, and in the immune system, in particular, as the ultimate ingenious machine. As a result, Q himself feels more embodied too, so it makes sense when he casually reveals that he’s queer, putting off a dinner date with a man to help Bond with his project.
This viral focus also means that the second half of the film escalates around the fear of contagion. In its original incarnation, the Heracles Project, and the smallpox variant, was cultivated so that it could only target a single DNA profile. However, Safin has modified it so that it can infect people from the same family, or people with similar genetic traits. This marks the point where the Heracles variant becomes truly contagious, not unlike the mythical and unknowable instant where Covid acquired the spike protein needed to invade a human host. No Time to Die is fixated with that same threshold between viral specificity and global catastrophe – the moment when a virus acquires the necessary mutation to ensure widespread contagion (or “mass destruction,” as Safin frames it, in an older Bond register.)
These two focuses – liquidity and virality – converge over the third act into a looming sense of inexorability. By the final showdown at Safin’s island, it feels like Bond must change, and the franchise must liquify. Yet Safin’s project feels just as inexorable, especially once we learn that it’s impossible to get rid of Heracles fragments once they’re in your system. Both trajectories suggest that we’re on the verge of some climactic fluid spectacle, some moment of mass contagion – an image and tableau commensurate with the fluid passage of a virus.
To some extent, Fukunaga achieves this with Safin’s island, which is suffused with liquid movement. Bond can only enter via a WWII submarine pen, which he and Nomi access with a plane that turns seamlessly into a submarine. From there, they proceed to Safin’s lair, which is basically an abstraction of the film’s liquid motifs – a science fiction space, closer to Dune than Bond, and lit by reflection pools that we can’t see, like a James Turrell environment. Monet’s lilies hang on the wall, guiding our eyes towards a garden of toxic plants that are all watered by a central fountain that itself stands above a giant neon-lit petri dish where workers cultivate the smallpox cells in protective gear by “washing” the solution. Everything in this space seems set for the kinds of sublime spatial play we saw in Guy Hamilton’s films, especially once Safin collapses the fountain and petri dish into a single spectacular waterfall.
Yet the film never quite achieves this spectacle, just as it never quite embraces the need for Bond himself to mutate – and never returns to the late-summer, early-evening mutability that made the opening scenes so beautiful. Apart from the fact of Bond dying, the ending is pretty bland, as Fukunaga shifts to Bond as family man, and morphs from exquisite elegy back to a more stolid sense of tragedy. This turn has been compared to the tragic end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but I didn’t find the transition all that convincing there either, since in both cases there’s no sense of the play that makes Bond Bond – and no acknowledgment that this play must be a critical factor in envisaging the next stage in the franchise. While the opening of No Time to Die is melancholy, it’s also restless in its desire for transformation, for a new era, but very little of that excitement carries over into the closing scenes. By the time that Nomi volunteers to give her 007 title back to Bond, it feels like it’s time for Craig to go.
If there is one beat that rings true in these final scenes, it’s the revelation that Bond has been infected by smallpox, the main reason that he sacrifices himself. If Blofeld is the last pool of a virus, then Bond makes himself the last victim – and so the film ends by admitting that there was always a synergy between Bond and his enemies. Thus, the only way for Bond to combat the Spectre-virus is to absorb and die from it. Covid has also discriminated so sharply at the threshold between middle and old age, and made us so aware of this threshold, that seeing Bond succumb to a virus is also a shocking reminder that Craig has become old – that his Bond would well and truly sit in the risk category for Covid during the current pandemic. Yet the fleeting beauty of these final moments is that Fukunaga glimpses infection as just one part of the inexorable transformation of Bond. The conclusion may be stolid as a whole, and largely forgettable by the end, but the spectacle of Bond inexorably infected is perhaps even more compelling than his death – a reminder that some kind of metamorphosis is possible and necessary, even if it appears to kill off the franchise as people once consumed and loved it.
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