The tension between technology's dual role as both a spy tool and a threat is the real star of the new Bond film.
Tech has always played a prominent role in the Bond franchise; it's a key element of the plot formula: Bond opens with a chase scene, the core mission is revealed, and then Bond meets with Q for the latest and greatest gadgets that will no doubt be instrumental to his success later on in the film. Entire books have been written about Bond gadgetry. It's even been argued that the fictionalized state-of-the-art gadgets have often inspired or are at the very least predictive of future advances.
But since the Craig-era franchise refresh, technology has taken a backseat to more subtle character development. Between our smart phones and the proliferation of sensors and connected devices, the novelty of gadgets is perhaps starting to wear off. We can even pick up toy drones to conduct our own low-grade spying with connected video feeds. While our iPhones thankfully don't carry detonator apps, there's perhaps a limit to what Q can come up with next, which perhaps explains his absence in the last two films. And in this latest installment, Skyfall is filled with retro technology and nostalgia for the "old way" of doing things. No five-blade disposable for Mr. Bond; a whole scene revolves around using a straight razor to shave. It would be easy to dismiss this old school nostalgia as a nod to the classic Bond films to mark this 50-year anniversary of the franchise, but Bond's interest in old-school technology goes deeper than kitsch.
Skyfall tackles the role technology plays as a tool and as a threat. The most recent Global Risks report from the World Economic Foundation extolled the "Dark Side of Connectivity" and so in an effort to reflect our modern preoccupations and insecurities, Mendes cast the latest Bond villain as not a leader of a nation state, but a lone hacker, operating on an abandoned, post-apocalyptic island somewhere in the South China Sea. Javier Bardem's character Raoul Silva is a wronged MI6 spy with a big grudge, racks upon racks of servers, and the ability to cut out critical infrastructure with a just few keystrokes. He's every Chief Security Officer's worst nightmare: the insider threat. Silva uses his advanced knowledge of the intelligence organization to plot an intricate attack against what should be the most secure of government agencies. He hacks into M's computer, hijacking her screen with a message threatening to release the names of undercover NATO agents planted in the middle east. Borrowing from hacktivist iconography, a calavera skull serves as Silva's visual signature. Silva's laptop becomes a literal trojan horse inside headquarters justifying every security professional's fear of plugging in found USB devices.
Bardem as the hacker insider threat, flanked by his glowing servers. (MGM)
If Bardem is our new black hat Bond villain, Q is his white hat counterpart. Breaking from the slapstick formula, the introduction of the new Q is one of the more poignant scenes of the film. Q, played by Ben Wishaw, finds Bond sitting in front of Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire" in the National Gallery, eliciting a not so subtle exchange on its reflecting Bond's recent setbacks. We're as surprised as Bond: Q has traded his lab coat for a geek-chic cardigan, floppy hair, and retro hipster glasses. The two go back and forth about Q's age, experience, his pimply complexion. In defense, Q claims that he "can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of earl grey than you can do in a year in the field." He hands Bond a simple tracking radio and a handgun biometrically matched to only work with his palm print, and Bond is unimpressed. Q explains that MI6 has more important work to focus on than to come up with fancy field tech gadgets these days. He values knowledge work rather than grunt work, and has invested his time in developing encryption technologies rather than exploding pens.
The challenge of visually depicting digital espionage (MGM)
Though Q might have the skills for modern cyber intelligence, computer spying does not a compelling Bond film make. There's only so many ways to show the act of decrypting on film, and lines of code and morphing network diagrams are only so legible to the average moviegoer. Racks and racks of servers in an abandoned marble hall surrounded by ionic columns might be impressive and make a nice framing perspective shot for introducing Bardem, but they don't convey much meaning aside from "high tech hacker supplies." Mendes has the task of visualizing a threat that lurks in the shadows (a concept he verbalizes in M's dramatic parliamentary speech).
When you've got two hackers pitted against each other, what's a field agent to do? The tension between the desk and the field is palpable throughout the film, and made explicit in the dialog a number of times. 007, stuck without programming skills to combat his nemesis is left with no choice but to go dark, off the grid. In order to get out of Silva's reach, Bond brings Silva onto his turf, literally the field. Bond ditches the company car (with GPS trackers) in place of the Aston Martin, while Q fabricates digital breadcrumbs to lure out Silva on their own terms. Mendes and Bond are posed with a similar challenge: how to compete with a digital, dark, uncinematic battle? They both have to bring the action out of the computer and into the visual realm by bringing it back to analog explosions, rather than awkward visualizations of decryption network algorithms.
We might call this the "Luddite" defense. Good spy v. bad spy turns into a battle of analog v. digital, and they take it quite literally. With Q's miniscule radio, Bond is literally relegated to using analog signals. And Silva later matches and mocks him by setting off an underground bomb with a similar analog device. In the final confrontation, there is no fancy technology, no computers, no hacking, nothing abstract, just field tactics and raw ammo. Even with a hacker villain, Mendes found a way to give Bond fans their explosion-packed action flick.
So Bond brings Silva onto his turf for this battle, but if we're going to contend with the reality of our threats today, ones that are nationless, networked, and terrorist, what is the role of the intelligence field agent? M puts these challenges into words, arguing that while field operatives might seem old fashioned, they are now more important than ever when we don't know what our enemies look like. And so the Bond franchise lives on!
Aside from a few glaring details (why is Q only decrypting Silva's laptop when he had those racks of servers? And why is a purported security professional silly enough to connect a known hacker's device to the MI6 network to analyze it without a secure sandbox environment? Not to mention his lack of touch typing skills...) Mendes and his team deserve some kudos for building a story that teases out these technology tensions. Somehow, it didn't feel forced or overly kitschy, and the throwback nods felt right as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the franchise. Just as Bond films have always reflected prominent fears of our times playing out the Soviet threat and impending nuclear war, Mendes has tackled the fear that computers and the internet might simultaneously be our most powerful tool and our biggest liability yet.
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