*The following review contains major spoilers for “No Time To Die” and other Bond flicks*
“I’m going to tell you a story about a man…” Lea Seydoux’s Dr. Madeline Swann says, driving along a coastal cliffside, a pair of blue eyes riding sidecar. They don’t belong to franchise lead star Daniel Craig, however. No, they belong to an entirely different and entirely new kind of “Bond Girl.”
Purposefully repaving previously covered ground—full to the brim with Campbellian visual echoes and mythological semiotics calling back 4 films previous—Craig and Company have traversed a long, windy road in finally getting the much-delayed “No Time To Die” theatrically released after all these years (close to 15 since Craig took over the reins of the franchise). And though talented filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective,” “Beasts of No Nation”) admirably attempts to culminate and coalesce what has become a sprawlingly abstract deconstruction of one 007 via an operatic send-off, it’s last-minute attempt to reclaim/redefine the moral parameters of a now-considered-to-be problematic character feels like a third draft run through a studio lab, so as not to be picked apart by the online Discourse. In contrast to a film a la Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” (a film ‘No Time’ feels misguidedly indebted to) our heroic spy literally gets down on its knees at one point to plead for penance, apologizing for 25 movies that have come before it. At one point, an MI6 agent even uses the phrase: “toxic merry-go-round.”
Self-awareness is fine, but Hollywood is currently fixated on patting itself on the back for retroactive acknowledgement. Additionally, “No Time To Die,” makes clear that audiences have been experiencing “Phase Craig,” with the fifth film led by the actor owing much to the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. It wants to be ‘Winter Soldier’ and “Avengers: Endgame” at the same time. Its self-solemn import evoking the lofty scale of films helmed by Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve—complete with geometric concrete villain lair wherein water ripples reflect off the wall as Rami Malek goes full Jared Leto. Yet, more so than these things, ‘No Time’ also feels the need to be a sequel to 4 movies that have come before it, 2 of which most audiences pretend do not exist. Effectively, it’s 5 different movies (and 2 alternative myths) in 1, gears always shifting. The script is a mess and audience investment is not a valid excuse. Much like Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Hebert’s novel, it’s too much for one film to contain. Its parabolically reflexive metaphors peak during the opening titles and, ultimately, the film reads as an empty vase.
But it is a handsomely painted vase with undeniably sleek set pieces spiraling up and down (boy, does the film go all in on slinky and DNA strand symbols). Fukunaga and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“First Man,” “La La Land”) paint a wider canvas than any of the prior Craig entries, their use of scope making the secret agent appear more superhuman than in previous installments, also managing to maintain the more aesthetically abstract expressionism established by DP Roger Deakins‘ legendary, silhouette soaked compositions in “Skyfall,” as well as the formalist scale of “Spectre,” whilst still incorporating new, moodier cinematographic techniques, such as a brutally staged, climactic, video-game-like tower climb, and focus tricks few other filmmakers would think to implement on a film of this magnitude.
Beginning with a bloated, close to 30-minute cold open—one which personifies author Brandon Sanderson’s idea of “the prologue to the prologue needs a prologue” (but there’s a big difference between an epic fantasy vs a spy thriller buy-in)—that is broken up into 3 distinct sequences, complete with flashback to a pre-“Casino Royale” time. While somewhat understandable given the weight on “No Time’s” shoulders, frankly, the film needed to pick a single idea and roll with it. Stacking them on top of each other somehow has the opposite of its intended effect, numbing any idea of narrative stakes in favor of storied nostalgia.
Paying a visit to the love of his life, Vesper Lynd’s (Eva Green) grave atop a European acropolis, Bond, James Bond, is attacked by Spectre agents after it explodes in his face. They give chase, and though Bond believes he must have been betrayed by Swann, he saves her life and puts her on a train, telling her they will never see each other again.
Five years (and one admittedly fantastic title sequence) later, a bioweapon called “Project Heracles” (here be only where the lazy myth allegories begin), developed by traitorous scientist Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik, cloyingly irritating) is stolen from an MI6 laboratory. Having retired to Jamaica, Bond is approached by his old CIA friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, wasted) and “why would you ever trust this tool” suit, Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen, bad). He initially declines to lend his aid but becomes far more intrigued when the new 007, named Nomi (Lashanna Lynch) also enters the picture. Rendezvousing in Cuba with Felix’s fresh-faced colleague Paloma (Ana De Armas), Bond finds himself the guest of honor at Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s (Christoph Waltz) birthday celebration, attended by the incarcerated organization head via bionic eye, ushering in the first of many cyclops references. His plan appears to backfire however, as all his Spectre lackies drop dead. There’s a new big bad on the block, Lyutsifer Safin (Leto–err… I mean, Malek), and he has a dark history with Swann that, of course, circles back to her father, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who started this whole cycle.
That’s a lot of names and a lot of plot, huh? Well, the film doesn’t stop there—don’t forget about Q (Ben Whishaw), and M (Ralph Fiennes), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) too— being strung together by a series of visual echoes and bell-ringing reminders to past chapters. The way one old friend dies, parallels the way Bond’s first femme fatale did, the one who broke his heart and made it stone. Using the on-the-nose metaphor of going down with a literal ship, the Matryoshka doll structure doesn’t stop there; its centerpiece Blofeld scene mirroring Silva’s captivity (as well as Hannibal Lecter), and the climax bookending “Casino Royale’s” first-kill opening with a tunnel set meant to visually represent the trademark gun barrel snap-turn that precedes nearly every film. These ideas are all executed with poetic flair and may appear to work fine on paper, but—along with combining/convoluting the heroic tragedies of Heracles labors and Odysseus’ nostos (homecoming)—it feels like a desperate grasp for iconographic meaning as a method of explaining away troubled genre history.
Alongside these subtextual ideas of symbolic overload, ‘No Time’ makes a point to comment on issues such as misogynistic storytelling tropes and colonial imperialism. Nomi’s character is a clear reference to the debate as to whether or not 007 could ever be accepted by the mainstream if played by a Black woman. On paper, her inclusion is a sound idea, but paired with cringey dialog (“Is that who you love, a murderer?”) and hat on a hat ideas such as a rusting British flag atop a statue’s shield, the escalation of the franchise’s mythological parallels has the opposite of its intended effect when paired with production concerns such as franchise preservation. As others have noted, Paloma pops up for a quick 10-minute side mission, walking out of the movie as if promising to show up whenever is Craig recast, a la the Marvel method. The screenplay tries to be both a fan friendly culmination of unevenly handled ideas, as well as a reactionary evisceration of specific narrative elements—a cleansing purge of long-standing critiques. Were the movie to be more successful at being either of these things, perhaps its farewell statement would feel as meaningful as all those involved desolately believe.
By stringing together all these components, the movie can’t help but feel like a cultural course correction with aesthetic panache but a tepid identity. Abstract semiotics through assumed storytelling investment and knowledge doesn’t work in a vacuum when presented as commemorating continuation without truly earning the conclusion. Blofeld is name dropped over and over throughout the first 2 acts, after an entire movie of setting him up for nothing. Nanobots, memory boxes and poison gardens (things that lean more Philip K. Dick than Ian Fleming) make up many of the main macguffins. Safin has an island because of course he does, his lair and existence satisfactory in idea only. “The 2 Survivors, this is what she made us.” Raoul Silva’s (Javier Bardem) Rogue Agent tells his “Skyfall” nemesis. “The 2 orphan assassins, our fates authored for us,” Malek might as well monologue, having kidnapped 007’s daughter (although at this point, the plot has lied to him, and audiences, and is trying to insist she’s isn’t).
While a word offense is probably too strong, ‘No Time’s’ entire “James Bond decides to change only after realizing he has a little girl” rings very “I have a wife and child, how can I be a bad person? I would never touch a woman!” It’s a particularly muddy message in this particular franchise given how the movie aims to be both celebration and concession of wrongdoing. It’s also simply lazy mythological martyrdom, handled in a manner movies like “The Dark Knight Rises” have already executed better. I could be wrong, but I swear I heard part of the “Sunshine” score at the end of the movie (which is especially ironic given Danny Boyle was initially supposed to be Commandant on the film).
Craig’s contributions to the franchise should not be forgotten, but “No Time To Die” often seems to value atonement over entertainment. Given the crossroads Hollywood currently finds itself in, few of its decisions can be called bold or surprising—yet they want layman audiences to see them as breaking new ground—and that’s very much part of the problem. The myth of James Bond will live on but time may not be kind to Craig’s final outing, placing ethical presentation higher on the production pedestal than storytelling passion.
“No Time To Die” opens in theaters October 8