Skyfall and the Question of Bond’s Survival

Spoiler warning: This article is intended for people who have seen Skyfall. If you haven’t, I recommend you see it before reading further.

I noticed something very strange watching Skyfall, the third James Bond film to star Daniel Craig and the first to be helmed by the acclaimed English director Sam Mendes. At the end of a gripping opening chase sequence, Bond is accidentally shot by Eve (Naomie Harris), another MI6 agent, while he’s fighting hand-to-hand with the bad guy Patrice. The shot is enough to knock him off the top of a train over the side of a bridge into a river hundreds of feet below, whence he is carried over a waterfall and plunged into deep water, unconscious, apparently dead.

The surprising thing was not seeing Bond alive and well on a Turkish beach a few minutes later. It was that no explanation was offered for how he had survived. We’ve seen 007 defy death many times before, of course. We’ve even seen him apparently killed: in You Only Live Twice (1967), he is shot with machine-gun fire in a fold-up bed and even given a burial at sea. But we see the death explained — it’s a fake to deceive the enemy, with Bond emerging alive and well from the coffin soon after.

I kept wondering, as I watched, if we’d get a similar explanation for how Bond was able to survive this time. But as the first act yielded to the second, the story moving on to the confrontation with the villain Silva (Javier Bardem), it became clear that there’d be nothing of the sort. Apparently the question wasn’t considered important enough to deal with. The audience was expected, apparently, to understand that Bond couldn’t die, thus no explanation was necessary.

But an alternative interpretation also occurred to me: Perhaps his survival was not explained because he really had died. Maybe everything from the credits onward was Bond’s dying dream as he succumbed to the depths. (We’ve all heard of time slowing down when one is about to die, so it’s plausible that such a dream could extend over the rest of the movie.)

If you search online, you’ll find a lot of discussion about how Bond could’ve survived the opening sequence of Skyfall. Much of it discounts the reality of what happens to him. As a user commented on one thread, “We have had much much worse, sky diving off cliffs into planes etc. In fact compared to past exploits I would consider this believable LOL.” One article reported that a group of medical experts determined that Bond would probably have died due to his injuries. The implication: it’s just a movie, don’t expect it to be realistic.

Very few reviewers have written about the alternative theory that Bond really was killed. One exception is an article written by Andrew Call for Midroad Movie Review. “It’s possible,” he writes, “although very likely not intentional, that … Bond is really dead (or in a vegetative state), pondering his life as an MI6 agent as M decides to pull the plug.”

The detail proposed by Call, that Bond is being tended by MI6, strikes me as extraneous. But the basic, underlying idea, that most of the movie is a dream, seems worth taking seriously. And I’m not at all convinced that this interpretation was unintentional. I’ll explain why in this essay, first reviewing the physical injuries sustained by 007, then looking at the storyline, and finally considering what the director has revealed about his intentions.

* * *


Bond is shot in the abdomen by Eve

Asked by Silva what his hobby is, Bond dryly replies, “Resurrection.” Indeed, in the pre-title sequence, Bond is hit at least twice by gunfire, then plunged hundreds of feet into a river, and finally carried over a waterfall, his limp, unconscious body sinking rapidly. Could he really have survived such a series of traumas?

It’s hard to be sure of the exact extent of his injuries, especially from the first burst of gunfire to hit him. Patrice fires a handheld automatic weapon at him as he operates an earth-mover on the train. Either a bullet strikes Bond in the upper chest, or ricocheting bullet fragments do. The latter theory gains credence when 007 later digs out shrapnel from the wound. After analyzing the fragments, Tanner (MI6 chief of staff) tells him, “You’re lucky it wasn’t a direct hit or it would have cut you in half. It’s a depleted uranium shell. Military grade. Hard to get, extremely expensive, and only used by a select few.”

What this leaves unexplained is a sizable blood stain on the back of Bond’s jacket, the location of which seems to line up perfectly with the entry wound on the front. No exit hole is visible in the fabric, but it’s possible a tiny one exists, too small to be seen. Could this be an exit wound, or is it a separate injury?

If the bullet had passed through him, then Tanner would hardly be justified in saying it wasn’t a direct hit. But if we’re in Bond’s dream, this could be a rationalization, a story he’s telling himself. It’s odd that a depleted uranium shell would be fired from Patrice’s gun — they’re typically used in anti-tank weaponry such as the main gun on the A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft, not handguns. Perhaps this is also dreamed up by Bond: notice how it moves the plot along, allowing MI6 to pick up the trail of the bad guys where they otherwise would’ve been stumped.

If we give the benefit of the doubt to the “reality-based” version, we should believe that the blood stain on his back comes from a separate wound. Maybe another bullet fragment, or a piece of the cab structure surrounding Bond, hit him? In this case, it probably would’ve had to strike him from above, as he’s in a seat placed against the thick metal exterior of the cab. (Patrice does fire several shots at the back of the cab, but we see that the bullets do not penetrate.)

Scars, visible later in the movie with a shirtless Bond, could give us a clue. We see a strangely shaped scar on his upper chest, marking the entry point for the depleted-uranium fragments. There’s also a long scar on top of Bond’s shoulder — could this explain the blood-stained jacket? If so, it seems odd that the stain is so far below that, and so nearly circular at the same time. It also looks like there’s a scar on the upper part of Bond’s back, roughly in the same location as the jacket blood stain. It’s hard to make perfect sense of this.


Digging out radioactive shrapnel

Less puzzling is the bullet fired by Eve, which hits Bond near his liver as he battles Patrice. If you watch closely in slow-motion, you can see a second bloody wound in this spot, just before Bond falls from the train. (Strangely, no scar is seen in this location later, though we do see something in a corresponding location on Bond’s back. This could be a continuity error.) Bond comments acerbically on the injury to Eve: “It was only four ribs, some of the less vital organs; nothing major.” It’s hard to know how seriously to take his words.

If the extent of Bond’s injuries from bullets and shrapnel is not quite clear, there can be little doubt about his fall from the train as it crosses a tall bridge over a river. This scene was shot at the Varda Viaduct in southern Turkey, which is 322 feet high. Whatever its exact height in the movie, it’s high enough that anyone falling from it would accelerate to great speed before hitting the water. You can count “seven Mississippi” between the time Bond is shot and the time he enters the water.

What’s more, he enters the water head-first, with his arms at his side. I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure that would break his neck. About 5% of people who jump from a lesser height off the Golden Gate Bridge survive the initial impact. I’d be willing to bet that none of them entered the water head-first; surely they entered either feet-first or hands-first.

I don’t think it takes a doctor to say that being hit with bullets or shrapnel several times in the torso, crashing head-first into a river from hundreds of feet above, then being carried unconscious over a waterfall is not something any person would be likely to survive.

Bond’s death leads us at last (about 13 minutes into the movie) to a surreal, expressionistic title sequence, featuring a brilliant theme song by Adele. The lyrics are suggestive: For this is the end / I’ve drowned and dreamt this moment. 

* * *

Beyond the physical injuries, some aspects of the plot give us more reason to think we may be in Bond’s head. Silva is a former MI6 agent who was traded by M (Judi Dench) for six agents held captive by the Chinese. He was very fond of M and thought of himself as her favorite — though it’s not clear whether M really held him in such high regard. He resisted torture to protect MI6 secrets; he bit into a cyanide capsule in an attempt to kill himself, but it merely disfigured him. Realizing eventually that M had betrayed him, he became filled with a consuming rage that drove him to seek revenge against the agency, and her above all.

Bond, too, has been betrayed by M, in a sense. He knows that she gave the order to shoot to Eve; he was wearing a radio headset at the time. Making his reappearance at M’s flat in London, he confronts her about it:

“What was it you said? ‘Take the bloody shot.'”
“I made a judgment call.”
“You should have trusted me to finish the job.”
“It was the possibility of losing you or the certainty of losing all those other agents. I made the only decision I could and you know it.”
“I think you lost your nerve.”
“What do you expect, a bloody apology? You know the rules of the game. You’ve been playing it long enough. We both have.”

Indeed, he does know how the game works; he understands M’s thinking. He can’t rationally condemn it, and yet it still feels like a betrayal. The conflict in his mind between his love for M, whom he sees as a sort of mother-figure, and her order to take a shot which hit him, is exactly the sort of thing a dream might try to resolve on an emotional level. In the world of dreams, such a conflict might well take the shape of a confrontation between two people, one bent on revenge against M, the other dedicated to protecting her. As Call explains:

Silva is really an avenue of Bond’s psyche trying to understand if M would betray him. What are her motivations for the things she does? For the calls she makes? Would she let him die so easily if it meant protecting and empowering the greater good? Is he simply a pawn? What would a revenge-fueled path back to M after a betrayal mean for an MI6 agent and the agency he believed in? All illustrated at some level by a broken and confused Silva.

In addition to being a criminal mastermind, Silva is, as Sam Mendes says on the Blu-ray’s commentary track, “Bond’s doppelgänger… he’s kind of a negative image of Bond”. “He was a brilliant agent,” as M tells Bond. “But he started operating beyond his brief, hacking the Chinese.” How must those words have sounded to 007, another brilliant agent who operates beyond his brief with some regularity?

One thing both agents do is an old Bond-movie trope: letting themselves be captured in order to be brought into closer contact with their target. Bond lets himself be taken prisoner by Silva in order to call in reinforcements to capture him. And that capture, it turns out later, was part of Silva’s plan all along to hack MI6’s computer network and kill M.

Another aspect of the film that seems to follow dream logic is Bond’s decision to whisk M off to his childhood home, the Scottish estate called Skyfall, to set a trap for Silva. “Where are you taking me?” she asks him as they head north in Bond’s classic Aston Martin DB5. “Back in time,” he replies, “Somewhere we’ll have the advantage.”

In real-world logic, this narrative turn makes little sense. First of all, would Bond really still own this vast estate? We learn that he was orphaned as a child at Skyfall, and that M recruited him soon after. Since Bond appears to be in his forties, he must have held on to the property for at least 25 years after living there. That can’t have been cheap. Even if Bond could afford it, he seems more like a vagabond at heart, who wouldn’t care to. Indeed, he says, “I always hated this place,” just before blowing it up.

Secondly, Bond and M are surprised to discover Kincade (Albert Finney), the gamekeeper of the property who worked for his parents and knew him as a child, still residing at Skyfall. “Good God,” says Bond, “Are you still alive?” It seems a little strange that Bond would be surprised by such a man’s presence at his own estate. And since he didn’t expect to have Kincade’s help, he apparently planned to beat Silva with just himself and M, against fifteen or so heavily-armed assailants (and it could have been more, for all Bond knew). Where is the advantage in that? Once Silva shows up, Bond could call in some reinforcements — maybe some helicopters? — but doesn’t.

In the logic of dreams, these actions make more sense. Skyfall and Kincade are both entities from deep in Bond’s past, from the time when he first grew from child into man, and first became a government agent under M’s tutelage. Perhaps, in Bond’s unconscious mind, going back to this time when he first formed his attachment to M would be a way to keep her safe. Or maybe it’s only natural to go to the deepest levels of one’s emotional self in a dying dream.

In the end, Bond kills Silva, then comforts M as she dies of a wound suffered earlier — paying the ultimate price for the betrayal of one of her agents. “I did get one thing right,” she says, referring to Bond. Is this exactly the resolution he needs from his dream?

* * *

Listening to the director’s commentary track, it’s clear that Sam Mendes knows a great deal about how to tell a story. He seems very thoughtful and inventive — someone who’d want to bring original, fresh ideas to a franchise like the Bond movies. But would he actually go as far as killing James Bond?

There’s a clue in his remarks about the film’s prolonged development, from a Q & A for IndieWire in 2012:

MGM went into bankruptcy when we were in preproduction, so it meant that we had nine months where we didn’t know what we were doing. It was a very frustrating time, but in retrospect it was when we made the movie good because we had time to work on the script. That was pivotal, because you need time – certainly with a franchise movie – so it gave us an opportunity to go down all sorts of blind alleys and come back again, and discover – because, you know, we were pushing the envelope in the movie. This is a movie where you’ve got the first truly homoerotic relationship with Bond, you’ve got the death of M, you’ve got to establish a new M, you’ve got a new Moneypenny, you mustn’t see that coming, you’ve got a new Q, so he’ll be younger than Bond, you effectively kill Bond, going back to somebody else, you’re asking [Bond] to be a semi-alcoholic, popping pills at the beginning. [emphasis added]

In late 2015, reports surfaced that an early version of the script had Bond killing M. Obviously this was rejected, but the fact that it was taken that seriously suggests that Mendes and his team were willing to push the envelope quite far. I think giving them nine extra months to work on the script would practically guarantee that they’d come up with some very innovative ideas.

One idea mentioned in the commentary was, for the final scene of the film back in London, to reconstruct the new office of M and Moneypenny exactly as it was in the first Bond movie, Dr. No (1962). The filmmakers used the original floor plans from that movie, incorporating the padded door and even the naval theme of the paintings on the wall.


The new M’s “new” office

The film closes with a shot of the classic “gun-barrel” logo, this time with a title celebrating 50 years of Bond movies along with the promise, “James Bond will return”. Mendes notes that Adele sings “this is the end” at the beginning of the movie, while the gun-barrel logo has been moved to the end, which “is in itself a kind of new beginning”.

So it’s tempting to suppose that Mendes sees Skyfall as closing the loop of a Möbius strip: it begins with Bond’s death, travels in his unconscious mind through a sort of purgatory, and ends with a renewal (resurrection?) that takes us back to the beginning of the franchise with a new M (Ralph Fiennes) and new Moneypenny. It’s as if we’ve arrived at a kind of 007 afterlife, with all the best bits in place for future adventures.

Mendes specifically mentions Bond’s unconscious mind at one point in the commentary, at the beginning of the title sequence designed by Daniel Kleinman:

I gave Danny a pretty rough brief, which was that Bond should go down into the water and effectively travel into the underworld — a kind of, cross the river Styx. Almost like Alice going down the rabbit-hole. And that on some level, we should experience the story of the movie in Bond’s unconscious, as it were.

It’s clear from this that Mendes fully understands the dreamlike quality of the story. Does he mean we should think of the whole movie that way, or just that the title sequence should be a dreamlike synopsis? That’s not entirely clear, but either way, he has at least considered how that interpretation makes sense — “on some level”.

* * *

When you add it all up, I think this is a fairly compelling body of evidence that the main part of this movie is Bond’s dream, or at least that it’s intentionally left open to that interpretation. If you still aren’t convinced, I hope you at least recognize the possibility as valid, and know that you are making a choice to believe the way you do. If you don’t think Bond dies, it’s not because the movie (or the director) told you so.

Perhaps Mendes’s point is to hold up a mirror to the audience, to show them that Bond survives because they will him to. Their belief that Bond has nine lives, or more, comes from their love of the character and the franchise. It’s so strong that you can kill him right before their eyes and count on them to disbelieve it.

At first, I felt slightly offended by this. So! High-fallutin’ Mr. Sam Mendes thinks he can get away with no explanation at all? Well I’m not falling for it! But on watching the movie again, and in researching this article, I’ve come to appreciate what he’s done. He’s made a bold, original contribution to the legend of 007 with a film that can be understood on multiple levels. Combined with outstanding character development, plot structure, acting, and cinematography, this makes Skyfall one of the most intriguing of all Bond films.