Dial M for Menace: early speculation on the meaning and action of SKYFALL

[This featured FilmEdge article is republished here to allow reader discussion and theories]

With this week’s official announcement of SKYFALL as the 23rd Bond film in the ongoing franchise, our mission as fans begins: to infiltrate between the lines of the London press conference and uncover intel about this unknown story. The fact that Daniel Craig‘s third outing as 007 is apparently an entirely original story which springs from the CASINO ROYALE / QUANTUM OF SOLACE universe, but has a stand alone plot, makes this task all the more challenging and exciting. We hope. Let the investigation and speculation begin.

Our leading question arises from the title itself: SKYFALL. Without any obvious reference to Ian Fleming’s novels or personal life, what does the title mean and how will it relate to the story and/or characters of the film? Do we take it metaphorically as a theme for the film, or might it describe a specific event or agency code name akin to this elusive FBI warning from 2001?

Other than some early casting confirmations, all we know about the potential story is the official synopsis — in truth, a thin and vaguely worded plot outline — released at the November 3rd press event:

In SKYFALL, James Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.

Dame Judi Dench returns for a 7th time as M in the new Bond film SKYFALLFrom these cryptic tidbits, the film’s title seems to imply a rather significant, possibly catastrophic events will befall MI6 as somehow prompted by M’s personal or professional past, but how and why now? Whatever the scale or method of attack on MI6, M seems to be at the heart of it, either as the intended target or perhaps the triggering motivation for the unknown assailant. The plot summary also implies that M’s tenure as head of MI6 might be endangered or perhaps ended resulting from this ‘personal’ attack which may harm MI6 overall. If the unknown attack inspires such plot points, this crisis certainly raises the stakes for M as a character and quite possibly might flirt with the notion of ending Judi Dench‘s portrayal of M as the film franchise moves forward.

Hopefully this will not be the result of SKYFALL’s story line, but in the recent press conference even Dench hinted (jokingly) at the unsettled nature of her role, stating, “I’ll never get a grip on who M is, like I won’t get a grip on anyone in my office either, no. But, that’s my job isn’t it? Just try and keep a grip.”  Was Dame Judi just having fun with the press like her cast mates or was she subconsciously planting a hint about her character’s future . . . which hasn’t even gone before the SKYFALL cameras yet? All Dench and the cast have had thus far are some script readings, so she hasn’t even played out these scenes of attack on her character and MI6 yet. Aside from the screenplay’s unknown directives, anything is possible right now.

It’s most fitting that this crisis tests Bond’s loyalty to M, as the Craig era of films portray Bond early in his double-0 career at MI6. From his quick promotion to 007 in CASINO ROYALE and through his personal and professional battle of wills in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, a healthy tension remains between Bond and his boss that wisely avoids the rather sedentary badinage between 007 and M in the 1980s-90s before Dench took on the role. Of course, CASINO ROYALE pushed the reset button in Bond’s relationship with M, which truly enhanced the dramatic complexity of M even with Dench reprising the role she’d already played four times before in the Brosnan era. Rebooting 007’s career timeline allowed Dench and the franchise screenwriters to redefine M’s character and relationship with MI6, along with the Ministry superiors to whom she reports. In the last two films, M is constantly being held responsible for Bond’s seeming indiscretions in the field, or sticking her own neck out to back Bond’s play despite her superiors’ lack of faith in him.

SKYFALL seems destined to flip this script and force Bond to risk everything by backing M during this attack on her and MI6, likely at the very time when M’s status within the agency is called into doubt from above. While contentious, M’s relationship with Bond has contained a hidden vein of professional maternalism as he reluctantly realized by the end of QUANTUM, and he has come to accept this as an asset. It may have taken two missions, but Bond and M developed a level of trust which served them both well in their capacities, not to mention an easement of tension between them personally. M may not always approve of Bond’s cavalier and sometimes insubordinate methods, but he’s proved the trust she reluctantly places in him pays off in mission results. Likewise, Bond learns that when the chips are literally down, M is not a feckless “bean counter,” she will choose mission priorities over Ministry protocol, and more often that not her choice helps preserve Bond’s success (and life) in the field. The events of SKYFALL, as promised in the plot summary, force Bond to risk all to defend M during this attack, both professionally in his 007 duty and personally as an ally of M herself because she has earned it.

But what is the source of this attack, and will its effect indeed inspire a “sky is falling” reaction in the current Bond universe? This scenario sound dramatically intriguing to say the least, though there is no confirmation that is the meaning of the title. Let’s hope it plays a more relevant part in the film than did QUANTUM OF SOLACE to Bond’s second mission. Speaking of which, all reports indicate that the mysterious — and wildly underdeveloped — Quantum group (conglomerate? cabal?) does not appear in SKYFALL. This omission may prove all the better for the third story given what a dud Quantum ended up being compared to the villainous Cold War glory days of SPECTRE. As a lifelong Bond;fan, I hoped that Quantum would eventually be revealed as a failed subcontracting venture by SPECTRE that was completely unaware of its evil parent company.  Quantum’s failure would finally expose the existence of SPECTRE which would then provide all the anti-007 villainy going forward in the series. That hope may not prove too far from the truth since SKYFALL is confirmed to ignore Quantum altogether in Bond’s new mission, if not drop it completely from the franchise. Might this story drop the pretense and introduce SPECTRE once and for all as the modern antithesis of MI6 once and for all? If the questionable rumors of Ralph Fiennes playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld come true, then there is no doubt SPECTRE is behind it all. Imagine the cruel, amoral fantaticism of Fiennes’ Amon Goeth powering the modern villainy of Blofeld in a global battle against Bond and MI6. I’ll raise a Vesper martini to that!

What kind of villain will Javier Bardem play in SKYFALL?So which villain in or out of an opposing organization could successfully launch an attack against M personally and MI6 at-large? We now have confirmation that actor Javier Bardem plays the lead villain character in SKYFALL, but we have no indication at all who he is or why he’s the film’s antagonist. We are more sure of this fact: Bardem is likely too young to be the threat from M’s past by himself. Assuming writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade avoid repeating their TWINE plot device of Elektra King being the evil progeny of a friend from M’s past, then how exactly will M’s personal or professional history directly prompt this crisis? Is the casting of Albert Finney in a tightly-guarded unnamed role a key to M’s history and possibly her undoing?

Finney could well fit in as a character from M’s past, and early rumors indicate he could be portraying an unknown MI6 agency figure in the story. Of the expanding cast list, he is the only one within Dench’s age range to pair the two in a SKYFALL backstory. What we do not yet know is how peripheral or featured Finney’s role is in the contemporary story, and indeed director Mendes politely refused to speak at all about his character or place in the plot. It seems unlikely that the attack would be prompted by anything in M’s personal life, given how deliberately sketchy the character’s biography is under Dench and always has been throughout the series. Suddenly delving deep into M’s private life to mine a major biographical nugget which prompts an entire film plot seems highly unlikely in both the tone and character arcs of the current 007 universe. This would leave something from M’s professional past related to MI6 as the crux of the matter, and thus the odds are good that Albert Finney’s character is somehow involved or associated with this prior event. Why else cast an actor of Finney’s stature in SKYFALL if he does not payoff directly in this original story?

There is also the chance Finney will play one of M’s superiors, though the Craig-era films have specifically avoided introducing such a character with the exception of Tim Piggot-Smith’s unnamed Foreign Secretary in QUANTUM. An article by the Daily Mail Online suggested Finney’s role as “a Foreign Office mandarin with powers over the Secret Intelligence Service” which may place his character as equal to or above M’s office. Rumors also persist that Finney might replace Dench as M during the action of the story, as the attack on MI6 costs M her job somehow. While this is possible, there’s no indication M’s dismissal is permanent as Bond’s mission to set things right could restore M to her rightful position once the crisis is resolved . . . if it’s resolved by the end of SKYFALL.

Finney might oversee and perhaps discipline M for her possible association with the attack on MI6, applying dramatic pressure on Dench’s character from above to sustain the jeopardy surrounding her. Such disciplinary action could involve a past incident or agency mission on M’s record which may include Finney’s character and indeed come back to haunt her today — let’s say a failure to apprehend or eliminate a threat to peace such as Bardem’s villain, for example. If Bardem resurfaces and the past case which M left open now threatens MI6 and possibly the UK, she is the logical target to take the blame for it.

FilmEdge has some difficulty seeing Finney at age 75 — and thankfully in remission from prostate cancer — taking on a permanent role going forward in the 007 franchise, but there is no doubt in the actor’s ability to handle such a role masterfully given his stellar, lengthy career. Thus far, we have no indication that Dench is about to end her tenure as M, either, though of course any such announcement would definitely be withheld until the proper time as not to spoil SKYFALL’s surprises. Whatever the plot twist that puts M or her career in harm’s way, we speculate with some confidence that Albert Finney’s character should be directly tied to M’s fate in one way or another to maximize his presence in the new film.

Finally, we’ll engage in some guesswork about the possible meaning of the title SKYFALL itself, which in its foreshortened way bodes of dark times ahead for all involved. Citing our link above to the cryptic code word “Skyfall” used in an FBI security alert a month after the 9/11 attacks, might such events have inspired use of the word to describe similarly catastrophic events in the new Bond film?

If Bardem’s villain, either part of a SPECTRE-like organization or on his own, were to launch such an attack on MI6, disrupting the nation’s intelligence agency by causing turmoil (physical or bureaucratic) within it might prove a devious prelude to a larger attack in the UK. Disabling Britain’s intelligence gathering ability and perhaps isolating MI6 field operatives like 007 before a major offensive would only increase the attack’s success and terrible effectiveness. Personally, the attack on M’s career would also do the greatest harm to Bond, depriving him of his mentor and benefactor within MI6 which otherwise tends to distrust 007’s rash methods in the field. It could be a very clever plot complication and thematic reversal from Craig’s two previous films: can Bond, the rebellious and sometimes insubordinate spy, save the day on his own once he’s cut off from M and MI6? Could this be the other half of the equation between Bond and M which 007 must master if they are both to survive the crisis?

One thing is inevitable: more SKYFALL story points and plot revelations await us in the near future, some of which may undermine and contradict FilmEdge’s speculations here. Still, we have to start our fanside investigations somewhere, and attempting to define the picture this puzzle is supposed to recreate is half the fun. No matter how these actors and characters combine to forge the exciting events we’ll see in SKYFALL next year, there is no doubt that producers Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson and director Sam Mendes have assembled one of the best Bond casts in years to enact 007’s newest and highly promising mission ahead.

Contribute your own speculation and theories in the comment section below.


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