Resurrection and revenge in James Bond’s Skyfall

Josh Larsen

The concept of the Resurrection is unpalatable to modern minds largely because it defies science and reason. But postmodernism also instinctively rejects the idea because, at least in our pop-culture narratives, we expect resurrections to serve purposes other than that which Christ’s did.

If Jesus’ resurrection was both an assurance of his triumph over death and an ushering in of a new movement of shalom, that’s completely countercultural to a pop-art understanding of what it means to have new life after death. The latest James Bond film, Skyfall, is a stark reminder of this. When figures come back from the dead in our contemporary stories, they generally do so to kick butt.

In Skyfall, this is true of both the villain and the hero. At the start of the film, James Bond (Daniel Craig) engages in one of the bravura opening action sequences for which the franchise has become known. A motorcycle chase across rooftops leads to a foot chase atop a speeding train. Perhaps knowing that we’ve seen such exploits before, director Sam Mendes then has Bond commandeer a construction digger that’s being transported on the train and direct the bucket toward the bad guy. It’s a giddy, over-the-top touch that, like much of Skyfall, nods to the franchise’s lighter days.

The chase doesn’t end well for our hero, however. Without giving too much away, I’ll only say that the opening-credits sequence that follows this chase employs a resurrection motif (this being Bond, silhouettes of girls and guns are also part of the striking visual design). Skyfall is set up, then, as the tale of a man arising after being left for dead. (Asked later if he has a hobby, Bond answers: “Resurrection.”) When our hero makes his inevitable reappearance, what is his goal? To find out who was responsible for his (near) killing and bring them to violent justice.

This is what our pop-culture figures come back from the dead to do: seek retribution, be it in the name of villainy or justice.

It turns out that the guilty party – a sadistic cyber-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem) – is also something of a resurrected man. Bardem, the chilly villain of No Country For Old Men, takes a more comic approach here than he did in that Coen brothers film. With bleached hair and effeminate flair, he’s like Project Runway’s Tim Gunn with a hint of Dr. Evil. And yet, the moment in which Silva explains the motivation behind his plot is filled with deadly serious horror. We learn that (spoiler alert) Silva had once been a British agent and, like Bond, had been left behind in the field. Under interrogation by the enemy, he tried to swallow the cyanide pill that was hidden in one of his molars. Rather than bring death, however, the poison left him painfully disfigured. Revenge on the British spy network became his obsession.

This is what our pop-culture figures come back from the dead to do: seek retribution, be it in the name of villainy or justice. Skyfall may be a better-than-average installment in a franchise that has resurrected itself more than once, but its conception of a second life is severely limited. Bond and Silva are meant to represent opposing responses to being betrayed, when in fact they’re really just flip sides of the same vengeful coin.

What’s more, although both Bond and Silva have been granted second lives, they use them to return to the trappings of their first ones. They’ve cheated death, but haven’t moved beyond the events that caused their “dying.” Like other pop-culture figures from beyond the grave – zombies, say, or our most recent Batman– they wander about in vaguely familiar territory, bringing only violence and pain. It’s a matter of motivation and orientation: even given new eyes, Bond and Silva can only look backwards, never ahead.

If Christ’s resurrection was anything, it was a forward-looking phenomenon, a new life aimed toward restoration rather than revenge. In Simply Christian, New Testament theologian N.T. Wright puts it this way:

“When Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibility. Indeed, precisely because part of that new possibility is for human beings themselves to be revived and renewed, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t leave us as passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs and commissioned to go and make new creation happen in the world.”

Skyfall is fun, but its sense of resurrection has nothing on a restorative vision such as this.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Theology