At times, it felt as though the curtain call for Daniel Craig’s Bond would never come to pass. Once Craig’s hesitance about playing the role for a fifth time running was finally resolved between the actor and Sony Studios, Covid-19 came along and placed the finished product on ice for another 17 months. Fortunately, after what feels like decades of waiting, No Time to Die (2021) is out and about in the big wide world. A true ending to the first continuity-driven Bond project that started all the way back in 2005.
A common habit when wrapping up a saga is to make it as gargantuan as can be. Unless you’re Logan (2017), studios love to shut shop in a blaze of bedazzling glory. It’s why Marvel’s Infinity Saga (2008-2019) went ahead and concluded with Avengers: End Game (2019). No Time to Die is no exception to this trend. All the dials have been turned up to 11. The overarching threat is global in scale, the general premise is so dramatic it’s taken a semi science fiction turn, the action is all crash-bang-wallop, and it’s 163-minite runtime makes this the longest Bond film to date. Heck, they’ve even brought Hans Zimmer aboard to beef up the non-diagetic soundtrack. This is no intimate encore for Craig’s Bond, but an exercise in throwing as much as you can plausibly get away with at the screen before moving on to the next chapter.
No Time to Die is the sort of feature that could have quite easily turned into a chaotic disaster. Ramping up the scale of a story from 0 to 100 during a sequel makes the likelihood of a series collapsing in on itself all the more common. Fortunately, we don’t get that here. Instead, what we have is a far-reaching feature of a film that keeps itself from slipping into a bloated mess. It’s a competent and entertaining movie that brings back a handful of familiar faces, introduces ghastly new threats, dishes out healthy servings of captivating set-pieces, ties up plenty of loose ends, teases potential future paths for the franchise to amble down, wraps up a five-film series and bids fair well to a 15-year-old era in a heartfelt manner.
On one level, there’s a feel of liberation to all this. A suspicion that those working on No Time to Die are free to do as they please now the current timeline is coming to a close. If you’re going to reboot everything in the next couple of years, why not see how far you can take this interpretation of the franchise? On the other hand, there’s also an underlying anxiety, a need to try and get everything right in order to end things on a high. After all, there’s 15-years of story telling on the line. The ending of a story has the power to make or break a culture’s perception toward a given franchise. Just look at how Game of Thrones (2011-2019) went from the most cherished show to loathed disappointment after its eighth series failed to capture audiences’ imaginations. This cocktail of “lets go bananas!” and “we can’t screw this up!” makes for a movie that’s both ambitious and controlled. The end result is a film capable of going big and bold without tipping into the realm of absurdity. The action sports a rowdy confidence without ever sliding into ridiculousness; the runtime lasts for as long as it possibly can then stops before exhausting the life out of you; the plot veers slightly over the edge of the rails without flying off of them; and the climax is monumentally heart-wrenching in a way that feels earned. Every characteristic of this film takes itself right up to the precipice of the line without ever actually crossing it, creating the most grandiose and madcap post-2005 Bond film without overstretching the rules established back in Casino Royal (2005).
This is much the case when it comes to the primary plot, which is laced with enough twists a turns to tangle even Harry Houdini into an inescapable shambles. What we’re led to believe is happening early on reshapes into something completely different further on down the line. The abundance of twists in spy thrillers often leaves me feeling exhausted and baffled for the most part. Fortunately No Time to Die understands the risks of attempting a plot on such a scale. It keeps from descending into unintelligible chaos by offering viewers plenty of pinch points throughout the film, ensuring everyone is on the same page at every opportunity. Exposition is laced into the big character moments between heroes, villains and various other characters. Shoving plot reminders into heated character exchanges works nicely, allowing us to remain in the know without it ever feeling forced or heavy-handed. If the info dumps are part of the drama, it’s harder to accuse them of being insincere.
One of the themes threaded throughout No Time to Die surrounds legacies and the ways in which people are ultimately characterised by their actions. The idea of action and the ways in which choices shape a person’s story are central to both the protagonist’s and antagonist’s journeys. Both characters’ present-day drives are influenced by the traumas of their pasts, and it is through these present-day decisions which will ultimately go on to delineate their stories. Throughout the film, Bond is painted as a tragic hero who’s drive to help others was born from the loss of his first love, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). In addition to using this as a means of retroactively establishing an arc fusing the five most recent movies together, this idea of the past and present shaping legacy functions to establish Bond as a saviour of humanity. The scope of this film is so vast in its scale, his decision to help others and reduce suffering is enough to avert the human race from certain extinction. No Time to Die is therefore a film about defining Bond’s legacy as a savour of earth.
All of which brings us onto the meat and bones of this story, which essentially revolves around Bond trying to stop humanity from falling victim to a nanobot-murdering pandemic. Dare I say, the nanobot threat central to No Time to Die feels a tad far-fetched, at least for the most recent iteration of Bond films (various chapters from the classic 007 catalogue were notorious for ascending into the realms of sci-fi fantasy). It’s certainly the sort of premise they’d have avoided back in the days of developing Casino Royal. It’s inclusion feels like an attempt to manufacture a global threat in line with modern day technological concerns. Nanobots aren’t what one may call a contemporary concept, particularly in thrillers or sci-fi stories, though considering real world nanobot markets are expected to increase by 25% within the next decade, the idea of killer micro robots probably isn’t as unrealistic of a concept as I initially assumed. Furthermore, a Bond film about a virus capable of wiping out fast portions of the globe via a pandemic lead catastrophe is frighteningly more relevant when you consider it was released in the midst of a real-world pandemic.
Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) plays the Bond villain this time around. After his entire family were murdered by Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) back when he was just a small child, Safin has been on a revenge spree for much of his adult life. While his taste for vengeance remained personal during his younger years, Safin’s thirst for comeuppance has ballooned during the latter stages of his life; essentially turning him into your usual cardboard cut-out supervillain. His blame for his family’s demise moved on from Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) to the SPECTRE organisation he worked for, then finally onto society as a whole. He’s not merely content in the knowledge that White is no longer alive, but wishes to take out his trauma on countries across the globe.
Safin’s depiction as a vengeful monster is much more effective during the earlier portions of No Time to Die. As the plot moves into its explosive third act, however, this becomes less the case. The trauma that transformed him into a cold-blooded murderer during the earlier portions of the film feel more interesting than the world-ending villain we get later on down the line. The sequences in which we see Safin during the film’s opening sequence are quite brilliant; moments that feel as though they’ve been extracted from a chilling horror flick. As the film moves on to elaborate on Safin’s past, a strange form of logic is mixed in to add depth to his atrocities. Of course any such logic is quickly flushed down the toilet once we learn that he wants to wipe out entire countries. By this stage, he just becomes your by-the-numbers Snidely Whiplash.
There’s a reason they made Safin descend into a globe-ending threat, and that’s because of the need to go as grandiose as possible for Craig’s swansong. I get that. Though it does at times give off the impression that the film is trying to depict two completely different types of villains within a single antagonist. They want the boy who turned into a monster after his family were murdered, as well as the man who wants to inflict untold amounts of suffering on every living soul. This later version doesn’t quite add up to the former’s experiences. I mean why does he hate society because of Mr. White’s atrocities? I get they are trying to make him the polar opposite of Bond, who is motivated to save people because of his loss, however none of this feels as though it fits with the version of the character we’re introduced to early on.
Of course, despite Safin’s absurd plan to destroy everything, his vision of global collapse never sees the light of day, thanks to our protagonist’s heroic deeds. Safin’s dreams of being defined as the man who destroyed civilisation as we know it will never come to pass. Instead, it is Bond’s actions that successfully cement the protagonist as a saviour of worlds, even if the world will never know of such a truth. Yet in order for good to triumph over evil, a great price must be paid.
Seeing as this was Craig’s final outing as Bond in a film series that was intentially detached from the classic era’s serialised model, Sony Pictures were in a unique position in which they could plan a genuine ending for the character; one unshackled by the uncertainty of future follow ups. This allowed them to chisel out a definitive ending for the current incarnation of the character before they hit the reset button on the franchise.
Opting to kill off a character as iconic as Bond is an interesting choice, particularly considering that it’s never been done before. This is the first time in the franchise’s 68-year history that Bond has been explicitly killed off. What I think is most effective about this decision is how the film spends a great deal of its runtime building up the illusion of a happy ending for the character before pulling the rug from under our feet. Giving Bond a partner who he loves unconditionally, not to mention a child leads audiences into a false sense of security. It lays down the foundations for a conclusion in which he will officially retire from his career as an intelligence officer in order to protect his family. Going down this road would have been the safe option to close the franchise on; a believable outcome that gives Bond a plausible out while keeping the door open for a potential future cameos. Except Bond never makes it off of Safin’s island, and hia future with Madeleine and Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet) never comes to pass. If you removed the Madeleine/Mathilde subplot entirely, Bond’s death would not quite have packed the same punch as it does here. It’s a solid way to build false hope before delivering the final gut punch.
Now that the last 15-years of Bond’s most recent reboot has come to a close, the franchise now finds itself at a crossroads. Going forward, there are two obvious options they can explore. They can either pursue a spin-off series which follows the exploits the new 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), or they can do a hard reset similar to the one they carried in 2005. The former option allows them to continue telling stories in the current timeline, whereas the latter gives them the liberty to completely rebuild the brand for a new era.
Nomi’s presence in No Time to Die functions as a means of showing fans that a female 007 certainly can work, proving that the universe won’t collapse in on itself if you give the title to someone who isn’t just another white man. As the film points out on a handful of occasions, the title is just a number after all. Nomi’s presence also leaves a couple of breadcrumbs scattered about the place for a potential future series. Her character is not developed too greatly here, meaning there is a chance to bring Lynch back in future movies and have here usher in a completely new era of franchise that’s connected to the Casino Royal timeline.
Having said all of this, I imagine Sony will likely opt to reboot the franchise entirely, largely for marketing purposes. I’m not suggesting Lashana Lynch wouldn’t sell tickets for future Bond films. Her depiction as a new 007 agent is pretty solid from what we see here, and has much potential to take the franchise down an interesting new avenue. I think the reason the studio will decide to reboot isn’t because of Lynch, but because it will allow them to generate a substantial amount of buzz during the casting, production and distribution phases of the next film. Much like the recasting of a new Doctor Who, an incoming James Bond always wets the appetites of the general public.
Then again, who knows at this stage. The ball is very much up in the air. There’s a chance we may well get to see Lynch return as 007 in some form or another during future movies. They may even opt to do what they did with M (Judie Dench) in Casino Royal, porting Nomi over into a rebooted timeline.
No Time to Die is a big, blousy send off for Daniel Craig; one that knows when to hold off from going too far. It’s a lot of fun, wraps up a 15-year-old story and packs one heck of an emotional farewell during its climactic moments.