Skyfall is a contemporary movie. As loaded and/or meaningless as that word can be, the viewer can immediately decipher that Skyfall is different and current because of 1) the lack of outdated gender norms (there's not really a token Bond girl, even though he presumably beds two) and 2) the lack of emphasis on casinos, cigars, cars and the lavish, one-percent lifestyle of the title spy. All in all, much has changed since the previous great entry in the series, Martin Campbell's 2006 poker thriller Casino Royale, in both Bond's world and in ours.
In general, the film doesn't just address cultural change. It addresses political change directly to the forehead. Skyfall's villain, Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva, is exactly what Judi Dench's M describes in the British Intelligence hearing scene: an individual danger, a danger from a distance, and a danger from the comfort of his own personalized lair. Silva is not a Westernized conception of a state nor a Cold War era enemy plotting the world's destruction from a futuristic via Modernist social experiment pretending to be a building. Just like St. Vincent's Annie Clark makes music from her bedroom, Silva makes some pretty disturbing "music" from his.
So, overall, geopolitically and architecturally, Skyfall absolutely nails what might be called "the Zeitgeist."
In fact, the film's tension between old and new is encapsulated most and best by its use of architecture, because the architecture interacts with and mirrors the characters themselves. Bond himself is old, having failed physical and mental examinations but approved anyway by M, who is, believe it or not, even older. Bond removes shrapnel from his shoulder that entered his body in a fight scene at the beginning of the film. His tracing of the shrapnel allows him to find out who shot him, leading him to Shanghai and, without a doubt, some pretty ostentatious contemporary architecture. The transparency of the glass "Norman Foster-esque high-rise," where Bond finds the man who shot him, logistically allows Bond to kill this man and obtain clues as to who this man works for, ultimately leading him to a casino in Macau.
In Macau, Bond meets the closest thing the film has to a "Bond girl." (She's actually a victim of sex trafficking. I wasn't kidding when I said this film doesn't shy away from contemporary geopolitics and the contemporary illicit global economy, whether inside or outside the public's consciousness.) This woman takes Bond to an island off the coast of Macau to Silva's lair. Silva's lair, is, as Artinfo's Kelly Chan writes, a "modernist experiment gone awry," as concrete ruins suggest the failures of "capitalist hubris."
In 2008, Guardian critic Steve Rose labeled Bond "the enemy of architecture." The character's creator, Ian Fleming, despised Modern architecture. Bond villains, as aforementioned, plotted destruction of the world from Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Modernist houses. Rose wrote, "What is the archetypal Bond villain if not a modern architect? He is usually on a mission to 'improve' humanity by wiping out the messy status quo and replacing it with some orderly, rational utopia of his own design."
Some might then call Silva's already-destroyed lair as something very postmodern. A key tenet of postmodern thought in general is the personalization of truth: Here, we see Silva's individual attempts to destroy as based on and inspired by his personal interpretation of geopolitical loyalty, covert or transparent. In other words, the ultimate postmodern villain.
Eventually, Bond captures Silva, brings him to London, Silva escapes, and Bond chases Silva through London's underground tunnel network, Silva attempts to kill M, and Bond takes M to Skyfall, the house in rural Scotland where he grew up. It's all one big "yadda yadda yadda" but the point is this move buys Bond and M time and gives them a familiar (for Bond, at least) place to prepare for their inevitable showdown with Silva and his cronies.
The house, an old Scottish house, has, as the gatekeeper (Albert Finney's Kincade) puts it, some old tricks -- namely a Reformation-era priest hole that leads to a nearby church. The house is destroyed once Silva's men trace Bond and M to Skyfall, but the climax of the film takes place in said nearby, likely mid 16th century church.
The symbolism here isn't religious -- after all, Europe is a place where Christmas is celebrated secularly and culturally rather than religiously -- but it drives and concludes the film's tension between new and old. Skyfall isn't pro- or anti-Modern architecture any more than it has an opinion on Post-modern architecture. It's just saying that in an ever-changing, ever-evolving, dare-I-say-it postmodern world, sometimes we need to look to what has come before for protection and inspiration. Old ideas have lasted for a reason.
The essay originally appeared on the author's art and design blog, DRA.