The thing about 50th birthday parties -- and I've been to a few now -- is that they feel both celebratory and melancholy. People say that adolescents are confused, but that's nothing compared with the contradictory impulses of your average 50-something, as the sense that things are slowing down collides with an urgent sense of just how quickly time is passing.
This year the Bond series marks its 50th year with Skyfall, a film that's both explosively entertaining and oddly elegiac. It rolls out the expected 007 tropes (exotic locations, enigmatic beauties, Komodo dragons). But a pensive current running underneath the action seems to be wondering what, really, is the point.
I know, I know. Who wants to watch a spy explore "lassitude, boredom and depression," as director Sam Mendes rather unpromisingly described the storyline? But if you're thinking nervously of that slough of despond that was Quantum of Solace, there is meaning to Skyfall's mopeyness. Sometimes you just need a good mid-life crisis to shake things up.
The film might be mourning its own mortality -- the opening title sequence spins spectacularly into a yawning grave. But as it grapples with the existential wear and tear of five difficult decades, the Bond franchise somehow finds new life.
Daniel Craig's fabulously physical Bond starts off with the usual slick stuff. He drives a motorcycle off a bridge, he fights on the top of a train. In a total 007 moment, he stops to adjust his French cuffs in the middle of a murderous gun battle.
But then something goes wrong. The next time we see Bond, he's a wounded animal. (Albeit a wounded animal with a really good tailor.) Drawn back to London for an emergency involving M's secret past, James seems to be questioning whether he belongs in a young man's game.
Significantly, it's not the Good Bond Girl or the Bad Bond Girl who really gets to 007 in this outing, but the Old Bond Girl. James has his best scenes with M (played by the redoubtable Judi Dench). He has a harder time dealing with the younger members of the MI6 staff. Having made a career out of keeping his cool, Bond seems visibly exasperated when he meets the new spotty-faced computer-wonk Q and realizes he's now working with Millennials.
James may be an analogue spy in a digital world, but he finds some respite in vintage style. When he finally gets the Aston Martin out of storage and his passenger asks him where they're going, he answers, "Back in time."
This idea really applies to the whole movie. The villain is found not in a futuristic lair but on an abandoned island littered with rusted bicycles that seem to have been stolen from some neo-realist film of the 1940s.
MI6 operations end up in an underground tunnel system supposedly occupied by Winston Churchill during the Blitz. Nobody says anything, but you know what they're thinking: Now that was a war. Fighting Nazis!
Instead we have moral confusion, faceless enemies, cyber-threats and satellite surveillance. There are repeated suggestions that MI6 is "rather quaint," an irrelevant holdover from another time.
The film's final conflagration seems to be about lost patrimony, as the underpinnings of so much of the Bond mythology go up in flames. And then it all starts again, with nothing left standing but the old-school field agent.
So yes, you can accuse Skyfall of having its birthday cake and eating it too. It's about the dangers of nostalgia, but everything about its burnished, beautiful surfaces emphasize nostalgia's lure.
This confusion feels honest, though. "Though much is taken, much abides," says Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Victorian poet who gets quoted (at length and with touching weirdness) in the film. That could be the midlife paradox that makes Skyfall work. The admission that Bond and his Britain have both seen better days is actually the franchise's last best chance to move forward.