Reading the Signs of Power and Masculinity:
Semiotics in Marc Foster’s Quantum of Solace
The 2008 incarnation of iconic man of the world James Bond, Quantum of Solace, fails nowhere in providing its audience with the requisite Bond offerings of extreme action, suspense, and international espionage. Marc Foster directs his first Bond film with second-installment Bond actor Daniel Craig, with the film’s plot continuing from the last scenes of Casino Royale. Though this last showing was received with mixed reviews from critics, it nonetheless garnered impressive commercial success worldwide—only second to its predecessor.
Quantum of Solace, like all Bond films before it, is often acknowledged to be based on a work of fiction by writer Ian Fleming; however, only the title is actually credited to the writer, as the entire plot was developed by the film’s writers and producers. But what keeps it consistent with all Bond stories and films is the consistent use of signature action sequences, James Bond’s quintessential persona and appearance, international controversy and intrigue, and the participation of an attractive female to serve as Bond’s casual romantic interest. Foster, though, was able to introduce a slight difference in his portrayal of the Bond character—compared to older versions, this particular protagonist manages to reveal a human side, depicted through a clear internal struggle regarding revenge versus the non-negotiable elimination of all major and minor antagonists. Semiotics, or the study of signs in relation to context—film, in this case—is a useful instrument to be appropriated to analyze the messages being communicated by the filmmakers through the evolving personification of James Bond.
II. James Bond and the Myth of the Superhero
It is not surprising how James Bond has been shown in all his films as the illustration of the ideal male—physically and mentally strong, unfazed, determined, mostly domineering and no-nonsense, and capable of overcoming all obstacles at the flick of a finger—for this character is clearly the epitome of the traditional concept of masculinity. Though technology is central in Bond’s activities, which must change constantly over the years, it is merely a means to promote his superiority in terms of agility and intelligence; what is still at the forefront is the complete construction of his personality. Echoing age-old ideals of maleness, Bond has always been configured as a man’s man, as well as a ladies’ man. The physique and extreme sharpness of mind are necessary traits to project the typical alpha male, one who identifies his target and wastes no time in getting it. Bond is employed as a secret service agent, thus all instructions relayed for him to carry out meld easily with the characteristics given him. His appearance, always dapper in a suit and strong-jawed in countenance, are intentionally designed to exude the stereotype of masculinity prevalent from the films’ emergence in the 1960s. Though the actors appear to have varied physical traits, what remains in common is the undisguised male attractiveness and sex appeal, without a hint of softness of androgyny. This is thoroughly capped by the consistent use of guns and firepower, which has traditionally been included as part of male territory.
III. Signs and Symbols
Quantum of Solace, being of standard Bond formula, steps up to its place as representative of modernity and technology. From the opening credits to the last scene, audiences are able to glean the filmmakers’ attempts to separate the film from its predecessors. However, the closing credits pay homage to the iconic Bond ending and scoring, which then shifts the film back to its roots.
The plot is not way off the Bond style, as the international spy is once again tasked by his bosses to eliminate various members of an intricate network headed by a leader of a supposed environmental organization, Dominic Greene, who is actually in cahoots with Bolivian militia intent in overthrowing their government to lay claim on a desert that would control the country’s water supply. Though the story offers practically not much newness in terms of plot and motivation, the signs and symbols appropriated by the filmmakers are enough to make a sound analysis of the abovementioned topic of masculinity. There are several juxtaposed scenes in the film that appear to communicate different meanings of Bond strength and power: in the first scene, the chaos that ensues after the revelation of an infiltrator in their midst is cut against the rough action and excitement of a horseracing competition; and in another, a chase scene counterpoints with a grandiose musical performance that includes a giant model of an eye in the middle of the stage. These two scenes connote separate contexts of virility and strength, in the case of the horse race, and the climax of a performance in which everything is deciphered and strategized. One other scene that reveals a particular meaning is found near the beginning as well, which makes use of two relevant images—a basket of cherries being thrown to the ground, and a huge church bell that figures in the background as Bond rids himself of yet another enemy. Cherries are typically symbolic of femininity or fragility, which falls upon Bond’s arrival—almost a sexual connotation. The huge bell is an old-school cue for deadlines, timelines, and schedules, as well as a clear religious context; Bond’s strategic mind operates in this scene almost by his to-the-moment achievement of his task, and also the suggested irreverence to any form of authority.
The involvement of a female, the Russian agent Camille Montes, somehow delves a bit further from the standard ‘decorative’ purpose of previous Bond women. Montes is an agent herself, and appears to be skilled physically and mentally as well. However, she is still shown to be both victim and second fiddle to Bond, and the sexual attraction that ensures between them underlines this observation more. Bond is never shown to be at a lack for solutions and escape routes, and Montes’ arrival to rescue him in vehicles merely emphasizes their relationship. However, there is an interesting use of transportation in the film to show the gravity of Bond’s situation; Montes’ first appearance is in a sleek, compact car, obviously decked in the latest technology, which is later repeated with her arriving in a beat-up Beetle. In the end, they are forced to take a rickety old bus to get them out of the middle of nowhere. Somehow Bond’s partnership with a woman is always accompanied with adverse situations, each one worse than the first, which culminates in his ability to find yet another answer all on his own. In contrast to the seemingly rough scenes involving Bond’s female companions, his colleague M is never shown to be attached to him in a sexual manner. M’s strength and authority are thus counteracted by scenes showing her own femininity, such as drawing a bath and taking off her makeup. These merely emphasize the fact that she is a woman, whereas the Bond girls are made to act in a more anti-feminine way to balance the effects.
Quantum of Solace does not depart from the standard James Bond formula, which communicates the man as the sole source of power and strength. Semiotics reveal an affirmation of this already common knowledge, and the filmmakers have achieved their best in appropriating symbols that further contribute to this fact. Nothing of the subtle variety will ever work well in a Bond film, as nothing about James Bond is ever quiet and unassuming. Like the scenes that were used in the film as well as the consistent appearance assigned to the character, everything about Bond should be larger than life, exuding confidence, strength, and power.
Quantum of Solace. Dir. Marc Foster. Perf. Daniel Craig. 2008. MGM Columbia