Why Sam Mendes Took A Minimalistic Approach To The James Bond Gadgets In Skyfall

"Skyfall" has occupied a strange place in the James Bond canon since its release 10 years ago. Simultaneously celebrated for reviving the franchise following the dismal "Quantum of Solace" and criticized for too often relying on hokey nostalgia plays, the film nonetheless maintains its status as one of the more significant entries in the 007 saga. It's also the most financially successful of the series, bringing in an impressive worldwide total of $1.1 billion at the box office.

Much of this is down to the producers ordering a serious overhaul for the 23rd 007 outing, leading to a host of new characters and the return of some beloved series mainstays including Q (Ben Whishaw) and his gadgets. But director Sam Mendes clearly didn't want to repeat the Bond tech of old. In fact, he took a remarkably restrained approach to the gadgets in "Skyfall," though the classic Aston Martin DB5 does make a comeback, complete with ejector seat. Aside from Judi Dench's M narrowly avoiding being skyrocketed into the London night by said seat, the zaniness of classic 007 contraptions is mostly absent in "Skyfall".

On the 10th anniversary of the film, the subdued Q gadgets remain a somewhat underwhelming part of the movie. As Bond himself says when he's handed his radio transmitter and Walther PPK/S 9mm with palm scanner: "Not exactly Christmas, is it?" But, much like his predecessor Martin Campbell, who also held back on the gadgets in "Casino Royale," it seems Mendes had his reasons for the eschewing exploding pens and jetpacks.

'A bit of personality'

In the gap between "Quantum of Solace" and "Skyfall," much had to be changed to get the character back on track and it seems Mendes took this requirement seriously. In the director's commentary for the film, he recounts how he and his team "talked a lot about the gadgets in Bond" and confirms his love for the classic 007 tech. But when it came time to design the tools Daniel Craig's super-spy would use, the director explains that he was doing so in a much more advanced world than that of the early Bond movies:

"We had to face the fact that most gadgets are available to you now in the Apple Store or similar shops and there's barely anything you can imagine that doesn't really exist unless it's something to do with weaponry."

As a result, Mendes decided to "go back to basics," focusing on Bond's weaponry and playing upon the themes of his film by mixing the "old and the new." By providing 007 with his traditional Walther PPK but adding the "twist" of the palm print scanner, the director was able to accomplish his mission. He did so, according to his commentary, by working with Walther to redesign the handle of the gun to include the new tech, which, he remarks, "seems to give it a little bit of a personality."

An underwhelming hit

"Skyfall" was an undeniable hit and resuscitated the Bond franchise after the previous misstep. But it remains up for debate as to how effective the return of Q and his arsenal, or in this case small selection, of gadgets really was. As Mendes told Empire in 2015: "Gadgets are tricky unless they really do something significant in the story." In that case, he was referring to "Spectre" and the exploding watch which saves Bond from certain death during the film's denouement — and even set a world record.

In "Skyfall," the Walther PPK comes in handy during Bond's fight with Severine's (Bérénice Marlohe) bodyguards in the Komodo Dragon pit. One thug unsuccessfully tries to fire on Bond using the PPK before being hauled off by one of the giant lizards. But in this case, it feels like an excuse to see the gun again more than a necessary story beat — a compulsory Chekov's PPK moment. Otherwise, Mendes doesn't comment on the radio transmitter, which 007 activates to alert MI6 his position on Raoul Silva's (Javier Bardem) island. Once again, the tech is useful given the narrative of the film but not crucial. All of which raises the question of whether any of it was necessary?

Mendes' contention that in the age of the iPhone no gadget is all that impressive rings true. But you know what also isn't impressive? A half-assed Q and his half-assed gadgets. As Mendes says in his commentary, Whishaw's Q seems "mildly patronizing and yet remains warm," but it's the patronizing aspect, coupled with his line about how MI6 doesn't "go in for" exploding pens any more, that give the whole "return of Q" thing an underwhelming feeling. Whereas "Casino Royale" managed to strike a balance between some nifty tech and a more grounded approach to Bond, the gadgets in "Skyfall" speak more to the film's slightly muddled tone.