“Fire and Ice”
The 22nd James Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008) takes a sharp narrative turn when 007 (Daniel Craig) and fellow avenger Camille (Olga Kurylenko) drive into the Bolivian desert. Camille is trying to assassinate General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio), who murdered her family in front of her when she was just a child. Camille asks why Bond has spent the film heretofore murdering people indiscriminately, including two corrupt Bolivian police officers, after using his friend Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) as a human shield. When Bond throws the dead man into a dumpster, both the audience and Camille are shocked. She queries, “Is that how you treat your friends?” Bond takes the dead man’s money so that he can rent a plane to fly to the desert hideout of Quantum, an evil organization run by a psychopath named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Camille has been using Dominic to get close to the general. Bond explains that he is seeking revenge for Dominic trying to kill someone close to him. “Your mother?” she queries. Bond quips, “She likes to think so,” referring to the transformed relationship he has with his boss, M (played by Judi Dench), a character for decades played by a man, Bernard Lee.
The alteration of M’s relationship with Bond, from gruff adversaries to mother and son serves as the turning point for not only Quantum of Solace, but for the entire film series, paving the way for Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012), in which an evil former British secret service agent, Silva (Javier Bardem) kills M at Bond’s ancestral home, from which he has been estranged for years. Such melodramatics come to a head in Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015), in which we come to learn about Bond’s adoptive family, in the aftermath of the death of his parents at Skyfall, the name of the Bond family estate.
The plotting of Quantum of Solace reels in the wake of James’ newfound familial bond with M. While Camille and the spy are jetting across Bolivia, M visits the foreign secretary’s office, desperately defending Bond’s seemingly out of control behavior. The British government has seemingly acquiesced to the CIA’s plan to kill Bond. “The world is running out of oil. Right and wrong doesn’t come into it,” explains the government bureaucrat. Meanwhile, Bond and Camille survive the night in the mountains, their plane having been shot down by a Bolivian fighter jet in the employ of Quantum. As they make their way to Dominic’s secret lair, Bond observes that they are walking through what used to be a riverbed, realizing that his theory of the villains trying to corner the oil market is wrong; Dominic is storing the world’s water supply, creating a drought by stockpiling the resource underground.
In a long shot, we see Bond and Camille walk through the Bolivian desert. The shot quotes not another Bond movie, but Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), the quintessential water rights detective film, in which Jake Gittes spies a Latino man on a burro in the middle of the barren L.A. River basin, coming to realize that the film’s Biblical baddie, Noah Cross (John Huston) is similarly manipulating the water supply of Southern California. From this point onward, Quantum of Solace relies on a series of elemental oppositions, aquatic contrasts that drive the film toward its end.
Camille and Bond emerge out of the desert to check into the Grand Andean Hotel. There, M confronts Bond. Cynically, Bond assumes M is in on the American’s plan to assassinate him: “How much oil did the Americans promise you?” M chides Bond for his behavior, revealing Bond’s lover, Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton) lying dead in a hotel bed, having been drowned in oil. The sequence quotes the beginning of Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964), in which Bond has sex with Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), only to wake up to find her dead from suffocation, the villain having sprayed her entire body with gold paint.
Quantum of Solace uses the binary oppositions between elemental resources—gold and oil, oil and water—to resolve its dual revenge plot lines. With the help of heroic CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), Bond escapes and rushes to Quantum’s hideout in the desert in order to dismantle the organization’s power. As Bond and Dominic fight, the facility catches on fire. Dominic attacks Bond with a fire axe. When Dominic is about to fall to his death off a catwalk, Bond saves him, thus forestalling for the first time in the film Bond’s rush to murder.
For her part, Camille enters the Quantum compound in the desert in order to shoot General Medrano. She does so, but cowers in a room as the facility burns, Medrano having attempted but failed to kill her as a child by burning her alive to cover the evidence of her family’s murder. Camille begs Bond to kill her so that she doesn’t have to suffer being burned alive. Instead, Bond shoots at one of the facility’s hydrogen power cells, depriving the fire of fuel. They walk out of the rubble of the compound together.
Bond spies Greene limping through the desert, desperately trying to escape. Here, the film quotes not water rights in Chinatown, but the desiccation of Naturalist realism. In Greed (1924), Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece of desire and death, the disgraced dentist McTeague is pursued into Death Valley by the brother of the wife he has murdered for her money. In a reprise of this final confrontation in the desert, Bond brings Dominic a quart of oil, gloating that he’ll get thirsty enough in the next days he’ll lose his will to refrain from drinking the poisonous lubricant. Indeed, when Bond reports to M, she informs him that they found Dominic’s body in the desert, motor oil in his stomach, serving as the spy’s revenge for the madman having killed Strawberry Fields in the same way.
Bond travels to Russia for one last act of vengeance: he kills the boyfriend responsible for his beloved Vesper’s death in Casino Royale. As Bond leaves the building, M tells him, “I need you back.” Bond gruffly snarls, “I never left,” his act of throwing Vesper’s necklace into the snow purportedly ending his desire for revenge. Bond saves Camille from the fire at Quantum after she has slaked her vengeance, and we are led to believe Bond rids himself of his self-destructive psychopathy in the snow in Russia. The elemental thematics of Quantum of Solace thus align with Robert Frost’s apocalyptic poem, “Fire and Ice”: “But if it had to perish twice, / I think I know enough of hate / To say that for destruction ice / Is also great / And would suffice.” Given the sweeping narrative structure of the James Bond series, completely eschewing the concise nature of Frost’s nine-line poem, whether Bond will have to learn his lesson thrice still remains to be seen.