Skyfall

Skyfall ★★★½

An absurdly gorgeous feast for the eyes riddled with borrowed thematic and narrative elements, Skyfall is expertly performed and rendered, filled with excellent set pieces, an engaging villain, and loads of dramatic tension between Bond and M that in another context would be one of the best in the series but instead stumbles due to a storyline that hinges upon an unearned swansong-like outing for 007. 

I first saw this not long after it was released in theaters and found it had many great elements, including several that are quite brazenly ripped off from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, that unfortunately didn't add up to a cohesive whole. I was wondering if my negative sentiments about this film's obvious similarities to the Batman film would have softened slightly given the passage of time and the fading of that seminal Nolan work from my immediate memory. Unfortunately this wasn't the case.

First off, it's important to validate that this is an absolutely beautifully lit and photographed piece of cinema. Roger Deakins is the man and director Sam Mendes benefits greatly from his contributions to the aesthetics of this film. I don't think there's any dispute about this film's position as the reigning champ of the franchise from a purely cinematographic standpoint.

With those compliments out of the way, I want to focus on some of the issues I had with this film, and that starts with the film's entire premise that's reflected in the lyrics of its excellent theme song by Adele (one of the best in the series). At the outset of Skyfall, we are met with a Bond that is meant to be a grizzled veteran, who, along with M (Judi Densch),is a bit of an old dog who refuses to be taught new tricks. This thematic idea is expressed over and over again, in conversation between M and Bond, an intimate "shaving scene" with Bond and a young female field operative (Naomie Harris), an off-hand remark by Bond's "Alfred" (Albert Finney) about the preeminence of the "old ways," a moment with villain Raoul Silva (an excellent Javier Bardem) in which he and Bond seems to identify with being active agents for decades, and this idea is even symbolized by the British bulldog tschotske on M's desk that plays an oddly significant role in the film.

While this is all valid in a different cinematic universe in which Skyfall is the fifth or sixth Craig Bond installment, or in a world in which Casino Royale never attempted to re-boot Bond as a rookie "double-O" and its follow-up, Quantum of Solace weren't a near-contemporaneous direct sequel, in the actual timeline that's been presented to us over the course of three Craig-led films, the force of the narrative supposition that frames this film just falls flat.

Films #1 and #2 essentially cover Bond's first mission and a half as a "double-O." How is he an outdated old dog in the very next film? I mean, four years in non-film time have passed between Quantum and Skyfall so I suppose Bond has been galivanting all over the world in between the films (which we don't get to see) and has amassed tons of experience, as well as both emotional and physical wounds to support his bodily and mental state at the start of this film, but in my estimation this positioning of a suddenly gray-bearded Bond is just entirely unearned.

And while there are still delights to be found in this film, and the idea of an older Bond who has lost a step is an interesting concept (though it too has been done before to decent effect with Connery in Never Say Never Again), there are still other glaring problems with Skyfall, and those stem from the film's borrowed narrative and thematic elements.

It's been well documented elsewhere that this film very much mirrors both The Dark Knight film specifically and the broader Batman mythology. And though I'd rather not rehash what's been said repeatedly elsewhere, these resemblances were so obvious to me after my recent re-watch, and especially since I haven't seen Nolan's second Batman film in over a decade, that I have to no choice but to discuss the issues I have with these blatant similarities, as they detracted from my enjoyment of the film. The idea of a villain allowing himself to be captured as part of a larger plan that requires a million moving pieces to fall perfectly into place, the villain having a deformity surrounding his smile, the villain dressing up as a policeman, the villain pre-positioning a ridiculous amount of explosions and pyrotechnics, the hero being an orphan of wealthy parents, a cave beneath a family estate in which a boy entered as a child and emerged a man, burning the family estate down to ground (as a symbolic gesture to depict the deconstruction of a storied literary hero), having an older butler/mentor/father figure (shouldn’t they have just said eff it and casted Michael Caine in Albert Finney's role?), a relationship with M that mirrors the Bats' relationship with Jim Gordon, all are borrowed elements from Nolan's take on Batman and there are probably others that I'm missing. It's clear that Nolan loved Bond growing up and he's quite guilty of borrowing thematic and narrative elements himself, with his arctic battle in Inception mirroring a similar sequence in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. So in that sense, what goes around comes around, right? Except in Nolan's case I believe he was staging an respectful homage to one of his favorite films from his childhood, whereas in this case, I don't think anyone can make the rational argument that Mendes and his writers (Purvis & Wade and Logan) were erecting a deliberate and unabashed homage to Batman with this film. That would make little sense as never before has there been an overt connection to these two iconic pieces of IP. I just think they just liked what he saw in Nolan's film (the hack J.J. Abrams did as well when he made Star Trek Into Darkness) and couldn't help but be influenced by it as he was with 1917 because he's frankly not the pure filmmaker that Nolan is. There I said it (though Nolan is guilty it’s plot holes and poor characterization). 

From an "inside baseball" perspective I have a problem with the obvious cribbing, but also from an narrative perspective I have an issue with it as it's very distracting, as it's injecting elements into the Bond mythos that just don't need to be there. Does Bond have to be dastardly handsome, get the most beautiful girls in the world, drive the coolest cars, have the most awesome gadgets, and be the spawn of impossibly rich parents with a long and distinguished lineage? Wouldn't his character be more interesting if he emerged from humble roots? And do we really care that much about his origin? Much as in the Batman comics where keeping the Joker's true origin something of an ever-changing legend without attachment to strict canon, I think that keeping Bond's background vague is just fine by me. I don't need to know about his childhood trauma. Or maybe if his background were more original I'd be more interested. I don't know, but as presented it didn't resonate with me.

Aside from those (major) complaints, one other problem that I have with this film, and it's a problem endemic to the entire franchise, is in the treatment of women. There's a scene almost exactly halfway through in which, for the third film in a row, a woman that Bond shags gets offed. But she doesn't just get killed. She gets killed in an objectified way, like Dimitrios's wife in Casino splayed out half-naked on a hammock for all to see, with specific mention made of the fact that she was tortured prior to her murder, to Strawberry Field's death encased in a cocoon of "black goo" (oil) as a form of a ritual sacrifice, to this film, in which a woman who has spent her entire life as a "kept-woman" sex worker, who after having sex with Bond, gets made into a literal "object," a platform holding up a shot of liquor that Bond (though reluctantly) and Silva use to engage in a bit of target practice. SPOILER ALERT, Bond misses and we're not sure if he intentionally misses or accidentally misses (given a previous scene in which we're expected to believe that Bond's accuracy with a firearm is now demonstrably diminished), and so does Silva, except his miss results in the poor girl's death, to which Bond quips, "what a waste of alcohol." Later in the film, Bond is signifcantly more upset about Silva exploding his cool vintage Aston than he was about the callous sacrifice of this girl. I get it, he wasn't emotionally attached to her, but goddamn if that's not a moment of cringey misogyny from which this series just can't for the life of it distance itself.

Plus the bit with the agent who accidentally shoots Bond just rubbed me the wrong way, how she was sent to keep an eye on him for new boss man Mallory (Ralph Fiennes in a solid performance) and ended up as object of his sexual appetite. I understand this is part of the Bond mythology but Bond getting the girl is such a fair accompli by now that it approaches a form of sex trafficking. 

Craig is again excellent as Bond and Densch does quite well with what she's given for M's arc. There are several scenes of the two of them engaging in verbal barbs that betray their lack of sentimentality and emotional connection to personal relationships that begins to get tiresome, but overall she's solid here as always.

Javier Bardem is also quite brilliant, and again takes a somewhat mediocre script and rockets it to the next level with his fascinating performance. He imbues his turn as this film's big bad with depth, humor, and charisma, and demonstrates a profound emotional core that is noticeably absent from his alter-ego (Bond). He is no doubt one of the best villains in the entire franchise.

The "Bond girl" who is responsible for 007's literal fall from grace in the film's opening frames is portrayed annoyingly in my opinion by Naomie Harris. There's a twist at the end that I was fine with, in a bit of retcon of the franchise mythology that I suppose is fit for a new millennium and also serves to explain why a certain relationship established by the classic films in the franchise was energized with such a strong physical chemistry and hint of offscreen "goings-on." I'll leave it at that to keep the surprise intact, but I just wouldn't have been as forgiving to her as Bond is, after what she did to him, but I guess as long as she shacks up with him all's well that ends well in his book.

The new Q makes his debut here and this is the first film in the Craig films for Bond to receive legit gadgets, though they are quite less flashy than those of his predecessors.

Bottom line, viewed in a vacuum this is a quite entertaining and well-acted film that unfortunately is somewhat derivative of Nolan's work, but ultimately a very good film on its own merits and possibly a great Bond film within the context of the broader franchise. However, given that the new Craig films are explicitly more serialized than the previous iterations, we as an audience are not being asked to view this film in a vacuum, but instead, as a chapter in a broader story arc that covers multiple films. And viewed for what it is, it suffers under the "weight" of its lack of history. You can't have it both ways, Mendes and company. You can't make Bond wet behind the ears in movies #1 and #2 (which again, are really two halves of one story) and then a wily old dog in movie #3. Sorry, that's lazy screenwriting. This film would be a fitting end of Craig's run, as opposed to the first new chapter in his tour of duty.

I definitely recommend this film as a worthy entry in the broader series that would appeal to either hardcore Bonders or people with a passing interest in the series. People who haven't seen The Dark Knight or even Star Trek Into Darkness will appreciate even more!

Bond, James Bond Ranked

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