Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Skyfall: A Critical View (Part Four)

(This is the fourth and final part of a four-part review essay, which is now up in full. Part One appeared on September 4, 2013, Part Two on September 6 and Part Three on September 9. You can read the completed essay on a single page here.)

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

One Really, Really Dysfunctional Pseudo-Family
Just as problematic as the "comeback story" is the familial dynamic the writers strove to create among Bond, M and Silva. Judi Dench's M never struck me as being a parental figure to Bond, however--unlike the character in the book, or her predecessors on the screen. The old Ms sent Bond out on assignments from which they knew he might never come back, but we never doubted that there was loyalty between Bond and the head of the Service. M would at times be displeased by some thing Bond did--but it was like a parent's getting mad at a favorite child. By contrast, one would be hard-pressed to prove that Dench's M ever saw Bond as anything but the "blunt instrument" she calls him in Casino Royale, or that she ever had any compunctions about using him and throwing him away the way she has so many people over the years--in the previous films, or this one. (Her order to Eve to take the shot that wounds Bond pretty much says it all.)

And we all know how things went between her and Silva.

That pretty much makes her "Mother" only in the same sense as Mother in Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow series (while being even less convincingly maternal). At the same time, we never see any sign that Bond looked to this highly unlikely individual to be a maternal figure to him.

With the idea of a shared parent gone, there is that much less reason to think of Bond and Silva as brothers, with the issues that brothers have--like a sibling rivalry for parental affection or approval, or a sense that one brother got what was rightfully the other's. And of course, the two men had no preexisting relationship, and no reason to have any such feeling about each other (the way Bond did about Goldeneye's Trevelyan), with the aforementioned thinness of Silva's character doing that much more to limit such possibilities. Naturally the set-up doesn't work intellectually, or emotionally.

At the same time it is far from clear that Bond's return to Skyfall is cathartic, or in any other way a resolution of this other second set of issues; the development of the idea is simply too thin for that.13 When Bond remarked "I always hated this place" while blowing up his estate, it came off as just another of the cracks that often accompany the mayhem he deals out. And because all we get are glimpses of Bond's childhood and the issues he has carried forward from it, the juxtaposition of that baggage with his more recent "family" trials (Bond holding M as she dies, in the chapel in this same place where he had to deal with his mother and father's death) is a contrast between highly underdeveloped images--which were probably not really all that interesting anyway.14

Naturally this cannot provide the sense of renewal and preparation to face the future. At any rate, it is not at all clear what that preparation would be for, the film failing, like other post-Cold War Bonds, to insert Bond and his activities into some larger political context (a few perfunctory and inadequate references to terrorism aside). M's speech in Parliament justifying the kind of work Bond does proves hugely ironic, given that far from making the world safe from vaguely described external menaces, this film has been all about cleaning up the mess she made pursuing objects the script does not bother about. While the film's attitude is, of course, essentially celebratory of intelligence services like hers rather than critical, one can come away seeing the excesses of intelligence services and security states as the source of much of the evil Bond combats--precisely what those most critical of the real-world counterparts of figures like M and Bond would say.15

Bond at Fifty
Taken altogether, the whole package, far from proving Bond's relevance to the doubters, inadvertently reminds us of how backward-looking and anachronistic--and simply confused--the series has become, just as was the case with the previous "anniversary" Bond scripted by Purvis and Wade, Die Another Day. (That one, of course, marked the series' fortieth anniversary, and was the twentieth Everything Or Nothing Productions Bond film--two anniversaries in one.) The result is an equally underwhelming anniversary event.

Nonetheless, the film went on not just to break the billion-dollar barrier (still a considerable feat), not just to become the second-biggest hit of the year at the global box office (as no Bond film has done since Moonraker, as far as I can tell), but to outgross the series' previous best performer, Thunderball, in inflation-adjusted terms.

Skyfall also won critical adulation of a kind the series has not seen in a very long time, reflected in the film's profile at the Oscars that year. Skyfall's five nominations were only in the technical and musical categories to which action movies are normally confined--but many an observer used the word "snub" in response to the fact, while even the nominations that it did get were a reflection of the high esteem in which the movie was held. (And of course, many other awards committees were far more generous, including the British Academy, which gave it the BAFTA for "Outstanding British Film" that year.16)

Yet, big as Skyfall was, we didn't see much sign of '60s-style Bond mania, the film's success hardly reflective of that sort of cultural phenomenon. Rather I suppose it was a function of the film's strengths outweighing its weaknesses for most of the theater-going audience (I won't deny that, hollow as it is, it is often fun in a turn-off-your-brain way), and the kind of publicity that one can only partially buy.

Bond Twenty-Four will benefit from the goodwill shown Skyfall, but it will not have the same advantage, and so to a greater extent have to succeed on its own merits. Alas, I suspect that the adulation lavished on this film will leave the creative team complacent.

NOTES
13. We are not even told the circumstances of his parents' deaths, though we may infer that it was a result of the mountain-climbing accident mentioned in Fleming's You Only Live Twice, and referenced by Trevelyan in Goldeneye.
14. I remember losing all interest in L. Sprague de Camp's Conan the Barbarian stories when I realized he meant to plumb the character's childhood and adolescence. When a character becomes iconic as a Gary Stu, the best thing to do is often to accept him as one and leave it at that.
15. Of course, one can argue that this was all just an exercise in postmodern irony. But that's just the problem: you can say that about almost anything where the pieces don't quite fit. One could, alternatively, say that this has been a subversion of the Bond series from within (Bond deliberately being presented as ridiculous and perverse and all the rest), and in fairness, I've occasionally wondered if that wasn't happening before--as when reading John Gardner Bond novels like Licence Renewed (1981)--but that's a subject for another time.
16. Javier Bardem and Judi Dench were also nominated for BAFTAs for their performances, while being similarly recognized by (among others) the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, the London Film Critics Circle Awards, and the Satellite Awards, the last of which awarded Bardem the prize in that category.

Back to the Previous Part.

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