(This is the second part of a four-part review essay, which is now up in full. Part One appeared on September 4, 2013, Part Three on September 9 and Part Four on September 11. You can read the completed essay on a single page here.)
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
A Bit of Entertainment?
Uncertain as the mix of elements that went into Skyfall sound, the film does have its strengths. For the most part the pacing is good, the action competent and brisk and peppered with interesting bits--the use of the digger on the train, the dazzling stylization of the fight with Patrice (Ola Rapace) in the skyscraper. Shanghai looks stunning, Skyfall capitalizing on the city's ultramodernity more fully than any of the many, many others shot in it in recent years, so that the scenes set in it feel as if they had come from a futuristic thriller to an even greater degree than the futuristic thrillers shot there.
It also has its fair share of humor (something sadly lacking from Quantum of Solace), and even an occasional flash of wit. Much of this is rooted in a fairly well-developed conception of the contrast between the series' traditional analog heroics, and analog technology ("We don't do that anymore"), and the digital age. Much as purists complain that the more gadget-packing installments in the series reduced Bond to a button-pushing automaton, he has never been so circumscribed by technology as he is in this film, a pattern that reaches its peak in his pursuit of Silva through the London Tube--which is exactly the point, and makes an appropriate contrast with the last battle. And while a comparatively minor matter, I thought that the theme song and title sequence was the best we've had since at least Goldeneye, and certainly more likely to please traditionalists than most recent efforts.
Nonetheless, the pacing falters a bit in the overlong last third. And while the action contains plenty of good bits, I felt that a highly touted "fiftieth anniversary" film like this one, commemorating a series which created the action movie as we know it, needed something special. Perhaps it could not revolutionize the genre the way the films of the early '60s did, but at the least it could deliver some stunt that would stick in the mind as exceptionally audacious--like Bond's skiing off a cliff in The Spy Who Loved Me.6 There was no such thing here.
At the same time the relatively grounded feel of the film makes the lapses in logic that much more conspicuous--like the appearance of British helicopters out of nowhere over Silva's hideout, or Silva's little crew's so thoroughly paralyzing the British security state that Bond's only recourse is to spirit M to rural Scotland to make his stand, or the nostalgic but nonsensical inclusion of the Aston Martin DB 5 from Goldfinger.
More importantly, suspense was generally lacking throughout. Drama and intensity were lacking too, what little we get supplied only by the actors--in the main, Bèrènice Marlohe, whose presence in the film as Severine is much too brief. There is no sense of build-up to a great revelation when, for the first time, Silva actually appears for the first time in the middle of the film, and his arrival is actually rather unmemorable.
The result is that his late appearance simply denied the film the chance to develop this figure, though the broader conception of him is also flawed, in part by the problematic influence of Nolan's Joker. The figure in Nolan's movie was presented to us as a Jungian shadow archetype, an idea given human form (I thought, rather a brilliant one), not a flesh-and-blood human being--two quite different objects not easily reconciled, and neither of which was achieved here. And so in the end this comparative small-fry among Bond villains (unlike Alec Trevelyan, his revenge plan's not tied not tied to a suitably spectacular object like robbing the bank of England) succeeds in being eccentric and repellent, but not interesting enough or menacing enough to stand out in the series' now rather crowded rogue's gallery--let alone the tragic figure he might have been.
Meanwhile, the rapport between Bond (Daniel Craig) and Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is a far cry from that between Sean Connery and Lois Maxwell. What goes on between Bond and Severine is arguably rather worse, his seduction of a woman victimized by the sex trade--by following her into the shower just after they've met, no less--appearing casually predatory, and the sort of thing more likely to discredit than reassert the series' traditional handling of his sexuality, with Silva's murder of her after Bond promised to protect her making it look that much worse. (The Freudian implications of his poor marksmanship, the scenes with Silva, the idea of Bond as a man with mommy issues--more on which later--do not help either.) Indeed, the filmmakers remain deeply, even perversely sex-negative in their depiction of the screen's most famous womanizer, continuing to treat Bond's kiss as the kiss of death, so that once again every woman he beds in his adventures dies, and for the third time in a row he concludes a movie womanless.7
However, the film may be most problematic where it is most ambitious.
6. I refer here to the way the early films incorporated set pieces into their stories and the scale on which they staged them, their use of new editing techniques (e.g. quick-cut), and their presentation of action scenes of types we had never seen before (the underwater fights, the ski chases, etc.).
7. Of course, Bond does have sex with a woman who doesn't die early in the film, but it is worth noting that this is during his period off-the-grid when one might say that James Bond isn't even trying to be James Bond, just a drunken jackass impressing other drunken jackasses in a bar. And at any rate, including her in the figures still gives him a lousy average.
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