Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Skyfall: A Critical View

(This review essay first appeared on this blog in four parts. Part One appeared on September 4. 2013, Part Two appeared on September 6, Part Three on September 9 and Part Four on September 11. Collected in The Forgotten James Bond.)


It was recently announced that Sam Mendes would be returning to the James Bond series to direct its next, as yet unnamed film ("Bond 24"). This will make him the first to direct two Bond films back to back since John Glen back in the '80s.1

This is, of course, a reflection of the commercial success of Skyfall, which far exceeded every expectation. Indeed, when it was first announced that Sam Mendes would be helming Bond 23, there were cracks on the web about how he would give us Bond and a female agent going undercover in suburbia and bickering endlessly. In some ways, though, this film is just as incongruous as if he really did pattern a Bond movie after American Beauty.

Sources and Inspirations
When I first saw M writing Bond's obituary in the trailer after Bond's apparent death, my thoughts went straight to You Only Live Twice--the book, not the film. Yet watching the movie I was struck by how much of it seemed to have been lifted from earlier Bond films, and not the storied '60s-era Bond films whose recycling thoughtful Bond fans have long taken for granted (like You Only Live Twice, and Goldfinger), but the less celebrated Pierce Brosnan Bonds.

We see a mission go bad in the pre-titles action sequence, and Bond end up out of touch and apparently lost to the Service for an extended period, which concludes when a scruffy, damaged 007 finally returns to a suspicious agency, and an utterly unapologetic, unsympathetic M who nonetheless sends him straight back out into the field--just like Die Another Day. That mission has him up against a villain who stages a bombing inside MI 6 headquarters as the opening act in a revenge campaign directed against the head of the agency, for her betrayal of them when they were in her charge, specifically their abandonment to captivity and torture by bad guys--just like in The World Is Not Enough (which also took us to Istanbul).2

The enemy (Javier Bardem's Silva) is a blond, physically scarred former British intelligence operative not of British ethnicity who was left to the enemy by his mission-minded employers, and pretty much left for dead, but has since survived, and turned renegade and criminal. His identity is only revealed well into the movie, when, after his people have captured Bond and the woman he is with and taken them to an isolated, rubble-filled site full of broken statuary, he comes to meet him face to face and confront him with his past before doing them in. Then that enemy uses computer wizardry in a plan to attack the city of London in general and the most sensitive of British government sites in particular, the sheer modernity of which technique points up what many are thinking--that Bond is an old dog who has had his day, that the kind of work at which he excels is outdated.

Just like in Goldeneye.

There were, too, apparent borrowings from other, older Bond films, interestingly some of the series' least popular, both at the time of release and in the years since. The idea of presenting a dark "twin" to Bond who has a Spanish name, lurks on a Southeast Asian island and tests his shooting skills against 007 in a deadly contest, recalls The Man With the Golden Gun's Francisco Scaramanga. (It is worth remembering, too, that in the book by that name Bond had also just "come back from the dead," and gone after the villain to redeem himself in the eyes of the Service--and his own eyes as well.) The idea of casting a bleached-blond Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner as a villain in a computer-themed plot harkens back to A View to a Kill. The one new gadget Bond is offered is a personalized firearm with a biometric scanner, which saves his life when a villain gets a hold of it and turns it on him--just like in Licence to Kill.

And much of what the filmmakers did not lift from those Bond films, they got out of other movies--and again, not exactly the old classics one expects them to steal from, but relatively recent hits. The tale centers on a stolen computer list of undercover operatives whom the enemy is threatening to expose--just as in the plot of the first Mission: Impossible (which also had Ethan Hunt fighting a treacherous former colleague).3

The villain is not just gratuitously sadistic, and of freakish appearance and manner, but a Jungian "shadow" figure who challenges and even threatens to upset the hero's perception of himself. Halfway through the film the good guys have him in custody after a too-easy capture--and then, because it was all part of his inhumanly brilliant plan to be captured, has contrived it so that he simply walks out of his cell to create havoc through the movie's second half.

Just like the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Thrown into the mix are a number of other elements familiar from recent thrillers, like the new Q--one of the screen's more tiresome clichès, the tech wizard--a scrawny, bespectacled and exceedingly smug young man who spews techno-babble as he works the nerd-magic he constantly oversells.4 And the heavier accent on bureaucratic politics, which goes all the way to M sitting through a hearing in Parliament. And in general a heightened consciousness of the contemporary world's sheer media saturation, with Bond watching Wolf Blitzer on CNN, and Silva's use of YouTube to blow the covers of British agents working undercover.

However, we also get a finale which inverts the usual pattern. Instead of Bond going after the villains, he is fleeing from them. Instead of the final confrontation happening in their lair, it happens instead at his childhood home. Instead of a flashily futuristic fortress packed with high technology, the setting of this battle is a run-down old Scottish manor, where the gimmickry is of a decidedly old-fashioned kind--the means of escape a priest-hole dating back to the Reformation.5

One can see it all as a mix of the overly derivative with content that may feel like it does not belong in a Bond movie at all.

Very well, one might say to that, but does it work?

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 even more like the stuff of futuristic thrillers than the actual 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 technology ("We don't do that anymore"), and analog heroics, 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 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 more than that. 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 squandered 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 the writers seem to have intended him to be.

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.

Striving For More
While a movie like Skyfall is about crowd-pleasing first and foremost, it is worth remembering that the Bond series has a longstanding hardcore following, and that Skyfall was made and marketed as a celebration of Bond's fiftieth anniversary on the screen. And the film does strive to mark that by asserting Bond's identity and place in the second decade of the twenty-first century, proving that he is still vigorous and relevant, while at the same time deepening the figure for us. To make this a story about Bond proving himself to the doubters, the writers go a step further than Goldeneye in knocking him down so that he can stage a comeback.8

Strongly connected with that struggle to "come back" is the incorporation of a measure of the personal drama we are more accustomed to seeing in movie festival prize winners and critical darlings than action-oriented blockbusters. The writers sought to create between Bond, M and Silva a family of sorts, with M as a mother figure to the two men, and Bond and Silva as brothers (so that Bond finds himself coming home again, confronting a "sibling," protecting a "parent," and then saying goodbye to them for the final time). This is all underlined by the fact that Bond's retreat to his family's titular estate is an occasion on which we are told more than ever before about his original, biological family in his half-century on-screen, and the one time when we see him confront that painful aspect of his past--so that he might be said to struggle with two different sets of familial baggage as a part of his return to form.

Analog Heroics in a Digital Age
When it comes to knocking Bond down, well, the writers certainly achieve that. His time away from the Service and thought dead is not a period of rejuvenation which sees Bond return home back in form, but an exhausted, aging man's letting himself go. Bond, the "best shot in the service," sees his skills with a gun go to pot, a mark of his generally flagging physical prowess. Additionally, not only does he fail the Service's tests at headquarters, but he is easily captured by Silva's henchmen, and then bested in a shooting match with said enemy, with the result that Severine loses her life, after Bond's promise of protection.

Bond likewise fails to keep the enemy's attack from reaching Britain. Not only does Silva bomb MI 6, but Bond's capture of him is really just Silva duping Bond, after which Silva is running wild and free in Britain, attacking Britain's intelligence headquarters and shooting up Parliament, with the British security state thrown into chaos by his cyber-wizardry. (Certainly no prior Bond film has set so much of its action on British soil.)

However, despite the impression one may get of a man and a world restored from the concluding scenes in which Bond surveys London from a rooftop in that way so many superheroes look down upon the cities they defend (in a suitably impressive shot simultaneously taking in Big Ben and Parliament and other architectural icons of Britishness); returns to an office like we haven't seen since at least The Living Daylights (wood and leather, a Miss Moneypenny in the anteroom, a military man in charge); and then faces us through the closing shot through a gun barrel that had been conspicuously missing from the film's opening; the truth is that Bond never actually makes that comeback. Instead of Bond's defeating Silva in the modern world, he retreats to the past--literally, to a bucolic space left behind in the march of technology--to make his stand.

I found the effect jarring. Bond may be a sportsman who loves skiing and diving, but he has always been an urban creature, not a country gentleman. Additionally, the heavy stress on Bond as a figure with aristocratic roots contradicts the less genteel approach seen in Casino Royale (in which he was someone who had no one to teach him how to properly dress), and to an extent, earlier conceptions of the character. As Jeremy Black noted, the appeal of the film version of Bond was, in part, a matter of his conveying a sense of "class" not too clearly or closely connected with money and birth--while in print, he was still a half-foreign exotic who looked out of place at Blades and felt silly being offered a knighthood, replying to the offer that he is, and always will feel at home as, a Scottish peasant. And staging the showdown this way struck me as taking that gap between analog Bond and digital Silva too far--so much so that rather than anything really Bondian, it comes off as a weird hybridization of the sniveling reactionary sentiment of an Evelyn Waugh with the antics of survivalist-commando figures like Rambo, or Predator's Alan Schaefer.9

Moreover, this course of action only half-succeeds. Bond manages to kill Silva with a thrown knife--rather than redeeming himself as a shootist (which would have been all the better since making that difficult shot would have brought a nice symmetry to the film, given how the opening train sequence ended).10 And M still ends up dead as a result of the wounds her attacker gave her, considerable damage to the Service on her watch done--which is to say that Silva has attained his object, even if it was at the cost of his life. (Strictly speaking, the bad guy actually won this time!) And anyway, the estate gets blown up, along with the Aston Martin Bond used to reach it.

All this being the case, he proves himself not the master of the world he once was, going anywhere and everywhere and always coming out on top (in spite of frequently being up against superior technology), but only a tenuous master of his family's grounds, on which he has at any rate turned his back.

After this shaky performance against this movie's forgettable baddie, even in combination with the two down-to-earth predecessors with which we can connect it, this Bond has yet to truly impress us as the larger-than-life figure he has traditionally been on screen.11 He does not even impress us as a man able to deal with the twenty-first century. Instead we have a worn-out, young-old civil servant continuing to come into the office--ostensibly for Queen and Country, but at least as much because he is just too restless to stick by his "still hearth," the only aspect of the film's evocation of Tennyson's "Ulysses" that works here.12

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 remarks "I always hated this place" while blowing up his estate, it comes 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 too 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, like other post-Cold War Bonds, failing 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 that year's Oscar ceremony. 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 it will 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.

1. John Glen actually helmed five movies in a row--For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985), The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1995).
2. Indeed, given that Skyfall screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were the team behind The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, one would not be unjustified in suspecting that they were simply reusing their own ideas from earlier writing sessions.
3. Mission: Impossible, of course, did copy its most famous sequence (the break-in at the CIA) from an old classic, 1964's Topkapi, based on Eric Ambler's novel The Light of Day. That was a much more sophisticated bit of theft, as demonstrated by the fact that "everybody" who now steals it thinks they are only stealing it from Mission: Impossible.
4. In fairness, though, we at least didn't have to hear him rant against the Star Wars prequels.
5. I'm sure much of the audience saw this wondered just what a priest-hole, and for that matter, the Reformation, was.
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.
8. In fact, the closest precedent for this was, again, You Only Live Twice, where Bond went to pieces after Blofeld's murder of his wife in the preceding novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service--though in general, the Bond of the novels tended to decay after going for too long between missions.
9. Predator in particular seems worth mentioning here, as Arnold Schwarzenegger's protagonist pointedly reverts to the primitive to fight an enemy that is nothing less than an alien from a civilization so advanced that it can use interstellar travel for hunting expeditions--which is not too far from how the film treats the distance between him and Silva.
10. Another plausible reading of this scene is that, when faced with a shot like the one M had Eve take back in Istanbul, Bond simply decided to resolve the situation in another way--perhaps reflecting the difference between M's attitude toward him, and his attitude toward her (or at least, her office). And indeed it may be that the writers intended this. If that was the case, their failure to develop the dynamic between these three characters not only deprived the scene of the power it should have had, but left its meaning much more ambiguous.
11. After all, the epic struggles of the classic films--Bond's battles against SPECTRE and Blofeld and Goldfinger and others of their ilk, which did make him seem larger than life in just this way--have been discarded in the reboot. Since then we have seen a green double-o fight a relatively minor battle against Le Chiffre, and then take up a struggle against the Quantum organization which could have become epic, but which the series aborted after the unfavorable reaction to Quantum of Solace.
12. Bond's rebooted record, after all, hardly seems to merit the intense romanticism of the poem given its substance and brevity (no Odysseus, he), while the image of Bond as an aged king heading out on a final journey ("We are not now of that strength") is problematic, given the heavy emphasis on Daniel Craig's Bond as younger and more contemporary than his predecessors.
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.

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