Borrowing a page out of “The Dark Knight Rises" (an influence Mendes has acknowledged) “Skyfall” does its best to present the idea of an aging James Bond who is potentially past his prime. He has been ravaged physically and psychologically, brought to the brink of death, but then “resurrected.” He’s been hitting the booze, he looks like shit, etc. It’s a great set-up really. And then it isn’t, because “Skyfall” then reminds us over and over again how badly Bond has been hurt and after awhile this theme becomes overstrained like a muscle in Bond’s badly injured body. Enough, we get it. The movie pains itself to state that Bond is not fit for service, but in the field, almost none of it actually matters. Aside from performing poorly in tests and missing a William Tell shot, by the time Bond is in action, almost all his issues seem to have disappeared. Certainly by the time the third act rolls around it’s as if Bond was never damaged to begin with.The lack of follow-through there makes the entire set-up a bit superficial.
This “damaged” motif dovetails closely with the old school vs. new school theme in the movie. M is old, Ralph Fiennes is new and everyone is convinced that M and Bond are “antiquated.” So much so that there’s a government inquiry into MI6’s tactics wondering if M should step down (even though they’ve already tried to force her out) and trying to find out why there was such a gigantic security breach (one that the plot doesn’t seem to care about later). So it’s old vs. new throughout and then by the end, even though they are the most sophisticated intelligence organization in the world, Bond and M take it back to the “old school” -- literally -- by ditching everything modern and proving that the best way to fight their enemies is with old-fashion knuckle grease and bootstraps (even though it leaves them totally exposed on all sides, and at times feels like an adult version of "Home Alone" in the last act). The idea that the equivalent of the CIA goes to hide and fight in an old shack against the deadliest force they have encountered in years seems patently absurd and sort of the worst tacitical planning we could imagine. Yet, for all this strides towards "grittiness" the “old school” Bond tropes -- the ‘60s Aston Martin car, the joke about the car ejector seat and THE BOND THEME LOUD AND CLEAR (repetitively throughout the movie, as if you could have possibly missed it) -- clash heavily against the broader ambitions of the picture, particularly in the hamfisted finale.
Bond identifiers and trademarks are such a tricky and weird things. Fans love them and in the post ‘Bourne’/’Dark Knight’ world these kinds of identifiers have been dulled down because in this day and age, it’s a bit cornball for Bond to say, “shaken, not stirred” for the umpteenth time. And so the trick that “Skyfall” has to pull off is include all the Bond touchstones and symbols, but trying to include them organically and as realistically as possible (and or disarmingly through humor). But then we get to the Bond Girl played by Bérénice Marlohe. While she’s as gorgeous as all get out, she serves almost no narrative purpose in the film other than to feature as a Bond girl. Okay, the “purpose” superficially, is that she can lead Bond to Silva, but it's a pretty convoluted one all told. But let’s face it, she's a script device and it’s a convenient one that also allows for an exotic location to be tossed in as well, no matter how forced. Her character is there to do what Bond girls do -- flirt, have some sexy rapport and then have sex with Bond (we won't even get into the murky moral territory of sexually objectifying a victim of sexual abuse)...and then 15 minutes later, she’s completely dispensed with by Silva’s bullet. No more Bond girl. To some it shows the real stakes of the movie and the ruthlessness of a Bond villain we’ve never seen before. But we never cared for Bond Girl 23, so her death is absolutely meaningless.
Sam Mendes has made no bones about the fact that Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” was a big inspiration. In our interview he calls is a “gamechanger” and a film that proved you could take on a tentpole and still make it interesting, powerful, dramatic, raise philosophical, ethical and existential questions while remaining entertaining and thrilling to boot. Clearly, “The Dark Knight” was his model to create a smart Bond film. Fine, no issues there, it’s a good template to strive for frankly, but “Skyfall” seems at odds with itself in that sense. It’s like a moody, dark, raw-nerved film that still has to go down the checklist to fufill every unrealistic, arguably conrnball requisite Bond trademark and many of those touchstones are fairly antithetical to the tenor of Nolan's film. But more specifically, “Skyfall” kind of steals its villain from the Joker. Silva is not that different, he’s theatrical in the same way, bares a lot of the same type of “scars” and essentially, he’s a lunatic who wants revenge. Arguably, the Joker’s plans are much more complex and nuanced than that. He’s like a civil servant of chaos, trying to reflect a mirror back at society, whereas Silva just has mommy issues and vengeance. But “Skyfall” essentially steals its main trick from “The Dark Knight.” The villain purposefully gets caught so he can unveil his master plan. So yes, we’ve seen that before. Our problem is, ultimately, while masquerading as serious ‘TDK’-esque drama, “Skyfall” is sort of the lite version because it has to pay service to the inherently superficial characteristics of the Bond movies.
While Silva’s main ambition to seek vengeance against the secret service that left him suicidal and scarred, part of his increasingly elaborate plan is not only to embarass MI6 on their home turf, but expose them worldwide. Much of the first third of the movie is spent in a relentless chase for a hard drive (thrilling) containing the true identites of the agency's secret agents (we're not even going to get into how unbelievable that whole set up is). And when Silva gets it, his plan involves unveiling the names on YouTube, five per week, until his demands are met. And then? Well, Bond and M hatch a plan that involves his childhood home and a few explosions later, no one really seems all that concerned about the hard drive anymore. In fact, it’s dropped entirely along with the fate of the other remaining MI6 agents who are in danger of being identified. Considering this thread drives a bulk of the movie, it’s a major dangling plot element that is left unresolved. And while some may cry “Macguffin,” there are too many high stakes attached to the hard drive to let the film get away with it.
The Bond franchise is fifty years old, but it seems old habits die hard. The series has always featured villains that either talk too much (especially when they're about to vanquish their foe) and/or assume that Bond will die or is dead already. And in 2012, Silva pretty much does both. He not only loves to chat, but when he makes his final siege against Bond at his home in the countryside, it seems he finally has 007 right where he wants him. Silva is in control and Bond is on the run, and it looks like he’s done for when he plunges into an ice cold lake, fighting for his life. So why bother checking to make sure he's dead? In the laziest, lamest screenwriting trick in the book, Silva moves on to try and find M, leaving lots of time for 007 to (shock!) survive, surprise Silva and kill him. Of all the Bond series tropes, they could do away with this one for good.
Some might argue that complaining about sexism in a Bond film is a bit like complaining that it features gun violence. But this is the 21st century, and the franchise has made some decent strides of late in making its female characters not just two-dimensional bullet magnets or shag buddies (Eva Green and Olga Kurylenko in the last two entries both being good examples of that). And to a degree, that's present in "Skyfall." Naomie Harris' Eve is a capable field agent who flirts with, but never falls for Bond, while Bérénice Marlohe's Severine is given an intriguing backstory as a former child sex slave. The trouble is that by the end of the film, Mendes and John Logan undermine these characters entirely. 007 decides that the best thing to do with Severine, who must have suffered untold sexual abuse, is to sneak uninvited into her shower and fuck her. Five minutes later, she's murdered, to which 007 shows very little grief. True to the character's Ian Fleming origins, perhaps, but leaving a very sour taste in 2012. As for Eve? Despite proving pretty useful in the field (obviously she has one major fuck-up in shooting Bond, but it's hardly an easy shot), she ends the film having decided that she's not cut out for the field, and she's taking a desk job. If the Miss Moneypenny reveal is anything to go by (along with M being replaced by Ralph Fiennes' Mallory, about as establishment-white-male figure as you could imagine), the filmmakers seem to be suggesting that a woman's place is behind a receptionist's desk (frankly, we'd love to see an entire film of Moneypenny kicking ass in the field alongside Bond). It's pretty sad and insidious stuff in a year that's seen so many strong heroines in tentpoles.
According to Sam Mendes, the only notion they had about the film when he came on board was that M should die at the end of the film. And with Judi Dench now 77, it's understandable that they might want to move her character on. And it does certainly provide an emotional gut-punch to the conclusion. But is it really earned, narratively speaking? We don't think so. Silva's sole aim in the film is to put M through hell before killing her (and, as it turns out, himself). But the filmmakers don't quite have the balls to have him win outright (partly because it would deflate the Bond-gets-back-in-the-swing-of-things arc), so Bond kills him off quickly and disappointingly -- who didn't want to see the two of them go toe-to-toe properly first? -- and tastes victory and redemption. But then M dies of her wounds -- not inflicted by Silva -- but by some anonymous henchman. It feels like it's happening because it's been deemed by the franchise gods, not because she's made a sacrifice, or because Silva was too great an adversary, and it's pretty unsatisfying as a result.
For more Bond, check out our various 007 features from last week. The 5 Best Bond Films, The 5 Worst ones, the 5 Best Bond Girls, the 5 Best Action Sequences in the series, the 5 Best Bond Villains, this controversial-related feature about antagonist sexuality in Hollywood, our coverage from the "Skyfall" press conference and our interview with director Sam Mendes.