Review: Skyfall

When I came out of the cinema after watching Skyfall, I predicted that this would be a polarizing film.  Not everyone’s going to like it, not everyone’s going to get it.  It is slow, it is literary, it hasn’t got the bombastic driving action of Casino Royale, and it doesn’t have a lot sex.  In short, the hype machine and trailers played up a movie that was a different animal to what we actually got.  Which is fine, because I really, really enjoyed what I ended up watching.  Skyfall is the return of Bond, but not as you expect.  So read on to find out what I think, but it is heavy on spoilers.  So if you haven’t watched the film yet, do that first, and then come back to this.  And then tell me what you agree or disagree with, from my analysis.

With Skyfall, the writers and Sam Mendes took the time to flesh out Bond a little more, and cement his position in the consciousness of modern cinema.  Where Quantum of Solace was a misstep, Skyfall feels like the sequel we should’ve gotten to Casino Royale.  This film can be seen entirely as a commentary about the obsolescence of old-school spymastery, and MI6’s fixation with the double-O agents, serving to remind the audience in a somewhat meta fashion why Bond remains relevant in the cinema of today.

This begins with the conceptual construct of the entire film: classic Bond moments melded in with next-gen stuff.  It seems to celebrate, in an almost-homage-like manner classic Bond tropes like the fantastical villain gambling den complete with fisticuffs with stereotypical henchmen in a pit of man-eating Komodo Dragons.  The whiff of Orientalism is so strong in this scene, but it is done in a rather tongue-in-cheek tone; as if to say “hey, this is why people watch a Bond movie, it is what stands it apart from anything else out there”.  Then there’s Bond’s complete lack of concern for his own safety, getting captured deliberately, being held at gunpoint and being brought right to the enemy.  Whereas modern day heroes like Bourne or Mills in Taken waste no time in employing guerrilla tactics to killing the baddies, Bond takes the old-school route, and gets some face time with his adversary first.  You have to admit, it’s cool in the way only a good Bond movie can get right.

Modern Bond bits include a tonne of faffery with encrypted computing technology, which seems a bit out of place if you ask me.  Bond solving a computer puzzle strikes me as far-fetched only because he has always been to me more a smooth-talking, Martini-drinking murdering machine rather than a computer geek.  But okay, so they want to show us that Bond is just as comfortable in front of a computer terminal as he is fighting a sniper assassin in some Shanghai skyscraper.  That fight scene was slow-burn thriller at its best, a brief burst of hand-to-hand combat between silhouettes after one unbeknownst predator (sniper assassin) stalking its prey (an unnamed target) falls prey to another predator (Bond).

The most surprising segment of the movie would have to be the long-drawn out preparation and shootout at the titular Skyfall manor.  Bond’s childhood home.  Here we get a little backstory to Bond’s growing up, some bonding between M and him, and then comes the preparation for war.  This entire section is an incredible move for a Bond movie, a great show of storytelling confidence by Mendes and team.  They show that Bond doesn’t have to always be running and gunning through every single thing in sight.  But it was no less thrilling, especially when the house crumbled in the fire at the end of the fight.  No flashy lights, no marvellous cityscapes, just a lonesome house and church out in a bleak moor.

At the beginning of the movie, Bond was slow to answer the psychologist’s word association game when he brought up “Skyfall”, ominously creating mystery surrounding the keyword and now that we know what it is, its burning down was a metaphorical cleansing of the past for Bond, so that he is able to usher in his own rebirth into the new era.  It is quite literally “done” as he foreshadows with his answer at the beginning.   The same can be said when his classic DB5 Aston Martin (first introduced in Goldfinger) was torn to shreds by the helicopter – a fleeting moment of anguish passes Bond’s face, he has lost another old-world memorabilia of his past.

Now to talk about Javier Bardem as cyberterrorist Raoul Silva.  His villain straddled a very fine line between moustache-twirling of old with the modern-day unhinged cray cray psychos as made fashionable by the Joker in The Dark Knight.  Silva poses a believably modern threat to MI6 because of the way he operates.  He boasts to Bond that all it takes to take control of a third-world country’s elections or tap into a satellite is with a flurry of keys and a flick of a switch.  This is a new-age villain that doesn’t deal in brute violence and can operate from anywhere in the world.  How can an old-school spy like Bond face up against such a villain?

The scene where Silva starts feeling Bond up was an interesting contrast to old Bond villains who threatened our intrepid hero in more clichéd ways, like using death-dealing machines, lasers and pools of ravenous sharks.  I think it was a brilliant bit that all he had to do was touch Bond in a sexual way, and that instantly made the audience feel some discomfort.  No more grand shows of torture and violence, all it takes is just a little touch, such refinement is only possible in a Bond film.  What was even more surprising was the way Bond responded coolly, brushing off the sexual advances from another man while asserting his own unwavering new-age masculinity.  Bond’s not an insensitive old-school homophobic male.

Coming back to Silva, overall I like that the threat he poses is not to Bond directly, but to his worldview of espionage, as well as to the thing that he holds dear the most, M.  Revenge is explored in parallels in this film.  M’s betrayal of Silva causes him to obsess on the past and manifest his singular purpose to take revenge, plotting M’s downfall and eventual murder.  In comparison, Bond is also indirectly betrayed by M but he doesn’t hold any outward grudges, doesn’t take revenge other than getting back into the field to serve his country once again.  The film has this to say – those who hold on to the past too tightly will only get burned, and Silva’s obsession for revenge is pretty much what led to his death.  What I liked the most was that defeating this villain was no bombastic, grand affair; there was no fanfare and it was definitely a sombre finish.  Then again, I realized that all three of the Craig-Bond movies had melancholy, not-quite-joyful endings.

This movie was as much about M as it was about Bond.  In fact, in a very beautiful tribute, M is the Bond girl for Skyfall.  She is backed into a corner and held accountable by the public, who want to crucify someone for Britain’s recent espionage failings as a result of the villain’s machinations.  If you’ve followed M’s illustrious career since 1995, you’ll know she has had a lot to deal with on her plate, but never has the challenge been as intense as in this film.  She was the one who called the shot on Bond that nearly killed him, and even as she escapes from a vengeful ex-spy, she cannot escape the burden of her guilt and the consequences of her past decisions.  M, played by the ever-wonderful Judi Dench, looks tragically frail here, the further from her seat of power at MI6 she runs.  Bond knows this, and their relationship is just so poignantly written – they will never apologize for their wrongdoings to one another, but they both know that they need to move on if they are to survive in this harsh new world.  Both she and Bond are old-school, but where it concludes with Bond cleansing himself of his past and proving himself worthy to join the new era, M dies quietly with her sins.  Not everyone gets to move on.  And that is a bittersweet conclusion if any.

If I had to describe one word that sums up the look of the film, it is lavish.  Roger Deakins may be a master of film format, but he managed to make something exquisite in digital.  Every frame, every composition is immaculately shot, just pleasing to the eye – it may sound like a trivial thing, but if you understand Deakin’s passion for still photography, it becomes clear how that feeds very strongly into his cinematography.

At this point, I would like to say that Skyfall is not without flaws.  The biggest of which is its slowness.  There were times when the action didn’t feel suspenseful enough, others where Mendes could’ve cut scenes out without doing too much damage to the narrative, while some were just downright dull.

The whole bit with Silva being captured by MI6 only to escape again reeks of The Joker’s setup and escape sequence in The Dark Knight.  But certainly, Silva’s Joker is a lot more human than the seemingly impervious madman in the Dark Knight.  But to cut a long story short, the whole bit with Bond chasing Silva through the subway was boring.  It felt like a lot of unnecessary posturing, train dodging, etc.

I felt the part about Bond coming back from the dead in the beginning was skated over much too quickly.  Sure, it was a meandering segment of the plot that needed to get back on track as soon as possible, but a little bit more knife-twisting in the proverbial gut of Bond’s tragic self-pity would have been better.  What about Bond’s failed tests?  The movie says he was a shitty shot after returning to service from “long” absence, and yet Bond became a confident marksman again in no time.

About the Bond girls, I have this to say: Bond stepping in while Severine was showering was borderline creepy, even though we’re supposed to, you know, be impressed by how baller he is.  Also, both Severine and Moneypenny sadly serve as nothing more than plot devices.  Moneypenny accidentally shoots Bond which triggers his leave of absence and subsequent return, and Severine just exists to lead Bond to the main villain.  Then she dies miserably.  No surprise that this movie continues the Bond franchise trend of slight misogyny, even though there was a noticeable lack of gratuitous sex or nudity this time round.

But these are just minor quips to what is definitely a more complex, heady and wholly significant entry in the Bond legacy.  It has a lot of literary clout, which as you know, I adore.  So where Casino Royale can be summed up as the badass lean, mean comeback of the world’s most beloved British spy, Skyfall aims to be more than just a brainless thrill ride.  It strives to be a profound deconstruction and reconstruction of the concept of the world’s most beloved British spy so that it can usher it a new age of Bond with absolute conviction.  And I believe it succeeds in this goal most perfectly.

Bond: “Everybody needs a hobby.”

Silvia:  “So what’s yours?”

Bond:  “Resurrection.”

4 thoughts on “Review: Skyfall

  1. I agree with your assessment of the film for the most part, especially how you also thought that M was the main bond girl and the others were just plot devices. One interesting thing that I might add though is a point that my wife brought up about the failed tests… How did Bond failed his tests miserably and then got his mojo back so quickly (taking out 5 baddies in the scene after Rodriguez killed Severine)?

    Remember the scene where Bond was drinking and balancing the scorpion on his forearm? That takes a lot concentration at the very least. Maybe Bond never got out of shape or lost touch after his death. Is it a stretch to believe that he purposely failed his marksmanship tests knowing that Rodriguez would get his hands on the results. This would lead him to have a false sense of confidence over Bond and lower his guard? That would better explain why he voluntarily followed Severine into the Lion’s den. The scene in Skyfall manor when he was practicing with his father’s old hunting rifle and hit his targets accurately also lends this theory credence.

    But even if he never lost his aim, it would be nearly impossible to hit that shot glass on Severine’s head with that antique pistol so he purposely missed instead thinking that would be her best chance of survival.

    my two cent’s worth

    1. Hey Ben! Thanks for your reply. To me, the only major flaw in the film really has to do with his psych and physical evaluation tests – and you’re right, it seems like such a strange plothole to have left unanswered by the writers and director. Your wife’s theory is pretty good – in that it would make a lot of sense if he purposely failed them to a) lower Silva’s guard b) ensure Severine’s survival; knowing that Bond is helluva cunning guy, he doesn’t have to reveal all his cards at one go. But it strikes me as odd that he’d go through that much trouble even to fool his superiors, who were willing to let him go out into the field anyway.

      But the part that would prove your theory right would be when Bond said to M after learning of his test results, “Are you sure that’s all you have to tell me?” as if to give her a chance to go back on her lie.

      Upon a second viewing of the movie, I reckon that the real reason why he got his mojo back, leading to his ability to beat all of Silva’s men on the island, and aim straight with his father’s hunting rifle has to do with having something to fight for. When he had first returned to England after his leave of absence, he was not entirely himself, as he says spending time away “puts things in perspective”. He doesn’t know if he should continue fighting for a woman and country that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about him.

      But put Bond back out in the field, in his element, and he regains the thrill of the hunt (see how happy he was after beating all the henchmen in Macau?), of his mission, his purpose. Which was in the end, to protect M, and he became the man necessary to do that. Plus, having a villain that was as threatening as Silva can make any hero step up to the plate.

      What do you think?

  2. I think he faked his abilities so he could be seen as washed up. This is proven my his wink to Mallory when he shoots the fire extinguisher dead on

    1. thanks for the write-in, Aj. yeah, I had a nagging suspicion that Bond could’ve been fooling everyone in that badass way only he could. the question then would be, why?

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