Film review – Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall: James Bond (Daniel Craig)

James Bond (Daniel Craig)

The James Bond films inspire passion, with every new film generating debate about what a Bond film is supposed to be and how much the new film compares to the rest. At the most prosaic end of the discussion is mulling over the degree to which the various characteristics of a Bond film (gun barrel POV shot, shaken martini, etc) are present. Slightly more interesting is the discussion about whether the films should be gritty spy thrillers or camp international romps with lots of gadgets. Most interestingly is how the films have evolved to reflect contemporary values. The narrative and style of the Bond films have to varying degrees always encapsulated both Cold War paranoias and rampant post World War II economic growth. While a distinctively English character, the values that Bond perpetuates translate very directly to an American audience, and throughout the 50 years of Bond films the celebration of English national pride has often veered from sincere to gentle parody.

So what is to be said about Skyfall, the 23rd film in the official franchise and the third staring Daniel Craig as Bond? Does it contain all the traditional motifs? Pretty much. Is it gritty or camp? Somewhere in between. How does it reflect contemporary values? Confusingly. And of course, the final question – is it entertaining? It gets there eventually.

Skyfall is a throw back to the easier going and less serious style of Bond films that seem to occur whenever a new leading actor has settled into the role. Craig’s first film Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006) delivered a gritty reboot of the Bond character that grounded the narrative and gave the character far more of an ambiguous edge, hinting that somebody so cool, suave and often indifferent to human life was probably borderline psychotic. Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008) was a direct sequel but squandered the potential for the character established in Casino Royale with its convoluted script and poorly directed and edited action sequences. Skyfall is better directed than Quantum of Solace, but it declares its disinterest in maintaining the series’ edgier potential in the opening sequences that are over-the-top and unbelievable, although not in a way that is outrageous enough to be truly exciting. Instead, it’s proudly an old-fashioned ‘silly Bond’.

The style, characterisation and narrative (which is about Bond attempting to recover a stolen hard disc containing the identities of undercover NATO agents) are not just nostalgic references to earlier Bond films, but the values are also old-fashioned. Regressive attitudes towards women, ‘exotic’ cultures and sexuality are alive and well in Skyfall. The main villain Raoul Silva is explicitly portrayed as aggressively bi-sexual with actor Javier Bardem in the role delivering a hilariously exaggerated performance. Bardem is admittedly a lot of fun and recalls the over-the-top villains of many previous Bond films, but he is overtly associated with sexual otherness as villainous, which is disappointing. A sequence set in Macau revels in colonialist images of Oriental Mysticism, including a scene involving characters doing battle in a pit containing a giant komodo dragon that feels more like something from Return of the Jedi  (Richard Marquand, 1983).

Then there is the issue of the ‘Bond girls’. The problem is not with Bond bedding women or even his attitude towards them, it’s how the film glamourises his attitude towards them and often robs them of their agency. Not to mention Bond displaying more emotion at the destruction of a car than the unfortunate fate of one of the women. The otherwise strong and impressive character Eve (Naomie Harris) is portrayed as a fellow MI6 field agent who is able to hold her own when necessary. On the other hand, during the opening scene Bond takes the wheel of the car off her during a car chase at a pivotal moment to remind audiences that a female character working with Bond can only be a character of action up to a point. Most disappointingly is later when she presents herself to Bond as being sent to assist him, with dialogue loaded with the implication that this includes sexual favours. Whether MI6 is actually pimping Eve to Bond or she pretends they are to appeal to Bond’s sensibilities, it is still creepy considering the film’s decision to portray this as romantic instead of exploring how such a sexual power play is indicative of Bond’s psychopathy and the mercenary nature of the counterintelligence organisation that both exploits and nurtures his condition for their own ends.

Creepier still is a scene where Bond sneaks into the shower with another woman. An earlier scene establishes that she wants Bond to come by later with the suggestion of sex, but the dialogue where she says it’s totally fine for him to break into her cabin, surprise her while naked and then have his way with her somehow got left out of the final film. That the film so successfully portrays this moment as an act of sensual and forbidden passion is disturbing, but at least serves as an example of how successfully the Bond films have packaged sexual objectification as fun glamour. Fans of the series may howl that critiquing such moments is missing the point of Bond, since questionable seductions are part of the Bond tradition. If this is the case though we have to wonder why the franchise is worth preserving or celebrating if it is so incapable of moving beyond such out-dated traditions.

On a spectacle level, the film struggles to deliver for at least the first two thirds of its running time. The action is not convincing enough to be gripping and not outlandish enough to be entertaining. There is a beautifully choreographed fight sequence done mostly in silhouette against projected images, but it’s over too soon to lift the energy of the film at that point. The self-aware dialogue, references to previous films and the inner conversation the film has with itself about what style of Bond film it wants to be, gets tired. However, just when the film looks like it is about to wrap itself up with a decent shoot out involving most of the principle cast, Skyfall changes direction to suddenly become a captivating film.

The final third of Skyfall is when director Sam Mendes seems to finally make the film his own. The scenes set in Scotland are exciting and have a distinctive look, with shots of the vast Scottish moors evoking many of the scenes of the burning oil fields in Mendes’s Jarhead (2005). It is surprisingly around this point at which Skyfall fully embraces the gadget-filled Bond films of the past that it also shakes off the regressive values and formulaic narrative structure. The individualism of Bond fades as the film becomes more focused on how much Bond needs the help of others to survive. The conventional good-guy-versus-bad-guy narrative vanishes as Bond, Silva and M (Judi Dench) become a symbolic family unit, reunited with an absent father/husband figure. In the final moments of Skyfall the film explores symbolic mother/son and sibling relationships, giving the action purpose and emotional engagement.

Skyfall is inconsistent, displaying Bond at its blandest and Bond at its best. For the most part it is a disappointing throwback to the type of run-of-the-mill Bond films that Casino Royale did so well to distance itself from. However, Skyfall is significantly redeemed when it plunges deep into Bond’s backstory and symbolically obliterates his past. If the mediocre bulk of the film was one last hurrah for fans of a previous era, then the exciting sense of rebirth that is promised by the end of the film makes Skyfall a welcomed addition to a franchise that may still have potential and relevance after all.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012
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8 Responses to Film review – Skyfall (2012)

  1. Bardem is admittedly a lot of fun and recalls the over-the-top villains of many previous Bond films, but he is overtly associated with sexual otherness as villainous, which is disappointing.

    I was pretty uncomfortable and annoyed with this scene, for the reasons you state above, but then I actually felt the script defused it nicely – almost saved it – with a single quip. But yes, it’s indicative of the main problem the screenplay has, as you’ve adriotly identified; it’s being pulled in two directions (retrograde vs evolution) and for much of the film can’t seem to make its mind up as to which direction it wants to go in.

    Hopefully, now the self-indulgence of the 50th anniversary is done, and various tropes ticked off the list, the films can recapture the energy of Casino Royale. I’m not holding my breath though…

  2. Kris says:

    Thank you Mr Caldwell for being honest about Skyfall as other reviewers are not. Skyfall, in a word, is aweful! It’s aweful.

    First of it is easily 1 hour too long. It has long drawn out dialog aimed to convey a thought or idea that never connects, e.g. what a horrible murderous person M is.

    For the finale at Skyfall, I must disagree with you. I thought I was watching The Expandables, the most moronic piece of film making in recent years, odd because I’ve never seen it and never will.

    I could go on, but won’t.

  3. @Richard: Good point about the scene in question being defused by that one quip. Upon reflection I’m inclined to agree.

    @Kris: I didn’t love the film, but I didn’t think it was awful either. And yes, I find it very odd that you’d judge a film you haven’t seen and then compare it to the end of this film, especially as the comparison is completely unfounded.

  4. Nick says:

    Aweful? If there was such a word, I would be rushing to see the film

  5. spotted reptile says:

    I went into Skyfall with high expectations, and they weren’t met. The plot seems to have been done many times before (a list of all our spies has fallen into enemy hands???!!!) but it becomes a B-plot in favour of the Revenge of the Villain Who Used to be One of Us plot.

    I can’t believe the Bond people couldn’t have found a more complex and satisfying screenplay than this. Sam Mendes does the best he can and the mood and poignancy of the minor theme of old versus new saves much of the film, but you can’t help feeling that while Bond was sleeping, other franchises picked up the ball and ran away with the genre.

    And I’m not very excited at the prospect of more Ralph Fiennes. He was one of the more lackluster characters.

  6. David says:

    The Komodo Dragon scene takes place in Macau, not Shanghai. Is this a simple error or your behalf or is it a sign of a deeper seeded racism alluding to the suggestion that all Asians are the same? Or perhaps that is a longer bow drawn than yours about the relationship between Bond and the girls.

  7. @spotted reptitle: I learned a while ago not to go into a Bond film with high expectations or the hope for anything original! With a few exceptions, I think that the Bond franchise has been asleep at the wheel for a very long time.

    @David: Thanks for spotting that error David and it’s now fixed. Clearly I just got two of the film’s locations mixed up in my notes. I’m not sure how the error implies racism in the way that you suggest, especially since both locations are predominantly populated by the Chinese.

  8. Brett Williams says:

    Nice review, Thomas. I thought that shower scene was creepy too. The other thing that didn’t sit right with me for a lot of the film was the similarities to the new Batman movies – especially the whole ‘he wanted to get caught’ sequence, followed by the backstory of Wayne’s (sorry, Bond’s) parents death which led him to hiding in a cave (sorry, secret tunnel) where when he came out he was now.. well, you know.

    And correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t recall him ever actually getting into any sort of fight with Bardem? A knife in the back? Hardly compares to how Brosnan dispatched Alec Travelyn (Goldeneye – “for England? No, for me.” Bam!), Elliot Carver (Tomorrow Never Dies) throwing the guy into his own boat-eating drill!!, and the sympathetic farewell to Renard (World Is Not Enough) by impaling him on a plutonium rod straight after watching him lose his shit when he finds out the woman he loves was killed. Still erasing Die Another Day from memory so I won’t mention that.

    Maybe they could never actually fight because if Bond did hit him in the face then half of it would fall out. That would’ve been gross, but more climactic at least, since he’d really have to work to land that punch.

    Otherwise, yeah, not bad. I liked pretty much all of the characters, except I don’t buy Bardem as a computer hacker genius. New Q was cool, but I did not like that quip about the exploding pen! Just a case of different perspectives I guess. It’s great that a lot of people enjoyed this film.

    Hopefully the spark of originality, clever plotting and cracking-good action will be added to the mix for the next one, and if they can tone down on the heavy drama and get back to just telling a good spy yarn… *fingers crossed for film 24*

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