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.