Skyfall

SkyfallSynopsis: Daniel Craig is back as Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007 in Skyfall, the 23rd adventure in the longest-running film franchise of all time. James Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost. Starring: Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Helen McCrory, and Judi Dench.
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Skyfall 7.5

eyelights: Judi Dench. the Walther PPK’s return. the Aston Martin. the epilogue. the relative realism.
eyesores: Javier Bardem. the “Bond Girls”. the “witticisms”. the hacker plotline. the generic score by Thomas Newman. the relative realism.

M: “Though much is taken, much abides, and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are… One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

The bastards…

By the end of ‘Skyfall’s demanding runtime (almost 2.5 hours… for an action film!), I was pretty much ready to write off the James Bond franchise – as I had previously, after the disappointingly gimmicky ‘Die Another Day’.

But the filmmakers decided to leave us with an epilogue that made everything right for me, that gave me a taste of things to come: they went for the classic Bond – a direction I felt the series had been lacking at least since ‘Goldeneye’.

I had long missed the classic James Bond films.

Sure, they were passé, but, in my mind, this is the only way that the series stands out from all the challengers these days – everyone wants to be the slickest, biggest, most explosive, and it’s hard to distinguish yourself in all the noise.

Things got progressively worse in the James Bond series from the moment that they used cgi to replace stuntmen in ‘Goldeneye’ to the time that Bond got an invisible car in ‘Die Another Day’. Yes, an invisible car.

With ‘Casino Royale’, the producers took Daniel Craig’s 007 to the middle ground. They injected the series a certain amount of realism and made Bond grittier. But they kept the quirky villain, the majestic locales, the epic sequences.

‘Skyfall’, however, takes us in an entirely different direction altogether, and not one that I thought was that appropriate.

For Bond.

Because, by any other standard, were it any other film, ‘Skyfall’ would be a decent actioner: it balances action and character development, amusing one-liners with richer dialogue, and massive set pieces with more discrete ones. It also offers a real-world setting.

Except that Bond films also usually have interesting villains, flamboyant “Bond Girls”, a few gadgets for Bond to use, exotic locales and a larger scope. And excitement: unreserved, self-indulgent spectacles that only the Bond films could deliver.

All of these were sorely lacking in ‘Skyfall’.

When ‘Skyfall’ was announced, I was still under the effect of ‘Quantum of Solace‘; it had been a joyless exercise that only somewhat worked. So when I heard the title of the new, oft-delayed James Bond movie, I was left completely unmoved.

Skyfall…

Sounded like a sci-fi movie to me. The more I thought of it, the less I liked it. If one were to make an alien invasion film, ‘Skyfall’ might be a decent title. If one were to make a apocalyptic disaster movie, ‘Skyfall’ might make sense. If one were making a movie about a fallen angel stuck on earth, ‘Skyfall’ might work.

But, for a James Bond adventure…? To me, ‘Skyfall’ seemed ill-suited.

Meanwhile, the producers did their best to stir interest in James Bond’s 50th anniversary. As the film ‘s release neared, they held a number of media events, including a drive around James Bond locales in the classic Aston Martin (which is also featured in ‘Skyfall’, b-t-w).

I remained disinterested.

What really changed the game for me was when reviews started to pour in: they were extremely positive (pretty much across the board, really!). Having been released overseas well in advance of the North American unveiling, international box office numbers were skyrocketing everywhere.

I suddenly became curious.

Then a friend and I talked about seeing it. A commitment having been made, I was locked in. That friend dropped out, and another expressed interest. I was in for the long haul, even if countless delays meant I would see it well after everyone else. Then it didn’t work with that friend, and my partner stepped in.

I became excited by the idea of seeing it and, as I watched the ridiculous convoluted opening chase sequence, I laughed out loud gleefully at the phenomenal absurdity of some of it: Bond was a weapon of mass destruction all by his lonesome, tearing through town after some guy as he did!

And that’s when the fun ended.

We were then offered by a truly adequate, but somehow impoverished theme song by Adele. Not unlike the ‘Goldeneye’ theme, there’s a lot of potential there, but it remains unfulfilled. Adele does a great job, but something is missing… John Barry’s arrangements, perhaps?

In fact, much of the music lacked a distinct flavour. I know that Sam Mendes had worked with Thomas Newman before and wanted to keep him on board, but Newman dropped the Bond: he provided a rather generic action score instead of what should have been a goosebump-inducing backdrop; in no way did it stand out.

At least, unlike Eric Serra (for ‘Goldeneye’), he actually referred back to the iconic Bond theme once or twice. He even teased us with his first notes, acknowledging John Barry’s original work. But that’s about all. It was a mistake to jettison David Arnold for this round: he is the only composer (other than Barry) who has truly understood James Bond.

Quite like the score, “bland” is a word I would use to describe most of what took place after the opening salvo. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was formulaic, but let me just say that I saw a similar but better movie in ‘Patriot Games’. Except that this was a James Bond movie and it didn’t follow most of the Bond series formula.

One might be quick to argue that the formula is stale and that bringing in a new approach pumps fresh air into the dusty franchise. In some cases, this may be true. Except that the James Bond series needs to denote itself from its competitors – of which there are many these days. And, frankly, ‘Skyfall’ didn’t really do much other than fall I line with modern expectations.

Even Bond is different in the Daniel Craig iteration of the character: he’s a dour, moody grunt with very little charm to speak of.

It was great in his first film, ‘Casino Royale‘, because Bond was still low on the MI6 totem pole and it was suggested that he needed some grooming. I can accept this. But now, many missions later (presumably he has more than one every 4 years! We likely don’t get to see all that he does…), you’d expect him to have rounded off the edges, to have refined his act.

Not quite.

In ‘Skyfall’, Bond remains feral, incapable of being classy or refined – despite the needlessly expensive suits (you can dress the man all you want, but you can’t hide the beast). Even his walk betrays him: unlike Sean Connery, who had developed (with the help of director Guy Hamilton) a suave, panther-like demeanour, Craig plods on like a carefree bull.

Don’t get me wrong: Craig is a great actor and his performance is solid through-and-through. I simply question his version of Bond, that’s all. While I liked that Timothy Dalton was a more serious, more cut-throat Bond, he wasn’t a thug like Craig’s is. His creation, much like ‘Skyfall’ itself, is a respectable one – but, to me, it’s just not James Bond.

I’ll have to go through the whole series to double-check this, but I don’t remember Bond being a callous as he is here – and, truth be told, Connery’s Bond could be quite cold-blooded. In ‘Skyfall’, there were a couple of instances when Bond just passively watched others kill their targets BEFORE going in to beat them up. He wouldn’t intervene, even though he could. Why is that?

This gave the impression of a man who would be as at home with the mob as with the secret service. This is a man whose thirst for violence overrides any common decency – case-in-point, his comment following Sévérine’s death. Roger Moore would have delivered such a line with a knowing wink, but, coming from Craig, this comes off as heartless and utterly disrespectful.

What I’m pretty much saying is that, while I can still fantasize of being the old school James Bond, there is no way that I would ever want to be this brutish, cruel, new Bond. And, to be perfectly frank, isn’t that what Bond was all about? Wasn’t he the man boys aspired to be, men daydreamed of being, and women desired? This is what made Bond such an attractive character and franchise.

For good or bad, I don’t see it now.

Despite the franchise having shaken and stirred its original formula to the point of having lost much of its flavour, I must admit that ‘Skyfall’ did address a few key concerns admirably well: the relevance of espionage and counter-espionage in the era of terrorism, and the power of modern technology and its effect on the ability of nation to protect themselves.

In a speech that Judi Dench delivered masterfully during an inquiry into security breaches at MI6, she brought across the point that the enemy is no longer visible like it once was – that in this day and age, nations no longer were the biggest threats: terrorist organizations are not nation-bound. She raised an important question: What would it take to actually feel safe?

This addresses growing concerns in the UK, where CCTV cameras are planted everywhere: Where is the line drawn? When does a nation’s efforts to protect itself harms more than does good, encaging its citizens or betraying their rights? There is a slippery slope that can take whole societies over the edge, into Soviet Russia or Hitler’s Germany, when everyone is looking over their shoulders and stabbing each other in the back.

‘Skyfall’ also addresses the seeming omnipotence of computer technology. While it was naïve to put all of MI6 at risk to computer hackers (it’s easy to physically disconnect your computer from a network, if you need to) and to have Q work on an enemy laptop directly on the internal network (surely MI6 has better practices than this, or someone would have clued him in to the dangers of plugging in), it suggests that this sense of power is illusory.

Case-in-point, Q provides Bond with only two gadgets: a fingerprint-activated Walther PPK, and a small radio. Yes, a radio.

Throughout the movie, there are a few hints that, in the face of worldwide internet connectivity and super-powerful computing, the old school infrastructure and methods were now the least vulnerable. There’s MI6′s temporary residence in Churchill’s old bunker, there’s the use of the aforementioned radio to foil our supervillain, the use of classic 007 gear, and there’s even an explicit comment made by Bond.

And, finally, there’s the epilogue, which takes us -and the series- full circle to ‘Dr. No’, with M, Q, Moneypenny in tow and the stuffy, leather-bound and hardwood office interiors that hark back to the early 20th century.

Most of the movie was designed to lead us right here, to these final moments (looking back, it’s so clear now). It doesn’t change the fact that the ‘Skyfall’ lacked the scope of usual Bond films and doesn’t have much replay value as far as I’m concerned. If I want to watch ‘Patriot Games’ or ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, I can watch them. They are excellent films.

But James Bond films are supposed to be another beast, a breed apart. And, quite frankly, I look forward to its return to form, as promised by ‘Skyfall’. From what I can tell, it appears as though the producers picked apart the pieces of a franchise that had been patched over too often in the past and are going to actually revitalize it by going back to its roots.

As my memory of the somewhat forgettable ‘Skyfall’ blurs, a ray of light breaks the clouds apart: this fallen angel appears to be coming home.

James Bond: “Is there anything wrong with sticking to the old ways?”
Eve: “Sometimes, the old ways are best.”

Date of viewing: December 11, 2012

One response to “Skyfall

  1. Pingback: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey | thecriticaleye·

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