“Skyfall”: A Review

What follows discusses “Skyfall” in some detail, so be warned if you wish to see it without having had any of its not particularly surprising plot points revealed.

“Skyfall,” the twenty-third cinematic outing for secret agent extraordinaire James Bond, is a pretty good movie as far as these things go. If you are not put off by obvious capitulations to cinematic nonsense — that ten minutes outside of Istanbul is an alpine wonderland of gorgeous scenery and perilous gorges; that the United Kingdom has host-country permission for shootouts pretty much everywhere; that computer hacking is mostly accomplished by typing more frenetically than the self-evolving hostile code — then it’s a fine way to spend two and a half hours.

It also doesn’t quite hold up, and not for the usual reasons. James Bond films are always escapist, which is a generous way of saying they run the gamut from unrealistic to insultingly ridiculous. “Skyfall,” though, attempts something a bit different, in that it is a film with a message. That message is this: old things are still necessary things. It’s a good one, and right, but poorly delivered, mostly because the film never establishes that necessity.

The villain of the piece, Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva, is on a mission to humiliate and murder Judi Dench’s M. As the film unfolds, we find that he has a rather good reason for doing so: years past, she betrayed him to the Chinese, who proceeded to torture him for a very long time. Her reason for having done so is explained away in an unfortunate monologue in which M explains that Silva, while in MI6′s employ, once exceeded his brief and caused a lot of trouble. (A canny filmmaker might give us a look of alarm, or perhaps self-awareness, on James Bond’s face at this point, but no such luck.) You can’t like Silva, but you also can’t blame him for being rather resentful. In a different movie, his quest would be played as a righteous crusade for vengeance. The man is owed some payback, or at least a generous pension.

Why do we care about any of this? “Skyfall” confers upon Silva some rather improbable powers of information dominance, plus command of squads upon squads of expert killers. James Bond must stop Silva because Silva can access all the information, and control all the machines, all the time! (This is, by the bye, also the threat in the season finale of season two of the BBC’s “Sherlock,” and Sandra Bullock’s 1995 epic “The Net,” and “Lawnmower Man,” and please stop using this.) Okay, that’s reason for the world to care — and when the British soldiers swarm Silva’s island compound with all its servers, you’d think they’d end that threat. But they don’t! We learn this about twenty minutes later, when Silva is revealed to still have helicopters, and weaponry, and access to electronic muckety muck that he brings to bear for the climactic fight at Bond’s childhood estate of Skyfall in Scotland.

Yes, Scotland: we learn that Bond, James Bond, is Scottish in the same movie whose marketing advertised an early scene in which a psychologist, subjecting the agent to free-association, says “Country,” and Bond replies, “England.” This is not something Scotsmen are apt to do. But you know where that moviegoing market lives.

So, in the end, of course Silva is defeated, after Bardem chews on so much scenery he chokes. M expires, thereby giving the villain his win — although the film betrays no hint whatsoever that James Bond understands he has actually failed in his mission. His gambit to fight the bad guy mano a mano turns out to be a bust after the bad guy sensibly brings along about twenty other manos. Is there any inkling of this? Is there any shred of understanding that Bond may grasp that his plan completely failed? Is there any regret at not having had a plan B? Is there any acknowledgement that the United Kingdom, having displayed in this same movie an ability to deploy an entire air-assault company to a Pacific island in mere minutes, could likely have done the same in the United Kingdom? Finally, as M journeys to wherever spy chiefs who give up their people to Chinese torture go, is there any realization communicated to the audience that the actual threat posed by Silva — remember, he can access all the information and blow up all the gas mains and tank all the markets! — is still live and presumably accessible by many living henchmen?

Spoilers: no, no, no, no, and no.

“Skyfall” falls into the same maw of climactic irrelevance that consumed “Return of the Jedi,” where the major scene of resolution — Luke Skywalker’s final confrontation with Darth Vader — was pointless to the eventual outcome. Imagine an alternate “Return of the Jedi,” if you will, in which Skywalker is either slaughtered by his father, or joins his father to murder the Emperor and establish a new hereditary Dark Side galactic imperium. (Hey, this sounds like a much better film, now that I mention it.) What happens next? Why, the same thing that happens when Luke and goodness win: Lando Calrissian and Wedge Antilles blow up the Death Star and everyone on board. (Like I said, much better.) This is “Skyfall” in a nutshell. The major resolution is, when you think about it, the minor resolution, and ultimately irrelevant to boot. At least “Jedi” gave us the big-picture finish. “Skyfall” doesn’t even bother, on the probably correct assumption that most won’t miss it.

At the end of all this, we are to be persuaded of what the late M, quoting Tennyson to boorish British Cabinet ministers, has been contending all along, and is The Big Message of “Skyfall”: old things are still necessary things. A cracked porcelain British bulldog, draped in a Union Jack, is our visual signifier here, as it travels throughout the film from M’s desk to what is presumably Bond’s self-storage space to a future episode of Storage Wars UK. Yet “Skyfall” manages to make the contrary case in full: its major crisis is precipitated by MI6 itself, and its protagonist fails at his major mission. James Bond of the 1950s and 1960s issued from Ian Flemings’s pen fighting absurdist villains, yes, but also real-world threats including first and foremost global communism. “Skyfall’s” vision is more narrow, combating the monster of our own creation. The world is safer after Hugo Drax dies: it isn’t after Raoul Silva does. 

And there’s the irony of “Skyfall,” which sets up its main character and institutions as false anachronisms to be revealed as relevant and triumphant. It thereby accidentally exposes a real anachronism, exemplified in a Churchillian cracked-porcelain bulldog: a Britain that believed in something.

  1. Mollie Hemingway

    Just saw the flick and enjoyed your review. Were you as surprised as I was that Sam Mendes made the bad guy be a homosexual with mommy issues? Or is that predictable?

  2. Misthiocracy

    Just be happy that this is the last Bond flick for the hack scriptwriting team of Purvis & Wade. Virtually everything that has been wrong about the Bond franchise since The World Is Not Enough can be laid at their feet.

    Skyfall wasn’t a film. It was a mashup of other films:

    • Mission Impossible

    • Goldeneye
    • The World Is Not Enough
    • You Only Live Twice
    • The Dark Knight

    Heck, even some of the music was a ripoff of The Dark Knight (first Bond film since Tomorrow Never Dies that wasn’t scored by David Arnold, and it showed).

    Plus, Q was portrayed as an idiot who (spoiler alert) thinks that the bad guy’s password showing up as cleartext on an encrypted hard drive isn’t at all suspicious, and couldn’t possibly be a trap.

    I’m still hopeful that the next one will be better, since they’s finally ditched Purvis & Wade. They should really hire Jeffrey Deaver or Raymond Benson, and/or use John Gardner’s books as source material.

  3. Misthiocracy
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: Just saw the flick and enjoyed your review. Were you as surprised as I was that Sam Mendes made the bad guy be a homosexual with mommy issues? Or is that predictable? · 3 minutes ago

    Was he really, or was he just trying to get Bond’s goat? I think he was just doing an “enhanced interrogation” tactic, trying to get a rise out of Mr. Cool.

  4. Joshua Treviño
    C

    Mollie, given my abiding loathing of Sam Mendes — I agree with Camille Paglia that “American Beauty” was “crappy [and] condescending” — when we got to that part, I let it just go right by. It’s not even close to his worst.

  5. Misthiocracy

    I really hope they bring back QUANTUM, which was really starting to get good as the successor to SPECTRE.

  6. Joshua Treviño
    C

    Quantum faded as a threat when its big scheme turned out to be a probably-not-even-illegal attempt to corner the Bolivian water market.

  7. Misthiocracy
    Joshua Treviño: Quantum faded as a threat when its big scheme turned out to be a probably-not-even-illegal attempt to corner the Bolivian water market. 

    Ah, but that was just one scheme.  It’s not like SPECTRE only ever had one iron in the fire at a time.  The point isn’t the individual scheme. The point is that there’s still an organization out there about which Universal Exports still knows nothing.

  8. Misthiocracy

    Also, Adele’s theme song was terrible.

    It should have been Muse’s song Supremacy (as seen in this fan-made trailer) which they submitted to the Bond producers but was rejected.

  9. Mollie Hemingway
    Misthiocracy: Also, Adele’s theme song was terrible.

    OK, you lost me. It’s a great song — perfect homage, nice mix of vintage Bond and authentic Adele. What’s terrible about it?

  10. Joshua Treviño
    C

    Yeah, it was pretty good. If you want a genuinely terrible Bond song, have a listen to Johnny Cash’s “Thunderball” theme. This is real. This actually happened.

  11. Misthiocracy
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.

    Misthiocracy: Also, Adele’s theme song was terrible.

    OK, you lost me. It’s a great song — perfect homage, nice mix of vintage Bond and authentic Adele. What’s terrible about it? · 2 minutes ago

    For one, no Bond theme song has used the title of the movie nearly as many times.  Yes, the movie’s name is Skyfall, we get it.

    Madonna’s song for Die Another Day comes close. It was also terrible.

    I fully concede that I generally prefer the “rock” Bond themes.  The ballads are only worthwhile if Shirley Bassey is the singer.

    Incidentally, Shirley Bassey recorded a theme for Quantum of Solace. It was rejected. Sigh…

  12. Lance

    I thought it was fine. I really dig Craig as Bond and more or less take it at face value, as long as they try to accomplish something. By that try to be something more than just a cartoon. Casino Royale was a blast, quantum less so. This one more the first than the last.My two favorite are still my first two…both less than great in retrospect. But still no less fun… For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy. But the best Bond film isn’t a bond film, but is everything a Bond film should be, including a superior bond girl that is more Lady than girl… The Thomas Crowne Affair with Brosnan and the amazing Renee Russo. I can watch that movie a hundred times and never tire of it, or stop wishing that aa real Bond movie was more life that.With Daniel Craig, at least it is, even just a little.

  13. Misthiocracy
    Joshua Treviño: Yeah, it was pretty good. If you want a genuinely terrible Bond song, have a listen to Johnny Cash’s “Thunderball” theme. This is real. This actually happened. · 3 minutes ago

    Yup, I’ve heard that one before.

    But have you ever heard Alice Cooper’s The Man With The Golden Gun?

  14. Lance

    Sorry, that last comment of mine was full of typos, way more than by my normal standards of accidental error. First comments made from an iPad.

  15. Misthiocracy
    Lance: I thought it was fine. I really dig Craig as Bond and more or less take it at face value, as long as they try to accomplish something. By that try to be something more than just a cartoon. Casino Royale was a blast, quantum less so. This one more the first than the last.

    Craig is my favourite Bond, and Casino Royale is my favourite Bond movie.  Of all the movies, it’s the one that stays closest to the novel, despite the necessary changes to bring the setting up to date with the 21st Century, and Craig comes closest to what’s in my mind when I read the Bond stories (especially the short stories in For Your Eyes Only).

    If you want to see Pierce Brosnan at his best, go rent The Fourth Protocol. It’s my favourite spy movie of all time. It’s definitely the best spy movie of the 80s.

  16. Misthiocracy
    Lance: Sorry, that last comment of mine was full of typos, way more than by my normal standards of accidental error. 

    SPECTRE does not tolerate failure.

    (Lance falls into piranha tank under Blofeld’s desk.)

  17. Lance

    Myth…I remember watching Fourth Protocol a long while back and will look it up again. When it comes to spy movies, I read a bunch of Robert Ludlum stuff back in the day, including the original Bourne Trilogy. Talk about having to bring material up to the 21st century. It took me a while to realize that Hollywood was doing more than an admirable job making Mr. Webb a realistic cinematic reality. Making the character a superman was a fine tradeoff for jettisoning the very dated and very convoluted plot line that wove through the three books. I still do pine a bit for those classic spy stories making it to the movies, even if they were all about secret Nazi societies and their secret plans to take over the world via some Greek myth inspired naming techniques.Would I have been better served reading John Le Carre? If so, what should I invest my audiobook credit in?

  18. Misthiocracy
    Lance: Would I have been better served reading John Le Carre? If so, what should I invest my audiobook credit in?

    The George Smiley books are great, but they aren’t action-filled thrillers. Le Carre wrote them as a sort of rebuttal to the Bond novels.  Bond’s adventures were based on the sort of action British soldiers and agents saw in World War II, and very unrealistic for the Cold War era. Le Carre’s Smiley stories are about what spycraft was really like during the Cold War (from Le Carre’s point of view, anyways). Slow, methodical, and bureaucratic.

    I’d recommend they be read in order.

    (Personally, I think one can skip A Murder of Quality. It’s not up to the standard of the rest of the oeuvre.)

    I’m not much of a fan of Le Carre’s novels that do not feature George Smiley. Once Le Carre stops writing about the Cold War, he really loses it.

  19. goodburker

    I actually liked the movie and it’s themes, and even Bardem’s performance, very much.  Oh, and the credit sequence was awesome.  The song was good, not a classic, but solid.

    A few points:

    1. The James Bond franchise got a reboot with the Daniel Craig remake of Casino Royale.  Bond was now darker, grittier and had to operate in a world without absolutes.  An analog might be the Christopher Nolan reboot of the Batman franchise (much better movies, I admit)

    2. We live in a world where bad guys are hunted by drones, The government reads emails without warrants, and a right to life is not intrinsic but relative to a person’s utility.  Moral confusion ensues.  In this world, how “useful” is Bond?  How “useful” is M?  
    3. The island was a setup.  It was all a setup, bread crumbs to lead Bond to Silva, which would get Silva to M.  So it didn’t bother me that the tech threat wasn’t ended there – there could’ve been more servers somewhere else.
    4. Silva died never knowing if M would, thereby robbing him of the satisfaction of vengeance.
    5. It not a great film, but I thought a pretty good one.
  20. Lance

    Myth- George Smiley was the protagonist in Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy? I saw that film. What was your take on that?

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