“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.