I was really excited to see a movie I was sure to love because I’ve been a bit of a Negative Nancy as of late. But sadly, after the initial high of the thrill ride passed, I ended up somewhat disappointed with the latest Bond installment.
****EXTREMELY HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD****
Skyfall is clearly a Bond movie in the Daniel Craig tradition, which is to say that it’s less “pretty girls and shaken martinis” and more “angsty backstory and troubled anti-hero.” It opens with a strong dramatic flair: a nail-biting chase scene over the rooftops of Istanbul, a desperate last-ditch attempt to recover a stolen disk, and ultimately the accidental shooting and presumed-death of our hero. In Bond’s months-long absence M (Judi Dench) suffers the fallout of her apparent leadership failure, pushing back against Mallory (Ralph Fiennes)’s attempts to retire her. But she soon finds that she is the direct target of a rogue agent she abandoned and betrayed years before. As M and England come under attack, Bond reluctantly returns, only to find that he may not be the man he once was.
Skyfall is an exciting and engaging movie, with several moments that have a beautiful artistry to them. Bond slowly stalks an assassin through glass rooms that call to mind the acid-dream quality of the opening musical sequence; his shadowy combat with an opponent is unexpected and striking; his gondola-ride through a lake of glowing dragons is both extravagant and somewhat nostalgic. But none of these things can make up for the almost total disregard for some of the characters.
As M’s former protege Silva, abandoned to torture a decade ago, Javier Bardem conveys with sincerity of his conflicted emotions towards his surrogate mother figure: affection, hurt, and more than a hint of madness. But Bardem cannot operate in a vacuum; as we never saw his previous relationship with M, we have to draw a parallel with her current relationship with Bond to fully understand the depths of her betrayal.
The most egregious problem in this case was the failure to establish a clear sense of affection and loyalty between Bond and M. The filmmakers seemed to rely on the fact that we the viewers love M, having seen Judi Dench portray her for nearly twenty years, since her debut in one of the best Bond movies ever – Goldeneye. Yes, we know and love her as M. Yes, we love her dry wit and dressing-down of that rascally Bond.
But that’s not enough. If you are going to hinge an entire movie on the idea that M and Bond share a strong affection and loyalty, and that their relationship mirrors one she had with another agent she betrayed, you have to make us believe it. Silva referred to M as “Mommy,” and recounted how he spent months withstanding torture in an effort to protect her. But while it was clearly implied that M recruits orphans who would naturally be searching for a mother, it was never demonstrated to us that she shared that connection with anyone.
And frankly, I can’t say I care for the somewhat simplistic view that, as the first female M, Judi Dench is reduced to a mother figure. In her first appearance with Pierce Brosnan (granted, a very different type of Bond in a very different context), she aptly categorized him as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” She earned his grudging respect by standing up to him as an equal and flatly refusing to accept his cavalier attitude towards authority. Bond does not grow to trust M because of her feminine, matriarchal presence – it is precisely because she does not exhibit those qualities that he views her as an indisposable figure in his life, in stark contrast to the women he routinely beds and discards.
They also toyed with the idea that Bond is mentally, physically, and emotionally spent, that he may be done with this line of work. But they TOLD us that he might feel that way, through Mallory and Silva. Aside from his postmortem bender and inability to shoot straight (miraculously cured when he finds his father’s gun), we never SAW it. His psych evals suggested that he had problems with alcohol and drug abuse, but he drank and caroused on a beach in typical Bond fashion, rather than in a way that seemed self-destructive.
Another poorly drawn character took the form of the “Bond girl” – whose name I can’t even remember. We see that she was traumatized by her past as a child sex slave and still trapped in that life by a man who terrifies her; but rather than receive the same respectful treatment as Casino Royale‘s Vesper Lynd, who showed her weakness and received genuine comfort, this woman is jumped in the shower by a man she hardly knows before her summary execution the next day.
As for the overall plot? Weak. Silva’s plan to infiltrate MI6 was telegraphed from a mile away. “Good thing you don’t have any of Q’s little gadgets with you.” BECAUSE WE OBVIOUSLY DIDN’T SEARCH YOU OR ELSE WE WOULD HAVE FOUND THE COMPLETELY UNDISGUISED RADIO TRANSMITTER. Seriously. It’s almost a verbatim retread of the Loki (The Avengers)/Joker (The Dark Knight) trope – the bad guy allows himself to be taken captive so he can get into the good guy’s stronghold.
They toyed with the question of whether M and Bond are even still relevant in today’s modern world, but dodged it by having it posed by an MP on an apparent witch hunt, then essentially saying “There are still bad guys, and Bond is still good at catching them.”
And while I’m sure that Bond’s backstory is true to the novels, I have to say I am terribly disappointed at this culmination of 50 years of mystery. The sharp back and forth between Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale revealed a great deal about each character without truly delving into the facts of their childhoods; by contrast, Skyfall‘s portrayal of Bond’s backstory was to fill in all the blanks and show us that he was a wealthy Scottish gentleman (with a gorgeous house, so sad to see it go) whose parents died when he was a kid. I almost felt like this was a betrayal of Craig’s Bond, who was always a little rough around the edges and often gave the impression that he had survived a tough life on the streets. Realizing that he was just a British Bruce Wayne was a huge let-down.
M’s death was a let-down too, in that it felt terribly anti-climactic. As I’ve said, I thought the Bond-M relationship was the weakest it’s ever been in this movie, so Bond’s tears had no affect on me. Similarly the reveal that Fiennes was the new M held no emotional resonance because I wasn’t all that upset to see Judi Dench go. It’s sad for me to say that because I loved her in previous films, but I felt she was wasted in Skyfall.
Overall I felt this was a well-executed and exceedingly enjoyable Bond movie, but beyond the momentary thrill of chase scenes, explosions, and beautiful camera work, the broader issues they were trying to address fell by the wayside.