There are at least two different movies awkwardly coexisting in the new Bond film, Skyfall. There is the one we’ve been sold by the previews—a generally quite solid and thoughtful revenge drama involving the triangle of Bond (Daniel Craig), M (Judi Dench), and Silva (Javier Bardem). However, there’s also the one that hides—in the shadows (one of the film’s dominant motifs)—and really doesn’t spring itself until the very end. What follows may be vaguely spoiler-ish, but I’ll try to avoid specificity as much as possible so as not to ruin the film’s two big (intertwining) plot twists at the end. About halfway through, I saw most of it coming, but honestly it never crossed my mind before then.
What we have here in the end is basically, almost literally, another reboot. Has Hollywood gotten so obsessed with rebooting franchises constantly that we now have a film series in James Bond which can boast two reboots in the last three (generally quite successful) movies? And I suppose that’s what is eating at me about this film, which for the most part is indeed I think one of the best Bond films ever made (though I could name several—including Casino Royale—which were better).
The ending of the movie is ruined for me, despite (or maybe because of) its aggressively blatant nostalgia, because its feels too high-concept for its own good—attempting to start over, again, because that’s all movie franchises seem to know how to do anymore, instead of building off what’s already there. Skyfall says in the end “we’ll take Craig (even though he’s already starting to look too old to play Bond much longer), and strip the rest.”
Let me take a step back—I generally like where the film arrives at in the end, at least its potential looking forward. This is partially because I love the casting choices. But I don’t like how it gets there, or even the need to go there at all. Its feels like a lame gimmick when it finally arrives, and the wonderful story up to that point (including an absolutely stunning development that I can guarantee you has never happened in a Bond film before) goes from being an engaged meditation on the power of being haunted by the past, of guilt and (lost) redemption, to just feeling like a ruse that gets us where the franchise wanted to be all along.
Along those lines, I’m also disappointed that they’ve apparently scrapped the narrative arch of the Quantum organization that was nicely building across both Casino and Quantum. Although I didn’t like the second one overall, I appreciated the fact that for the first time since the 1960s the Bond films were actually attempting to tell a detailed, elaborate story across several films, rather than having each one be completely self-contained (other than some returning characters). I hope Quantum’s critical failure wasn’t the impetus for the filmmakers to scrape a nicely building story line in favor of starting over. Also, on that note, I’m really annoyed that Felix (Jeffrey Wright) wasn’t brought back. His friendship with Bond has really been a highlight of the Craig films. And makes this one feel a bit emptier, to be honest.
So what did I like? The story is very good, despite the usual lame Bond clichés that abound (i.e., Bond sleeps with woman/woman dies in the next scene). Skyfall could work as a character drama without the Bond baggage—hence, I suspect, the “two movies” I mentioned above. Although Judi Dench has been given meatier parts as M in the past (The World is Not Enough immediately comes to mind), here she really does make the most of it. There’s an obvious motif established early in the film, but it doesn’t ultimately refer to the person we first think it does. Her relationship with Bond is genuinely complicated, in no small measure because of the nice parallel Silva offers to their situation.
Generally speaking, Silva is truly a great villain—not perfect, but one of the best Bond villains to be sure. His role in the film is repeatedly counter-intuitive to what we expect a Bond villain to be, and I really appreciated that. I can see why Bardem signed on to the script. This isn’t just a scene-chewing paycheck part in a high-profile film. Silva gives Bardem a lot to work with, and the actor dominates every scene without ever feeling like he’s hamming it up. That said, though, I’m slightly disturbed by the fact that two of the last three villains (along with LeChiffre in Casino) express pretty blatant homoerotic feelings towards Craig’s Bond--which contains the potential for homophobia--although this time Bond has a bit more fun with it.
As to other new actors: unsurprisingly, Ralph Fiennes’ character, Mallory, is not who we might first think him to be. I say “unsurprisingly” because they wouldn’t cast such a respected star in what would amount to little more than a glorified cameo as an arbitrary bureaucrat. But, I’ll confess he didn’t turn out to be what I had assumed from the previews. Likewise, Naomi Harris as Eve. I like her casting by the end, but again the plot twist to get there is kind of annoying dumb. Which early rumors about her were true? They all were.
Finally, a note about nostalgia: as I blogged last summer, it was pretty obvious that this is by far the most blatantly nostalgic Bond film—establishing a dominant theme throughout about the relationship between innovation and nostalgia. That is, the often repeated idea that change and upheaval brings a desire to return to the past. The general appeal of Bond films is always intensely nostalgic, of course, but I don’t ever recall one which so explicitly interrogated the idea in the story (certain parts of OHMSS come to mind, but I think that was limited to trying to maintain continuity between Connery and Lazenby).
But the theme doesn’t seem consistently realized here, and actually makes the ending that much more frustrating. Skyfall often wants to embrace the past fairly explicitly, as a way to keep Bond and M relevant in a changing technological and political world. But it also seems contemptuous of the past; its so determined to cut ties with everything by the end of the film, that the nostalgia which increasingly motivates Bond’s actions over the course of the film--in ways broad and subtle--feels jarringly undefined, even contradictory.