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LYT Review: A Contrarian Take on “Skyfall”

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by on November 12, 2012

Imagine, if you will, that at a key moment in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane had taunted his black-clad foe by suddenly singing “Da na na na na na na…BAT MAN!” Or that Officer John Blake, on discovering the Batcave at the end, had exclaimed “Holy subterranean lair!” It would have certainly gotten a cheap laugh, reminding people of the Batman they liked before. It might even have been some audience members’ favorite moment. Yet by any sensible story standard, it would have been out of place. Skyfall features more than one analogous bit, and while it did make me smile during what was otherwise a more tedious film than I’d hoped for, it just doesn’t say much for a new Bond film when the only fun parts are those that blatantly smack you in the face with a reminder that there are previous movies in the series you like better.

Calling this a Bond film is less accurate in many ways than calling it a Sam Mendes film, and if you like Sam Mendes (he of American Beauty) as a director, that’s good news. I liked him in person, and he seems thoughtful – but with the exception of Jarhead and some parts of Away We Go, I find his work tediously “artistic” in an overly obvious way. By the third or fourth time in Skyfall that I saw a medium shot of a character, often from behind, in a large empty room to signify their isolation, I wanted to scream, “Enough already!” When one such character, having made a tough decision, looks out the window and it immediately starts to rain, I half-expected a black plastic bag to float elegantly by in the wind.

The story wants to have it two ways – it’s both an origin story and a “gettin’ too old for this shit” movie in which Bond goes back and forth between, say, Chris Pine’s proto-Captain Kirk, and William Shatner’s “still got it, but barely” Wrath of Khan old Kirk. We are constantly told that he’s aging, out of shape and alcoholic (thankfully, no cheap gags about 007 at a 12-step meeting; Wreck-It Ralph pretty much owns that routine), even though continuity-wise, this ought to still be one of his first major missions… and Craig is notably younger than some previous Bonds were in certain movies. It’s as if, after reclaiming the title Casino Royale for the official franchise, the Broccolis wanted to remake Never Say Never Again as well – a movie, that, by the way, managed to still be fun even while dealing with an aging Bond worried about the future.

The opening sequence is the most classic part, with an exuberant chase that includes Bond swinging around a giant backhoe that’s having to hold together a moving train, and a culmination that sets up a way for Bond to disappear forever should he so choose. Events transpire to bring back our hero when MI6 and M (Judi Dench) herself come under attack from a powerful cyber-stalker who happens to have a very old grudge against her. Barely passing the physical tests, Bond resurfaces for love of boss and country, teamed with field agent Eve (Naomie Harris), with whom he does have a delightfully playful banter – their dialogue scenes together are among the film’s highlights, and their unconsummated (on-camera, anyway) shaving scene is one of the hottest moments ever in the Craig movies.

Even though he doesn’t actually show up until a good hour or so into the film, it’s no spoiler at this stage to say that the villain is Silva (Javier Bardem), who’s sort of the anti-Bond, a former agent gone rogue who appears to be as flamboyantly gay as Bond is heterosexual – though the only plot purpose to this is a lone gay-panic joke that Bond deftly reverses. Nonetheless, I’m surprised GLAAD isn’t up in arms at Silva’s mincing manner.

Far more troubling, though, is the secondary Bond girl of the story: Severine, played by Berenice Marlohe. Her backstory is one of an underage sex worker, rescued by Silva to basically do his bidding. She wants Bond to save her, but instead he uses her sexually to get to Silva. Consent or no, there’s something icky about that, especially when we consider the time Roger Moore did the right thing and kicked a too-young girl out of his bed in For Your Eyes Only. Craig’s Bond is supposedly cold, but that level of manipulation – especially if you’ve ever known somebody who actually has been abused – does not sit easily. (Then again, I suppose if you’ve ever known anyone killed by a spy, Bond probably really sucks for you.)

Yes, the title “Skyfall” is explained, and it’s more of a shrug than a revelation, kicking off a segment that plays more like The A-Team than Bond and features an unusually useless Albert Finney. Some have made the case that, like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Bond is a singularly ineffective hero here, such that everything would have happened more or less the way it does without him being in the picture. I don’t think that’s the case because Bond is integral to Silva’s revenge (if not entirely crucial), but I do think the his plan feels overly similar to Loki’s from The Avengers, hinging on a similarly pointless moment of deliberate capture. Ben Whishaw’s younger Q makes sense in this context as a hacker, more so than Bardem, though I am sorry not to see John Cleese back.

Oh, but what about that cinematography by Roger Deakins, which everyone is going out of their way to mention? Color me a little less than overwhelmed – when a key moment depends upon two men fighting in silhouette and you’re supposed to be rooting for one of them but cannot tell which he is because photographing the shadows in front of the pretty skyscraper is more appealing, you’ve lost the point. It’s never a good idea to imagine what motivates other writers, but does anybody else get the sense that Deakins is being name-dropped so much in reviews because he’s one of maybe three cinematographers the average writer knows by name, by heart? Janusz Kaminski and Wally Pfister would be the other two, BTW.

Skyfall isn’t without its charms, most of which would be the actors, including a barely mentioned Ralph Fiennes. And it’s certainly better than the middle two Brosnan films. But just as Marc Forster went off the rails in Quantum of Solace during that silly horse-race juxtaposition, so too does Mendes go overboard with the deconstruction/dysfunction. Auteurs doing Bond may be a fun new gimmick – and one that seems to be working financially and critically. But for my tastes, it isn’t in the franchise’s best interests.

It would seem that is ONLY my taste, however.