Nov 23, 2020
Skyfall is the 23rd entry in the James Bond franchise. Released in 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of the series, it opened to widespread public and critical acclaim; it is, to date, the highest grossing Bond film of all time, and the first to earn over $1 billion (without adjusting for inflation, of course; Thunderball would win if you did).
It’s also the first Bond flick to win Oscars in 47 years, for Adele’s title song and Best Sound Editing (the previous win was for Best Visual Effects, also for Thunderball). The acting, direction, drama, action, cinematography, and sound are all top-notch, and the film is peppered with subtle and not-so-subtle references to the rest of the franchise. It’s definitely a fun and enjoyable Bond movie, and a solid entry all around.
And I’ve spent many, many wasted hours trying to work out the reasons I don’t like it very much.
Basically, it comes down to the script. Skyfall is a movie that looks and feels and perhaps even thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is. The plot is riddled with questions and holes and leaps in logic that don’t make much sense even for a Bond film, plus seemingly important plot points and story elements are dropped or pushed aside without explanation.
The film starts off with Bond (Daniel Craig) in pursuit of a missing hard drive which, we later learn, contains a file with the identities of every undercover NATO agent around the world. This idea not only borrows from the first Mission: Impossible movie, but is also a nod for us Brits to the bad habit of the British civil service to lose important documents in real life.
Bond goes after a mercenary named Patrice, who had the file and killed several agents, which leads to a well-choreographed and suitably destructive chase sequence, the highlight being Bond destroying the back of a train before casually jumping aboard.
As the two men fight on top of the train, M (Judi Dench) orders Bond’s partner Eve (Naomie Harris) to take out the killer, even though she doesn’t have a clear shot. Unfortunately, she accidentally shoots Bond, who falls off a bridge and is presumed dead, possibly as a nod to You Only Live Twice.
Back in London, M is writing up Bond’s obituary, only to be informed by the new Chairman of British Intelligence Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) that she’s being “asked” to retire, since the file was lost on her watch. On the way back to her office, someone hacks into her computer at MI6 to break into the file, taunts M with a message on her laptop reading “Think On Your Sins”, and triggers an explosion by computer magic, killing more MI6 employees.
A pissed M vows to find whoever did this. At home, Bond is waiting for her (like in Casino Royale) and also pissed himself (both literally and figuratively) at M for ordering Eve to “take the bloody shot”. While M is taken aback that he’s still alive, she’s unapologetic and reminds him it’s the nature of the job. Bond is then debriefed and put through a bunch of physical and psychological tests that firmly establish he’s too old for this shit, but M—partially annoyed herself at being told this—lets him back in the game anyway, lying to him that he passed.
Using a bullet that Bond kept from the pre-title sequence after Patrice shot him in the shoulder, the killer is identified, and Bond plans to travel to Shanghai to pursue him. But first, he meets the new Q (played by Ben Whishaw) in an art museum, where they make more jokes about Bond’s age and relevance in the modern world, and Whishaw drops some of Desmond Llewelyn’s old catchphrases.
In Shanghai, Bond tails Patrice, who’s on his way to carry out a hit, and Bond casually watches him commit a ridiculously convoluted murder that seemingly has no significance to the plot whatsoever. Bond then fights and kills Patrice without getting any answers. In the process, he catches the eye of a mysterious woman named Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe) and tracks her to an island casino in Macau, where he meets up with Eve, who again makes fun of his age and old-fashioned habits. Meanwhile, back in London, M receives another taunting message, and the names of five undercover agents are posted online.
After a decent fight scene with some heavies, Bond meets Severine in the casino, where she agrees to take Bond to her employer (and non-verbally consents to being shagged in the shower… we hope). Her boss is a man named Raoul Silva, who carried out the cyber-attacks on MI6 and stole the hard drive.
Silva (Javier Bardem) gets introduced in a fantastic monologue done in a single long take, where we find him living on an old-school Bond villain island lair (which ends up criminally underused). He explains that he’s a former agent of MI6 with a grudge against M, and tells Bond he’s just another used-up “pet rat” M will eventually get killed.
He reveals to Bond that he failed all of his tests, and M sent him out knowing he wasn’t ready to be back in the field. Silva then offers him a job, and also sex… with Silva, both of which Bond declines.
Silva, a flamboyant psychopathic manchild, proceeds to unceremoniously murder Severine for no reason while Bond watches, and then Bond beats up the guards and takes Silva captive. Armed with a radio that Q gave him in lieu of more high-tech gadgets, Bond calls in the cavalry and takes Silva back to London.
M identifies him as an agent she sold out to the Chinese after he was caught hacking their systems without permission, which led to Silva being imprisoned and tortured. He tried to use his cyanide pill, but it only burned him with acid and disfigured him, which he graphically proves by briefly pulling out the prosthetics holding up his face. So in case it’s not clear by now, he’s out for revenge against M.
M heads off to a public inquiry while Q attempts to hack into Silva’s laptop. Silva calmly stretches in his cell… and what follows is the most convoluted scheme in the history of the Bond franchise.
Q accidentally stumbles into a trap on the laptop that screws up their computer systems and allows Silva to escape his cell. Silva kills all the guards off-screen, escapes through the London Underground, meets up with some goons who hand him a police uniform, evades Bond through the Underground and on a train and then the sewers (with the help of a bomb he planted just in case this chase happened and Bond caught up to him at this particular spot), crashes a train in the process, gets away because Bond chooses not to shoot him, and goes off to murder M at the inquiry he didn’t even know was happening until now. Meanwhile, Q explains to Bond that Silva had been planning this for years and wanted to be caught, even though Severine, who was the one who brought Bond to Silva, was not in on this plan.
Did I mention that this film had three writers?
And this is all for the sake of revenge against M, who chooses to stay at the inquiry even after learning that Silva might be coming there to kill her. This is so she can tell off the annoying cabinet minister who thinks that anything that isn’t computer related is “old-fashioned” and outdated spying, so she can quote poetry from Tennyson, so she can endanger the lives of everyone at the inquiry, and so she can lecture everyone present for telling her how to do her job.
Silva shows up and starts shooting, but M escapes with the help of Bond, Eve, and Mallory, ruining Silva’s “years in the making” master scheme for revenge against someone he had already been playing like a violin over the course of the movie. With the help of Q (who’s still using the map from Silva’s computer for some reason), Bond takes M and hops in the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger that he shouldn’t even have in this continuity and sets off for Scotland. He intends to bring M to his old family house, called “Skyfall”, to lay a trap for Silva, while being assisted by the old gamekeeper Kincade (the not-Scottish-at-all Albert Finney).
Home Alone antics ensue as they lay all sorts of booby traps rather than doing anything sensible, like call in for backups. Bond, M, and Kincade fight off the first wave of Silva’s men by themselves, and then Silva shows up and informs the second wave of goons, “by the way, don’t kill M, or I’ll kill you” (and this is after the chopper he was in shot up the house). Silva sets fire to Bond’s house by lobbing grenades into it (even though he still presumably wants to kill M in person), hoping to smoke them out. Silva then blows up Bond’s car, and Bond responds by blowing up the house.
Bond and M try to escape into the fiery night, but Silva spots them. While Bond fights one of his men, Silva goes to commit murder-suicide with a badly wounded M. Bond stops him with a knife in the back, but sadly, M dies from her injuries.
The film ends with M being buried, Mallory replacing her as head of MI6 (wouldn’t this be a demotion?), Eve becoming his secretary (with the surprise reveal that she was Ms. Moneypenny the whole time), and MI6 moving back into the classic Universal Exports HQ from the pre-Brosnan movies. Cue gun barrel sequence, roll credits, and James Bond Will Return.
Skyfall attempts to be a more thematic and “intelligent” film than most Bonds, and unfortunately as far as that goes, it’s style over substance. This is one of those films that manages to bring up a lot of interesting ideas and concepts and successfully manages to string them together… but at the same time, doesn’t really explore them properly or begin to do them justice, to say nothing of the fact that many of these themes don’t really deserve to be in the movie in the first place.
The central theme of this movie is “old versus new”, the possibility that MI6 is out of date, that M is too old for her job, and that Bond himself is old, tired, and should retire. These aren’t bad ideas necessarily, but they don’t really work here. And the reason it doesn’t work is that this is a movie that forgets it’s only the third film in a rebooted franchise, and not James Bond Part 23.
Characters like Q and Mallory repeatedly question whether Bond is “fit for duty” or up for dealing with the modern world, even though the man was just starting his career two movies ago (and remember that Quantum of Solace was a direct sequel to Casino Royale, and seamlessly picked up where Casino Royale left off, so both those films are supposed to be set in the same year, within the same few days, even).
Granted, the shelf life of a Double-00 agent is probably pretty short, so three years might be a long time, but it’s plain as day that this movie is about Bond the meta-concept, not Bond the character we are watching right now.
It’s also a little schizo, because the stated mission of this movie, according to all sorts of interviews and promotional materials, is to make Bond less “gritty” and start to reintroduce a lot of the elements from the old movies that failed to make it into the last two after they rebooted the series. This includes bringing back Q and Moneypenny, moving MI6 back to Universal Exports, and introducing crazy supervillain plots and the kind of scope and scale you’d see in the older films. And yet, all the while the film is mocking Bond for being too old for all of this, and suggesting there’s no need for super-spies in the modern world.
I really must question the logic of the movies’ strawman arguments for and against a “hands-on” intelligence service, and the relevance of MI6 in the modern world. You’d think the fact that they just suffered a terrorist attack would prove that the answer is “yes, of course we need MI6; what kind of stupid question is that at a time like this?” Because that’s honestly how the characters frame the discussion at times: having your place of work hacked and blown up is presented as evidence that your job is old-fashioned and we don’t really need it anyway.
This leads to talky scenes that look pretty cool and sound pretty clever, but actually don’t really add up upon reflection. Case in point: when the new Q meets Bond for the first time in an art museum and they exchange barbed quips about how young Bond thinks Q is, and how old and smelly Q thinks Bond is, Q gives Bond one of his only gadgets in the movie: a handgun that only Bond can use because the handle has been coded to his palm print, with Q berating Bond for expecting “an exploding pen” like he had back in GoldenEye.
Okay, Q. Firstly, a signature gun is a stupid gadget, because aside from telegraphing to the audience that Bond is going to lose his gun to an enemy at some point in the film (the one and only use a gadget like that has, “in case you lose it”), Bond is supposed to be a friggin’ state assassin, so yeah, sure, let’s give him a gun that only he can fire, because there’s no way in hell that can be traced back to him or MI6. And secondly, the signature gun has actually appeared in the Bond series before. Way back in License to Kill, in the Timothy Dalton era. So sure, Q, mock the out-of-date gadget from 1995, and let’s see this totally state-of-the-art gizmo from 1989. Ahem. End rant.
Skyfall feels a lot like a Christopher Nolan film, to the point where Silva appears to intentionally evoke the Joker at various points (for instance, they both dress up like a police officer to carry out a failed hit, and locations like the island casino and the abandoned Japanese island look like they’re straight out of Inception). This isn’t particularly bad or surprising; Christopher Nolan has made some of the most wildly popular films of the last decade, and the reason Bond has survived for 50 years is precisely because his movies tend to draw from other contemporary and popular genres and mash them up with the Bond formula (Live and Let Die was Bond meets Blaxploitation, Moonraker was Bond meets Star Wars, License to Kill was Bond meets Miami Vice, and so on).
But both Skyfall and certain Nolan movies are offenders when it comes to mishandling weighty themes, and attempting to mesh grounded faux-realism with outlandish adventure stories, and ending up making something that’s logically flawed and not especially fun. Still, unlike many of Nolan’s efforts, at least the dialogue in Skyfall isn’t “Exposition, exposition, exposition” (though it veers too close to “In-joke, in-joke, in-joke” for my liking, all the same).
I don’t hate this film. It has a lot going for it. But this doesn’t feel like a Bond movie so much as a meta-Bond movie. Granted, it’s far, far superior to the last meta-Bond film they tried (that would be Die Another Day, the 20th Bond flick), but it doesn’t have much of an identity of its own.
The M storyline is reminiscent of The World is Not Enough; the “the bad guy is ex-MI6” reminds me of GoldenEye (as does him being a hacker, basically making him a fusion of Boris and Trevalyn), a film which also brought up the idea that Bond was old hat and “a relic of Cold War”, as M put it (though I suppose I should give it props for bringing M full circle in that regard); using the media as a weapon is like what Carver did in Tomorrow Never Dies, and while I’m at it, the “NATO file” plot device is forgotten after Silva is captured, and gets tossed aside like the much-billed Severine, to make room for the title location which doesn’t really have much to do with the plot at all.
The part of the movie taking place at Skyfall is, like the rest of this movie, more of a celebration of Bond movies than a Bond movie in its own right. It feels like an excuse to explore a very small piece of Bond’s past for the 50th anniversary that they mostly made up for this film (not the “parents died in an accident” part, but pretty much everything else).
The M plotline, likewise, owes as much to the goodwill Judi Dench has gained over the years in this franchise (pre-reboot and post-reboot) than anything she does in this film. It’s the movie equivalent of the Death in the Limelight trope: a character suddenly getting the focus because they’re about to kick the bucket. Not that Dench is not excellent, mind you; it just feels like whatever substance there is to be had here, it comes from the acting and the mythos more than whatever this film specifically attempts to do on its own.
As I said, I don’t dislike this film, but I don’t take its massive and unexpected success to be evidence that it’s the best Bond movie ever. It’s a well-crafted movie let down by a shaky story and a script that contains one too many “nod, nod, wink, wink” pandering to the base moments, and that clumsily handles its attempts to be intelligent and relevant to cover up the fact that the plot of the villain defies all logic and doesn’t make any sense. It’s good for what it is, but this franchise has stronger entries.