“My name is James Bond. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead. Only, I don’t know it yet. And in a way, I’m dead already.”
Of course, I’m paraphrasing the opening monologue to American Beauty. But in the way that it was applied to Lester Burnham, in a funny, ironic way it also seems to apply to James Bond, who is probably having a mid-life crisis of his own in Skyfall. Am I saying this to imply Skyfall wasn’t a good Bond film? No way. It’s loads of fun in plenty of ways. But Sam Mendes (who also directed the classic American Beauty and now Skyfall) definitely puts his signature stamp on the Bond franchise. This feels like, or at least it tries to be, a very different, more personal James Bond. Considering the story, it takes us near the end of the film to Bond’s childhood home at Skyfall, a place I’m sure could easily open old wounds for him. Bond of course remains emotionally distant from anything relating to his darker past. From the moments after the opening sequence, where 007 is presumed dead and hiding out, drinking into excess, alone, bored and miserable, it becomes clear just what kind of a Bond film we’re in for. Of course, the moment Javier Bardem started to feel up Danial Craig’s leg, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Yup, this is a Sam Mendes James Bond alright!”
Aside from Bond’s mid-life crisis, and a villain testing his heterosexuality, there really is a lot of great stuff in this movie. One of the most incredible things is that the look is unlike any Bond film we’ve seen before, thanks to amazing cinematographer Roger Deakens (who has shot all of the Coen Bros. films). While the action is fantastic, what stands out are the quiet moments, where there are a few painterly shots of M (Judi Dench) looking out the window at Skyfall, and the lighting and composition of the shot looks like a painting. It’s just gorgeous. The scenes also in Seoul where Bond takes out the assassin is another incredible scene, shot with silhouettes through the reflected lights in the glass from the city. A little homage to the Bond series is also thrown which is great fun. I’m talking about the Komodo dragons at the bar that rip into the bad guys leg and pull him away. It was so ridiculous, and yet a great homage to Bond villains of the past with their shark tanks and deadly “pets”. The opening chase also is spectacular, and probably the most memorable sequence in the whole film. Javier Bardem has a good presence making Silva a memorable villain. Special credit also goes to the great composer Thomas Newman, who primarily does scores for dramas and is not known at all for doing action film scores…all I can say is I must own the score to this film! It’s amazing!
With the visual effects I was thrilled to see the use of miniature work! Miniature sets seem like a dying art form, but they put it to great use here. The collision of the subway train was pretty spectacular, and the set up for it was perfect. Bond: (re: Giant hole Silva has blown out in the ceiling) Was that for me?
Silva: No Mr. Bond (rumbling sound of oncoming train). That is!
The problems I did have with the movie were pacing issues towards the end, but also issues I had with the need to try and “revitalize” the franchise again. While the shoot-out at the Skyfall property is pretty terrific, one of the things that I was disappointed in was that there was no showdown between Bond and Silva. Bond simply kills him without any confrontation, which is what I suppose is what he would do in a real life scenerio, but it’s not a terribly compelling way to end the film. For an action climax, the end is surprisingly low key. Silva is a great villain, but he‘s got more of a connection to M than he does with Bond. Silva was also an MI6 agent at one point that fell off the edge, which they make a point of showing that’s what almost happens to Bond, especially since M made the decision to have him shot in the opening chase. This could have lead to Bond having the same sort of revenge scenerio that Silva is after with M. But Bond doesn’t really struggle much with M’s decision. He’s able to let it go more easily. And while he spends the film helping M, even if he might still hold a grudge over what happened, there are no cracks in his facade that show how he really feels, and if we can’t see any of that, I don’t think there’s anything personal to connect him with Silva. The movie winds up being more about M than it is about James, which thematically is where I think the movie gets lost. The death of M is handled well, and makes for an emotional moment. But the emotion for her death is only fleeting before we’re already on to a new agent M (Ralph Fiennes) and things move on. There isn’t much emotional resonence by the end of the story, and I didn’t get that feeling I was hoping for, which was the most unique mind blowing James Bond film I’ve ever seen.
And then there is the continuation of the franchise aspect that just bugs me. I’m not terribly interested in the “to be continued” aspect of franchises, because for the most part I just want movies to stand alone and be complete stories with a resolution. From a storytelling aspect, it’s important for audiences to see stories end. This idea of wanting to keep stories going in franchises has nothing to do with good storytelling and more to do with creating hooks to bring audiences back for the next film. If the film was already great in the first place, without having to add any hooks, the audience will want to come back for more. I don’t see why it was necessary to make it a surprise twist at that Naomi Harris’ Eve character was Moneypenny. Why couldn’t they just tell us who she was in the beginning? I mean, they did give us a new Q without having to explain where the old one went. So why couldn’t they just say from the beginning she was Moneypenny?
Thankfully as far as the story goes, it gives M far more to do and an interesting backstory than what we would normally expect from her. The new Q also has some good stuff to do, although unless Q’s budget was pretty limited by the explosion of MI6, I kind of felt he could have made some more interesting gadgets for Bond than just a simple gun that reads his finger prints and a tiny radio. I’m not saying the gadgets had to be silly stuff like grenades that look like dress shirt buttons or something. But come on, this is James Bond we’re talking about here. The gun that reads palm prints is like giving him a gun that requires a password to use. What’s so badass about that?
The movie itself was a lot of fun to watch, and overall it was a good Bond film and an enjoyable experience. But I wouldn’t say like everyone else it’s one the best James Bond movies. I’m glad they’re trying to do new things with the franchise and explore new aspects of the character. But it also feels more like their dipping their toe into the water as opposed to taking the plunge and blowing our minds with a Bond we’ve never seen before. Because one of the things I’ve noticed is that when we reach the Skyfall portion of the film, and Bond is in the one place, his childhood home where he was probably the most emotionally wounded in life, he shows almost no emotion about it, except to say, “I hate this place” before it gets blown up real good. This is where it gets hard to do any development with the character, because the James Bond series is such a precious franchise to fans, who don’t want to see anything changed about the character that will affect him in the long run. If someone made the enormously bold decision to say this would be the last James Bond film ever, it probably would have freed them to go all out and we watch as Bond’s facade start to crack. But it’s not really possible for such a lucrative franchise.
Skyfall is not a great film, but it’s a unique experience. Considering I got to see it on my birthday yesterday, I couldn’t have asked for a more fun film to watch. While the action feels like it peters down towards the end, it’s still an enjoyable Bond film, and it’s still a fun time at the movies.