Review: Skyfall

Alex Martin 13 November 2012


Sam Mendes (12A) 143 mins

I was delighted when Eon Productions rebooted the franchise with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Here was James Bond in the 21st Century, played very credibly by Daniel Craig. Here was the old job, here was Queen and Country, and the doddering cool native to a zone in our class-system reserved solely for 007. Even if it was somewhat naive in its estimation of the new globalised world, it estimated it all the same, and the films adjusted to the themes and modes of conduct and conflict inherent to espionage in the modern world. The action of those films was fundamentally driven by their narrative- itself predicated exactly upon the sort of antagonisms between diplomacy and executive power that jeopardised some very fundamental concepts of the franchise- and they were excellent cinema for it.

But in the globalised world, the 21st century, these are not themes or modes of conduct and conflict to which James Bond adjusts in Skyfall. Instead they are adjusted to fit a sort of ‘Bond-by-numbers’ mould. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were completely modern action films but without superheroes tossing cars into buildings. Bond flinched when there were gunshots, we saw him bleed and clean his wounds so that he could get on with the job.

Where there are flinches and wounds in Skyfall, even where there are deaths, they are lazily sentimentalised and utterly divorced from the nuance and intrigue that I had thought characterised this rebooting. The return of Moneypenny, Q-Branch and the insertion of a Parliamentary Inquiry are significant of Skyfall’s incapacity to recognise what was new and what reflected popular anxieties in the previous two films. The very, very, very, very long third act is action for the sake of action rather than something that serves the story, and features the defining scene of contemporary action cinema: a helicopter shooting at a building for six or seven minutes, to no effect whatsoever.

There are people saying that this sort of stuff was intentional. The last two films were not universally praised, and in fact what I appreciated in them was often what they were derided for by others. Skyfall was released fifty years after the franchise was first launched and much has been made of history and its national institution status. Rather than homage, however, I suspect that the anniversary has provided an excellent commercial opportunity for MGM and Sony. Television stations, newspapers and magazines are all chock full of James Bond references and articles mutually advertising each other, while all fundamentally advertising Skyfall.

I can’t commit to a longer analysis of the marketing behind the film, which is a shame because it is actually more interesting than the film itself. However, I will say this: making it a Chinese co-production so it can avoid foreign film status in that country; preceding its screening with half an hour of advertisements for Bond themed aftershave and the like; conning Queen Elizabeth II into advertising it during the Olympics opening ceremony; and having a promotional budget rivalling that of its production (incredible considering, again, the fifty hours of helicopter gunfire) are all choices that oblige one to suspect that financial returns are of more importance to those making the film than artistic endeavour. And you can’t get your money back just because you disliked the film.

I arrived at the cinema under the impression that the last two films had led me here: SIS was investigating a conspiratorial organisation called Quantum that it had got to through Le Chiffre and then Dominic Greene. But no, the inciting incident of Skyfall is that an MI6 operative, who was in possession of a hard drive that contained the details of all NATO agents operating undercover in terrorist organisations, has been killed and the hard drive stolen; those NATO agents’ lives are in danger.

This not only establishes the film’s narrative dissonance with its predecessors, but also a peculiar attitude the writers seem to have towards technology. Allow me to introduce Raoul Silva, played brilliantly by Javier Bardem. His first few scenes are genuinely electric and among the very best that have ever graced a Bond film. The character, however — a strange mix of Inigo Montoya, The Joker and Julian Assange — is paper thin without the actor’s charisma. He is worth mentioning now because the omnipotence attributed to an elite computer hacker bears

no relation to our society’s increasing dependence upon computer technology. It is instead a sort of Deus ex Machina, as is the whole motherload hard drive thing (why would he need it if he’s such an awesome hacker?). It just allows for the insertion of silly scenes such as the tube crashing through the ceiling of some underground tunnels in London, which are being used as the MI6 headquarters because Silva has blown up the old headquarters at Vauxhall Cross. And this is only what features in the trailer.

Skyfall has already broken box office records in the UK and is set to make a huge contribution to the $5bn the previous twenty-two films of the franchise have grossed. I do not know why it has been received with so much applause. I suspect many film reviewers and critics have been somehow groomed into writing favourable reviews of it. Not to say that it is without any merit at all, it is simply without enough of it. Preceding Skyfall it has been three superhero films, Marvel Avengers Assemble, The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man that have grossed the largest sums on their respective opening weekends: a combined £40m, and it is from such numbers that we now receive valuations. By such a standard Skyfall is the best film of the year, but by any other it most certainly is not.

Alex Martin