Underneath its glossy veneer, the 23rd film reveals the 007 series at twilight
Right now, it’s drizzling on Friday evening, November 9, and I’m seated in the packed sports pub just across from the massive cineplex, attempting to relax my mind by looking out the window at the ticket lines and at the teenyboppers, in hooded sweaters, staring at the poster mural of the final Twilight soap opera. I’m drinking a glass of Stolichnaya vodka as I try to grasp the rainfall of images that I remember from the movie just ended.
I have seen minarets in a Turkish skyline. I have seen decrepit buildings in London and crowded passageways of a bazaar in Istanbul. I have seen darkly lit rooms and old secret service officials striding in murky corridors. I recall seeing fireworks in an Oriental festival that sort of resemble the Disney animation Mulan. I have heard a dirge play over the titles, and I gather its meaningless lyrics are meant to be “arty.” I remember silhouette figures talking in dark rooms. I remember a helicopter hovering at night. I have seen what’s obviously English countryside standing in for Turkish landscape. There are grimy chambers, dark hallways and rooms throughout this movie, and I have seen them all with shadows of people, or people almost obfuscated in the murky atmosphere. And all the while—143 minutes, to be exact—I was reminded of the recent Batman films, the last Mission: Impossible entry, the Bourne series, even the trinity of Transporter action hysterics.
Four years in the making, I recall. Four long years of developing a story set in dark rooms and corridors, night scenes and somber color, a development suspended at one point, in the second year or so, by the financial collapse of the associated studio. Just the deep pit to drop some filmmakers as they take another crack at a long running series. Four years marked with indecisions, script rewrites, the dread of uncertainty, and, for one of the screenwriters at least, anger and disillusionment and his consequent exit—a tapestry of human folly that somehow culminates as a movie, rendered in said dark interiors and super dark night scenes, and, for variation, jammed with trite dramatic scenes of actors so convinced they are in another cool and moody Christopher Nolan Batman film.
In the midst of it all, I did see a bulldozer demolishing sections of a train. I now know that Heineken beer is available in the underground confines of MI6. I’ve also learned that the British Secret Service thinks so little of itself that it actually appointed Ben Wishaw as its quartermaster. To this end, it did not surprise me to see its glorious building explode in gloomy daylight. It also didn’t excite me to watch the shenanigans occurring beneath the city: with redundant scenes of tunnels and underground passageways, the filmmakers were free to use almost no lights in this film, which is an effective way not to show incidents worth caring about, simply because, well, nobody can see anything. Fortunately, there was just enough lighting for me to see a London subway crash in a subterranean corridor. I have also noticed dark figures throwing grenades into dark rooms of a crumbling country house. I have seen some chap fall down a dark elevator shaft. I have watched said country house go up in flames at night. And I have learned that the British Secret Service does not subscribe to a cloud storage backup service to protect highly classified secret agent data.
I’ve got to say I barely noticed the female leads, though I believe a character named Severine is one of them, wandering in murky sets. I did catch a glimpse of Naomi Harris near the beginning of the film, driving a land rover through a bazaar, and she reappears clutching a razor blade in another darkly lit room before she essentially disappears, along with the rest of the cast, in the inky blackness of the cinematography. I was, however, surprised to see Vladimir Putin visiting his family estate in Scotland—for how did the Russian statesman come to possess Scottish ancestry? Just as surprising, I have seen a bushy blonde wig on a greasy gay foreigner, who happens to be well equipped to conduct cyberterrorism from a ruined island. It is he who is the villain (though upon his introduction he resembles a hairdresser), flaunting homoerotic impulses in one of the kitschiest performances in the last 182 years. These scenes, these smattering of images, collide and whirl with my sense impressions to constitute the latest Bond film, Brokeback Skyfall.
What hath Eon done? Handing the reigns over to Shakespeare’s reincarnation, Sam Mendes, signaled a looming wreckage early on in the production. The entire film seems like an excuse for Mendes to play “visionary director” for the series, and he’s crafted something that attempts to be a serious intellectual Bond movie but never strikes any coherence in its ambition. The title is already symptomatic of nonsense: Mendes, just like his predecessor, Marc Forster (the maestro behind the kitschy Quantum Of Solace), relies on a title that is meant to give the film sophistication but has very little significance to the story. To clarify: the actual title is Skyfall, which translates to Skoofguttencrapp for the all important Slovakian market.
Either way, the title unintentionally points to a film steeped in numerology: for Skyfall is the 23rd Bond film; it commemorates the 50th anniversary of the series; and as the third Putin-esque 007 movie, it underscores the great tradition of trilogies such as Jaws 3-D, Jurassic Park III, and Transporter 3. Before the film’s release, I received emails from fans who were puzzled by the meaning of the title. Fortunately, the Elizabethan poet known as Adele provides a description in the title song (inspired by a batch of Nostradamus quatrains):
Skyfall is where we start
A thousand miles and poles apart
When worlds collide, and days are dark
That should clarify any confusion. My take, on the other hand, is not as erudite: Skyfall was chosen by the filmmakers because it is an easy-to-market title for the inevitable video games and other merchandise tie-ins. Or it is a dreadful movie starring the deified Daniel Craig. Personally, I would accept either answer.
In the film’s fantasy, the term “Skyfall” refers to a master planned community in the Scottish Highlands, developed by the builders of The Villages (which just happens to be “Florida’s friendliest home town”). This is where we find Vladimir Putin playing in the many links golf courses or shooting red deer stag in the craggy hills. It’s disturbing to think that the Russian president prefers Scotland over his native Russia. But then the film reveals, in a gripping plot twist, that this is not the Russian leader we’ve all come to know but a lookalike who comes from a long line of Scottish 007 agents—and their family legacy is a rundown country house known as Skyfall. Not to be punctilious, but I ought to point out that none of the family members have bothered with the upkeep, and the place is mostl likely infested with deer ticks and roaches. I can attest (based on experience, of course) that when your toilet is teeming with roaches and the rest of the house has deer tick infestation, such a condition could degrade the property value. The wise course is not to get into one of those I-can-wait-longer-than-you-can disputes with your family members: just put aside your ego and clean the place. Nevertheless, as director Mendes would like us to believe, the whole notion of a Scottish setting is truly akin to Macbeth.
The best thing about Skyfall is how lousy it is. I don’t mean “lousy” because it’s directed by Mr. Mendes, a specialist in kitschy political polemics. Colossally overrated and reliably pretentious, Mendes can be counted upon to deliver a terrible film—and Skyfall is professionally terrible, its story glaring with holes, depending heavily on recycled elements from the 007 canon, while beset with an overly forlorn mood, forcing the cast to present “serious matter” and bringing themselves into sappy dramatic antics, but the result is a narrative struggling for the dark look-and-feel of Nolan’s Batman franchise, though frantic in action scenes that are shaped (once again) by Bourne style editing, yet skillfully woven together into glossy blockbuster nonsense. Where once the series innovated and set certain trends in the adventure genre, it now follows others in its struggle for relevance. Thus, the state of the 007 series on its 50th anniversary.
The film begins in Turkey, whether we care or not. Right away, we’re treated to a motorcycle chase through a crowded bazaar (replete with the requisite fruit-stand damage), which leads to a fight between the Craig-Bond and a stunt man, choreographed on top of a fast-moving train that occasionally enters a tunnel. It all has to do with the Craig-Bond attempting to recover a stolen hard drive that supposedly contains information about undercover agents in terrorist organizations. (I suspect it’s the same NOC list that everyone was seeking in Mission: Impossible. Somebody ought to tell the Bard of the BBC that this plot device isn’t exactly original.)
The hard drive itself is a bit of a mystery: is it solid-state or serial ATA? Sadly, we never learn. Moreover, had MI6’s IT personnel been aware of online data protection services and how readily available they are from numerous cloud service providers, the data would not have been stolen in the first place, and we all could have gone home just after the studio logos appeared on screen, our minds free of the video game animation that constitutes the main titles. The shenanigans surrounding the hard drive just reminds us that big bureaucratic government is inefficient—so inefficient, in fact, that MI6 fails to realize that its Double-O agent is trapped in a fight scene that has been done in Octopussy. I refer to the scene where Roger Moore’s Bond battles Louis Jordan’s henchman on top of a train that enters a series of tunnels. From here on, Skyfall essentially unfolds according to rehashed scenes from previous Bond films. In this sense, the film hails the spirit of 2002’s Die Another Day—yes, that most horrid of Bond films, according to the fan boys locked in the Internet forums. For DAD (as its fans call it) essentially alluded to many Bondian elements to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the franchise.
Skyfall’s plot, or rather the crux of the villain’s scheme, is pure homage to Die Another Day: Raoul Silva, a former British Secret Service agent, holds MI6 chief M responsible for his torture and imprisonment by the Chinese, just as Brosnan’s Bond, in DAD, undergoes 14 months of captivity and torture by the North Koreans, only to feel betrayed by M, who just happens to resemble the female M in the Craig tenure. This sense of déjà vu surfaces too frequently in Skyfall. Take, for example, the whole notion of an ex-British agent with an agenda: this is, in itself, lifted from Trevelyan's death and “resurrection” in GoldenEye and expresses shades of Bond’s existential death in Licence To Kill, when he functions as a rogue agent to pursue the drug baron Franz Sanchez. Moreover, the Craig-Bond’s “resurrection” in Skyfall (after being shot off the train by Naomi Harris’s character) is nothing more than warmed over You Only Live Twice. The shoulder injury he sustains is a throwback to The World Is Not Enough, where Brosnan's Bond is hampered in his derring-do by a damaged shoulder. And just as an explosion is set off within MI6 headquarters in that film, we see the organization infiltrated again in Skyfall, culminating with an explosion in the building.
Now consider another element from the past: the Craig-Bond faces a newly reorganized MI6, as signified by the young effeminate Q. In other words, the world of 007 has changed, which recalls the reorganized MI6 that Bond confronts in GoldenEye. In that film (released in 1995, many years before Madam Barbara Broccoli went temporarily insane with the reboot of the franchise), the filmmakers embraced how the world was a new stage for Bond—we have the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, the shifting social mores—and presented the secret agent as a static element in the uncertainty of the so-called new world order. Change, then, is one of the main themes of GoldenEye, underscored by the introduction of the female M, as portrayed by Judi Dench. Her clashes with Brosnan’s Bond was one of the hallmarks of the film and an intriguing way for us to see 007’s reaction to this new world. This is reworked for Skyfall not only in the conflict between the Craig-Bond and M but in her clash with her bureaucratic overseer, played by Ralph Fiennes (he reprimands her after the MI6 bombing, but she refuses to resign). So here we are, almost twenty years later, and the Bond makers have repackaged the GoldenEye theme with a new Q (rather than a new M), as well as some MI6 office turmoil to emphasize the instability of things.
More remakes: the Walther PPK, modified with a palm-scanner to ensure that only the Craig-Bond can use it, is a retread of Bond’s rifle in Licence To Kill—the so-called signature gun, embellished by Q-Branch to include an optical palm reader that identifies the hand print of the designated agent. The shrapnel that the Craig-Bond removes from his shoulder wound becomes a clue that he uses to track the hard drive thief to Shanghai, a plot device taken from The Man With The Golden Gun: Moore’s 007 uses a spent golden bullet (retrieved from his stomach, if you catch my meaning, after swallowing it from the abdomen of a belly dancer) to trace its manufacturer in Macau. (Golden Gun is also invoked when the Craig-Bond finds a gambling chip that leads him to a casino in Macau.) And when we see the Craig-Bond escape from the pit of Komodo dragons by stepping on the back of one of the gruesome creatures to hoist himself over the railing, isn’t this a replay of Moore’s Bond, in Live and Let Die, stepping over the backs of alligators to flee a small island surrounded by the reptiles? Even an underground MI6 headquarters makes its way in Skyfall, which reminds us of Vauxhall Cross, the fictional tube station in Die Another Day (yes, once again, that film!), where the invisible Aston Martin makes its entrance. There must be some sort of inverse law at work—for the more the fans despise DAD, the more the Bond makers thrust elements of that film into Skyfall. In any case, this catalog of similarities is enough here to grasp that Mendes and company were not exactly brimming with creativity and resorted to cobbling together elements of old 007 films to pad out their flimsy plot line.
The movie, after whizzing its attempts at rehashing scenes from previous films, tries to deepen the Bond character by presenting him as emotionally vulnerable and, of course, politically correct in his effort not to be a voracious womanizer. Oh, we do see him, in a very dim scene near the beginning of the film, locked in coitus with what appears to be an island girl (and their beach house, incidentally, recalls the one in which we find Jason Bourne in the opening of The Bourne Supremacy). There is also the romantic interlude with the doomed Bond girl, Severine, in a steamy shower stall. In both scenes, we sense not only Craig’s discomfort to play a romantic leading man but the discomfort of the filmmakers to tackle such scenes, which gives us the impression that these incidents were forced into the narrative to keep some semblance of the Bondian style. Still, the Craig-Bond is not the aggressive playboy 007 of yore. He offers instead a feminist-leaning, gay-friendly hero. This characterization is first hinted in Casino Royale, flaunted in Quantum Of Solace, and surfaces, rather unabashedly, in a Bondian commercial tie-in (produced by Madam Broccoli) that commemorated the centenary of International Women’s Day, where we find the Craig-Bond gadding about in full drag. The commercial, released in the spring of 2011, signaled the full intention of the filmmakers to downplay the playboy imagery that has long been associated with the series. As Barbara Broccoli states, just after Skyfall’s release, “[Bond] developed some rather distasteful pastimes but those have now receded into the past” (Singh). In other words, forget the teasing sexiness of previous Bond films, where the gorgeous babes were blatantly showcased and the virile, rebel of a hero sort of winked at the audiences to acknowledge that it’s all just a two-hour fantasy. No, the Bond in Skyfall is soft and, well, lacks balls: annoyingly, he keeps calling home to mommy M (Judi Dench) for guidance. He doesn’t seem to have any independence. This is a Bond who needs permission in order to act. I kept waiting for that classic rebellious moment where he would junk the headset, defy orders, and take matters into his own hands, consequences be damned.
Equally disturbing is this business of a sensitive Bond with painful recollections of his boyhood. I had underestimated the genius of Mendes and company, but they managed to force all this prissy metrosexual claptrap with actual Fleming material. So the Bond-as-orphan bit from the novel You Only Live Twice is brought out again, only this time with lingering shots of the graves of his parents at the Skyfall country house and vague allusions to the loss of his parents at a young age, a sorrow that he has apparently never made peace with. It is absurd: Fleming himself was hardly concerned with the man’s origins, and no such Skyfall country house exists in his fiction. The filmmakers, on the other hand, are so desperate to assert such a wussified Bond while grasping at straws to stay in touch with the trend of super-hero origin films. (And just as ridiculous, the office scene with the Craig-Bond and Harris’s character at the end of the film reveals the origin of Moneypenny. It won't be long when the filmmakers will present the humble beginnings of all the staff members, and I personally look forward to the day when we get to see the origin of Tanner, the Chief of Staff.)
Above all, the efforts of the filmmakers don’t accord with the character in Fleming’s fiction: the literary character seems to be aloof about his family background, let alone any sorrows from his childhood. If anything, he sees warm nostalgia in his boyhood, an innocent time that he finds comforting:
It was one of those beautiful, naive seaside panoramas for which the Brittany and Picardy beaches have provided the setting. . . . To James Bond, sitting in one of the concrete shelters with his face to the setting sun, there was something poignant, ephemeral about it all. It reminded him almost too vividly of childhood [and] always in those days, it seemed, lit with sunshine. . . . It was all there, his own childhood, spread out before him to have another look at. What a long time ago they were, those spade-and-bucket days! How far he had come since the freckles and the Cadbury milk-chocolate Flakes and the fizzy lemonade! Impatiently Bond lit a cigarette, pulled his shoulders out of their slouch and slammed the mawkish memories back into their long-closed file. Today he was a grown-up, a man with years of dirty, dangerous memories—a spy. (Fleming 9-10)
That is Bond, in the opening scene of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This solitary figure, trapped in the dark world of spying, finds refuge, however momentary, in the serene innocence of his childhood. In a few striking paragraphs, Fleming adapts the age-old theme of innocence and experience in a unique way to the framework of a thriller.
Skyfall, though, goes on for a while with this maudlin sensitivity approach to Bond, failing miserably as a movie-of-the-week drama on the Hallmark Channel. So then it tries out court room drama and, failing at this as well, dabbles in the drama/thriller realm of Homeland but resorts to its overall template, the dark and moody canvas of the Christopher Nolan Batman series. Even Mendes unabashedly admits that the role model for Skyfall is Nolan’s technique:
“In terms of what [Nolan] achieved, specifically The Dark Knight, the second movie, what it achieved, which is something exceptional. It was a game changer for everybody. . . . That did help give me the confidence to take this movie in directions that, without ‘The Dark Knight,’ might not have been possible.”
That Skyfall patterns itself too self-consciously to the psychodrama and overall style of Gotham is one of the main faults of the film and reinforces the feeling that we’ve seen it—or something very much like it—before. Hence, the Aston Martin is presented as a vehicle to be marveled, just like the bat mobile; and when the Craig-Bond opens the garage door to reveal the car, it’s as if we’re peering into the bat cave. Other similarities: the Skyfall family estate is akin to Wayne Manor; the aged Scots gamekeeper (a pointless character played by Albert Finney) is meant to be Alfred the Butler; and the villain Silva has the Joker-esque ability to be a master of disguise. It seems that once Mendes joined the production, he quickly realized he had no idea how to approach an adventure film of this magnitude. Bankrupt of ideas, he chose to make Skyfall a follower of contemporary trends.
It all gives Javier Bardem, as the villain Raoul Silva, the freedom to overact with a zest that makes Kevin Bacon, as the campy gay hair-salon owner in Queen Latifah’s Beauty Shop, appear dignified and profoundly reserved. None of the scenes are safe from Bardem’s craving jaws (which, incidentally, he can yank from his mouth, a repulsive thing best viewed on an empty stomach, or best not viewed at all). Mendes attempts to give him a dramatic entrance—a long walk after coming out of an elevator to confront the Craig-Bond—but the camera work is so deep-focused that it’s distracting, and when we finally see him up close, we can barely look at the character without laughing. If you ask me, the Bond makers are fighting an uphill battle to present a spy thriller with a villain who resembles Stuart Smalley. Moreover, the script and direction reduce the character to a ridiculous harmless entity, and forces Bardem to spend too much time attempting to evoke sympathy when the audience is told of Silva’s suffering in the hands of the Chinese. The backstory itself is equally useless: the aforementioned ex-MI6 agent was betrayed by M for essentially being overenthusiastic in his duties during pre-handover Hong Kong days.
Bardem’s character is also a variation of the flamboyant, pansexual villain in Quantum Of Solace, Dominic Greene, and we wonder whether Silva, at one point in his Bond villain career, was ever involved with Greene’s gay group Quantum. It seems the Bond makers regard these twisted characters as the epitome of Eurocoolness. The scene where Silva amuses himself by unbuttoning the Craig-Bond’s shirt and caressing the agent’s chest and legs will live on as the most revolting display of blatant political correctness in the series. Not only is it an awkward homoerotic scene, it also serves zero purpose in the plot, forcing us to wonder if it was inserted in the movie to heighten pre-release publicity with a risque buzz. Yet Craig’s Bond is more at ease in this scene rather than in his romantic interludes with Severine and the island girl—once again, the filmmakers are implying a quasi-gay Bond, calculated to draw the widest possible demographics by appeasing feminists and, at another level, appealing to gay audiences.
Skyfall was set to be filmed in China and Bali but by early spring of 2012, the producers scrapped the plans to cut costs. The slashed budget is evident on screen, particularly in the finale where the limited scope of the production is obviously apparent. Cinematographer Roger Deakins presents a snarl of shadows and bursts of sepia-colored light, making everything difficult to see. From what I was able to discern, the Craig-Bond and M are holed up in the Skyfall country house, awaiting the arrival of Silva and his troopers by booby-trapping the house in the spirit of Home Alone. And why in hell are they neglected by the British Secret Service? In a film rampant with people using headsets, and with many moments earlier when the Craig-Bond and Q are incessantly communicating, why can’t he call Q to send reinforcements? The whole notion of the Craig-Bond and the 90-year old civilian gameskeeper as the sole defenders of M, the head of MI6, is preposterous.
Sure enough, somewhere in the dark scenes, the first batch of troopers arrive, throwing grenades into the country house and into the barren land, killing somebody lurking in the bushes. Unfortunately, it was neither the Craig-Bond nor M. It was just a squirrel, out for a peaceful evening stroll, admiring the constellations over the Scottish Highlands. Undeterred, the goons continue to throw grenades into the country house, damaging many recent home improvement projects. Finally, Silva arrives by helicopter, just to be an a-hole it would seem. His situation as a Bond villain grows desperate—so desperate in fact, that he allows Sam Mendes to direct him.
If there is anything unique about Skyfall, it does feature many actors who are as old as Cambrian rocks. It’s refreshing to see a major Hollywood movie that is devoid of a Justin Timberlake or a Kristen Stewart, or muscular teenaged werewolves and vampires. In this film, there are characters with graying hair, white hair, and lines on their faces—government workers with hefty entitlements awaiting them and to be paid by those young muscular teenaged werewolves and vampires. Yes, we have actors in Skyfall named Ralph and Albert and Judi. And Javier Bardem’s got at least several hundred years on him. As for the Anointed One, Daniel Craig—he looks as if he’s been around since Cromwell and the Protectorate, for crying out loud. The filmmakers do confront the notion of senescence, presenting the business of spying and those involved as something antiquated in a time of international terrorism. It’s an intriguing angle to explore but wasted in the hands of Mendes when he asserts it in both bold face and italics, so to speak, giving the effect of a grating, preachy tone.
The other downside to this theme is that it unintentionally makes the 50-year old series look very creaky, especially under the guise of Craig, who is astoundingly old in appearance and cannot play the British agent with any credibility. From the moment he appears on screen (oddly, without eyebrows), we have the uncomfortable feeling that he is a rambling performance that needs to be pulled from the stage. We simply cannot ignore the ridiculous discrepancy that the man we see in close-ups is the same agent caught up in the dangerous action. There are attempts to enliven his approach with humor; but his delivery of the throwaway lines—hampered by a poor sound mix and by his own voice (effete, light, almost indistinguishable from a female voice)—reminds us that humor is not his forte. All in all, he gives another sub-Jason Statham performance. It’s time to recast the role.
“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” The line is from the poem that M recites (Tennyson’s Ulysses) during her hearing. Ironically, it doesn't apply to the series. In its half-century run, we find it yielding to other action films, most notably clinging to the coattails of the super-hero genre in its style and structure and in its assertion of a hero fashioned after Bruce Wayne—although with dashes of the bland Transporter mercenary—rather than Ian Fleming's vision. But 50 years ago, Dr. No burst upon the silver screen as something dynamic, unique, and even redefined the action narrative. It was pure cinema magic, a clever example of Romantic art, as displayed in the direction, the writing, the editing, and most notably, in the performance of Sean Connery—ruthless but nevertheless the dark romantic hero, immutably cool, dashing. The world had never seen such a screen hero until Dr. No, and the now famous introduction of the character still remains the great hallmark in the series. As Ayn Rand states, the introduction is a “gem of dramatic technique, elegance, wit, and understatement” (136). It’s this great legacy that I find myself thinking of and quietly celebrating on this anniversary.
Skyfall, on the other hand, is a tremendous misfire and underscores how far the 007 film empire has fallen from that apex of grandeur. The budget cuts are apparent in the limited scope of the villain’s caper and in the shortage of exotic locales. For most of the film, there is little reference to the stolen hard drive and little sense of very deep danger, but a devotion to political correctness abounds. Meanwhile, half-baked moral messages about the opaqueness of evil and the disorder and treachery in the spy business are dressed up in bland intrigue, all of it shot in super dark cinematography so no one notices how bad it all is. The film doesn’t even strive to be unique, or to be an innovator as it once did; instead, it recycles elements from previous Bond films and acknowledges and mimics recent adventure films, most notably the style and drama of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Hence, it didn’t surprise me to see, in the theater lobby, that the final poster of Skyfall has a disturbing resemblance to the poster of the last Transporter film:
In other words, squint at Skyfall and you’ll think you’re watching Statham’s Frank Martin with some of the dark stuff from Batman thrown in. Unimaginative, utterly routine in its effort, and struggling desperately to be relevant in today’s movie landscape, Skyfall is a hollow, futile mess.