Movie Review: James Bond battles his obsolescence in ‘Skyfall’

Senior Television Writer
11.20.12 52 Comments

As you know, this blog is largely TV-focused, but every now and then I get to leave the mancave and see a movie at roughly the same time as the rest of the adult world. I saw “Skyfall” over the weekend, and though HitFix’s movie team has done a terrific job covering the film, I have a few specific thoughts on the movie (spoiler-filled, just like my TV episode reviews, so don’t click if you haven’t seen it yet), coming up just as soon as I’m expecting an exploding pen…

The thing about James Bond movies – and I have seen them all, most of them many, many times (with the exception of a few of the Roger Moores and the later Brosnans) – is that very few of them work as movies, if by “movie,” I mean “two hours of a coherent narrative with a consistent tone.” Almost all of the movies are essentially set pieces with a thin connective tissue between them; the difference between the good ones and the bad ones is in the quality of the set pieces (and, in very rare occasions, on the non-disposable nature of the connective tissue). I love “Casino Royale” and have seen it maybe half a dozen times, but I’ve been staring at this monitor for a good five minutes trying to remember exactly why Bond goes from the parkour chase in Madgascar to the airport chase in Miami to the poker game, and I’m drawing a blank every time. It’s just the nature of the franchise, and I have no problem with it after all these years.

Yet the advance buzz for “Skyfall” suggested something more. With Sam Mendes behind the camera, with the ridiculous collection of talent in front of it (including new additions Javier Barden, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Ben Whishaw from “The Hour”), and with a lot of talk about how this was going to be a more mature take on Bond (even more mature than the first two Daniel Craig films), I began to wonder if this was the film that had the ambition to be more than just a great James Bond movie, but to transcend its genre and series in the same way that “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” or “The Dark Knight” are just great films irrespective of their franchises.

I wanted “Skyfall” to be Bond’s answer to that, and for a while, it felt like it was. But ultimately, I walked out of the theater with the same feeling I always get from a 007 movie: lots of great individual parts in search of a whole.

The action was, as it’s been throughout the Daniel Craig era, fantastic – an ongoing tribute to the value of practical stunts in a CGI age. In that way, it nicely matches up with the themes of this movie, about how Bond and M are considered obsolete relics(*) of an earlier time. I greatly enjoyed the new additions to the supporting cast, from the cheerful confidence of Naomie Harris’ Eve(**) to the way Ben Whishaw’s new Q simultaneously represents the future and the past. (It’s not hard to imagine him giving this exact same performance in a film set in any previous Bond decade, and it working.) And Bardem was, unsurprisingly, a treat as the wrecked, rebuilt Silva. His introductory scene with the story of the rats and his mock seduction attempt (much more about power than sexuality) was worth the ticket price on its own.

(*) For all the references to Daniel Craig’s age, he’s already on his third Bond movie and roughly the age that Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan were when they did their first – and in more impressive physical shape than any previous 007. 

(**) I’m torn on her as the new Moneypenny. On the one hand, Harris and Craig have a terrific rapport, her backstory will make her a less pathetic Moneypenny than some previous versions, and this means we’ll likely get her in multiple movies rather than saying goodbye after one like most Bond actresses. On the other hand, if she’s only going to be around to flirt with Bond for a scene or two while he waits to meet with M, that’s a waste, too. Hopefully, she won’t be entirely done with fieldwork.

But “Skyfall” feels like multiple movies under one title. There’s Bond’s “death” and difficult return to duty, more classic Bond-style adventure in China (including the gorgeous sequence in the all-glass office), then a pivot into “The Dark Knight” with Silva’s elaborate plan to cause havoc while captured, and finally the most impressive episode of “Burn Notice” ever with Bond, M and Kincaid improvising a defense against Silva’s forces in his childhood home. I enjoyed all these separate pieces, but didn’t necessarily feel like they all fit together. In the final act, for instance, Silva goes from genius hacker and master planner(***) to a guy just trying to kill Bond and M with an overwhelming show of force.

(***) I also felt like his plan involving capture seemed really clever until it was revealed that he was just trying to shoot M in a very public place. If that was the end game, he could have done that much more easily, while still humiliating her along the way. The Joker’s similar antics in “The Dark Knight” are much more about destabilizing the rules of polite society; the baroque, destructive nature of his schemes is an integral part of what he’s doing. Silva’s plan is this complicated because we needed that chase scene through the London Underground.

The most important thing “Skyfall” accomplishes is in setting us up for the future, which is at once a return to tradition and a new direction. We have a new M, new Moneypenny, new Q, and we have a Bond who’s now an actual person with a pre-MI6 life that we know something about. I don’t expect, going forward, that we’re going to see constant flashbacks to Bond’s difficult orphan childhood, but anything that gives an actor like Daniel Craig more to play is a very good thing.

“Skyfall” easily moves into the top 5 of Bond movies ever, maybe even the top 3 with “From Russia With Love” and “Casino Royale.” (As you can see from our ranking of the top 10 Bond movies, there’s a little wheat in the series and a lot of chaff.) I need to see how the movie stands up to the test of time to be sure. It is among the very best entries in the 50-year history of this series, and that’s plenty great on its own. But I felt like there was potential to be more than that this time.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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