Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cult-Movie Review: Skyfall (2012)

It’s unofficial, of course, but if you scrape just beneath the surface of Skyfall (2012) -- the new James Bond thriller -- the designation “M” clearly stands for “Mother” or “Mom.”

Unconventionally, this twenty-third Bond film is a modern action movie concerning a mature woman (played by Judi Dench) who has -- perhaps not fully realizing it -- become the only parent to two grown and needy (or maladjusted…) sons. 

One son, a man called Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), has rebelled against his mother for her sins, choosing to reject all of her lessons because he feels unloved and abandoned.

The other son, James Bond (Daniel Craig), realizes that this powerful mother figure is responsible for giving his life some sense of purpose, and thus goes to extreme, life-and-death measures to protect her from his enraged “brother.”

Also -- and please make no mistake about this fact – the new Bond Girl of Skyfall is clearly M, not Naomie Harris’s Eve, Severine (Berenice Marlohe), or anyone else, for that matter. 

For the first time in Bond history then, the primary Bond/female relationship does not concern sex or romance, but the maternal, mother-son relationship.

On these relatively startling grounds alone, Skyfall distinguishes itself from the twenty-two previous cinematic installments in the James Bond series. 

Delightfully, however, Skyfall also thoroughly re-invents Bond’s place in the world, lamenting the 21st century reliance on computers and unmanned drones over “human intelligence” in the dangerous game of espionage.  The film thereby forges the (the Luddite?) argument that sometimes the old ways -- like a knife in the back -- still get the job done best.

Skyfall also celebrates fifty years of James Bond movie traditions and history.  Therefore, one can readily gaze at this prominently-featured Luddite argument as a rationalization, as a self-justification, in some sense, for the continuation of the long-running franchise in the second decade of the 21st century. 

Even today, in the age or push-button soldiers, we need 007. 

This argument about the primacy of human values in the Remote Control Age is so exhilaratingly presented that Skyfall often feels like a grand revelation.  Everything “old” is new again, and this Bond film brilliantly sends Agent 007 into a brave new world, even while re-establishing all the old characters (like Q and Moneypenny) and old genre gimmicks we’ve come to expect (like the Aston Martin’s ejector seat).

It’s quite a deft balancing act, and Skyfall is at once cheeky and legitimately sentimental in tone.  It would be easy to term so exciting and revelatory a Bond film the best series installment in years, but Casino Royale -- just six years in the past -- must still earn high marks for resetting the series, grounding Bond, and introducing Craig.  Without those accomplishments, the highs of Skyfall might not have been conceivable.

Instead, the arrival of Skyfall forces long-time Bond fans to concretely reckon with the once-impossible-seeming notion that the Sean Connery Era has, at long-last, been surpassed 

Bond is back and -- no hyperbole -- he’s better than ever.

Mommy was very bad.” 

Skyfall opens in Turkey, as James Bond, 007 (Craig) and an operative named Eve (Harris) attempt to recover a stolen hard-drive that contains the files of every undercover NATO operative working in terrorist organizations. 

Eve is ordered by M (Dench) to take a difficult shot against the possessor of the drive, the evil Patrice (Ola Rapace). But Eve hits Bond instead, thereby losing the drive and an agent.

Some months later, Bond -- who is believed dead -- resurfaces when the MI6 building in London is bombed.  M escapes the attack, but feels political pressure from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) to explain the loss of the hard-drive, and now a terrorist attack on British soil.

Although he is not yet physically or psychologically ready to return to duty, M nonetheless sends Bond out to track Patrice.  The trail leads Bond to Raoul Silva (Bardem) a vengeful former MI6 agent eager to make M “think on her sins.”   

With Silva launching one terrorist attack after another -- all aimed at killing M -- Bond decides to take his superior off the grid, and back to his family’s long-abandoned country estate in Scotland, called Skyfall.

“Less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement.”

As I wrote above in my introduction, Skyfall primarily concerns a family dynamic.  In this unusual family, M is the mother, Raoul is one son, and Bond -- believed dead but actually out carousing on the beach -- is the Prodigal Son.

Bond finally returns to save his mother’s life after Raoul enters the picture.   Apparently, Raoul has interpreted M’s dedication to duty as a personal statement against him, a mirror of Bond’s situation.  Silva, however, conveniently overlooks the fact that he was the one who first transgressed on a mission to Hong Kong some years earlier.

Given this family dynamic, Skyfall also concerns -- in a strange way -- the value of forgiveness.  Bond is able to remember that M’s stewardship provided him a home and a purpose, and he forgives her for ordering Eve to take a shot that nearly results in his death. 

M is similarly able to forgive Bond’s trespasses and welcome back the Prodigal Son, the boy who went out into the world with the inheritance of responsibility and purpose and squandered that inheritance on booze, sex, and scorpions.

By contrast, Raoul Silva -- who evidently still loves M (or Mom…) -- can’t see his path to forgiveness, and remains consumed by overwhelming hatred because of Mom’s abandonment.

This family dynamic plays out in Skyfall even in terms of setting and locations. Bond -- a boy forever in search of the parents he tragically lost in childhood -- brings M back to his family estate, Skyfall to play house, after a fashion.  There, 007 also re-connects with an old friend and mentor Kincade (Albert Finney), a surrogate father figure.

The three characters -- working and living together at Skyfall -- are, briefly, a family, replete with a home and a hearth.  Bond thus recreates the family home he never had in his youth.  Raoul arrives and destroys that home, refusing to forgive Mom and rejoin the family.

In exploring this dynamic, Skyfall is perhaps the most human and personal of all the Bond films.  It explores not only the elements of Bond’s tragic and lonely past, but excavates the nature of his (violent) life in terms of how he sees his connections to others.  For Bond, M and Kincade are the only family he can count on when the chips are down, though there is the suggestion that Mallory may become a father figure as well. 

Outside this dramatic through-line, Skyfall establishes a roiling tension and competition between 21st century espionage and Bondian-style espionage, which came of age during the Cold War of the 1960s. 

This tension is expressed best in the quips back and forth between the mid-life Bond and his young, new Q (or Quartermaster), played by Billie Whishaw.  Q tells Bond that “age is no guarantee of efficiency,” and Bond’s response is that “youth is no guarantee of innovation.” 

In other words, a person with experience and expertise still has something to offer in the world of espionage.

Q also comments explicitly on a painting in an art gallery where he first meets 007.  The painting depicts a warship’s decommissioning. 

It always makes me feel a bit melancholy,” Q opines. “Grand old war ship…being ignominiously haunted away to scrap... The inevitability of time, don't you think? What do you see?

What Bond sees, of course, is that he is that old warship, and the one succumbing to the inevitability of time.  

He isn’t as young as he once was, and he faces the possibility that he will soon be obsolete, outmoded in the Remote Control Age.  But the events of Skyfall prove otherwise.  There is still room in the world for Bond’s brand of “human” intelligence.

Even M gets into the act of discussing the present and the past by quoting Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses at a critical dramatic juncture:

“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho' 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

This is Bond’s gift to the world, and perhaps England’s as well.  Bond and England no longer dictate the movement of Heaven and Earth, but their wills remain strong, and when threatened, they will not yield.  They are, as they have been….heroic hearts.

The emotionally-delivered Tennyson quotation above thus permits Skyfall to proudly re-assert Bond’s importance in the cinema, and even Bond’s place in the world. Jason Bournes and Ethan Hunts of the world be damned, there’s still a place for Bond, James Bond in the 21st Century.

The battle between Silva and Bond is not merely one of brothers, but of belief-systems, the film cleverly reminds us.  Silva is the high-tech terrorist hiding behind anonymous servers and diabolical hacks. Meanwhile, Bond is the old-world dinosaur who still enjoys his Aston Martin’s ejector seat, and takes M off the grid, to a brick-and-mortar home he hasn’t seen in years. 

It’s digital vs. analog…and analog carries the day.

The amazing thing is that in our convenient and robust Web 2.0 Age, we root in Skyfall for analog to win. 

We long for the romance and sheer individuality of a character like James Bond.  He calls not upon gadgets, tools, or software to win the day, but some deep internal reservoir of individual will and discipline.  We may be constantly perfecting our tools and gadgets, but Bond has perfected his human mechanism, and in reminding us of that, Skyfall has perfected the Bond formula.

It’s appropriate that the last act of Skyfall involves an all-out siege which is more Peckinpah and Straw Dogs (1971) than Ian Fleming, because the analog world does feel, at times, under siege, doesn’t it?  The Old Guard seems to be crumbling, a brick at a time, and some people view this shift as the End of History, and not as the beginning of Something New, perhaps Something Great. 

In an age of irrational exuberance about gadgets, apps, and computerized military capabilities, James Bond and Skyfall remind us that a reliance on humanity -- on our experience and wisdom -- can be the most potent weapon of all.

Here’s to another fifty years of James Bond and his heroic heart.


  1. Yes, I guess mom is the ultimate Bond Girl. Well done, John.

  2. Anonymous1:10 PM

    John excellent review of Skyfall. Long live 007!


  3. M == mommy was foreshadowed in Casino Royale. Bond: "I didn't realize M stood for -" M: "One more word and I'll have you shot!".

    The idea that the hero has to be a little bit cracked to go after people who are quite broken is hardly new, but IMHO it's well-executed in the Craig Bonds. I even like Quantum of Solace: Bond had to find a new normal after Vesper (including relying on others), and both Bond and M had to learn that they really could trust each other. Could QoS have been a better movie? Yes, but it was pretty darn good IMHO.

    Also love the reference to the non-Prodigal Son. Its amazing to realize that most of the people Christ was talking to were the non-Prodigal son, and that HE was the bad guy of the story (the listeners would want to think the Prodigal was the bad guy). You could apply it slightly differently here: both Bond and Silva are Prodigals, only one of whom will come home. It's Mallory who rejects (or at least questions) the Prodigal who comes home, and inherits the business. One Prodigal repents and comes home, the other cannot and has to suffer for his sins. (Sorry if I made a mistake here; I am only going on the commercials here.)

    I've already asked Roger Ebert on his site (he either didn't see that line or chose to ignore it), but I like your opinion more than his anyway.... Is Skyfall Oscar material? Several British critics are all enamored with the idea, but they're biased towards the home team. Milady and I were supposed to get to see this on a date night last weekend, but it didn't work out, so I still haven't seen it yet. (Hopefully this weekend...) Plus, my sense of which movies are "Oscar quality" never seems to match the voters.

    1. Hi Kentucky Packrat,

      I am glad to see you speak positively of Quantum of Solace. I thought it was a better film than many critics and audiences gave it credit for. I like it. I don't love it. But I like it, and it's a good film.

      Why shouldn't Skyfall be Oscar material? I guess the answer (conventionally speaking) is because it is a sequel, and part of an action-series. Those aren't good reasons. This year, I think Prometheus and Skyfall are BOTH Oscar material...but I'm not holding my breath that they'll be recognized.


    2. Good hear that QoS has its fans. I, too, like it and think it gets short shrift, generally. I really appreciate its quiet moments. The interactions between characters were Quantum's strengths. That said, the action sequences were pure chaos (and not in a good way). Too many quick cuts, shaky cam views that made you lose your way (or couldn’t wait for it to be over). Not good for a Bond film. Quantum of Solace, though, is better than its criticisms, though.

  4. You boys and your mommy issues. ;-P

    I've been a Bond fan practically since birth. One of my earliest cinematic memories is of Goldfinger being sucked out of an airplane window. I've been a fan of all but Lazenby and Dalton, read the Fleming books, bought the soundtracks. I am pro-Bond through-and-through. I was delighted to hear from so many sources how wonderful and thoroughly Bond that "Skyfall" is. I'm looking forward to seeing it during the Thanksgiving weekend in between carbohydrate binges. This is a wonderful review, John, and only serves to pique my interest even more. Long live 007 indeed.

  5. Nice review John. Not the best Bond movie ever, but one of the best action movies of the year and just a total thrill-ride from beginning to end, with a couple of great character moments shoved in there as well.

  6. Anonymous7:00 PM

    Agreed about Prometheus and Skyfall both being Oscar material John, here's hoping at least one of them is nominated for something.


    Do you have any thoughts on how similar Silva's escape was to the Joker's in TDK? To me it seemed to be almost a scene-for-scene replica at times. Captured deliberately, left in solitary confinement guarded by inept guards while wearing a mad look, escaping by killing the guards, and so on.

    1. Hi Fullrichday,

      I would love to see Prometheus and/or Skyfall get acknowledged by the Academy for excellence, but I'm not holding my breath on that count.

      It's funny you mention TDK, because what struck me was the Skyfall's scene's similarity to Hannibal's escape from custody in Silence of the Lambs (1991).

      Funny how things strike you, or bring up certain memories, right?

      Great comment!


  7. Part I

    This is one of the more cobbled together installments of the 007 franchise. By that I mean Skyfall wears a variety of different hats taken from previous Bond entries and other non-Bond films, including a KIA-turned-resurrected Bond from Die Another Day, the NOC list from Mission: Impossible (that one, practically carbon copied) and a blend of elements overtly familiar to Christopher Nolan’s most popular works; Javier Bardem as Bond’s Joker nemesis being the most obvious example. I found myself slightly annoyed by much of the plotting and glaring clichés.

    Primarily, Silva’s master scheme involving his own capture is not only dully repetitive of The Dark Knight, but also ripe with ludicrous scenes that feel less like thrilling moments of action-suspense and more like silly pratfalls: Bond talking instead of shooting with Silva dead in his sights and an underground bomb ever-so conveniently placed but equally pointless. And the scheme as a whole is fumbled by Silva and his seemingly endless, random henchmen in such a half-assed, nonsensical manner, pulling off this extraordinary double play and complicated attack (involving your typical movie computer virus practically telegraphed well in advance) only to "miss the mark" so clumsily. Could there not have been a simpler, more efficient way for one to exact their revenge? More to the point, none of this surprised me story-wise. The moment Silva was captured his "ingenious" escape/trap was obvious and inevitable, a foregone conclusion; again, in part because the premise itself has been recycled.

    This was one of the slower paced Bond ventures that bordered on stagnation during a few stretches, with two thirds of the running time subject to short bursts of stop-and-go. The sequence taking place on Silva’s island hideout -- though well-written, well-staged and certainly well-acted -- was nonetheless awkwardly edited into, and out of, the larger narrative in a way that neutered its potential as an exotic set-piece: they go there, sit and talk, before some helicopters show up, and then it’s over.

    While I agree that M is the main femme for Skyfall, that still doesn’t excuse how completely forgettable the other two conventional Bond girls were and how Bond’s classic womanizing allure was no less perfunctory, if not rendered a downright ugly character trait this time around. The enigmatic Sévérine, in particular, is given such a promising setup as a wounded beauty desperately trying to change her circumstances only to then be used by Bond (in robotic lover mode) and dispensed by the film in short shrift, with Bond himself shedding nothing more than a heartless quip about wasted scotch. I like my 007 chilled, but not inhuman.

    In fact, Both Sévérine and the deserted, urban island set-piece felt like story elements deserving center stage, belonging to another Bond movie altogether, only to be squandered here as mere plot points.

    So did I not care for Skyfall? Actually, I did.

  8. Part II

    The first two acts of the scripted narrative may have underused ideas and played like a checklist of derivatives, but they still functioned well enough to drive the story. What Skyfall needed was a signature, a turning point where the story comes into its own, distinguished from any of the previous Bond films as any good Bond film should, and it was the third act that delivered, rather exquisitely, I might add. There’s a fine line between artfully alluding to great works and being just plain generic. Mining esoteric story structures from a Kurosawa film and injecting them into a space fantasy adventure makes for clever (re)invention; copying villains wholesale from a recent blockbuster? Eh, not so much.

    And yet the final act for Skyfall is truly inspired. Sure, you could pinpoint the original Straw Dogs as one reference that, alone, is rare enough for a Bond film, but the overall approach takes the 50-year old franchise for the first time into the Western genre, albeit on its own highland terms. The refuge-turned-showdown at Skyfall manor makes for a classic frontier setting replete with earthen textures, familial roots, double-barreled gunfights and solemn resolutions. Silva tossing grenades through windows is the equivalent of men on horseback lighting fires to the Bond ranch. It all makes for climax that is deeply personal to the mythos of our hero and further striped down to the minimalism of a man running into the dark of night atop fire-lit ice; a 21st century, high-tech spy thriller reduced to a folksy yarn of intimate character conflicts that, when all said and done, turns the franchise clock back to zero and starts James Bond anew.

    But even that aside, ignoring the script entirely, Skyfall marvels from start to finish on a sensory level, telling its story and forging its own unique identity through evocative locations and conceptual imagery. Yes, Skyfall looks great, and this is coming from a passionate cinephile who doesn’t have Roger Deakins on his list of favorite cinematographers, or Sam Mendes on his list of favorite directors, for that matter. Nonetheless, the two have collaborated, along with a topnotch production design team, in fashioning a film that, in my opinion, works first and best as a set-dressed, tonally driven mood piece.

    A Shanghai skyscraper sees Bond navigate a prism of glass where he and his adversary are then rendered silhouettes by a giant LED neon sign that consumes the entire frame; their melee combat is practically its own title sequence where one of them indeed falls to his death. I dig how the Macau casino scene completely changes up the palette from glowing electric blues to a paradise of floating lanterns and oriental dragons, with golds, reds, and sodium vapors. Symmetrical compositions allow the shape of a heart to form as Bond kisses Sévérine in the shower while Silva’s island fortress, with its fallen communistic edifices, represents a kind of Ends-of-the-Earth or in-between-worlds medium that symbolizes the refuge of an MI6 fallen angel, almost as if it were a projection of Silva’s own fucked-up psyche, not unlike Cobb and his architect-city from Inception (one possible allusion to a Nolan film that doesn’t feel cheap).

    And for all the travelogues that one often associates with the franchise, I think its cool to see Bond running around London, or, more accurately, underneath her. Come to think of it, there are numerous scenes taking place under ground amidst the home turf that further plays with the film‘s very title, this time antithetically. I also like how a certain basic essence of Bond -- especially Craig’s Bond -- as the "blunt instrument" of action is maintained even as the character has progressed on other levels. Bookending the film, the guy is still demolishes shit to get the job done, using a train mounted excavator to jump carts and blowing to hell his own estate without the slightest sentimental concern: "I never liked this place anyway".

  9. Part III

    The acting is strong on all accounts. Judi Dench adds complicated layers to her already dignified M while Javier Bardem saves his clichéd role with a performance that ranges from effeminate to tragic to perversely childlike. Daniel Craig continues to excel. He’s aging into the character in a way no previous actor could and will probably walk away from the franchise as the best Bond next to Connery. And then there are all trademarks for any Bond fan to geek-out over, including a disfigured super villain, the classic Aston Martin DB5 with machine guns, the return of Quartermaster and Miss Moneypenny, and a totally rad fight scene that takes place in a den with Komodo dragons ...Komodo dragons, I tell you!

    So, yeah, I enjoyed Skyfall despite its flaws. Of the Daniel Craig series thus far, I’d rank it about equal with Casino Royale, which was a great return to form even though I personally found it a bit long and anticlimactic, nor did I care for Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. Crucify me, but I actually favor Quantum of Solace as the best of the three. It’s a tighter film with a streamlined narrative and intense action, and I really liked both the Bond girls, especially Gemma Arterton as Strawberry Fields. I’d say my top 5 are as follows:

    5. Quantum of Solace
    4. Goldfinger
    2. Licence to Kill
    2. GoldenEye
    1. From Russia with Love

  10. I thoroughly enjoyed it as well, though I share most of Cannon's reservations. After the smashing (literally) pre-credits sequence, the story seems to almost stall-out and dawdles for another hour or so before finding it's stride. From then on it's terrific, especially after moving to Scotland.


    After three movies can we finally all agree that the series no longer has to prove itself yet again? Can we all agree that, yes indeed, this is not your daddy's James Bond? Can the producers FINALLY stop making excuses for the fact that Bond isn't Bourne and just move the hell on? Just give me a bloody good adventure and stop acting like you have to PROVE something every single time. Bond has moved quite nicely into the 21st century -- time to stop apologizing as if he were still some kind of semi-embarrassing anachronism.

  11. John Stell3:10 PM

    It may also be worth noting the character name of Eve, who, for the religiously inclined, is the mother of us all.

  12. Anonymous4:29 AM

    Excellent review, i truly enjoyed reading it.

    One interesting detail i stumbled on somewhere, just in case you haven't heard: as you know, Silva's original name in the film is Tiago Rodriguez. Well, the names Tiago and James have the same origin; they are both variants of Jacob.