“He who fights with monsters must be careful, lest he thereby become a monster.
And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosphy of the Future,
Ch. 4: “Apothegms and Interludes”, #146
*Apologies for the tardiness of this review. I viewed Skyfall in proper IMAX at the San Francisco Metreon on Thursday, 8 November, 2012.
There’s always going to be a great deal of resistance – inertia, if you will – to the suggestion of putting a new spin on a familiar subject. Once a standard has been established, any deviation from said standard (even for the best) is destined to be met with hostility by a populace that fears change. Said change could be as monumental as a country putting an end to centuries of enslaving its own citizens, or it could be as trivial as changing the recipe for Coca-Cola. Any such change will find they who suggested it met with the equivalent of an angry mob brandishing torches and pitchforks.
Oddly enough, it should come as a surprise to no one living in a first-world nation that the most passionate responses are often reserved for stories in the popular culture. Be they biblical interpretations or new issues of comic books, few things stir as much fiery passion in a populace as a perceived change to the stories they know well. So connected are people to what-has-become a story’s “traditional” form that even the most minute deviation from the classic canon is considered blasphemy. Modern technology has only expedited the process, making both awareness of the changes and reactions to them are now near-instantaneous. “They’re giving Wonder Woman pants? That’s wrong!! Did these guys even read the original comics?! Do you see her with pants on the old tv show? NO!!! They’re ruining it!! Wonder Woman shouldn’t have pants!!!! Waaa waaa waaaa!”
Yet common sense proves that evolution is necessary to an organism’s survival; adapt or perish. As such, it is not only sensible that long-running property adapt with the times, but it’s actually necessary. This could be as simple as taking advantage of modern tools to better tell the story or as significant as acknowledging different cultural sensibilities (“We don’t call them ‘colored people’ anymore. And women can be more than pinched-bottomed secretaries to the hero of the story.”). Good long-running properties include the 47-year-old Star Trek franchise, the 50-year-old Doctor Who franchise, and the longest-running film franchise of all time: the 51-year-old James Bond franchise.
The Bond franchise is no stranger to reinvention; point in fact, such reimagining has now become one of its hallmarks (with mixed results). But whilst the series has occasionally dabbled in the self-referential (Lazenby’s Bond quipping “This never happened to the other fellow.”) or even self-parody (Die Another Day), it has never allowed itself a serious self-examination and introspection truly befitting its longevity. Not until Skyfall.
Our story begins with 007 (played for the third time by Daniel Craig) and fellow field agent Eve (the always-good Naomie Harris) hot on the trail of a criminal who has stolen a laptop hard drive containing the identities of undercover agents. As Bond pursues on foot – and crane… and train – engaging the criminal in hand-to-hand combat, Eve has both men in the sight of her rifle. Under direct order from M (Judi Dench) to not let the criminal escape, Eve fires, hitting Bond, who falls to his apparent death.
Returning some time later, he demands M allow him to find the criminal and the hard drive, but Bond is clearly not at the top of his game since the shooting. Further complicating matters, M has come under scrutiny by her superiours, with Chairman Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) keeping a watchful eye over nearly every decision of hers. Nevertheless, Bond is allowed his assignment and follows the criminal to his employer, the flamboyant Raoul Silva (played to slithery perfection by Javier Bardem).
What follows is a series of events in which the personal stakes include not only the future of MI-6 itself, but the lives of M and Bond in particular.
To say that this is one of the most enjoyable Bond films in recent years somehow doesn’t do this film justice. After pulling off a near miracle with the reboot that was Casino Royale, they somehow screwed the pooch with the lame duck that was Quantum of Solace. It’s as if the former film took one step forward (stripping the Bond films of the superficial clichés – gadgets, quips, et. al – that were making the making the series woefully out of touch) only to have the latter take two steps back (turning 007 once again into an invincible superman going up against a moustache-twirling villain).
All is forgiven with Skyfall, which aims to place the down-to-Earth approach of Casino Royale within the traditional Bond universe that we’ve all come to know before the reboot. This includes some of the series best conventions, but also one of its worst. The best ones include the new incarnation’s introduction of the MI-6 quartermaster Q (played by a wonderfully peachfuzzed Ben Wishaw) and the oh-so-convenient devices he provides, the last minute introduction of Miss Moneypenny, the aforementioned flamboyant villain, and a few nods to previous Bond films, such as the appearance of the Aston Martin DB-5 from Goldfinger.
Unfortunately, the film also includes the awkward addition of the disposable Bond Girl in the form of Sévérine (played by the lovely Bérénice Marlone). Marlone is capable actress and one understands the character’s addition as a necessity in advancing the story. The problem, paradoxically, comes in the very attempt to make the character more than just a walking, talking plot device. She’s given a rather disturbing backstory that makes her a victim needing a man’s rescue and, to be honest, not the sort of story that would feasibly put one in a romantic mood. Yet shortly after telling this story to Bond, the two make the beast with two backs; as if her history were merely foreplay. And then she’s removed from the story and never spoken of again. To the film’s credit, the other two women of note – M and Eve – fare better in their portrayals.
But like any great hero, Bond is nothing without a worthy villain to challenge him. And the series has one of its best Javier Bardem’s ex-MI-6 agent Silva. One would think that an actor known for playing such “intense” bad guys as Bardem’s would be more suited to playing a villain in the newly-rebooted Star Trek films rather than 007. But Bardem and the film-makers find the perfect balance for Silva between scenery-chewing and haunting characterisation. The series has tried before to make a villain out of a former agent in GoldenEye. But whereas 006 Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) was a bit of a whiny brat, Raoul Silva is a tragic figure. He is everything Bond fears he may one day become, and with good reason. One of the great additions to this film’s story is the suggestion that Bond’s vices are an attempt to silence the voice in the back of his mind, the one that tells him he is merely delaying the inevitable: death. Or worse: becoming Silva.
And a discussion of Silva would be incomplete were it not to address the film’s most talked-about scene: Silva’s “seduction” of Bond. Off hand, I can’t recall the series ever acknowledging the existence of homosexuality; even in the derogatory fashion one would expect from a franchise known for its machismo (thank goodness). Making Silva their first – and the villain, no less – Bardem and the film-makers wisely make the suggestion of his (bi- ?)sexuality a trait, not his sole defining characteristic. What’s more, they even give Bond a line suggesting such a thing is par for the course with a field agent such as he (which is something I’ve always wondered). But Silva is not defined merely by his sexuality; it’s just another quickly-acknowledged aspect of his character that does what all good character traits should: make the character more human.
As I conclude this review, I notice that I haven’t yet said anything of the performances of Dame Judi Dench and Daniel Craig. But honestly, what more need be said. Dench has transformed her M from the ice queen of GoldenEye to a no-nonsense mother figure who truly has the best for Queen and country at heart. Craig, like every Bond before him, has truly taken a character with a 50-year cinematic legacy and made it his own. The film ends with a few subtle nods to how both these characters has transformed from their original simple forms into people with whom we can relate. And yet those same nods show how easily the new moulds can fit into the classic archetypes established before.
And that is the genius of Skyfall, it succeeds where others have failed by taking what was old and making it new again. This isn’t your (grand-)father’s James Bond, but the family DNA is apparent all the same.