Ministry of Defensiveness

Skyfall is way too pretty to have such low self-esteem.

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Skyfall is an absolutely gorgeous movie. It’s one of the rare blockbusters that I’d say is genuinely worth the extra cost of the IMAX treatment; watching the compositions on a huge screen is stunning, even when the action isn’t. There are entire sequences where every single shot could stand on its own as a piece of art. And that’s sequences plural — not just the one in Shanghai, which is the stand-out.

If I were cheesier I’d try to make some kind of play on “Deakins. Roger Deakins,” but I think we’re all too mature and classy for that. He and production designer Dennis Gassner are the real stars of the movie, for bringing the look of some of the Coen Brothers’ best films to the Bond franchise. The Bond movies have always relied on spectacle and exotic locales, obviously, but the cinematography in Skyfall unites everything so that even the most mundane locations seem spectacular, and the exotic locations seem otherworldly but still real.

There’s one scene in particular, towards the end of the movie, where Bond is looking out over London, towards the Houses of Parliament. The elements of the scene were all familiar from every establishing shot of London ever used in a movie — St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, the London Eye in the distance — but somehow in Skyfall it looked as exotic as a neon-lit skyscraper in Shanghai or a floating casino in Macau.

Since the visuals are amazing, and everything else in the movie from performances to music to direction is all solid, confident, and self-assured, I’ve just got to wonder why the script seems so eager to redeem itself. It feels as if the whole movie is defending itself against accusations nobody’s been making.

James Bond spends the entirety of Skyfall about five seconds away from saying, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” The Bond franchise is old. Fifty years old, in fact. And the world has changed a lot since Dr. No. The Cold War is over. The entire nature of espionage, not to mention war itself, has changed. The character is a relic from a past where misogyny and alcoholism were cool.

It’s an idea that’s not so much a “running theme” as a “theme that’s been tackled to the ground and savagely beaten.” We see him drinking and carousing in some remote tropical location. We see him getting out of breath on his physical tests and missing the target on his marksmanship tests. A bartender serves him a martini shaken, and Bond accepts it without comment — even his catch phrases are so well-worn that they don’t need to be spoken aloud. The villain delivers a monologue explicitly calling out Bond for being too old-school; everything is done via cyberterrorism these days. He also dismisses Bond’s womanizing as closed-minded and anachronistic, by trying to force Bond into a bit of heterosexual panic. (Which results in the best line of dialogue in the movie, although that’s not much of an achievement since so much of the banter falls flat). By the end of the movie, Bond’s history is blown up in a not-particularly-subtle metaphor.

Along the way, Skyfall keeps responding to itself by saying that James Bond really is still cool as he’s always been, so shut up. He gets the best line. He pulls out the old Aston Martin and we hear the familiar stinger. M delivers a powerful monologue to the haters describing exactly why we need heroes like Bond. By the end, the message is clear: how could you ever have doubted him?

I don’t have a problem with the franchise doing a little bit of introspection, and asking questions about how James Bond is relevant to the 21st Century. My problem is that these questions should’ve been asked two movies ago. They’re three films into a reboot — you’re not allowed to go self-referential until at least five installments have passed. Just two movies ago, we saw Bond on his first assignment, just earning his license to kill. And now he’s already over the hill? Has there been a huge gap of fiction time between this and Quantum of Solace?

Even more than that, though: the time to ask those questions was Casino Royale, and they didn’t even bother to. Because it wasn’t necessary. I’d been as skeptical as anyone else, convinced that there’s no way a James Bond movie could work without devolving into parody, unless they made it a period piece. Casino Royale proved me wrong. It went light on the self referential stuff (Bond’s “Do I look like I care?” response to the “shaken or stirred?” question) and just assumed from the start that James Bond is a bad-ass, and people want to see him doing bad-ass things. It was hugely successful, and it’s almost unanimously considered one of the best entries in the entire series.

It’s as if the filmmakers decided to do another reboot without having seen the past two movies. Or, perhaps, that they’re responding to the popularity of the Jason Bourne series by asserting that “Nobody does it better.” If that’s the reason, it’s the most inessential move on the part of a venerable, much-beloved brand since New Coke.

Maybe it’s that the filmmakers just don’t like James Bond, because neither he nor the villain came out looking particularly bright. The villain’s master plan involved his entire team getting killed and him captured by MI-6… but then he just escaped and made his way to a very crowded, publicly accessible Underground tunnel. Q exclaims, “He wanted us to capture him all along!” but there was absolutely no advantage to his getting captured apart from getting a free plane ticket to London.

Where the chases in the earlier movies were often either spectacular or genuinely tense, the chase at the beginning of Skyfall just seemed to be made by people who don’t understand how or why car chases work. Bond just copies the bad guy’s stunts, one after the other, like a game of Simon played with motorcycles and Land Rovers. Throughout the rest of the movie, his M.O. is to stealthily approach an assassin, wait until after the assassin has killed his victim, and then kill the assassin. He does that at least three times, the last one pretty much invalidating the entire second half of the movie. It makes you wonder if they should’ve stuck with their original assessment of whether he was ready to go back into the field.

Whatever the case, the closing scenes of Skyfall wrap up the movie as a kind of “secret origins” story, setting up the last of the familiar elements from the Bond series we all know and like-a-lot-if-not-quite-love. But it just left me feeling that the whole exercise had been a pretty waste of time. I definitely didn’t hate it, and it was engaging enough never to feel boring as long as you disregarded any notion of plausibility or believable character motivation (as you’re pretty much required to do with Bond movies). Still, I left Skyfall wishing they’d shown me the movie that they were setting up in the last few minutes, instead of the movie they’d just spent the last two hours showing me.

1 thought on “Ministry of Defensiveness”

  1. Yeah, I’m with you. I was sitting there confused as to why I wasn’t loving it the way the critics seem to. But it really needed more personality. And even the fun setups of familiar characters at the end were telegraphed too far in advance. I guess I still want to see a touch of that Bond flair like being chased on skis off a cliff then unexpectedly opening a parachute. Maybe the new, more realistic Bond’s chute doesn’t have to have the Union Jack on it, but I still want that kind of excitement.

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