Sunday Smackdown: Skyfall vs Spectre

When you like a worse movie better than a better one

Let’s try yet another intermittent weekly series on this blog: pitting two pieces of art or entertainment against each other to decide a “winner.”

All of my parasocial friends on YouTube and the rest of the internet have been optimizing their SEO by talking about James Bond movies to capitalize on No Time To Die. Even if I felt comfortable going to theaters again, that movie is around two hours and 45 minutes long — somebody on Twitter more clever than I am called it No Time to Pee — so I’m not going to be seeing that until it comes to streaming services or cheap rentals.

The movie looks interesting, but Black Widow and Shang-Chi both satisfied my action-spectacle-on-a-big-screen quota for 2021. Honestly, the most compelling part of the movie for me is Ana de Armas, who I thought was fantastic in Knives Out and is so preternaturally beautiful that it’s hard to believe she isn’t a digitally-created person. I like Daniel Craig a ton, and the only reason he’s not my favorite James Bond is because the Sean Connery movies exist, but honestly, I’d much rather see him in Knives Out sequels, except where they find an excuse for him to spend most of the movie with no shirt on.

And while Craig is pretty great, the movies post Casino Royale have been pretty disappointing. Skyfall has been near-universally praised as one of the best in the series, but I was so turned off by it that I didn’t even bother watching Spectre until last night, as a compromise: if I can’t watch the new Bond movie, I’ll watch the new-to-me one.

So I was pretty surprised that I kind of enjoyed it. To be clear: it’s absolutely absurd, even frustratingly so in parts. But then, that’s true of almost all of them. I think the franchise is best when it leans into the absurdity, with the important qualifier that everybody in the movie has to act as if the absurdity is genuinely cool. That’s why Roger Moore came across as too silly, and Pierce Brosnan came across as too eager to be in on the joke, while Sean Connery could be in situations that were ludicrous and even downright offensive, but still somehow retain an aura of cool.

I think the main reason I enjoyed Spectre was because it was the first Daniel Craig Bond movie where I could tell what the hell was going on. None of these movies have made sense to me, but at least in this one I could follow the plot from one point to the next. I mean, I can often be impenetrably dense, but I like to think I’ve got some skill at following a story. And yet I’ve spent at least 90% of the last 4 Bond movies wondering, “Who is that?” “Why is this happening?” “What does this mean?” “Why do I want these events to happen or not happen?” “Where am I?” “Am I still in the theater?” “Oh look Daniel Craig took his shirt off again.”

Most of Skyfall kept me engaged in the moment, but that’s going to be true of any movie with Roger Deakins cinematography. You can be hypnotized by a stunningly beautiful sequence of Bond riding a boat into a casino and forget that you have already lost track of why he’s there and what he’s trying to accomplish. You can forget how it’s only been two movies since Bond first got his license to kill, and he’s already grizzled and going rogue and talking about retirement. You can ignore the fact that you have no idea how old Bond is supposed to be from one installment to the next. You can ignore that Silva’s master plan makes absolutely zero sense and would have been impossible to execute. You can ignore that they’re going into James Bond’s past for some reason, even though the thrust of the plot is supposed to be about M. When the imagery is so dreamlike, it’s less distracting when the movie itself uses weird dream logic.

After Spectre‘s neat but ludicrous opening — to stop a plot to blow up a stadium, Bond jumps into a helicopter like a psychopath and recklessly endangers thousands of people in the city square — everything proceeds from point to point so simply that anyone, even me, could understand it. I admit that I did need to pause the movie to look up who Mr. White was, to be reminded that he was a villain featured in Quantum of Solace, which was an extended ad for Sony products and sand that I mostly slept through. But once that was cleared up, everything proceeded from one dumb and unbelievable plot point to the next.

I think overall, Skyfall is technically a better movie than Spectre, and that might be the whole problem. Both feel to me like they can’t decide what they want the Bond franchise to be. Is it set in the real world, with genuine stakes and characters we’re supposed to be invested in? Or is it an escapist fantasy, an excuse to see beautiful people in exotic environments narrowly escaping serial-style predicaments? Both are trying to split the difference to one degree or another, but Spectre feels like they finally decided “the hell with it, let’s just make this an homage to the Bond franchise, right down to Blofeld and the cat.”

Both movies also make what I think is a wise choice with their villains: the supervillain destroy-the-world plot is secondary to a more personal vendetta. The one in Skyfall is better built up over the course of the movie, it’s understandable even if it’s not believable, and it’s shown to have genuine consequences. The one in Spectre just tosses in a reveal with all the finesse of a soap opera — or maybe all the precision of a brain-scrambling drill that inexplicably doesn’t do any of the things it’s threatened to do, or in fact have any consequences whatsoever.

Each of the scenes of a supervillain torturing Bond is a staple of the franchise, which is the real reason they’re included. Skyfall tries to integrate it into the rest of the plot, to set the stakes for what’s going to follow. Spectre really just includes it for the sake of including it: Bond doesn’t do anything all that clever to escape, he doesn’t really learn anything useful, and there was as little reason for him to walk into a supervillain lair as there was for the supervillain to escort him in. Their motivation is simply to make a scene in a 007 movie.

The whole movie is like that: people do things in Spectre not because they make sense, but because they’re the kinds of things that people do in James Bond movies. There’s something about the purity of intent there that makes it work better for me; I’m not getting frustrated by the parts that are unbelievable, because there’s no pretense that they’re supposed to be believable. That sounds like damning with faint praise, and to a large degree it is. But until the franchise decides what exactly it wants to be, it makes for a more enjoyable movie.

Craig’s entire run has been nostalgic and retrospective to some degree or another; Spectre is just the most blunt about it. (I’ve heard that No Time to Die takes the self-referential Bond-for-the-sake-of-Bond even farther, but I can’t imagine how that’s possible). I like that by updating him for the 21st century, they’ve leaned more into the idea of James Bond as brutish assassin instead of suave super-spy. It seems that Craig, at least, is fully aware of the fact that Bond as established in the books and most of the movies is a contemptible bastard. Making him a little more respectful to women, as the Dalton and Brosnan movies did to one degree or another, would feel tone-deaf or performative. It’s much more interesting to just embrace it, and to acknowledge that this guy isn’t aspirational. It also helps that Craig embraced the idea of being objectified, as much as or even more than the “Bond girls.”

If they’re planning to continue the franchise past No Time to Die — and it’s hard to believe they aren’t — they’re going to need to change things up more than just casting a black actor as Bond. In fact, it shows just how much the franchise has been stagnating and feeding on itself, that casting a non-white actor doing the same old bullshit is so often touted as being a shockingly daring idea.

The course of the past five movies has been: starting with an eagerness to reinvent a classic franchise in a way that rejected the silliness in favor of being more grounded and contemporary (with parkour!), and then getting more and more self-referential to the point of including past villains and classic scene set-ups just for the sake of including them. Comparing Skyfall and Spectre just shows that they need to pick a lane: trying to pump a more believable reality or relatable characters into Bond scenarios is actually counter-productive, since it just makes it that much more apparent how ludicrous the entire premise is.

I’m sticking with my assertion that they need to go back to making Bond movies period pieces, set during the Cold War. The recent book series by contemporary authors adding entries set in between Fleming’s novels just makes me more convinced that’s the way to go. It’s the one quality that’s still unique to 007, and hasn’t been surpassed by Jason Bourne or The Kingsman. I realize it’s unlikely to ever happen, since movies set in the 50s and 60s can’t have product placement. But I have faith in Sony, Aston Martin, and who-knows-what other companies to make it work.

Winner: Spectre, on a technicality.