Saturday, December 1, 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall

Directed by Sam Mendes. 2012.

Spoilers within.

Who could envy the director of a Bond film? Imagine having to integrate fifty years worth of franchise tropes, tricks, and traditions, craft an original yet familiar plot, and follow up dozens of cinema's most famous action sequences, while trying to walk Bond's line between action and carnage, mission and escapade, Britain's champion and carefree playboy.

Recent Bond films have walked another line, between character and archetype, in asking audiences to step into Bond's shoes not for vicarious adventure but, for the first time, to learn what makes him tick. First Goldeneye, fleetingly, then Casino Royale, started to wonder just what kind of man pulled all those triggers, left all those women, always off, alone, to the next mission.

Skyfall manages to walk and weave all of these threads into a satisfying Bond adventure, with one rub: it's a little dour. There's a seriousness of tone and purpose to Skyfall from which Bond scarcely strays for his usual smirks, quips, and gambits, those spontaneous expressions of joy in his seemingly limitless luck and agency. Perhaps this was inevitable after Goldeneye and Casino Royale unzipped Bond's dossier and showed that only a deeply hurt man could live such a life. We know there's no going back too when here in Skyfall, Bond seemingly makes his grand entrance in M's flat and she turns the light on him revealing a  liquored-up, flannel-clad bum instead of the resurrected Defender of the Realm. Bond is back, but he's going to have to work on a few things.

Yet what Bond loses of joie de vivre he gains in seriousness of purpose and what Skyfall loses in humor and kicks it gains in impact and import.

The plot remains admirably within franchise bounds, pitting Bond and MI6 against a spurned former agent, but again with a twist. This time the ex-operative is not after Bond, MI6, riches, or world domination, but M herself. This puts a sharp but not jarring spin on the franchise's tradition of maniacal villains, and it's not a superficial one either, for running throughout the film is the maternal relationship between M and the two agents, Bond and Silva (Javier Bardem.) Yet there is also familial strife stemming from when M gave up not only Silva but Bond too, both for the sake of the mission. Bond naturally forgives her whereas Silva set out for revenge, and this parallelism creates a significant tension, especially in two scenes.

The first is when Silva's capture reunites the "family." Within his transparent cell he turns to M and, dropping to his knees, calls her mum. The sight of Silva's childlike posture and exposure in contrast to Bond suggests 007 hasn't called her mum in a long time, and that the pet name belongs to a more innocent, bygone era.  The second scene is the finale in which both agents chase down M, one trying to save and the other to kill her. That Silva wants M and himself to go out together shows that he doesn't just want the revenge of her death, but the satisfaction of making her suffer as mother, with both of their death's on her head.

This character-driven thread, highly unusual for a Bond movie, is not the only plot line, however, for alongside his vendetta against M, Silva has stolen a hard drive containing the names of MI6 operatives embedded in terrorist organizations. As Silva posts the names on YouTube and agents start turning up dead, Parliament starts turning up the heat on MI6. What is its mission? Is espionage effective? Should MI6 be allowed to keep secrets? Should it exist at all? In front of a panel M is forced to answer for herself, her job, her agency, and her life's work. After a fierce grilling by an MP she offers the defense that Britain's enemies now lurk in the shadows, country-less, and that MI6 is needed to find them. At that moment, in apparent counterpoint to her argument, Silva and his mercenaries burst in, an enemy she helped  create. Silva is of course responsible for his evil deeds, but there are still a few question marks hovering over MI6. The true remedy is of course not any agency, but Bond himself, who enters the courtroom to the rescue. There's a lot wrapped up in this scene which despite its significance never gets weighed down by action, preachy speeches, or plot exposition.

Skyfall also benefits from a far more sophisticated visual style than any Bond venture since Dr. No. The style is simple but effective, making use of distinct color zones and contrasts of temperature and primary colors to create a heightened sense of space and import, but without distracting from the activity or typifying the action scenes as discrete elements of the movie. We also see a lot of symmetrical blocking and keeping Bond front and center, both of which add to Skyfall's sense of breadth and gravity. The trailer is a representative sample of these features. This is some very successful and appealing cinematography, both homogeneous and complementary to the other film elements. It's a great surprise and we'll look at some screen shots after the DVD release.

Lastly, Adele's Skyfall is a great Bond song, one of the few which make any sense at all and one of the handful which relate to their particular movie. The lyrics aren't as many or meaningful as Casino Royale's, You Know My Name, but both Skyfall's few words and its music with its leaps, convey the world coming down on M.

In conclusion, Skyfall took a significant risk, trading in Bond's cavalier charm and an unflinching faith in MI6, for character development and timely questions. Enlivened by a solid cast and a vivid, virile style, Skyfall is not only a satisfying Bond 23, but a significant milestone for 50 years of 007.

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