Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Skyfall acts like a parody of James Bond, one created and enacted by actors both struggling to keep a straight face amidst its (surely, surely it must be intentional?) zaniness while striving to point out the espionage genre’s obsolescence and misogyny.
Fittingly enough, the movie's main villain is irrelevance. The present in the changing, and the past might not be as golden as once thought. This is a new age, and the, as one obstructionist character puts it, “golden days of espionage” are over. In the wake of an intelligence disaster, the leaked identities of numerous undercover agents, MI6 is now to be held accountable to the British public. In defiance to this, Judi Dench’s M gives a speech before Parliament in which she admits that MI6 has no more obvious enemies, but doesn’t everyone still feel all afraid? After all, she says, they have to be wary of foes from “the shadows.” This nonsensical bit of vague fear mongering is, in the eyes of the movie’s characters, vindicated by the villain’s picking that moment to barge in.
But I’m not quite sure it’s as much of a win as MI6 seems to think, for the villain – Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva, who primarily shows his ickiness through acting gay – is actually only pissed because he’s a former MI6 agent, left to die by M. Besides showing how MI6 evidently really doesn’t have anyone left to fight besides those villains they themselves create, this all does bring up where exactly Silva gets his army of henchmen. He’s not seeking any sort of power or promising them anything. It’s his personal vengeance, yet dozens of unidentified folk seem to have nothing better to do than to die for him. Well, anyway, their dying for him and all does seem to convince the whole world that MI6 is totally awesome and beyond reproach, and its former detractors abruptly turn around and lick its boots. They then promptly forget about the whole security breach thing.
Even once we’ve decided that secret agents are still the way to go, there’s still the question (providing you have spent the last few decades under a rock) of whether Bond is our man; 007 is, here, battling his own obsolescence. Bond has, after all, been at this whole secret agent thing for a while, and the grievous injury and potentially more scarring still emotional damage he suffers after the film’s opening knock him out of the action for quite some time. When Bond returns, M tells him he has to take a battery of standard tests before he can return to service. The audience snickers at this routine waste of time. Bond then fails the tests, each and every one of them, and does so miserably. Perhaps, then, Bond really is done?
But no. Once the film actually kicks into gear, Bond is once more at the peak of physical fitness, perfectly performing the myriad tasks we were told he was simply unfit for. We don’t even get the requisite The Dark Knight Rises-style training back to form sequence. Towards the movie’s end, Bond displays his perfect marksmanship, and another character makes a witty remark, as if asking the audience if they expected anything less. The response, “”Why yes I did, I saw the opening of the film, didn’t you?” is not considered.
Once our obsolete hero is back in the field to fight for his obsolete agency, we are treated to the action at the film’s heart, and what should have been pulse pounding is instead something best described as silliness peppered with explosions. The violence in a Bond film is, of course, supposed to be over the top, but here it is all so over the top that it has no tension at all. The opening, which occurs before we’re given a single clue as to why we’ve got to see Bond’s target dead so desperately, includes just about every kind of chase imaginable before Bond ends up attempting to defeat his foe with a crane located on a train car. The entire thing happens so fast that the audience can barely register that we’ve switched tactics – car! motorcycle! foot! train! crane! (and seriously, what was he even trying to do with the crane? crush the guy?) – and each ends before it can be developed, like they aren’t actual contests between Bond and the villain in their own right but rather stages in an elaborately choreographed dance routine that swings them from the crowded streets of Foreign City to the wreckage of a train that inexplicably keeps going, passengers just about calm, despite the carnage (crowds not reacting in any way to deadly violence might even be called the film’s dominant motif).
It’s not just the opening that is pushed to eleven and utterly toothless; the entire plot is a collection of nonsensical decisions and advancements, coupled together by absolutely bizarre actions and sequences. Bond’s pursuit of Silva is a host of set pieces tied together by each’s drive to out-exotic the next. Silva’s super villain-esque, nigh-omniscient ability to plan and manipulate MI6 is made possible not only by his insider knowledge but also by his ability to hack; Skyfall treats computers as a magic box capable of exploding the world if prodded the wrong way. Of course, it doesn’t help that everyone is incredibly gullible. Silva, after all, obtained his island (every villain has to have an island) by telling the inhabitants that there was a chemical leak. They all fled, and no one ever thought to check up on the situation.
The pseudo logic continues, relentless. Now, with Silva’s after them and so able to penetrate MI6’s security, Bond and M decide to flee London and hide out in the country to face Silva alone, evidently concluding that the backup of the rest of the agency is something only a sucker would take advantage of. When Silva attacks Bond’s ancestral home (they thought that the ultimate hideout for some unfathomable reason), M and the gruff and unnecessary gamekeeper escape through a secret tunnel. That deposits them a scant dozen feet from the front door. They take off across the open field. Silva follows. Bond follows, too… and inexplicably ends up struggling to cross a frozen lake that nobody else encountered. Silva comes up behind him, even though he was just in front of him. Bond escapes by plunging himself into freezing water and arrives just in time to save M. Who then dies anyway. Whoo!
But it’s not just over the top violence that’s a Bond tradition: there’s also the misogyny to relish. In their haste to write panegyrics, critics have focused on M and declared this film a departure from Bond’s usual sexism. Focusing just on M, that’s fair enough. But the film has two other female characters. The first is Naomie Harris’ Eve Moneypenny, who begins as a field agent, eventually realizes she’s not cut out for the front lines, and becomes Bond’s secretary.
And Moneypenny’s arc’s a beautiful thing when compared to that enjoyed by Bérénice Lim Marlohe’s Sévérine. Silva saved Sévérine from the sex trade, and he owns her now. She’s terrified of him, and Bond seems to offer an escape. He makes good on that offer by breaking into her room, waiting for her to shower, pointing out how she’s defenseless, and then having hot (consensual?) sex with her. This sets the stage for the film’s most horrific scene. Having realized Bond’s affection for her, and desirous of taunting the captured Bond over his poor scores on the marksmanship test given by MI6, Silva ties Sévérine up and places a shot glass on her head. While his guards watch, Silva hands Bond a pistol and says that they’ll take turns trying to shoot the glass from her head. Bond shoots high. Silva gets the glass off her head by shooting her. Bond watches, impassively, and he and Silva continue their antagonism. For these old MI6 hands, it seems, espionage is a game for powerful men that uses women for advantage and sport and then slaughters them. Bond escapes moments later, but he never so much as mentions Sévérine’s name.
Skyfall is at its most persuasive when it argues for its own irrelevancy, and the disconnected pyrotechnics it tries to distract us with afterwards do little to make us forget. I came in expecting entertainment and at least some moderate level of coherency. I got neither.