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‘Skyfall’ Or Skyfail: What Worked & What Didn’t In James Bond’s Latest

'Skyfall' Or Skyfail: What Worked & What Didn't In James Bond's Latest

Over the weekend, it sounds like more than a few of you checked out “Skyfall” — $80 million+ worth of you, in fact. And around the rest of the world, it’s even more, with the film having taken over $500 million internationally since it started rolling out two weeks ago. And for the most part, it’s been acclaimed as one of the best (if not the very best) entries in the long-running spy franchise to date.

But it hasn’t been a unanimous success. There’s plenty of naysayers out there, and, as ever, The Playlist team have been split, some loving the film, and some finding it hugely uneven. Now that the film’s out and you’ve seen it, we decided we’d get into the details of what various team members thought worked and what didn’t about “Skyfall.” In the red corner, Oliver Lyttelton, who wrote our original review, lays out what he thinks makes the film a triumph (as well as a couple of cons), while in the blue are Rodrigo Perez and Kevin Jagernauth, discussing several elements of the film that just didn’t work for them. Got your own views on the film? Let us know them in the comments section below. Obviously, spoilers ahead.

What Worked

Roger Deakins’ Visuals
From his debut with “American Beauty,” featuring Oscar-winning cinematography from the late Conrad Hall, Sam Mendes‘ films have always looked glorious even when they haven’t worked as a whole. And that’s doesn’t change here. Even 007-weary cinephiles were a little excited when they heard that Mendes’ “Jarhead” and “Revolutionary Road” DoP, the great Roger Deakins, was going to be shooting “Skyfall.” And the regular Coen Brothers cinematographer did not disappoint. His last film “In Time” might have suggested he was still finding his feet with digital, but he certainly seems to have gotten the hang of things now. From the great, immediately iconic opening shot, it’s the best-looking Bond film in history. There are particular highlights: the stunning “Blade Runner“-ish vision of Shanghai (which blows away almost every “Blade Runner”-esque looking film out of the water), particularly the neon-lit confrontation with Ola Rapace‘s assassin, and the fire-tinged sky glimpsed through the icy lake during the underwater fight. We spent much of the film wishing that we could print out the frames and hang them on our walls, and we’re sure we’re not alone.

More Character-Driven Approach
If there’s something we learned in writing about the best and worst of the franchise all last week, it’s that often, the superior entries in the series are the ones that have an emotional backbone, such as “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and “Casino Royale.” And that’s the smart move the writers and Mendes have made here. It’s in many ways the smallest and most intimate Bond in some time; there’s no real threat to the world, just one well-funded bonkers man’s vendetta against his former employer. But because that former employer is M, Bond’s mentor and maternal figure, it gives the proceedings a real heft. By placing Judi Dench front-and-center, and by making Bond himself out of shape, out of practice, and unsure of his place in a shifting MI6, it gives Daniel Craig much better material than he had to work with in the last film. So while the action is toned down from the first two Craig pictures, the film’s far more engaging because the stakes are real and you care about the characters and their survival.

Javier Bardem
One thing that the Bond movies of late have been missing are truly classic villains. There have been some decent ones (Sean Bean in “Goldeneye,” Mads Mikkelsen in “Casino Royale“), but none that really stand alongside the iconic likes of Goldfinger or Blofeld. But there’s now very much a new addition to the classic rogue’s gallery, thanks to Javier Bardem‘s Silva. He doesn’t turn up until an hour into the film, but makes an entrance that’s an instant classic; that long, unbroken shot of his monologue as he walks towards the captive Bond. And Bardem’s performance is thrilling, funny, camp, unpredictable and yet genuinely terrifying. Perhaps more successful than the rest of the film in general, he feels like a return to the franchise’s roots, right down to that gruesome and show-stealing surprise disfigurement, and yet with a contemporary, Julian Assange-ish twist. Sure, his scheme might be almost impossible in its conception, and his death a little disappointing (a knife in the back? really?), but he’s still a Bond bad guy for the ages.

Strong Supporting Cast
And it’s not just the leads — Craig, Dench and Bardem — who get the good material. John Logan‘s script includes a deep roster of compelling supporting characters that’s almost unheard of from the franchise, and with theater veteran Mendes at the helm, the film was able to attract a cast of absolute pros who look to be central to the franchise going forward. Perhaps the pick of the pack is Ben Whishaw as the new Q. Desmond Llewellyn‘s boots were big ones to fill (the actor appeared in virtually every Bond film from “From Russia With Love” to “The World Is Not Enough“), but the “Bright Star” actor lends a new and definitive twist to the character as a youthful, arrogant, geek-chic quartermaster who brings texture to what could have been a rote hacker-type role we’ve seen a million times before. Also given more depth than you initially expect is Ralph Fiennes‘ Mallory, who seems like a stern, repressed bureaucrat, and not especially trustworthy, but turns out to be both a combat veteran, and unexpectedly heroic. M is in good hands going forward, and hopefully future installments will continue to give him good material. We have our issues with the Bond girls (see below), but both Eve and Severine have more depth than you might expect, and the actresses are both terrific (particularly Bérénice Marlohe, who’s a real find). Even Rory Kinnear’s Bill Tanner, introduced in “Quantum of Solace,” gets plenty to do, and we hope he sticks around as well. While Bond’s support team generally haven’t been crucial to his character, that changes here, and Mendes has assembled a cast of supporting players who we genuinely look forward to seeing reunited next time around.

Sam Mendes
While the critical reevaluation of “American Beauty” continues its downward trajectory over the years, we’ve always liked Sam Mendes as a filmmaker (and further back as a theater director), but even so, he always seemed like a bold and risky choice to direct here. There wasn’t much action or tentpole experience on his CV, and the film couldn’t be further from his last film, indie comedy “Away We Go.” But, while the film is imperfect, it turns out that he was an inspired choice. He melds the grittiness of the earlier Craig films with a sense of fun that suggests that Mendes is a real Bond fan (incidentally, he’s the first British director in the series since Michael Apted in 1999), and walks the tonal line very carefully. The action doesn’t always thrill, necessarily, but it’s always beautifully framed, inventive and impressive. The performances (as you might imagine from someone who directed Judi Dench in the West End when he was only 24) are uniformly strong, and the director couldn’t have assembled a better behind-the-scenes team (including Christopher Nolan‘s effects supervisor Chris Corbould). If Mendes was ever off the A-list, he’s back on it in a big way now.

The Theme Song
If there’s anything that reassured us that “Skyfall” was going to be a return to form, it was the opening credits, as Bond drifted off into the inky blackness, and Adele‘s theme tune kicked in (you can hear it here). If there’s one thing in the series that’s been severely lacking over the last few decades, it’s a decent theme tune. We’re not sure there’s been a truly memorable one since “The Living Daylights,” and it’s even longer since one felt truly worthy of the Shirley Bassey classics of old. In fact, things have only gotten worse, with the sludgy dirges of the Chris Cornell and Jack White/Alicia Keys tunes of the Craig era so far (it makes us yearn for some of these Bond themes that never were). Chanteuse of the moment Adele was always the obvious choice to revive things (at least after the passing of Amy Winehouse), and with regular co-writer Paul Epworth, she delivered a cracker, reminiscent of the best ’60s-era tracks, but thrillingly modern. Combined with the excellent animated credits, it’s an extremely confident way to start the film.

What Didn’t

The Aging 007
Borrowing a page out of “The Dark Knight Rises” (an influence Mendes has acknowledged) “Skyfall” does its best to present the idea of an aging James Bond who is potentially past his prime. He has been ravaged physically and psychologically, brought to the brink of death, but then “resurrected.” He’s been hitting the booze, he looks like shit, etc. It’s a great set-up really. And then it isn’t, because “Skyfall” then reminds us over and over again how badly Bond has been hurt and after awhile this theme becomes overstrained like a muscle in Bond’s badly injured body. Enough, we get it. The movie pains itself to state that Bond is not fit for service, but in the field, almost none of it actually matters. Aside from performing poorly in tests and missing a William Tell shot, by the time Bond is in action, almost all his issues seem to have disappeared. Certainly by the time the third act rolls around it’s as if Bond was never damaged to begin with.The lack of follow-through there makes the entire set-up a bit superficial.

“The Old School”/The Ridiculous Last Stand Ending
This “damaged” motif dovetails closely with the old school vs. new school theme in the movie. M is old, Ralph Fiennes is new and everyone is convinced that M and Bond are “antiquated.” So much so that there’s a government inquiry into MI6’s tactics wondering if M should step down (even though they’ve already tried to force her out) and trying to find out why there was such a gigantic security breach (one that the plot doesn’t seem to care about later). So it’s old vs. new throughout and then by the end, even though they are the most sophisticated intelligence organization in the world, Bond and M take it back to the “old school” — literally — by ditching everything modern and proving that the best way to fight their enemies is with old-fashion knuckle grease and bootstraps (even though it leaves them totally exposed on all sides, and at times feels like an adult version of “Home Alone” in the last act). The idea that the equivalent of the CIA goes to hide and fight in an old shack against the deadliest force they have encountered in years seems patently absurd and sort of the worst tacitical planning we could imagine. Yet, for all this strides towards “grittiness” the “old school” Bond tropes — the ‘60s Aston Martin car, the joke about the car ejector seat and THE BOND THEME LOUD AND CLEAR (repetitively throughout the movie, as if you could have possibly missed it) — clash heavily against the broader ambitions of the picture, particularly in the hamfisted finale.

There’s Not Much Point To Severine
Bond identifiers and trademarks are such a tricky and weird things. Fans love them and in the post ‘Bourne’/’Dark Knight’ world these kinds of identifiers have been dulled down because in this day and age, it’s a bit cornball for Bond to say, “shaken, not stirred” for the umpteenth time. And so the trick that “Skyfall” has to pull off is include all the Bond touchstones and symbols, but trying to include them organically and as realistically as possible (and or disarmingly through humor). But then we get to the Bond Girl played by Bérénice Marlohe. While she’s as gorgeous as all get out, she serves almost no narrative purpose in the film other than to feature as a Bond girl. Okay, the “purpose” superficially, is that she can lead Bond to Silva, but it’s a pretty convoluted one all told. But let’s face it, she’s a script device and it’s a convenient one that also allows for an exotic location to be tossed in as well, no matter how forced. Her character is there to do what Bond girls do — flirt, have some sexy rapport and then have sex with Bond (we won’t even get into the murky moral territory of sexually objectifying a victim of sexual abuse)…and then 15 minutes later, she’s completely dispensed with by Silva’s bullet. No more Bond girl. To some it shows the real stakes of the movie and the ruthlessness of a Bond villain we’ve never seen before. But we never cared for Bond Girl 23, so her death is absolutely meaningless.

The Christopher Nolan Copycat Factor
Sam Mendes has made no bones about the fact that Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” was a big inspiration. In our interview he calls is a “gamechanger” and a film that proved you could take on a tentpole and still make it interesting, powerful, dramatic, raise philosophical, ethical and existential questions while remaining entertaining and thrilling to boot. Clearly, “The Dark Knight” was his model to create a smart Bond film. Fine, no issues there, it’s a good template to strive for frankly, but “Skyfall” seems at odds with itself in that sense. It’s like a moody, dark, raw-nerved film that still has to go down the checklist to fufill every unrealistic, arguably conrnball requisite Bond trademark and many of those touchstones are fairly antithetical to the tenor of Nolan’s film. But more specifically, “Skyfall” kind of steals its villain from the Joker. Silva is not that different, he’s theatrical in the same way, bares a lot of the same type of “scars” and essentially, he’s a lunatic who wants revenge. Arguably, the Joker’s plans are much more complex and nuanced than that. He’s like a civil servant of chaos, trying to reflect a mirror back at society, whereas Silva just has mommy issues and vengeance. But “Skyfall” essentially steals its main trick from “The Dark Knight.” The villain purposefully gets caught so he can unveil his master plan. So yes, we’ve seen that before. Our problem is, ultimately, while masquerading as serious ‘TDK’-esque drama, “Skyfall” is sort of the lite version because it has to pay service to the inherently superficial characteristics of the Bond movies.

The Hard Drive
While Silva’s main ambition to seek vengeance against the secret service that left him suicidal and scarred, part of his increasingly elaborate plan is not only to embarass MI6 on their home turf, but expose them worldwide. Much of the first third of the movie is spent in a relentless chase for a hard drive (thrilling) containing the true identites of the agency’s secret agents (we’re not even going to get into how unbelievable that whole set up is). And when Silva gets it, his plan involves unveiling the names on YouTube, five per week, until his demands are met. And then? Well, Bond and M hatch a plan that involves his childhood home and a few explosions later, no one really seems all that concerned about the hard drive anymore. In fact, it’s dropped entirely along with the fate of the other remaining MI6 agents who are in danger of being identified. Considering this thread drives a bulk of the movie, it’s a major dangling plot element that is left unresolved. And while some may cry “Macguffin,” there are too many high stakes attached to the hard drive to let the film get away with it.

I Guess Bond Is Dead
The Bond franchise is fifty years old, but it seems old habits die hard. The series has always featured villains that either talk too much (especially when they’re about to vanquish their foe) and/or assume that Bond will die or is dead already. And in 2012, Silva pretty much does both. He not only loves to chat, but when he makes his final siege against Bond at his home in the countryside, it seems he finally has 007 right where he wants him. Silva is in control and Bond is on the run, and it looks like he’s done for when he plunges into an ice cold lake, fighting for his life. So why bother checking to make sure he’s dead? In the laziest, lamest screenwriting trick in the book, Silva moves on to try and find M, leaving lots of time for 007 to (shock!) survive, surprise Silva and kill him. Of all the Bond series tropes, they could do away with this one for good.

Sexism
Some might argue that complaining about sexism in a Bond film is a bit like complaining that it features gun violence. But this is the 21st century, and the franchise has made some decent strides of late in making its female characters not just two-dimensional bullet magnets or shag buddies (Eva Green and Olga Kurylenko in the last two entries both being good examples of that). And to a degree, that’s present in “Skyfall.” Naomie Harris‘ Eve is a capable field agent who flirts with, but never falls for Bond, while Bérénice Marlohe‘s Severine is given an intriguing backstory as a former child sex slave. The trouble is that by the end of the film, Mendes and John Logan undermine these characters entirely. 007 decides that the best thing to do with Severine, who must have suffered untold sexual abuse, is to sneak uninvited into her shower and fuck her. Five minutes later, she’s murdered, to which 007 shows very little grief. True to the character’s Ian Fleming origins, perhaps, but leaving a very sour taste in 2012. As for Eve? Despite proving pretty useful in the field (obviously she has one major fuck-up in shooting Bond, but it’s hardly an easy shot), she ends the film having decided that she’s not cut out for the field, and she’s taking a desk job. If the Miss Moneypenny reveal is anything to go by (along with M being replaced by Ralph Fiennes‘ Mallory, about as establishment-white-male figure as you could imagine), the filmmakers seem to be suggesting that a woman’s place is behind a receptionist’s desk (frankly, we’d love to see an entire film of Moneypenny kicking ass in the field alongside Bond). It’s pretty sad and insidious stuff in a year that’s seen so many strong heroines in tentpoles.

M’s Death Isn’t Earned
According to Sam Mendes, the only notion they had about the film when he came on board was that M should die at the end of the film. And with Judi Dench now 77, it’s understandable that they might want to move her character on. And it does certainly provide an emotional gut-punch to the conclusion. But is it really earned, narratively speaking? We don’t think so. Silva’s sole aim in the film is to put M through hell before killing her (and, as it turns out, himself). But the filmmakers don’t quite have the balls to have him win outright (partly because it would deflate the Bond-gets-back-in-the-swing-of-things arc), so Bond kills him off quickly and disappointingly — who didn’t want to see the two of them go toe-to-toe properly first? — and tastes victory and redemption. But then M dies of her wounds — not inflicted by Silva — but by some anonymous henchman. It feels like it’s happening because it’s been deemed by the franchise gods, not because she’s made a sacrifice, or because Silva was too great an adversary, and it’s pretty unsatisfying as a result.

For more Bond, check out our various 007 features from last week. The 5 Best Bond Films, The 5 Worst ones, the 5 Best Bond Girls, the 5 Best Action Sequences in the series, the 5 Best Bond Villains, this controversial-related feature about antagonist sexuality in Hollywood, our coverage from the “Skyfall” press conference and our interview with director Sam Mendes.

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