The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Jim Holden.

Photo from the article Although James Bond films are almost a subgenre in themselves, Skyfall truly attempts to be firstly a spy film. The Bond series has certainly helped shape the espionage genre, and thrillers in general, into what it is today, and pressures of expectation mean that James Bond’s latest adventure will always follow certain formulas of the form: a villain, beautiful women, a world-threatening problem, etc. This, in some ways, is Skyfall’s downfall. ‘Bond 23’ is a pleasurable, limited film; but, despite its efforts, it’s not truly about spying, or espionage, but simply a story which happens to have a spy in the lead role.

The plot of Skyfall is, let’s be honest, rather thin, containing no real mystery, just a series of thrilling events and a game of cat-and-mouse. That isn’t the problem, but the constant need to belong to the spy world - the ‘real world’ of spying - is. Or rather, the issue is the uneasy balance between that background plot (do we really need stuffy old MI6 in this technologically-interconnected world?) and a film that is brimming with nostalgia and a celebration of the Bond legacy. Nudging the audience with a humorous joke about ejector seats is fine, but it sits somewhat at odds with a tight, tense, timely drama about mysterious hackers who trying to change the world order by giving away national secrets. Although Skyfall has won plaudits for being both ‘serious’ and nostalgic, its attempted fusion of rough, real-world danger with throwback suaveness, epic villains’ bases and an old-fashioned MI6 headquarters, in fact undermines both the film’s plot and tone.

At the narrative's centre is a stolen hard drive with some very sensitive information on it: the details of the British government’s agents and their international allies. Serious stuff, with real political implications. The man who is behind the crime is a cyber terrorist, a powerful one, and someone with a grievance against the British government. Like the plot of a series of 24, this develops as a fast-passed narrative, feels up-to-date, relevant, even, without having to be specific, and not actually giving us a great deal of context. We simply trust that Silva is a genius - he proves it by blowing up M’s office - and from then on we accept that he can do more or less what he wants.

Having Silva as the villain - someone who knows MI6 and, moreover, M - it makes the attack personal as well as political. And again like a series of 24, in which we care more about terrorism when it affects Jack Bauer personally, this hits close to home for Bond - attacking his belief system, threatening something he loves, and is. This makes for an enthralling story, but Silva’s plan also becomes troublesome for the wider context of James Bond the brand.

Silva is showing the world that MI6 and British intelligence are doing it all wrong - are behind the times, out of date. He argues that old fashioned spying is redundant, and proves it, too. Why run around when you can change the world from sitting behind a desk? He scares Britain, and its politicians get scared and push for change. M is hauled before a committee, and MPs question her. But this is when the film remembers what it is, and that within the logic of the franchise only one thing that can stop Silva: one man - past his best, who flunked his tests, back from the dead. Who else than 007, an old-fashioned spy. As such, there is even an attack and gunfire in the committee meeting, just in case we were in any doubt who we are rooting for and the heroes we need.

So a contradiction emerges - one that is so obvious and distracting that the filmmakers virtually abandon the plot to solve it. It is simply nostalgia verses technology, Bond the legacy and the franchise verses modern spy films. The hunt for the drive is forgotten as Bond drags (in an Aston Martin, no less) M up to Scotland, his old home, for a cinematic showdown. And it is a glorious showdown, but one that betrays what has been set up. The last third really is two types of man fighting it out to reign supreme: a traditional Bond with his shotgun, booby traps, wits and determination; and Silva with machines guns, helicopters and extra muscle. A thrilling battle ensues, but all plot and context have gone out the window.

But then this is a problem that cannot be solved, not really, because this is a James Bond film, not Jason Bourne (or Jack Bauer), and as much as the cinematic showdown is inevitable, so too is the outcome. Yes, Bond is now 'modern', but it also aspires to be exactly what it was fifty years ago; and the audience demand that too. The ending of the film, when all is right with the world and Silva is defeated, is a letdown in terms of a satisfying plot, but completely understandable given the weight of history.

The terrorists have been foiled, the world is (presumably) a safer place, so MI6, having defeated this threat, have regressed. Naomi’s Harris becomes Moneypenny and Ralph Fiennes takes over as M. Q too, is in place; so what the filmmakers have done, simply, is reset the entire franchise. Forget cyber terrorism and real world problems - that threat has gone, Bond dealt with that. His potential new partner is safely behind a desk so he is free to go it alone, like in the good old days. This works to the extent that it satisfies a fanbase and gives the franchise a fresh start, but it forgets what has happened; this film was about testing British espionage, rocking MI6 to its core, as well as making it personal. However, one dead villain later, and Bond is free to fight another all-new battle (in about two years, we presume). After all, Bond always returns: even the final credits say so.

This Alternate Take was published on December 08, 2012.

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