Sometimes it’s helpful to hear a bunch of really damning, spoilery things about a movie like this before you go to see it. In this case I didn’t spoil myself on purpose, but one way or another going in I knew about the movie’s most problematic and/or questionably handled elements, so I was prepared for the worst in that regard. What I wasn’t prepared for was how ridiculous it was.
Overall, though: Skyfall‘s probably the best bad movie I’ve seen this year. It’s operatic, melodramatic, over-the-top, and unintentionally funny on more than one instance. It also has some central ambitions which are pretty solid (if also operatic and melodramatic) and hinges on the relationship between Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Judi Dench’s M, two characters which have been partly elevated from the mediocre nostalgia of their franchise by good performances. There’s some kind of high-drama tragic romance trying to bust out of this bad action movie; it doesn’t quite manage, but it’s fun to watch it try.
So, you should know this much: Skyfall is ridiculous. There are a lot of shenanigans with trains as the story all the while takes itself dead seriously. There’s some very questionable employment of komodo dragons. There’s also some very questionable and bad-taste employment of the trope of Villainous Bond Girl, which was both stupid and tacked-on in the context of this movie. It also tries to get the old dog to do a couple new tricks, though, and those tricks are pretty fun to watch.
I spent a lot of this movie going “what the hell?” It started with Adele’s opening credits, which basically signified what the rest of the movie was going to be like. “Wait, is a giant hand picking him u — what the hell?” “Chinese dragons? What the hell?” “Is this a dream sequence? What the hell?” This is probably one of the better questions to stick to during Skyfall. It’s a lot safer than why? Do not venture into why. Why will be the undoing of you here. Do not find yourself asking, why would an assassin choose a glass building to work from? Or why does Bond keep failing to save literally everyone imperiled by the villain in this entire movie? And especially not but why did the komodo dragons…? Just leave the komodo dragons alone, you’ll be better for it. At a certain point I just started laughing when why moments came up. Like the komodo dragons. Or when Bond’s determinedly hiking his way over to save M at the end of the movie and a villainous flunky somehow pops out from behind him in a barren Scottish landscape, like a mallet from a pocket dimension in an anime series. Or basically anytime anything happens with a train. Once a train comes onscreen in this film you start expecting something amazingly ridiculous to happen, and it always does. And the thing is: this movie, like an Andrew Lloyd Webber production, still wants you to take it perfectly seriously.
I’m half convinced it’s better off for it. Here’s the thing. Skyfall is worse than The Avengers, but I’m also pretty sure it’s better than The Avengers. They’re both silly popcorn flicks in superheroic franchise that basically exist to endorse what we already want to believe about shadowy government organizations that defend our freedom, IE that they’re necessary and shouldn’t be asked too many hard questions (SHIELD and MI6 are equivalent symbols of popcorn fascism, however you slice it), and The Avengers overall is fun and sort of mediocre: it’s mostly inoffensive, save all the subtextual fascism, it’s funny in bits, the action sequences are reasonably well thought out. Skyfall, by comparison, is a mess, featuring wand-waving hacking, characters acting in the stupidest way possible at any given moment, poor-taste Women in Refrigerators treatment of a victim of human trafficking, and improbable komodo dragon behavior. However, Skyfall isn’t mediocre. It’s either compelling or extremely bad. You don’t walk out of Skyfall going “eh, that wasn’t bad!” You walk out of it either going “that was awful” or simultaneously “that was awful” and “aw, but the tragic Bond/M epic! And Javier, what were you wearing, Javier? What were you even wearing?” To some degree I count how much time you spend talking about a movie with the person you went with as points towards a movie’s success (not necessarily its quality, but its success) and by that measure Skyfall succeeded rather well.
The film is basically about Judi Dench’s M getting stalked by her bitter ex-boyfriend Silva, played by Javier Bardem, while her bitter sort-of-ex-boyfriend Daniel Craig’s James Bond tries to protect her while unraveling what happens. Except that summary makes it sound way too coherent. In fact, the film is partly about that and partly about non sequitur segments on abandoned Half-Life-2-looking islands and laser rave sequences in glass buildings and things. But that’s what the bits that make sense are about. I could qualify my statement by saying that Bond’s and M’s relationship, or M’s and Silva’s relationship, isn’t strictly intended to be read as romantic, but I think that would be a cop-out and a lie: they don’t make out on-screen, no, but everything about the movie telegraphs a relationship between bitter ex-lovers (or -spouses) with a great deal of history, including when M gives an order that leads to Bond’s apparent death near the beginning and he inexplicably survives this and goes on to turn up in her flat when her life is threatened and lurk around being bitter until she pointedly tells him he’s not staying the night. The fact they didn’t make out on screen is more a testament to filmmakers’ and audiences’ prudishness about a man of Daniel Craig’s age being explicitly involved with a woman of Judi Dench’s, which is a pity, because they had spades of chemistry. Overall, though, the film was handicapped severely not just by its own intrinsic ridiculousness but by its conservatism and love affair with the old Bond franchise.
The worst decisions the film makes are when it chooses to stick to Bond-film tropes: I’d select the handling of the “Bond girl” Sévérine, played by a wooden Bérénice Lim Marlohe, as the apex of this. She turns up for about ten minutes in the film, is pretty and enigmatic, informs us she’s a sex slave and the victim of human trafficking (an awful and inappropriate choice for any Bond film, and completely out of left field for this one), has an unintentionally creepy relationship with Bond, and then is brutally and randomly killed in yet another sequence where Bond fails to save anyone. This film consists largely of Bond’s failures, and of M’s failures, and really, of everyone’s failures, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — I like it better than the usual wish-fulfillment unsuspenseful thrill ride of a Bond film — but it does mean a lot of, “well, what was the point of that, then?” Sévérine is exemplary of this. She only exists to pay tribute to the old dog of womanizer-Bond, which made a bit more (unlikeable, irritating) sense with Sean Connery but seems more and more out-of-place with Daniel Craig: Craig plays a gruff, sardonic, matter-of-fact operative who seems to deliver little enjoyment out of anything, and he’s very charismatic in the role, but he’s not believable as a hedonist or seducer. In Casino Royale he nearly seduces another Bad Bond Girl figure, but leaves her before they get anywhere interesting, having done so coldly and entirely for information: that’s closer to the tune of Craig’s Bond. In an obligatory quasi-homoerotic flirtation with Javier Bardem’s Silva, he implies with a wry smile that he’s slept with men before, probably in the pursuit of his job, which also seems rather fitting (and saves the conversation from being sheer 300-esque homophobic scaremongering). In general the film should have shaken off its antsy dedication to the Bond status quo: Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny is a fun and charming addition to the cast as Bond’s coworker, but it’s plainly insulting and nonsensical to see her relegated to the role of secretary at the end. She and Bond have a fair amount of quick-fire chemistry that’s damaged by her enforced inferiority to him. A 2000s Bond franchise does not need a supportive and subordinate Moneypenny, nor an array of disposable un-virtuous women for him to sleep with and throw away, and it’s insufferable to see it try to retain them. On top of being offensive, it simply doesn’t work.
That M dies in the course of the movie to be replaced by Ralph Fiennes’s new M is not necessarily a bad choice in and of itself: it’s a story about her facing her old mistakes come back to haunt her, after all, and Judi Dench can’t well be expected to keep doing these films forever. However, it does mean that the fates of Sévérine and Moneypenny are all the more conspicuously ill-placed, given no woman escapes the movie alive and in a position of power. Judi Dench, of course, is a delight, 20% dignified vulnerability and 80% steel, and no more vulnerable than Bond himself, which I think is important: she and Craig smoulder at each other shamelessly while Bardem smoulders at her even more gratuitously, heaping on even more Phantom of the Opera melodrama onto the whole thing. God rest her, I don’t know what the franchise is going to do without her. This felt like it should be the last Bond film, or at least the last or penultimate Bond film starring Craig: at this rate the only graceful thing to do would be to phase out Daniel Craig’s character and give him a replacement with his codename much as came to pass with M, perhaps Idris Elba, if you go by pleasant Hollywood rumor.
The secondary characters are fun enough to watch. Javier Bardem’s Silva is ridiculous, camp, and implausibly dressed, and probably the subject of more ill-advised why questions about how he accomplishes things than anyone else, as his entire plotline hinges on the sheer incompetence of anyone opposing him. He’s got a fun unhinged Byronic turn to him, though, and his end scene with M feels like something out of some kind of West End version of Wuthering Heights. Ben Whishaw’s Q is nerdy and endearing and also has a few sparks with Bond, which I doubt is entirely unintentional; he also seems to do all the in-house support this office needs, rendering Moneypenny’s office-grounding all the more annoyingly unnecessary. Ralph Fiennes is a polite, chivalrous bureaucrat who looks very snappy in an arm cast and an extremely blue shirt, but it’s hard to imagine respecting him in the place of someone like Judi Dench.
Craig himself is very good, as he was in Casino Royale, and continues to be the reason for this franchise’s profitability: half the dimension sketched into the Bond character is his addition to a flat 60s power fantasy. He plays him with cynicism and bitter love, and his Bond is much more an operative and a part of a team than a lone ranger, which is all that makes him tolerable. Following on bad choices for nostalgia’s stake, it’s all the more jarring and implausible that he’s evidently orphaned Scottish aristocracy: he’s been played as a working-class servant scooped out of obscurity by the government (and M) and put to unsavory use, and blue-blooded origins don’t suit him at all. His wardrobe, however, does. It’s kind of amusing to keep track of how much time he spends either immaculately dressed or not dressed at all, which is to say all of it. The movie has no shame in this regard.
Cinematically the film’s very pretty and does a lot of nonsensical things to showcase how pretty it is. It’s also extremely loud in IMAX, which I do not recommend. Overall, if you’re willing to watch something that has all the ultimate coherency of a dream sequence, Skyfall is the funnest dream sequence of the 2012 movie season. I just wish it weren’t a Bond film.