Cast: Daniel Craig, Dame Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Ben Winshaw
Director: Sam Mendes
Runtime: 140 min.
Verdict: Utterly reactionary. Completely dilutes all of its attempts at some sort of relevance by paying tributes to itself. And yeah, static and inert.
Genre: Action, Thriller
Consider, dear reader, the fictional universe of Superman/ Clark Kent, the flag-bearer of American exceptionalism. Imagine a tale where Daily Planet is under attack, where Perry White is another of Superman’s “father figures”, where a former disgruntled journalist is exacting a calculated revenge by knocking off one journalist at a time his main aim being the destruction of White. The other journalists are mere bait, and what he wants is White and White alone. Superman has got to stop it. To raise the stakes, let us have the disgruntled journalist a man with superpowers after having been bitten by a spider. And to spice up matters, let us make Superman physically unfit complete with high blood sugar levels and a failed kidney. Maybe even a groin injury. And a pulled hamstring. It doesn’t make much sense, I admit, but considering the production house’s insistence, it is still a Superman picture. To make an independent low-key low-stakes Superman picture is not merely an oxymoron, it is plain ridiculous. Why should an archetype of a nation with such great power be reduced to a silly street-side quarrel? And if that is indeed the case, why, in the lord’s name, should we be the bystanders to such an utterly uninteresting non-event?
Dear reader, do not mind that the above concoction is something of a rhetorical question, and I would rather you focus on the fact that I direct this question towards you when we consider this latest James Bond picture from Mr. Sam Mendes. I repeat, it is a James Bond picture. An espionage film. An espionage film that isn’t Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and there’s no way a commercial entity like a Bond picture would have the courage and integrity to go the way of Mr. Alfredson’s masterpiece. It can only pretend, before function-less hot women and action sequences and silly one-liners knock on the door demanding their presence. In an uneasy mixture as this, if the stakes are as high as M’s life, when there’s the whole of the world begging to be included in the picture, including those dozens of MI6 agents, I’m not sure how such a narrative could end up being anything but dramatically inert. There’re several elements, like Silva’s (Mr. Bardem) island for instance, that could still acquire a personality of its own and lend some of that to the narrative, but Mr. Mendes generally limits them to ornate appearances. I am assuming several of you have already watched the film, and I ask you to imagine a less complicated and hence less ludicrous Silva master-plan, where he simply blackmails the stakeholders that he would keep revealing the details of MI6 agents each day James Bond doesn’t personally deliver M to him, the flash-drive being the bargaining chip against any military intervention. It simply doesn’t shrink the narrative further, it makes it leaner and poetic. It brings a dimension of ethical uncertainty to the proceedings, a la Christopher Nolan picture, where James Bond carries M on a boat through the heart of darkness, and crucially, it gives us the opportunity to ask such self-congratulatory (yet I believe involving) questions as – (a) Did Bond secretly want to get rid of M, for the sake of the countless agents, and for himself, and (b) Why doesn’t M give herself up, and save the lives of all her agents? Then, there is the island, the island of disillusionment, this island unhinged from the world, and maybe, just maybe, Silva could’ve constructed it in a manner so as to remind Bond of his past. A journey for all, you know. I might sound boastful here, but this picture in my head is getting increasingly awesome. Something like a super riff on From Russia with Love, and almost certainly a game-changer. But then, never mind.
What I intend to highlight is Skyfall’s failure at a very basic, action-picture genre-stakes narrative level. The crucial factor for any Hollywood actioner is the helpless collateral, like in Premium Rush, where the money belonging to a mostly innocent Asian woman is at stake. Or The Dark Knight Rises, where the lives of Gotham’s 1% and 99% are at stake. Or Taken 2 where it’s the wife. And so on and so forth. Skyfall does have two of them – a woman by the name of Sévérine (Ms. Marlohe), and well, the identity of several MI6 agents. Mr. Mendes squanders both of them, Sévérine by wasting her in a rare confusing shot (I realized she was dead only after she didn’t make an appearance for a good fifteen minutes), and the agents who’re (a) faceless and, (b) are anyway exposed 5 a week so as to become a minor stakes in the middle of the film until M takes over those duties. And I’m finding it incredibly tough to buy M as collateral to base the entire narrative upon. A film as Rambo III does have the Colonel hostage but there’re several Afghans at stake too. I mean, it is like having a Nolan Batman picture with the mayor kidnapped, or coming back to my ridiculous scenario from above, where Perry White is the hostage. I mean, why the hell would I need Bond for that? Why is M so damn important?
And answer to which might be, to pull back James Bond from all the campy world-saving escapism into a real psychoanalytical self-conscious world. The dramatic and serious James Bond. To what end, one might wonder? While Goldeneye described, in a supreme moment of wit and economy, the archetype as a sexist misogynist dinosaur, Skyfall does take the pain of going all psychoanalytic on our posterior, complete with mommy issues, not merely to address and deconstruct the archetype, but milk the iconic symbol of British exceptionalism that James Bond has been for the past so many decades. Him being weak, him finding it tough to get to six pull-ups (I do sets of 7 daily) ought to be read as a failure at a national level. James Bond would have been a knight a few hundred years ago, or at least a noble, but here, running around on the roads, as Mr. Mendes intercuts him against Silva’s men dressed as cops, as M (Ms. Dench) recites the lines from Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, he resembles not the bureaucracy but the working class. It is real tough to reconcile with this idea, but Skyfall, which seems to be as paranoid about its relevance as a franchise, as it is of its eponymous figure, so much so that it fantasizes a world almost a hundred years into the past. There’s Shanghai, featuring yet again this year (after Looper) as a dazzling futuristic world, almost cementing itself as the capital of the new world as far as Hollywood is concerned. And coming in a James Bond picture, where Tomorrow Never Dies had a bike action sequence set amongst the slummy face of China, and Die Another Day, where the East (Korea) was a war-ravaged area of megalomaniacs, it might be something of an acknowledgment of the order of things.
More importantly it wonders about the significance of spies. Robert Baer, in that wonderful book of his, See no Evil, mentions how the CIA did not have one decent field officer or linguist in the Middle East during the early nineties. That very good old-fashioned intelligence on the ground is what Skyfall is trying to preserve, and it feels, for better or worse, out of place in a franchise that actually helped rewrite and romanticize, with futuristic gadgetry and technological prowess. When Q, in a rather pathetic self-referential comment, disses all of that history as some joke (which it is), romantic or whatever, and intends to rewrite it tethered to a real nuts-and-bolts world. I’m all for such corrections, but there is a certain self-congratulatory tone to Q and the film, where the deconstruction is not means but an end. More importantly, the details of the deconstruction all come in broad strokes, with Bond finding it tough to get to six pull-ups, and declared mentally and physically unfit. And yet he gets an opportunity to provide us with his customary introduction to a woman in a casino, which happens to create something of an ungainly combination. Something like those super-tight trousers that Bond seems to wear and is rarely elegant or comfortable in. I bet a hundred bucks if we freeze frame that moment where M announces him his results and he stands up and leaves, we would get a fine shot of his trousers and the underpants stuck up his crack, which, in a rather fine way, becomes symptomatic of this entire exercise. I mean, Bond sure seems to be in pain while hanging by an elevator cabin, but then he isn’t particularly troubled in the field. Throw in those komodo dragons to bring back ugly memories of those crocodiles in Live and Let Die, and I wasn’t sure about the tone anymore.
What’s troubling is the inherently reactionary view of things, of Aston Martins and British Bulldogs, of the majesty of the Westminster skyline (should that be interpreted as: The east can be all light and show but nothing trumps this view), of the Scottish moors. Mr. Deakins’ shot of Skyfall, up from a hill, closely resembling a John Ford shot, is so evocative here one might almost instinctively utter “throwback”. The new world order, the working class, the nature of intelligence and all such questions posed by the narrative are evaded by the film’s desire to run back to the past, in a land devoid of all the diplomacy and secrecy and technology. It is an uncomplicated land, ethically and strategically, a land that alludes to a great past (which I assume to be imperialism), a land which almost desires hand-to-hand us-versus-them combat, like the wars of the early years of the last century, and one feels Skyfall intends to have that land as some kind of base upon which to write a new history and a new world order. There’re films out there that might be wrongly labeled as reactionary when they merely want to present a world with beliefs, and a narrative filled with conviction. Mr. Mendes’ Skyfall isn’t one of those. Its half-baked questions are lost amongst the celebration of British icons. And then I think of those komodo, and I am filled with a sense of disgust that all of this might be only to serve as a Launchpad for a new franchise. Probably drenched in Scottish whiskey and narcissism I suppose.
Note 1: Here’s a psychoanalytic reading of the film that might be a worthwhile read –
Note 2: Here’s Jim Emerson considering the film’s staging, and despite Mr. Deakins’ work, some of the set-ups, like in the water tunnels, a clear reference to The Third Man, are dull and uninspired.http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2012/11/skyfall_hey_kids_lets_put_on_a.html