This carefully composed symmetrical frame from the new Bond film Skyfall reminds me of those optical illusion teasers – do you see a vase or two people in profile?

The cinematographer has even given us the cue by placing the martini glass in the centre of the frame.

The reason I start my review with this is because, like the optical illusion teasers, I think in this new Bond film people will see what they want to see.

Some people will see a brilliant step in a new direction.  Other people will only see disappointing action moments that could have been payed off better, and a betrayal of the core trademarks of the series by the choice of blonde and cheeky Daniel Craig (who couldn’t be less like Connery), the rebooting of the series, the lack of gadgets, and the lack of witticisms and over the top Bond-esque absurdities.  I say this because Skyfall is a TRIUMPH of this new introspective Daniel Craig who uses literally “no more gadgets – just a gun and a radio”, and is sans absurd evil plots and escapes.

It’s a character film, i.e. it celebrates the characters and their little arcs, rather than celebrating the invicible MI6 agent with exploding pens and watches and, as my friend said, “sharks with laser beams attached to their heads” that every other Bond film has focussed on as their point of difference from other comparable action films.  But this is Bond in a new era.

When Bond started in the 60s with Sean Connery, they were still vaguely art-films.  Bond was always supposed to have that enigmatic hazy-casino sort of noir feel to it.  But as the action movie genre came into its own from the 70s, 80s and 90s, and audiences became desensitised as the censors allowed more graphic content, I would say that in general there has been a regression to the mean.  Bond films (most notably License to Kill) have had to leave out much of the character foibles and mysterious class and glamour to compete at the box office with other films in the action genre in terms of stunts, explosions, guns, gadgets, and girls.  In this sense, you can think of Bruce Willis as John McClane in the Die Hard franchise as perhaps the complete antithesis to the James Bond hero, since he uses no gadgets at all, and relies instead upon street-wise improvisation, and winning a series of brutal brawls, gunfights, and generally getting beaten to a pulp in the name of the law.  And so, to steal audience and critical attention and sell tickets, Bond films, along with all action movies, are on a one way street down the road of outdoing each other in gore and violence and macho-awesomeness.  I think this has reached a completely ridiculous point now, with The Expendables being billed as a bunch of grunting heroes blowing the shit out of everything for 90 minutes; nothing more, but nothing less.  You also have things like Lesbian Vampire KillersMacheteAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Inglorious Basterds, and 300 as examples of filmmakers trying to be outrageous and create a spectacle.  You get what I’m saying.  Action films these days are expected to be a pornography.  This is why I was ecstatic to learn Sam Mendes was directing Skyfall.

Sam Mendes is an amazing artist.  What he has done with this film is completely give up the chase, and simply end the celebration of violence.  In this film there is barely even a footnote to the violence – it all happens in the background.  Baddies drop like flies all around Bond, but these moments aren’t treated with the full blown celebration of how invicible Bond is as a secret agent.

In my favourite scene for instance, Bond is fighting silhouetted on a rooftop, which speaks volumes to me.  The action is literally not in focus, and instead we get the idea that though we can see that Bond can keep perfect fighting form, when he kills as part of his job he loses his personality.  Boom, subtle art film.

In fact, I want to break this scene down even further.  Let’s examine it at an artistic level (remember what Sam Mendes taught us in American Beauty …. to LOOK CLOSER!)  We see:

(a) a fight with the aforementioned silhouette implying that Bond has lost his personality, but also,

(b) a jellyfish in the background.  Jellyfish, as you are all aware, have no brain.  The director has thus revisited the theme of Bond not knowing whether he should be “a blunt instrument” that acts without using his brain, or “half monk and half hitman” that not only pulls triggers but also knows when not to pull them, a dilemma he has been wrestling with since Casino Royale, and more than once rebuked over by M.  But it was so subtle you didn’t notice it.  You had to think and connect the dots.  This is my kind of Bond film!  And we won’t even mention how he appears to be fighting “in a glass cage of emotion!!” reflective of his recent injuries weakening his self-confidence.  I’m sure you all noticed that first time.

What I loved about Skyfall was that crucially (here’s your spoiler alert) rather than just being a cartoon film where the good guys always win and the bad guys always get their comeuppence, in this film not only are the characters flawed, fallible, and struggling to fight on, but there are consequences, and important characters DIE.  Bond goes on a drinking binge and loses his quickshot shooting accuracy – and it costs his new love interest her life.  Judi Dench as his boss M at MI6 has the opportunity to retire with dignity and royal honours, but instead says “oh, to hell with dignity!  I’ll leave when the job is done”, choosing to fight on against the unstoppable madman, and ends up being shot to be replaced by another M.  Nobody saw that coming – because nobody expected this film to do the complete about-turn that it has done and move the Bond story forward instead of celebrate how good guys kick arse invincibly.  Nobody expected that Bond wouldn’t be at least as over the top and explosiony and ramming the good guy patriotism down the audience’s throat as anything else we have seen this year such as The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, and The Expendables 2.  [In fact, if you would care to click here to read my review of The Dark Knight Rises, you will see that I said at the time that the ending was pathetic because it was a happy one.  In TDKR, nobody important died and all the good guys got to live happily ever after, and it sucked all the value out of the trilogy for me].

[Edit: If gratuitous violence is a measure of greatness, Game of Thrones must be the greatest story ever told]

This is why I am going mental over Skyfall.  I have always felt that this kind of subtlety, poignancy, and under-statedness could be the point of difference for Bond films, rather than the absurd gadgets and one-liners, and my wish has been granted by “Mr Genius” Mendes.  I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I can’t wait to see what he does with the next one!

I welcome all discussion.  Please leave me some comments and let me know what you thought of the film or my review.

13 Responses to SKYFALL is AMAZING

  1. thangers says:

    Fantastic analysis and I agree wholeheartedly. As a fan of the Connery Bond, I did enjoy less cheese and more humanity in my characters. Good on you, mate.

  2. Jan Stripek says:

    Hi. Fantastic post! I am almost afraid to write a comment, because your comments always bring something new and make a great follow-up to my articles, and I am not sure if I can do the same here below your article.

    Anyway, I couldn’t agree more with you. The Bond movies with Pierce Brosnan didn’t have any soul. The absence of ridiculous gadgets is only better and thanks to Sam Mendes, the movie works on several layers, we just need to Look Closer…:)

  3. Hey there, I got your comment (thanks!) and thought I’d check out your post in return… I loved the points you made about the subtlety and the way Skyfall manages to celebrate the James Bond franchise while moving it forward. Also, the jellyfish scene! I absolutely loved that part, but didn’t pick up on the symbolism of Bond in silhouette or the fact that jellyfish are brainless predators. I only thought of it representing Bond’s defence mode and his predatory lifestyle, so it was awesome to get another perspective!

    Also, in that scene, I think the glass and reflections everywhere symbolise Bond’s fragility at that point–he’s already been scarred and damaged and “resurrected”, and is basically a blank slate without even a home to return to, yet he is about to face the man who is arguably responsible… Then when Patrice slips from Bond’s hand down the building, it feels anti-climactic but it’s almost like Bond feels that way as well; he was expecting some sort of gratification from killing him, but the opportunity literally slipped away and he still feels as blank as he did before.

    Sorry for the ramble… Great post!

  4. antigob says:

    Yeah the jellyfish scene is good. You’re right about the Connery canon being almost art-house.

  5. Thanks for your comments on my post! I agree with your post about the toned down violence and the reduction of over the top gagets in “Skyfall”. I felt like the movie was very psychological (and sociological).

  6. Andrew says:

    @Jan Stripek: Another thing to look closer at is the grey vs black&white. Bond and Q talk about the problem of knowing whether or not to pull a trigger and take action, and that it is hard to see the right thing to do “when you’re sitting in your pyjamas”, meaning, when he is sitting at his laptop and not in the moment. When you watch think about Bond’s costume. I’m not 100% but I think it almost lines up so that whenever he is being controlled by his instructions from people sitting behind the desk (like at the start where he is told to leave Ronson and then loses the hard drive) he is wearing grey suits. It reflects the ambiguity of the world of the pen-pushers, and how their half-hearted decisions probably lead him astray since he has to take one action or another and there is no room for mucking around deciding. When Bond is in the field he resents that he is relying on people that live entirely in a “grey area” and can’t help him decide “DO I GET ON THE TRAIN!?” And then of course later when fighting in the casino in Macau (or as we see from the Chinese Dragons, what you might call entering the Dragon’s Den) he is in his black tuxedo, and he is in full control of what he is doing. He takes definitive action and “trusts himself to do the right thing” and always comes out on top. Equally there are some scenes where he is wearing neither a grey or black suit, and at these times he is usually off doing his own thing as “a personal statement”, rather than “working” in a suit.

    Make sense?

  7. Andrew says:

    @Jojojetspacecadet: I like what you say about fragility. The whole freaking building is glass and when you are that high up you get the feeling you are literally walking on eggshells, skating on thin ice, or stepping on.. glass. Everything becomes incredibly tense! I was once up in a touristy tower with a glass floor, and I can tell you I was holding my breath and stepping very lightly indeed.

    And I LOVE what you said about the anti-climax of killing. That’s the way it’s been his whole time working – killing on someone else’s say so, with no personal investment. And I think that’s why the final line of the film is so good – “with pleasure”.

    To me it says he has finally gotten over the death of Vesper, and now the deaths of his Parents and M, and found his “happy place in the world”, as an assassin, who is living a totally impossible, contradictory life that is both incredibly brutal and incredibly suave at the same time. Saying “with pleasure” the second time at the end of the movie represents how he has been through the whole journey, complete with the doubts about whether he wants to continue and all the reasons in the world he needs to quit and give it up (the death of his surrogate mother in M, and the sand running out of his hourglass with younger agents like Q coming through, the literal destruction of all his treasured memories of home and family and love), but has made peace with what he is. Such a brilliant line that wraps it all up. “With pleasure”. It gives him pleasure now more than ever to be exactly what he is, exactly what he has been all along, exactly what he will always be. To me this says that the vast majority of his character development since the series rebooted is now complete, and that subsequent films will be a more recognisable Bond.

    Thank you so much for your comment!

  8. Greg says:

    I loved all the Christian imagery and symbolism: fall from grace (skyfall), baptism, resurrection, and, of course, sacrifice. After Bond’s final passage through a priest tunnel, “death” and baptism, he actually emerges in a chapel for a final confrontation with the devil. That’s good stuff. Sam Mendes has elevated the action-adventure genre in much the same way as Christopher Nolan.

  9. datysonmba says:

    It is interesting that a lot of people note that the Bourne Trilogy showed Bond you don’t need the gadgets to make a good movie. The lack of gadgets in the three Craig movies have made it more believable….and I think that’s why I never cared for Pierce Brosnan’s Bond…it became more about the gadgets then the movie. However a caveat here I do own Die Another Day which was a lot of fun but completely preposterous.

    I did not catch a lot of the symbolism that you mentioned (i.e. the jellyfish) but I did enjoy the humanization of Bond, where I think the Bourne Trilogy had the most impact. However one of my friends, a die-hard Bond fan feels that he is too “PC” and “wimpy”….because to a lot of people Bond (especially Connery’s version) were the definition of suave, debonair, and machismo, or in other words the gold standard of a “man’s man”. A lot has changed since then and I think Skyfall, and Sam Mendes, have done a marvelous job of conveying that….as noted especially in the scene at the art museum with the “age” jokes between Bond and the new Q.

    I am glad to see this Bond movie doing so well because I think it is what is needed for the series to thrive. Hopefully Bond 24 will be more along these same lines…if so I’ll be there opening day for it.

  10. Alan Laing says:

    Do you not think that the director played with scenes from other films to place bond as the original and greatest all action hero, I believe fun was poked at Harry potter though the new Q, a boy wizard, but Bond’s intuition and wit beat the computer master, the fight scene was reminiscent of killbill, almost cartoon like!, symbolism at every shot, at times I got a feeling that London had become Gotham City, A wonderful film, I’ll need to watch again see if I can glean anything else, the pseudo oddjob, the Aston Martin, the casino, the false jaw of the villain, almost a mini reworking of ‘you only live twice’ when the chips were down a return was made to bonds original roots! A fantastic collage of bond memorabilia!!

  11. Megan says:

    One thing that no one here has mentioned but was brought to my attention by a friend of mine who I saw the movie with is the paintings. I don’t know if this is so simple that everyone here assumes you notice, but when Bond meets Q for the first time in the museum they are looking at a painting of an old warship being taken to a shipyard. Q even comments about the “inevitability of time.” Then, in Mallory’s office at the end of the movie, there is a painting showing a fleet of new ships being brought into harbor. My friend described the painting in the museum as a representation of how everyone is viewing Bond, that (in Mallory’s words) it’s a “young man’s game” and he is not the agent he used to be. Also, I think it applies to M, especially her dying at the end. But the painting in Mallory’s office of the new ships applies to Mallory himself, the new and fresh head of MI6 (debatable about whether or not this could apply to Q as young as he is).
    That’s all, hope it’s spot on.

  12. Paul Kyriazi says:

    A very good and entertaining analysis concisely written. It made me excited to see Skyfall again.

  13. Andrew says:

    How sad Spectre has left me. Haha.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: