Second Opinion: Skyfall

I’m very mixed on Skyfall, leaning decidedly towards the negative. There are many great moments and ideas I loved in the movie, but negatives stand out much more. Being a Bond film, I’m sure I will revisit it again over the years and may even warm up to it. That makes it even more important that I get my gut reaction on paper. These are just the least spoilery ones. I’d be happy to talk about this at greater length after you’ve seen the film.

The tone is wildly inconsistent, at times trying to blend a more humorous approach with the gritty dark one established for Daniel Craig, yet at times it’s jokier than Pierce Brosnan. I would embrace the humor if it didn’t feel like it was apologizing for itself.

The Q jokes particularly feel self-righteous. By this point, rejecting the Bond formula has become a cliché itself. It’s been three movies, you can’t still play the “This is the NEW Bond” card. The 007 theme is played as a wink, as an avenging moment, irreverently, sincerely. What are you doing with this song? Bond becomes dismissive at odd times, when he’s been intense for most of the story.

The dialogue is the weakest aspect of the film. With credits to Bond veterans Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and new-to-the-series John Logan, it’s hard to know who botched the Bond basics. Could be the Die Another Day writers, but they also had a hand in Casino Royale. Every banter between Bond and another character is trying so hard to be witty and pointed, but it’s not saying anything. There’s certainly no double entendre. Bond’s catch-up with Eve (Naomi Harris), debriefing with M (Judi Dench), meeting the new Q (Ben Whishaw), these are all hackneyed exchanges. Everyone is questioning each other, self-conscious about the traditional moments from such spy films, but not progressing them in any way. The non-banter dialogue is pretty weak too. When Bond meets Severine (Berenice Marlohe) he explains her backstory in a straightforward essay. It’s not cold, it’s not edgy, it’s just exposition.

It’s a shame because the pre-title sequence achieved the perfect mix of the outrageous and the hardcore. Bond does some of his wildest stunts in this gritty world, so you can have it all. You don’t have to shy away from the fun because now it’s “real,” man. It turns out, except for the pre-title and the finale, Skyfall is more focused on intimate, personal action, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. Some of the stealth sequences are like the sniper scene in From Russia with Love. In the subway sequence, a major spectacle is simply the punctuation to a much more important confrontation. There are fabulous standoffs where I was rattled with suspense, even though I kind of knew what the payoff would be. But Craig is such a physical actor, every pose and gesture he makes adds to the film. Then they’ve made him a parkour Bond though. Those are some cool moves, but how many Jackie Chan jumps can he do before that becomes his signature move?

It’s cool that they focused on smaller action, concentrating on the scenes between enemies or between suspicious allies. It’s just the dialogue in those scenes is so rough. The film really doesn’t come to life until Javier Bardem shows up. Silva (Bardem) is the only character who has any vitality with Bond. When scenes between Judi Dench and Daniel Craig feel lazy (on the writing side), that’s a problem. Compare it to their first scene together in Casino Royale or their last one in the snow in Quantum of Solace.

Every Bond film since Licence to Kill has had some sort of personal connection to Bond. We really need to have a Bond movie where it’s just a mission again. That doesn’t mean it has to be frivolous. It’s just important to show Bond on the job because that’s, you know, why he’s Bond. Also, like Quantum, Skyfall suggests this is still Bond getting up to his full abilities, before he’s become the Bond we’ve known before. I’m sorry, but Casino Royale was a phenomenal reboot and Quantum of Solace was a stretch to say he’s still not full Bond yet but now he’s gotten there. You can still have fun introducing the ensemble characters, but at some point you’re going to have to decide you’re making Bond movies. It’s a shame they didn’t have anything for Felix Leiter to do since he was a major character in the previous two films and they’ve gotten schizophrenic about which characters would be a bold new modern version and who would be total throwbacks to the original incarnations. Since they’re going this way, they better remember the scar from this movie in all the rest of Daniel Craig’s movies. They started it, now it’s canon.

The plot of Skyfall is rather banal, a very thin MacGuffin on which to hang its character backstories. There’s a list of NATO operatives embedded in terrorists cells, so if the bad guy gets the list he can blow their cover. That was the NOC List in Mission: Impossible and any other generic action movie. It’s fine if that’s all you’ve got to get us started on this wonderful adventure, but really, is a security list better than a supervillain with a volcano lair? And again, where’s Felix Leiter? The CIA has no opinion on NATO operatives, even if they’re not Americans? It’s a major step back, and many of the plot points protected under spoiler warnings are only riffs on things that have happened in other Bond films. Also, a Bond movie with YouTube in it? I mean, is that the brave new world he’s adapting to? Anyway, this mission leads to some questionable judgment calls and resurrects backstories for many of the characters.

So far, most of the above are script problems. It was probably Sam Mendes’ idea to scale down the action, but that’s something that actually worked, when it remained consistent. Some of Mendes’ other choices were distracting. They’re all great individual choices of scene work but some felt like, “Look, this isn’t what the other Bond movies were like. They didn’t have silhouette scenes, right? We’re different!” And Roger Deakins’ cinematography is beautiful, but sometimes felt like maybe we should just be focusing on Bond. You don’t have to light everyone in Macao with gold. It doesn’t make the dialogue in that scene any more eloquent.

There are obvious advantages to rejecting the factory approach the Bond series had in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s with a single company director helming many films. Even the ‘90s films, though they each had different directors, felt like the Roger Spotiswoodes and Michael Apteds played ball with the producers, sticking to formula. EON seems to have embraced unique directors’ visions more with the Daniel Craig series, and with Sam Mendes I wonder if some directors’ visions may be too selfish. As in, they want to do something that’s so different, it may be cool for a one off but it’s not really a good James Bond movie.

Many Bond fans didn’t like Marc Forster’s vision for Quantum of Solace but I actually thought that did work, adopting the current trend of quick cut handheld action and doing it better than all the Bond imitators. It showed Bond could adapt to that style, so then he doesn’t have to anymore. The post-Bourne question has been answered. All Forster did was take the air out of every scene, and it spoke to Bond’s place in the current action world. Quantum had a better Goldfinger reference than Skyfall too. Look, Casino Royale is just the best thing ever, but you can’t have that every time. If every film tries to be the bold new shake-up, then the bold new shake-up becomes the cliché formula.

It might not be such a bad thing to exercise some aspects of consistency in the Bond movies. Play with it but don’t be different just because you think you’re cooler than the 22 other movies that came before you. Can we please just have a Bond movie again? And for God’s sake will you please just put the gun barrel at the beginning of the movie! 

Read CraveOnline's first review of Skyfall.

You can follow Fred Topel on Twitter at @FredTopel.