James Bond went old school for his fiftieth anniversary. Or possibly oooooold school. I don’t mean that Skyfall included throwbacks and homages to past Bond movies (but it did), I mean it threw out nearly all the conventions and tropes that the Bond was built on. Most notably, all the complex gadgets the franchise is famous for are completely non-existent in this iteration. Bond doesn’t meet Q in the lab with all the goofy/deadly tests going on, and Q sends him away with nothing but a Walther and a radio transmitter. Not even a GPS device, an actual radio transmitter, and a large one at that. The only concession to Q Division’s high tech history is the Walther makes sure no one can fire it but Bond himself.
So when I say old school… Bond faces the bad guys with nothing but his wits, a couple of trusty firearms, and the shiny Aston Martin from his early escapades in Dr. No and Goldfinger. It’s an interesting choice, especially in a movie that goes out of its way to contrast intelligence work in the digital age with the old-school Cold War era work previous Bonds have done. The movie works hard to make this comparison much to its detriment. In the beginning I was expecting a ‘passing of the guard’ type where everyone acknowledges the importance of digital intelligence gathering while also needing field agents, but in end the message was that old-school brute force wins out over any digital finesse. I won’t quibble with the message, but getting there seemed a bit misleading.
Skyfall continues the darker, grittier Bond that has been around since Craig took over the character in Casino Royale. This is one change I heartily endorse. The entire franchise was just a bit too in love with itself and had veered way too much in the direction of camp so a little more dark realism brings it back down to earth. I did find myself a bit confused about one aspect. Casino Royale was presented as a prequel of sorts. A look back at the early days of Bond, but now just a few years later we’re shown a Bond on the decline. A Bond who’s lost a step due to all the injuries and trauma he has been through and who needs a little ‘administrative’ help to pass his field fitness test. It’s a creative choice in keeping with the old vs new conflict the film wants to keep beating us with and a logical point to reach in Bond’s career, but it was a bit jarring for people keeping up with the franchise. I assume this is a meta effort to acknowledge and derail the familiar tropes of the franchise but it’s a bit of a character swerve.
They worked hard at humanizing Bond in a way that has never been done before. Bond isn’t always at his best as the character was in the Connery days. He spends a decent amount of run time looking hungover and scruffy. This Bond doesn’t spend nearly as much time pitching woo as is typical and settles for a bit of perfunctory flirting with a fellow agent and a really rapey shower scene. The main lady in Bond’s life is M, his boss and a blatant mother figure. She is presented as a very morally ambiguous figure who made a lot of shady decisions but is ultimately on the side of the angels. This character is even more humanized than Bond and has a much larger role to play than M has in any Bond movie I can recall. The ultimate humanization of both characters occurs near the climax at the ancestral Bond estate in Scotland.
As always in a Bond movie, Skyfall has some really amazing locations. The London scenes aren’t especially impressive, but there are some amazing shots of the harbor and skyscrapers of Shanghai as well as some extended scenes on a deserted island that seems straight out of a horror video game. That said, my favorite by far is the location of the film’s climax. The Scottish highlands are deserted and forlorn yet achingly beautiful and make brilliant use of fog, especially when the fog is backlit by exploding helicopters and a burning building.
Edit: I’ve since found out that a lot of these locations were actually filmed in studio due to MGM’s cash flow problems of the last few years with only establishing shots from the locations. I’m a little dissappointed, but bravo for the staging.
I enjoyed Skyfall a great deal. It’s never going to be mistaken for an Oscar contender and it’s a bit muddled and contradictory in places, but it corrects a lot of the excesses of the Bond franchise and goes a long way to present our hero as a real human instead of a sexed up human gadget deployment system. I recommend it for any fan of action movies though long time Bond fans may be in for a bit of a shock.