Skyfall (2012) – Sam Mendes

After a close shave with death and a prolonged absence, James Bond (Daniel Craig) returns to the British secret service to defend both M (Judi Dench) and the British national security from a dangerous figure from M’s past.

My mom and I went to see this together after Thanksgiving dinner.  The first Bond movie I’ve ever seen in its entirety!  Now I understand what I’ve been missing all this time.  This film is straight up sexy.  Every aspect of it is sleek and shiny, from Bond’s demeanor to his high-tech weaponry to the women he seduces at every turn.  As far as action films go, Skyfall is an aesthetic triumph, clean and precise, with ample use of dramatic silhouettes against vibrant backgrounds to boot.

The Bond tradition brings with it a lot of clichés, and Skyfall pays homage to those earlier films without being stale.  The score, while mostly original, occasionally incorporates in the familiar Bond theme, and Bond gets the obligatory, “Bond. James Bond” line out of the way without too much trouble.  In the bar in Macau, we see the bartender shaking a martini for him.  “That’s perfect,” he says, hinting at but not outright saying the also obligatory, “Shaken, not stirred”.  These little references are quaint nods to legacy that precedes this film, and they’re understated enough not to be hokey and distracting.  There are, of course, also some references that are more tongue-in-cheek (it must be hard to resist); after presenting Bond with his weapons, for instance, Q (Ben Whishaw) asks with mild humor, “Were you expecting an exploding pen?”

In general, this film is packed with allusions. Especially towards the end, I noticed several — perhaps unintentional — Hitchcock references.  Bond and M lure Silva (Javier Bardem) to the Scottish moor, a setting not unlike that of The 39 Steps.  The final showdown is shot at twilight (a directorial choice that I thought was brilliant; the milky blue light slowly deepening into night provides added sense of urgency, not to mention it’s gorgeous to look at), which is reminiscent of Scottie and Judy’s twilit confrontation in the churchyard in Vertigo.  And the final combustion of Skyfall seems to be a nod to Manderley’s burning at the end of Rebecca, both mansions being filled with haunting memories from the past.

Haunting memories from the past are all over this film.  Bond has his own demons to deal with, the climax of the film taking place at his childhood home.  He is himself in some ways a memory from the past, everyone having assumed him to be dead until he reemerges unscathed (well, not quite).  And Silva is a previous agent of M’s, come to have his revenge for what he sees to be a betrayal.  His hacking of her computer reminds her, “Think on your sins.”

Javier Bardem’s performance as Silva is both haunting and weirdly charismatic, as all good villains should be.  Physically he is unsettling to look at; the blonde hair is peculiar with his complexion.  Interestingly, he is dressed often in light colors, browns and creamy whites, whereas Bond and M are always in blacks and grays — reversing the common symbolism of dark = evil, light = good.  This is fitting, as Silva is a bringer of chaos, attempting to dislodge Bond’s loyalty to M and to paint her as heartless and manipulative.

Silva’s sexuality is ambiguous throughout the film.  When he first captures Bond, he caresses Bond’s chest and runs his hands briefly over Bond’s thighs.  Later, when attempting to kill M, he begins to breathe heavily while holding the gun to her face, almost as if deriving sexual pleasure from the thought of killing her.  At first I was a little apprehensive of Silva’s physical flirtation with Bond (I wasn’t fond of the idea of homosexuality being used as a weird, unsettling quality in the film’s main villain), but with his reaction to holding a gun to M’s face, I realized that Silva is getting off on chaos and violence more than anything else.  His complete ease with himself and willingness to do pretty much anything is what makes him strangely charismatic and alluring — a quality that heightens how frightening he is.

My only real complaint with the film is the character of Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) — or rather, the role she plays in the film.  She serves more as a plot device than anything else.  Mysterious, beautiful, and entangled in some really dangerous business, Sévérine has all the makings of a classic femme fatale.  And, like all femme fatales, her fate is to be either punished or redeemed — to die or to be saved by a man from her sinful ways.  In Sévérine’s case, her fate is not a happy one. Within a half hour of screen time she provides Bond with information and a route to Silva, sleeps with Bond, and is killed in one of Silva’s wicked games.  Sadly, her death does little but demonstrate Silva’s cruelty and provide Bond with a clever but (I thought) somewhat cruel one-liner: “That’s a waste of good scotch.”

To me, Sévérine’s story is a tragedy to which the film does not do justice.  Even in her brief time on screen Marlohe gives a beautiful performance, flashing radiant smiles whose transience belies how rehearsed they are.  I was disappointed both in the blasé way Bond handles her death, and in the fact that an interesting character was eliminated so quickly.  There is certainly a tradition of chauvinism in the Bond films, and these women have come a long way — but while Sévérine’s character could have been worse, I do think she also could have been more fleshed out and given more agency.

Otherwise, I loved this.  Loved it.  It had all the thrills and chase scenes and explosions of a good action flick, but it was also ideologically rich and cohesive.  It was even a little funny.  And my god was it beautifully filmed.  Bravo.

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