By Jessica Delfanti | November 9, 2012
Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe
With a repertoire of stylish films on his resume, it’s no surprise that director Sam Mendes and James Bond are peas in a pod. Helming the new installation of the super spy’s story, Skyfall, Mendes creates a chic and thrilling experience.Skyfall begins with a twist: James Bond (Daniel Craig) is nearly killed. Bond’s brush with death is gorgeously framed in an intro credit–music video hybrid to Adele’s swanky ballad “Skyfall,” a sequence that can and should be admired independently of the film for its elegant animations and successful capture of the Bond tone.
The Bond that surfaces after the credits–after his near death–is a different one from the swaggering lothario that we’ve grown accustomed to. Craig’s Bond is a multilayered creature, battling the insecurity of facing his own mortality, both as an occupational hazard and a natural result of inevitable aging. Paired with Mendes’s taste for moody lighting and dramatic imagery, this Bond is decidedly grimmer; even the lighter scenes have a sense of dark introspection.
This impression is further developed by the narrative, in a script penned by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan. The plot, here, does not pose high tension stakes of countries in the balance, corporate warfare, enemy spies, or any of the narratives we’d expect of a Bond film. Instead, Skyfall is a far more intimate piece, involving personal vendettas and the consequences of living a life that allows one to consider humans as espionage assets.
In the role of the villain, we find the ever-fantastic Javier Bardem as Silva, a cyber-terrorist with a personal vendetta. Silva is written as a mostly humorous nut that oscillates between bizarrely ambiguous expressions of homosexuality and pseudo-incestual sexuality, howls and giggles like a petulant child, and thwarts Bond with an irritated frustration that only makes him seem progressively more funny and less scary.
Many viewers will cite Silva as their favorite part of the film, and Bardem deserves great recognition for his performance. However, while the humorous approach to the villain may make him an enjoyable experience, it also renders him impotent, making him far more of a joke than a threat.
When news of Bardem’s casting was released, it is conceivable that much of the reactionary excitement was due to the actor’s masterful performance as the villain in No Country For Old Men. One might expect an antagonist with the same intensity, the same ability to truly scare the viewer. This preconception paired with the fact that Silva is a cyber-terrorist gave way to anticipation of a villain that poses a unique threat, a single man with the power of many via his control of the internet. Instead, Silva is a petty, goofy character intent on personal revenge, and employs the highly interesting techniques of cyber terrorism to a disappointing extent.
The villain’s motivations are only a part of the greater problem of Skyfall. Bond films are by nature shallow, and Mendes’s iteration pays special attention to this: the women (Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe) that wouldn’t dream of saying no; the cocktails; the suits; the guns and gadgetry. In fact, this shallow but stylish aspect of Bond is so beautifully rendered that it almost negates the plot. In a film so preoccupied with flourishes, where is there room to effectively develop the relationship between Bond and M (Judi Dench) enough for us to feel invested in the deeply personal conflict? With a plotline that hangs one life in the balance rather than something recognizably high stakes, the essential component is that the audience cares about that life; yet through the nonchalant tone of Bond, such an emotional attachment is unnatural.
Thus, the film is beautiful, it is thrilling, it is well acted and well written, but it is not moving. Certainly, this is what one would expect of a Bond film, and thereby we may say that Skyfall is a truly excellent Bond film. However, if we take the cues that Mendes offers, if we understand that what is at stake here is more personal to Bond, and we consider the film as a film, well, then Skyfall is a good film, but not as good as it could have been.