‘Skyfall’: The Bond Franchise Decides The 21st Century Needn’t Have Bothered
Before we get into further discussion of Skyfall, I’d like to reiterate the fact that the last act is “Elderly Brits Will Have Your Stupid Faces And There’s Nothing You Can Do About It” and that is great. That is just the best. People always treat Helen Mirren like she’s the most bad-ass elderly Englishwoman ever produced, but I’d still rather run into her in a dark alley than Judy Dench.
Helen Mirren will murder you, yes. But Judy Dench will murder you as though it was just a damn inconvenience.
Skyfall’s plot and themes are about looking back on your past and seeing how you’ll be judged, and if you’re past your prime, and what is it that’s really motivating you these days. And that’s a solid place to set a Bond film – especially a Bond film released during the character’s 50th anniversary.
It’s actually pretty impressive when a Bond movie is About Something. Casino Royale’s narrative and thematic throughline is “What Makes James Bond?” and remains the best of the Craig films. Quantum of Solace is about nothing very much, until it’s not even a Bond movie, but The Revenge Of This Model Who Can’t Act Very Good, Featuring James Bond as “The Help”.*
So Skyfall, in aiming to be a Bond movie that’s about something, pretty much ignores that Quantum of Solace exists (so if you were hoping this would continue the story of the vaguely SPECTRE-esque Quantum Organization, you’re out of luck).
But it also kind of assumes that you don’t remember any details of Casino Royale, and also kinda-sorta pre-supposes that ALL the Bond movies exist in one vaguely-defined continuity, which brings me to The Astin Martin.
Now here we are in Skyfall, and the Astin Martin is trotted out from storage, except…this isn’t the same car from Casino Royale. This is the Dr. No iteration, complete with machine guns in the headlights and an ejector seat.
There’s other “Get it?” references, like when the new Q outfits Bond with a simple mini-radio receiver and quips that they no longer “go in for” exploding pens and other silly old devices like that. The radio receiver is used to represent technology that’s simple and old-fashioned but reliably effective.
Like certain 00 agents and their superiors.
EXCEPT let’s go back and check the tape on Casino Royale – specifically, the point after Bond’s gone rogue and ended up exploding all manner of things in Miami, and M has him implanted with a subdermal tracking device. It was actually representative of the more “realistic” take on spy-tech that this current iteration of the franchise would tout going forward (another example: M.’s crazy desktop touchscreens in Quantum of Solace).
So: We’ve got Daniel Craig and Judy Dench, but they both seem keenly aware that James Bond and M used to use crazy gadgets and drive around in super-cars (what precisely was a 21st-century government operative doing with an ejector-seat, anyway? Then again, why would that have been standard issue in the 60’s? Nevermind, moving on).
And there’s no mention of Vesper, Mathis or Quantum, all of which were set up in the previous two Craig outings, despite one of those being a pretty huge dangling plot point that was definitely implied to be the major villain of Quantum of Solace’s follow-up film.
Which begs the question: Just which fucking Bond is this supposed to be?
In the closing minutes of Skyfall, the last vestiges of the previous Bond series have been sloughed off and the Bond franchise seems to lap itself, leaving us somewhere just past Dr. No, where men are in charge, women are secretaries again, and the vitality of a 45-year-old man barely holding himself together with booze and womanizing is never again called into question.**
Of course, the Astin Martin’s a bit worse for wear, but if we consider Casino Royale still part of the continuity, then I’m going to go ahead and assume James Bond just gets a lot of weird customization done to his personal vehicles for the hell of it, so there’s no reason that won’t be rolled out good as new in the next film.
I’m not saying I disliked Skyfall – I liked it a lot (despite what has to be the most wrong-headed sexual encounter of the Craig-era, and maybe the entire franchise – I mean, the woman JUST GOT DONE TELLING HIM about her terrible history of human trafficking, man). I’m just saying it’s a bit weird to essentially reboot a franchise that just got done revitalizing itself two movies ago, to better reflect the 60’s era of its origins, despite the fact that the subtext of the entire film is, “Is James Bond relevant in 2012?”
The movie’s answer seems to be, “Absolutely – but going forward, we’re still going to act like this is 1963, just so we’re all clear on that.”
*Which is especially weird because watching it again, I was struck by how entertaining the dialogue in was. Like, effort was put into making it sound sharp and a bit more clever than usual.
My absolute favorite bit, from M early on: “When someone says ‘We’ve got people everywhere,’ you expect it to be hyperbole! Lots of people say that. Florists use that expression. It doesn’t mean that they’ve got somebody working for them inside the bloody room!”
Seriously. Judy Dench will kill you and act like you have just cost her valuable time in her day.
**One more reason to assume Casino Royale is no longer canon – watch that movie again after Le Chiffre tortures Bond’s, um, 7 and Double-O’s. Vesper and James are definitely having a conversation about the fact that his junk is pretty well wrecked, but she loves him anyway. I just wanted to point that out.