Judging by the amount of people I saw last Friday night at Laemmle, most of you who were going to see the new Bond movie have already done so. I’m guessing the rest of you don’t really want to go. Whenever I told people I was seeing Skyfall this weekend, I got very lackluster reactions. My friends told me they had never seen a Bond movie or that they didn’t like Bond.
In truth, I never really liked Bond either. The thing is, Bond is not really our franchise. Skyfall made it to the top of the box-office charts last weekend with an audience predominantly over 25 years of age, as the L.A. Times wrote in an article on Nov. 11. Younger viewers have our own franchises, be they the most obviously analogous Bourne series, or Nolan’sBatmanmovies, or the Marvel superheroes, or maybe even Transformers.
There’s nothing in terms of action, explosions, car chases, hand-to-hand combat or any other slightly-to-absolutely-certainly-physically impossible stunts that we haven’t seen somewhere before. What does Bond have to offer us that’s different? Perhaps that’s what the Bond movies from our generation have been trying to figure out—up until now.
Skyfall feels like a reboot. Director Sam Mendes and writer John Logan manage to reinvigorate the myth of Bond, bringing sexy back to the sleek spy with a license to kill—classily—while at the same time moving past the overdone and outdated conventions of the franchise.
I always felt that the recent Bond movies were rather bland, predictable and formulaic. On top of it all, James Bond is very much the epitome of white, male-centric society. He is the textbook manifestation of film scholar Laura Mulvey’s theory that idealizes male heroes in classic cinema as a source of pleasure for a male audience who identify with a more perfect self on the screen.
What is Bond if not the perfect white, heterosexual male from the Cold War? He has the suits, the cars, the girls, the shaken-not-stirred martini, and, above all, he has second-to-none physical prowess with which he thrashes some Russians and beds all the babes. James Bond would not be James Bond without those qualities. However, these outdated ideals bring a very unpleasant shape to the more recent Bond movies including screenplays still trafficking in Cold War plotlines, sexism and recently, new orientalism, among other lame byproducts of privileged narrow-mindedness.
Mendes definitively moves away from this snobbery without taking away Bond’s style: Skyfall keeps the suits and the class, but ditches the ideologies they imply. No longer are Bond’s lifestyle and trappings fetishized or promoted—they become more character eccentricities than aspirational objects.
While Bond remains pretty much the same sexist, elitist ass, the movie itself isn’t. For instance, Bond can wrench a steering wheel away from Agent Eve and tell her that she should stick to the safety of desk jobs instead of fieldwork, but it is ultimately Eve who kicks ass at a public hearing and decides independently that she wants to work at a desk after all. This simple change in how Bond is framed made it enjoyable despite all of the otherwise dull or offensive things that belong in a Bond movie.
Interestingly, Daniel Craig’s Bond in Skyfall is older, out of shape and seems to have lost his touch. We see him barely hanging onto the bottom of a moving elevator after deciding himself to ride it in that manner, and we see him mess up, dropping a man he meant to interrogate off a building. In general, Skyfall emphasizes a return to the basics meant to humanize Bond. Instead of throwing cool gadgets around or fighting with inhumane ability, Bond consistently uses his wits to get through. This imperfect, old-school Bond is great to watch.
So are the other characters. The Bond girls are satisfying. Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine is sensitive and vulnerable without being weak, and Naomie Harris’s Eve is spunky and flirty without being flatly exaggerated.
Unexpectedly, however, the most important Bond girl in Skyfall is, as it happens, Judi Dench’s M. From epically reciting Tennyson in defense of MI6 to building handmade bombs from light bulbs, Skyfall’s M gets stuff done. In fact, M almost surpasses Bond as the movie’s main protagonist. After all, doubt from Bond about M’s leadership, doubt in M herself about how she’s running MI6 and doubt in the general public about the continuing importance of MI6 (neatly mirroring doubts about the vitality of the Bond franchise) are the emotional, thematic currents running through the movie.
At MI6, M, Eve, Ben Whishaw as Q and Ralph Fiennes as M’s new boss all bring brilliantly nuanced characterization and ensemble-driven dynamics to what is usually a one-man show. Our super villain, cyber-terrorist Silva, played by a very blond Javier Bardem, is amazing—the perfect combination of flamboyant and sinister, but also very human. He is a very new type of villain (he is not Russian, for one thing) whose cyber sabotage feels relevant and compelling today, not fifty years ago. Together, these interesting characters and the promise of modern, thoughtful storylines re-establish the franchise with new components to look forward to.
If by the film’s final scenes all of the screenplay’s careful work to build tension through emphasis on the aging and weakening of both MI6 and Bond fades to the background in favor of a mindless shootout, at least the movie stays gorgeous throughout. From a fight shot in silhouettes to the bright burst of flaming explosions against a darkening sky, the cinematography of Skyfall is the best ever for a Bond movie and might finally win Roger Deakins (who’s worked on most Coen brothers movies) an Oscar (he’s been nominated eight times). Also of note is Adele’s fantastic theme song, which is played in full during the marvelously animated opening credits.