You Can Shoot a Laser THROUGH a Clear Blimp! (Skyfall movie review)
(No very specific spoilers for Skyfall appear in this post, just comments on the overall structure & mood).
“Why did no one mention this before!” My shriek ricocheted among the fluorescent wooden parrots of the Tex Mex restaurant. “You can shoot a laser through a clear blimp! Now–Yes!–now all the clear blimps that are anchored on top of the villian’s giant high-tech white & chrome treehouse complex can have goons shooting lasers from them! And they can shoot at the little helicopter that has James Bond in it! Oh! And the two little helicopters can weave all around the blimps trying to shoot at each other with the machine guns, but they don’t dare shoot through the blimps in case they explode! But the blimps are clear so Bond and the bad guy can see each other through the blimps, and they can zoom up and around trying to get a clear shot, and all the time all the minions are shooting at Bond with lasers through the blimps!”
“But before or after the helicopter bit there has to be a fight on top of the interconnecting corridors of the treehouse base,” my Dad contributed, “in some kind of vehicle.”
Roommate: “Like a Smart Car!”
Dad: “Or a Segway!”
This climactic battle (and the subsequent debate over the relative merits of a man in bullet-proof armor riding a Segway vs. a Segway with a bullet-proof armored chariot casing built in) was the peak of our post-movie cathartic deconstruction of why Skyfall had been an unsatisfying Bond movie while undeniably being a perfectly respectable movie in the broader sense.
“What should our villain be after? How about a continent?” “Yeah!” “Australia.” “What does he want it for?” “To experiment. Remember, he’s a geneticist, so he wants to create his own biosphere. With mammoths.” “And condors. Shouldn’t he put condors?” “And he’ll use the global electromagnetic field manipulator to increase the temperature so rainfall increases in Australia and it becomes a fertile rain forest.” “Yes, by accelerating global warming.” “No, no, too much eco-villainy lately. We want something more classic. He just wants Australia so he can experiment freely. He’s already rich but it’s not enough. Now he wants to be free to pursue his science and genetic engineering faster. To do that he needs a private world.” My fist slammed the table triumphantly enough to make the guacamole jiggle. “He means to terraform Australia!”
Now we could cross out #7 “Outlandish villainous ultimate goal” on our James Bond Movie checklist, as well as #9 “climactic battle” #5 “awesome villain tech” and #6 “evil lair”. We had gotten this far through #4 “Grand evil scheme” which involved creating genetically modified super-aggressive swarming creatures which could be directed to attack target areas around the world using a machine which manipulated the Earth’s electromagnetic field. The first attack would be bees, some target city, millions and millions of bees would all swarm in and devastate everything. The world is held hostage. But oh, the people think, we can hide inside our airtight houses. So they all hide and the bees swarm black outside and people think they’re safe, but then the termites! The electromagnetically-commanded termites burrow through the walls and let in the swarm! And now the villain can demand they hand over Australia to become his brave new mammothy world!
There are certain questions that you always want your James Bond movie to be a potential answer to: “Which was the one where there was a henchman with a special jaw that was super strong, and then they wound up in space?” “Which was the one where he was driving through the ice palace while it was being melted by the solar space laser reflector beam? Was that the invisible car?” “And he was driving it from the back seat, while they were shooting at him–or was that a different one?” All sorts of variants on “Wasn’t that the one where…?” And Skyfall will never be the correct answer to these questions. Skyfall didn’t… it just didn’t…
…James Bond Movie checklist item #1, the “Opening mission”…
“Can we have the swarms cause an opening pre-credits disaster on an oil rig?” “Hm… what swarm… squid? Squid that swarm up the poles!” “Squid? Wouldn’t that have to be octopus?” “Octopodes are too intelligent. But can squid climb an oil rig?” “Squid can go pretty fast in the water, they just tend to do it horizontally, this could just be vertical. Pwoo!” (Sound-effect combined by gesture of arm shooting up in the air with finger-tentacles wriggling.) “I don’t know…” A few moments absently rearranging Jalapenos with my fork. “Ooh, wait! What if it works because there’s a submarine nearby, and millions of squid all whoosh up and drag the submarine along–” “–and smash it into the oil rig! Of course!” “Wait, I thought the beginning was when we were going to have him steal the prototype electromagnetic railgun. How does the oil rig help?”
…James Bond Movie checklist item #3, the “Early stage of the scheme”…
“No, the railgun isn’t before the credits, it’s the second stage thing, after the credits.” “And I thought it wasn’t going to be the main villain who stole it, we were going to have it be the woman who was working with him.” “Did she want to steal it to use as a weapon?” “No, they thought she was going to steal it to be a weapon, but instead she brought the railgun to the geneticist to use for the magnetic field effect to control the killer bees, but then in the end she betrays him and helps Bond stop him, and then she betrays both Bond and the villain and sneaks in separately at the end and takes the railgun to use as a weapon.” “Like Catwoman!” “Only Bond stops her. Because she isn’t Catwoman.” “Right.” “So she’s a villain, and then not a villain, and then a villain again, in addition to the main bioengineer villain.” “Yes. Oh, is she also the business scheming villain? Or is there some other one doing the sinister businessy politicsy part.” “Oh yes, someone has to do be a big business schemer, because someone has to invite him to a party, because…
…James Bond Movie checklist item #10: “Bond must order a martini at a swanky party”…
Bond did order a martini in Skyfall (oops, and I promised no spoilers!). And he does so at an expensive party in a ridiculously glamorous exotic place, and drinks it with a beautiful and mysterious bond girl, and there are piles of cash and expensive evening gowns and goons in dark suits. And these are all the right ingredients to set things up for the plan to unfold its first petal, and then… there are supposed to be more petals, right? The twists are supposed to keep unfolding and unfolding, with one more layer of deception right when you think it’s all over. And the stakes are supposed to be high. Like a continent, or a coup, or ten billion dollars, or at the very least killing a head of state.
Our true triumph arrived with the dessert: “Ooh! Ooh! Can Bond have to go into Australia but to avoid the swarms and the magnets he has to do a super-high-altitude parachute jump like the Red Bull guy did? Only, Bond has to do it while fighting a guy!” (Whatever stunt other people can do, Bond can do “while fighting a guy.” That’s Bond’s superpower.)
In all seriousness, we were aware that hordes of squid and stampeding mammoths are too sci-fi outlandish for Bond, but you can’t blame us for overcompensating after a flick where the most advanced technology displayed was… was… the internet? I mean, there was a touch screen… those are… well, one came standard with my new laptop, so… yeah, I’m going with the internet.
After our post-movie decompression we watched the recent Casino Royale movie again. No clear blimps here either, and it started the recent pattern of the films being more interested in (of all things) giving James Bond character progression than it was in the grandness of the scheme. In fact, during Bond’s climactic battle over the suitcase full of $120 million I turned to my friends and pointed at the 16th century Venetian palazzo, which Bond had just destroyed, and said “You know what’s worth more than 120 million dollars?” But it was still more satisfying than Skyfall because it had the requisite twist, followed by another twist, followed by a false ending, followed by yet another twist. That was enough.
Instead of twists and grand schemes, Skyfall tried to do something which was undeniably bolder and more original, and considerably more worthy of respect. It focused on the characterization of M. Brilliant idea! A great and veteran part of the Bond universe as-of-yet underexplored. And stepping out of the Bond universe for a moment, this was an action flick which focused on an intelligent, dignified, 100% non-sexualized, retirement-age woman! Maybe one or two movies a year give meaningful attention to an older woman, and certainly not ones full of car chases! It didn’t do a particularly good job of it, and still degenerated into male-dominated action, and rescues, and characterizing her as Mom, but she was still an actual centerpiece of the movie in a way no gray haired woman has been in any action flick I’ve ever sat through. It even passed the Bechdel test (something we usually know better than to apply to Bond films) in a scene in which M was questioned about her career by a female government official. Such a move in a Bond movie was as startlingly deserving of respect as if someone had delivered a brilliant proposal for how to solve the Economic Crisis in the middle of Antiques Roadshow. They also flirted with homosexual elements that no Bond had dared before, in a way which was a little awkward but also overdue and therefore somewhat healing in one of the most fiercely hetero-normative franchises in pop culture history. On both counts it may not have really succeeded, but I respect the fact that it tried, and getting any kind of movement on sexual politics out of a Bond movie is rather like wringing tears from a stone. I respect trying, but there is a difference between a movie I respect and a movie I enjoy, and it remains empirically true that I left the theater dissatisfied.
“I sure hope they make a normal James Bond movie soon,” I muttered later that evening, as we played fridge Tetris with the leftover fajitas.
Roommate: “What do you mean?”
I: “You know, one that isn’t about something. One where they shoot lasers through clear blimps, with an evil villain, and James Bond defeats him, and there are quips, and no characterization.”
And that’s the story of how I found myself wishing the movie I had just seen had been less ambitious. But thinking back on it, that isn’t really what I wanted. I went to that Bond movie instead of any number of other movies that were actually supposed to be objectively good because I wanted the comfort of a familiar formula and the thrill of action-escapism. Instead I got character depth. Why couldn’t I have both? Why couldn’t they have deepened the characters and still had more than three petals on their rose? Why wasn’t there room in the movie for M and clear blimps? Why did the first action movie I’d ever seen focus on a mature woman have to make me wish it wasn’t?
The weirdest thing is that it felt like the writers had the same idea. The film ended with an “And now the whole team is assembled again!” moment, implying a vein of self-awareness: “Yeah, the last three Bond Movies have been weirdly character-ful, but now that we’re done dealing with Bond’s origin story and the retirement crisis, the next one will be a [….] Bond Movie, we promise.” How did they intend their audience to fill [….]? “Normal”? “Traditional”? “Action-centered”? “Satisfying”?
Skyfall gets marks, though, for the most important test of every Bond film: the opening credits. Also points for the new Q; someone (probably who was following the success of Sherlock and the new Dr. Who and Avengers) noticed that smart geeks, especially scrawny ones with glasses, draw a slice of the female demographic that Bond’s brawn misses. Nerd is the new fan service – enough so that even a franchise as trope-encrusted as Bond has found one new “sexy” to tap. Let’s just hope they never try to put Bond himself in glasses and a labcoat; I fear for the audience whiplash.
Addendum: many thanks to all my readers for being patient these few months with my slow posting speed and the infinite delay of the Machiavelli series. I have been wrestling with the old illness/over-commitment combo. I do intend to return to the Machiavelli series as soon as I am sufficiently rested and caught up on my 10,000 tasks.