Hey, folks. I’m back. Okay, I was never really gone, but I was busy with a move and my internet access was sketchy. But now the move is finished (the big part anyway), and though I need to work on my new book (y’know, the stuff I actually get paid for) and I’m battling a bit of a cold, I’ve found time to pay you a visit and share a little wisdom. Because I care, and I know you’re all hankering for a little of that A. Lee Martinez brand wisdom. Or at least a few random thoughts.
The topic today for me is a bit of a tricky one. I tend to avoid criticizing other media too much. While I feel completely comfortable saying Tron: Legacy was a weak film or an occasional bash of the Star Wars prequels, these aren’t exactly venturing into dangerous waters. People might disagree, but it’s not like I’m taking any chances saying these stories are weak or, at least, imperfect creations.
I will stand up for media I like that I feel gets wrongfully dismissed. I believe Green Lantern is actually a damn fine superhero film and far better than any of the Spidey films, for example.
But today, I’m going to be a bit obnoxious, for lack of a better term. Today, I’m going to tell you why Skyfall is not only NOT one of the best James Bond films ever, but why it is also a fairly bad film overall. Especially in terms of story and story construction. I know this won’t be a popular opinion. I know a lot of people seem to love this film. And I’m not telling them they’re wrong. This is all opinion, after all. Skyfall isn’t the first lauded film I’ve taken on. It won’t be the last.
Let’s get to it. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to pick the top five reasons why I find the film to be a failure.
Oh and SPOILER ALERT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
REASON ONE: EVERYONE IS INCOMPETENT
Everyone in this movie is really bad at what they do. And I do mean everyone.
To begin with, there’s Bond himself. The movie begins with his failure to stop a bad guy from escaping with top secret info. That isn’t such a big deal because many a story starts with the hero failing to give him a motivation to carry on. But we then see Bond attempt retirement, only to return after thinking his country needs him. Upon his return, he is tested to see if he is ready for duty. He fails the tests, but is still allowed, by M, to return to active duty.
This would be a pretty good beginning to a Bond proving himself still a badass superspy. Instead, he walks through the whole film, failing at every turn. He saves no one. He accomplishes nothing. When he “captures” the bad guy, we learn that this was all part of the bad guy’s master plan, so Bond didn’t really do anything. He even fails to stop the bad guy from completing his goal and killing M. Oh, sure, Bond does kill the bad guy before M dies, but she still dies. And the villain didn’t even want to live, so it’s not like killing him is any sort of loss to him.
But while Bond is bad at his job, so is M, who continually blunders her way through the story. She makes the call to “take the shot”, even though there’s no reason to believe taking a risky shot that could just as easily kill Bond is better than letting Bond continue his struggle with the escaping villain. Her call not only allows the villain to escape, it is the entire reason Bond is supposed to be bad at his job now.
She also approves Bond for active duty, even though he fails the tests. In a traditional story (i.e. logical one), she would prove her judgment superior to the tests by having Bond be awesome at his job. He isn’t. And even after he demonstrates this time and time again, she dies saying “at least I wasn’t wrong about one thing.”
You were wrong, M. Unless she isn’t talking about Bond, but that time she found a place with really good chicken wings.
Finally, the mastermind himself is a bit of a doofus as well. He’s creepy, sure, but he seems to have nothing beyond that. When we’re introduced to him, we discover he “stole” an island by faking a chemical leak and scaring the people away. So he lives on an abandoned, dirty, island that’s decaying around him. I get that in the new more “realistic” James Bond universe, palatial island estates and shark tanks are “corny”, but what the hell is this guy doing? He’s living in practical squalor because he’s smart enough to steal an island, but not smart enough to do anything cool with it.
He then has himself “captured” by Bond so that he can make a daring escape from Her Majesty’s Secret Service secret base. Why? He could have just as easily bought a plane ticket to England. He already had operatives in position, all set up to help him carry out his plan. I suppose he could’ve wanted to taunt M, but he could have just as easily done that via video conferencing. His plan is needlessly complicated, which I can get behind when you’re trying to take over the world. But when you’re trying to kill one old lady, you don’t have to try this hard.
On the other hand, if you are going to try this hard, go ahead and bring an army to your final battle. Bond was nice enough to take her in the middle of nowhere where a few hundred thugs would have no trouble approaching the house from every side. Game over. You win. Instead, he leads his men into an obvious ambush and then dies while taunting his target. Because, for all his creepiness, this guy is just bad at being a bad guy.
Also, Q’s incompetence is what allows the villain to escape.
And the guards who are keeping an eye on him in a giant room where he’s secured in his own tiny cell also somehow manage to get killed too.
The only reasonably competent character is the one played by Ralph Fiennes who sees M and Bond are bad at their jobs. He saves M when Bond would be too late. But even this degree of competence falls to the side once the plot demands him to be as stupid as everyone else. It is best captured in the final scene when Fiennes, as the new M, should dress down Bond for all his failures, including abducting the old M, taking her to an old house in the middle of nowhere, and getting her killed.
But, hey, everyone in this film ends up being bad at their job. Guess he just gave into peer pressure.
REASON TWO: MELANCHOLY IS NOT MATURITY
I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth addressing because Skyfall is the embodiment of taking something fun and ruining it for the sake of “maturity”. I have nothing against maturity. I just don’t think it’s found in sad characters, dull directions, and long talky scenes.
I get people not wanting laser watches and cars that turn into submarines. I like those elements of fantasy spy adventure, but I don’t need them to enjoy a Bond movie. But in avoiding the more unrealistic elements, the movie also abandons any sense of fun and adventure. If Bond doesn’t throw out one liners and wrestle steel-toothed giants, I can still enjoy his adventures. But if he comes across as a sad loser who doesn’t seem to care about his job (and honestly, who could blame this Bond for hating his job), why am I here?
My counterpoint to any claims of maturity by the removal of fun is found in such great films as Up, Toy Story, and Monsters Inc. As well as a dozen other animated films. But to keep things simple, we’ll go with Up. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more emotional resonant film in modern film history than this story of an old man, a flying house, and an army of talking dogs. Up is one of the most mature, thoughtful films you will come across, and yet, it is completely absurd.
I’m not suggesting that James Bond needs laser sharks. But the absence of laser sharks doesn’t mean the story is more mature. And a film where no one smiles isn’t the same as a mature film. Not by a long shot.
REASON THREE: ABORTED STORY ARCS
From a technical point, Skyfall is an exercise in aborted story arcs. I won’t get into my own belief that James Bond doesn’t need a personal story arc. He’s James Bond. His character is already established, and there’s really no reason for any kind of personal growth on his part. But if you want to give him an arc, you should at least follow through.
The first aborted arc starts when he argues with M on pausing to save a wounded fellow spy. He later confronts M on her order to abandon the spy. There are a couple of ways to go with this arc. We could follow Bond as he learns that you can’t save everyone in the name of the greater good. Alternately, we could watch M learn that sometimes valuing human life is worth the risk. Instead, neither arc happens. Instead, it’s the last time it’s brought up.
The other story potential story arc is for either M or Bond to prove they are capable of their jobs despite a rough start in the first act. Unfortunately, neither actually happens. M never exercises any good judgment. She delivers a rousing speech about the necessity of her department, but she doesn’t redeem her own poor performance. Bond completely fails, as pointed out above, and never once shows himself to be capable beyond what his test numbers show. He still remains a secret agent at the end because, well, I don’t know why other than he’s James Bond and we already know he’s a spy.
Finally, the big bad guy has a sort of story arc where he’s out to humiliate M publicly before finally killing her. He fails on this too, but at least he makes a good (if needlessly complicated) effort. And then he just tosses it all aside to willingly walk into an ambush.
REASON FOUR: WEAK ACTION
James Bond movies are supposed to be action adventure films. This movie starts with a pretty solid beginning, but afterwards, it’s pretty bland. We have a very short gunfight in a komodo dragon pit. We have another short fight on the bad guy’s island fortress. We have a short gunfight at M’s hearing. And then we have a fairly long firefight at Bond’s ambush. But it’s mostly just guys getting shot and dying. It’s not terrible, but it lacks pizazz.
I don’t need a Jackie Chan style martial arts fest. That’s never been what Bond is about. But the action is largely anemic and underwhelming.
There’s more, but this has already gone on long enough. My point isn’t to say this is a bad film. It just isn’t a very good one. And I think, if one were to remove the Bond label from it, I think a lot of folks would agree. But Bond, like Star Wars, like Tron, like Spider-Man, is such a part of our culture, there’s no way to judge it honestly at this point.
And I’ll admit I’m just as vulnerable to this problem as anyone else. While I doubt I’d like this film without the Bond label, I doubt I’d dislike it as much without that label either. That’s the problem with Bond. It carries baggage.
Anyway, I’ve made my arguments. I’m sure many will disagree, but I’ve gotten it out of my system.
Catch you next time, gang.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,