Skyfall (that's the house as well as the title) can seem a bit phantasmagorical, thanks in part to Roger Deakins's Oscar-nominated cinematography and a trippy title sequence set to Adele's Oscar-nominated song. It's the first Bond film in 50 years to boast an Oscar-winning director, Sam Mendes of American Beauty fame, who had directed star Daniel Craig previously in Road to Perdition. If that all makes the film more pictorially ambitious than its predecessors, the story remains as much a comic-book affair as others in the series. Bond's resilience and the villain Silva's resources are simply unbelievable. Yet this was supposed to be a more serious Bond film in the way Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy were more serious comic-book films. The creators have cited The Dark Knight in particular as an influence on their project, Nolan's blockbuster enabling them to make Skyfall "darker" and more relevant while remaining essentially a fantasy. There's a convergence at work, since Nolan's most recent films show plenty of Bond influences, from the ski-slope firefights of Inception to Bane as an amalgam of Goldfinger and Oddjob in one person. Both Nolan and the Skyfall team partake of a modern (or postmodern) rejection of the normalization of genre heroism. Nolan's films could not simply be three adventures of Batman, but had to be a sequence of life-changing events culminating in Bruce Wayne's apparently permanent retirement from crimefighting. Likewise, before Mendes came along the first Craig Bond film, Casino Royale, was basically "Bond Begins," a reboot and origin story for the storied franchise, and the first sequel, Quantum of Solace, picked up immediately where Casino Royale left off. It's not enough now, it seems, to show us a hero and what he does, with the understanding that he'll always do it. You might think the scale of production might have something to do with it, but you see the same or related phenomena in other media. Long gone is the lone hero who visits a place, meets some people, does his thing and moves on. That doesn't satisfy in our age of "shipping." We want to see relationships and we expect them to evolve constantly. Obviously you can argue that something is gained but something else is lost. To a certain extent that something is story or, more correctly, plot.
Plot matters less, and writers need less creative ingenuity, when their stories are basically about the hero(es) and his/their relationships, and this brings us to how hackneyed an affair Skyfall's story is. Mendes has basically invited us to see the disgruntled Silva as Bond's Joker, and in Javier (Anton Chigurh) Bardem he had an actor apparently up for the challenge that entailed. But I found him dull, and Bardem's almost whimsical performance set the wrong tone immediately. Silva is one of those villains who have no real motive except to make a point to the hero, his having something to do with the treachery of their common "mommy," Judi Dench's M, and their own shared identity as cannibalistic rats. I'm not the biggest Bond expert, but have the stakes in a Bond movie ever been lower? The plot of the picture is that Silva has acquired one of those fatally compromising lists of undercover field agents that spy agencies are always compiling and putting into dangerously portable form, and is going to publicize the names on YouTube until M thinks on her sins. So some spies we'll never know are going to get killed, while Silva probably does more collateral damage in his desperate attempts to get M. We're supposed to believe he's a criminal mastermind, the evidence being, as is often the case, that he allows himself to be captured so he can strike from nearer the heart of the enemy. But while I invoked Dr. Lecter above in discussing Silva's escape we never see how he does it -- there must be a deleted scene somewhere having to do with his dentures -- and we never see Silva get into a proper fight scene with Bond. His demise is particularly, pathetically lame, though Bardem does well enacting his character's (and the actor's own?) annoyance at how easily he goes down. Silva's best scene is the most traditionally Bondian, on an urban island he evacuated with a contamination hoax, when he forces a shaky Bond to play William Tell with one of this film's Bond Girls. Apart from that, Bardem is this film' s biggest disappointment.
But if Skyfall doesn't live to its portentous hype, it really isn't that bad a Bond film. It has some extraordinary spectacle, from Silva's island to a sequence in a Shanghai skyscraper to that opening railroad chase. Some of the action on the train might earn the filmmakers a tip of Buster Keaton's porkpie hat. The acting is nothing great, with Craig somewhat more wooden than before -- though some of this is a principled refusal to be as indignant as Silva wants Bond to be -- and Dench no longer plausible as a powerful bureaucrat. Naomie Harris as that hapless field agent who shoots but later saves Bond steals plenty of scenes, and her own final revelation is a cute moment fitting this film's commemorative aspect. In the end, Skyfall has it both ways rather like The Dark Knight did, giving the hero a life-changing event but really leaving the legend in what we might recognize as a timeless default state. A counterpart to The Dark Knight Rises really isn't an option for the franchise, so where Eon Productions goes from here should be interesting. That leaves Skyfall as a Bond film for our cultural moment, and as long as you don't expect too much from the bad guy, a fairly diverting one as well.