Last weekend I was Stoked. I listened to Adele sing about Skyfall had my ticket purchased for the movie in IMAX, and rewatched the preview a dozen times for good measure. This, they said, was the epic James Bond movie. Some even dared to say the best Bond movie ever.
The movie opens in a beautifully cinematic way, very artsy as James is tracking down some villain no doubt. Eventually we end up in one of the greatest rooftop chase scenes of our time. The action is already more than worthy of a Bond film.
I suppose I should note the extreme possibility of SPOILERS in this review, which will stay minimal until the point of no return, which is coming up. But for now, if you’ve seen the trailer, I’m not spoiling much.
So James and Bad Guy are on the train fighting over “the list” and James’ fellow agent upon orders from M accidentally shoots James. The Bad Guy gets away, James might be dead (except we know he won’t be), and as he sinks into the water the Adele song kicks on with a fantastic Bond opener with scenes we will later realize might have made the rest of the movie more exciting.
Part of me at this point is thinking—since I’m a student of story—hmmm, interesting choice for an inciting incident. Seems an awful lot like a climax, but it’s only been what, 5 or 10 minutes. Despite odd images of deers (yep) and a constant kick back to some house in the opening credits, I’m ready to continue on.
Okay, people. Point of no return approaching.
I’ve given you a week to get Skyfall seen, so before the SPOILERS fest begins, I’ll say for those who still want to see the movie knowing as little as possible about the story, here’s why for me Skyfall was Skyflunk:
- Love Interest. Technically there are two Bond girls in this film and their characters are both fairly interesting on the surface, but one the relationship doesn’t last for more than a couple scenes and the other seems more like a buddies relationship than a romantic one. We need someone for James to be charming with, and since these girls are usually a part of his motivation for saving the world, well… More on this later.
- Villains – Major and Minor. Don’t misunderstand, there’s nothing wrong with Javier Bardem’s performance. In fact, he’s really the highlight of this whole thing. But he was squandered. What I would have liked to see is him messing with James’ head more, a bit of psychological wits with occasional brute force until the final showdown. Alas, not. As for the minor villain, he ended up being more like a henchman than anyone all that formidable.
- Daniel Craig. Loved him in Casino Royale. It made me think, Yes! This is the Bond we’ve been waiting for. Ditto on Quantum of Solace. Ditto on the first part of Skyfall. The rest of the film he seemed drowsy or disinterested. What happened to the charmer I’d grown to know and love? He had a few good moments, but nothing like the previous films.
- Skyfall.What do you think Skyfall will be? Some kind of secret mission to take out the enemy? Maybe a satellite or evil supercomputer? Some impossible mission where James barely comes back alive? Nope, it’s this:
Okay, not really, but honestly that’s what it kind of feels like. I don’t know why they didn’t call this movie Aston Martin or Martini. It’s about the same level of exciting. Don’t purposely mislead us in the trailer.
Those were my biggest beefs with the film. Now I’m going to show you why I came to that conclusion. This is your final spoiler warning. Let’s start with expectations set by the trailer.
What do we think we’re going to see from the trailer? James has been gone a long time. Someone wants to destroy MI6. Skyfall was some crazy awesome mission James completed that we’re going to learn about. James probably came back because of that crazy awesome mission, and now he’s taking revenge.
The trailer was right about someone wanting to destroy MI6. Other than that, none of those other expectations were either met or shown. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I realize how telling this other trailer was on how the movie would probably turn out. I guess they hoped to substitute spectacle for substance and trickery for truth. (You were right, Robert McKee. You were right.)
Before the credits roll, James gets shot by his own agency. Despite long years of service and loyalty, M has no problem blowing one of her top agents away so long as the mission gets completed. Only it doesn’t. The list gets away and James is now fish food somewhere as far as they know.
So tell me, if someone you had been loyal to ordered you shot, what motivation would you have to go back? Supposedly James’ motivation is that the agency is under attack. But can you honestly tell me that any regular person wouldn’t simply raise a glass in a toast when finding out this information?
This seems obligatory motivation at best. Who’s to say when he goes back they don’t try shooting him again? Unless he read the script and somehow understands why they shot him. I just don’t see his motivation in going back.
You might be thinking he went back for this girl. But as far as we’ve seen, they’re just agent buddies—nothing more than professionals. And is she the first person he goes to see when he does go back? Certainly not. Even if they’d had him staring longingly at her photo, or just any kind of motivation for him to go back rather than, Oh, there’s a crisis at work. Besides, she shot him. Doesn’t that at least put a bit of hindrance on relationship—at least from our perspective, the audience who still knows little to nothing about their previous relationship.
Back to my original question. Who does he go to see first? M. This lady. Where the hell have you been? she asks him right off the bat. No sort of remorse, no hint of relief he’s alive again. Now I’m not saying she needed to do this herself, but again I ask you what motivation does James have to help her? Let the old witch die for all he could care at this point. But because the script tells us they’re going to solve this problem, the movie presses on, any real motivation lacking.
Eventually I realized the whole movie was about protecting M. In essence, she became the love interest. I guess James sees her as a sort of mother figure he needs to protect? I still think Moneypenny should have been in some kind of danger to raise the stakes, but we got protecting the ungrateful, don’t-really-care-if-she-dies M instead.
Also they didn’t really make the James dead and gone thing work. It seemed more like he took a long weekend than that he’d been dead and gone for any substantial amount of time. They might have done well to make us believe that maybe James actually was dead and then at the right moment he comes back and we’re relieved. It would have at least put in some plot suspense.
Any good writer or agent will tell you a story must have stakes, otherwise it’ll be a snooze no one is interested in. Stakes don’t have to be as extreme as life or death, it can be loss of happiness, loss of job, etc. But without stakes the story may fall flat.
So then, tell me what are the stakes of this movie? That M might die? So what? She’s already ordered James shot, she’s an intolerable witch, and she was up for replacement anyway. MI6 will get along fine without her and James won’t really be that depressed. Maybe it’s that MI6 will be destroyed. Again, what does James care? They betrayed him, so what kind of service if any does he owe them? Why not stay in the Bahamas or Tahiti or wherever he was?
Okay, so maybe it’s that his fellow agents don’t get killed or the world doesn’t get destroyed. His fellow agents gave a flying poodoo about him getting killed. As for the world getting destroyed, it’s a good overarching motivation, but it usually plays secondary to something like, say Moneypenny being in trouble.
He could be doing it to stick it to Raoul (the villain), but since they didn’t establish any sort of revenge subplot, we’re stuck with saving M (I guess) and maybe the agency (yawn).
Writers must lay their groundwork to make the audience care. I’ve got to have a reason to root for James to accomplish his task. Otherwise I’m stuck wondering why he isn’t celebrating in the Bahamas.
Raoul was a fantastic villain they fantastically squandered. We don’t meet Raoul until well into the movie, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but James didn’t face off with any real mini boss. The henchman he easily chucks out of a window doesn’t count.
When we do meet the villain, he is scary and spooky. A former agent that M screwed over. What a spectacular idea, especially considering what James has been through. I would have liked to see James consider teaming up with Raoul, even if only for a moment. After hearing everything Raoul has to tell him, wouldn’t it make perfect sense for James to be tempted toward revenge, even for a moment. It certainly would have made for a better story. In fact, how great would it have been if we would have seen James decide, yeah Raoul, you make sense. They get together on some kind of scheme to destroy M and the rest of the agency. As the audience we’re restless, almost screaming at the screen, How can you do this James? You’re supposed to be the good guy? Then last minute he totally screws Raoul over. He’s not loyal to M, you see, but a greater good sort of cause.
I would have liked to see Raoul mess with James’ head. Maybe they meet up in the Bahamas and Raoul says, they totally screwed you over, we should be friends. Maybe James is reluctant, but we can see he’s tempted. He still says no, so Raoul tries to kill him. He narrowly escapes, bringing information on Raoul’s plans to M. But Raoul continues to mess with him, convincing him revenge is the right path.
But none of this happens. At best after his scary entrance and speech, Raoul turns into a thug. Yawn. And not only that but disappointed yawn. Make your villains more devious than thuggy. Convince the audience, even if only for a moment, that they might be right.
Okay, I could go on and on about how disappointing and poorly written this story was, but since this is already a lengthy post, I’m going to end it with the biggest disappointment of all. I think you’ve seen enough of how this story could have been much better than it was.
All right, so Skyfall. What was it? Some kind of secret mission to take out the enemy? Maybe a satellite or evil supercomputer? Some impossible mission where James barely comes back alive? A tricycle?
Nope. It’s this:
Oh? A house? Uh…oh…okay…I guess.
Yeah, it’s his house from his childhood. In case you were wondering whether we were supposed to understand that James views M as a mother figure, a trip to the old Bond manor should clear that right up. You know the villain is coming and the house will probably get blown to smithereens. So this is where the showdown will be. An old house. Like Raoul isn’t going to bring the big guns with him?
Remember risk? Well, we quickly discover the house has a secret tunnel they can escape down, so we know even if Raoul blows the jujubes out of the house, it’s all good, they’ll still escape. No last minute thinking of how they’ll get out. It may have even been nice if the secret tunnel collapsed and they have to think of some other way to get out.
Anyways, this happens.
And after James falls through the ice for a brief moment it’s the final showdown between him and the arch villain, which lasts for a few seconds. James finds out M has been mortally wounded, pretends to care a little and finally we’re rid of M and Ralph Fiennes can finally be in James Bond movies for awhile as the new M.
And life goes on as though the previous M and Raoul never happened. If life goes back to normal for your characters at the end of your story, meaning they were exactly the same as they were before they started, your readers will wonder why they bothered in the first place.
I remember when they got to the house I was already wondering about where we were going for dinner after the movie and finding myself glad I’d purchased a matinee ticket.
We spent all of the credits trying to figure out what had gone wrong with the film. I think part of it was putting the climax at the beginning, another part being a lame even if unintentional love interest, and Skyfall being a boring house.
So there you have it. A lengthy story review of Skyfall and why for me it Skyflunked. Disagree? Have more to add? Can you explain why you think Skyfall is brilliant or horrible? What do you believe was James’ motivation? Let me know in the comments below.