James Bond: Skyfall part 6
After we check in with M and a minor contretemps with Mallory, where again old and new clash (Mallory insists M’s methods are outdated, M insists that this threat must be matched by a similar answer — a shadow against a shadow), we swoop back to the South Pacific, where Bond and Severine arrive at Bad Guy Deserted Island (looking a little bit like Mol’s Dream World from Inception). Bond is strapped to a chair (evoking painful memories of Casino Royale?) in what appears to be a server room, facing rows and rows of data — the modern weapon. And here’s our Bad Guy, Silva, monologuing straight out of the box, literally (he steps out of an elevator), which the director handles beautifully by combining the monologue with a Lawrence of Arabia-length introductory shot of Silva walking towards camera. So that Silva literally comes into focus as the monologue goes on (it’s also an echo of the first shot of the movie, with Bond coming into focus as he comes down the apartment corridor in Turkey). The monologue, of course, is Silva’s story about Rat Island, and his grandmother’s solution for killing the rats, turning them into cannibals, changing their nature. Bond says “I made my own choices,” Silva counters with “You think you did.” Fate and determinism seem a little heavy for a Bond movie, but then it fits the Craig Bond well, with the enormous shadow of Bond History looming over him. Character is habitual action, and James Bond is nothing if not end-to-end habitual action, and the question of the motivator behind that action is central to the Craig reboot. The Bonds of yesteryear are pure fantasy, stylish assassins who travel the world, stay at expensive resorts, gamble in stodgy establishments. Craig does all that, but when he goes to the expensive resort he gets in by stealing someone’s car at the valet stand and when he gambles in Monte Carlo it’s on business. You get the impression that the Connery Bond does nothing but read Esquire on his off-hours, but Craig looks like he’s never read a magazine in his life. He’s a thug who has lucked into a job where he gets to pretend to be stylish, and learns he’s good at it. That, all by itself, is more “character” than Bond has ever been invested with. When Connery quit, the producers replaced him with a male model, which shows exactly what they thought of the character: a stylish, attractive form, useful for selling products: cars, clothes, accessories, James Bond movies.
Silva lays bare not just his life story but also the central subtextual premise to Skyfall: he was once M’s favorite son, but she abandoned him and left him for dead, just as she’s done with Bond (is that why he’s a special case to her? Because he’s her way of apologizing to Silva?). M is a Bad Mother, Bond is now the favored son, Silva wants revenge.
At first, I was dismayed that Silva’s plot aims no higher than “kill M,” because I’ve always been taught that “make it personal” was the last refuge of a series that’s run out of ideas. When the writer can’t think of any more imaginative capers for the Joker, he makes the Joker’s plan to “kill the Batman.” It greatly simplifies the plotting process, greatly, but it makes the protagonist even weaker because “defending himself” is one of the weakest motivations a protagonist can have, especially a superhero, which James Bond essentially is, Batman without the cowl. Bond is supposed to “save the world,” not “protect his mother,” but Silva’s plot is refreshingly uncomplicated (Trevelyan in GoldenEye had two goals, Scaramanga in Man With the Golden Gun has three — three!) and the plotting of Skyfall speaks for itself — it’s a streamlined Gulfstream of a movie free of the ridiculous complications that plague most other Bond movies.
Silva recites Bond’s readiness-for-duty report, a piece of comedy that nevertheless makes one wince, seeing the “character” of Bond laid out like a boned fish: alcoholic, pill-popper, adolescent-minded, rebellious, mistrustful of authority, unresolved childhood trauma — in other words, a “weeping failure.” It makes him sound uncool, and not at all what we expect men to be today. And Silva’s recitation doesn’t even mention Bond’s pathological need to seduce women or his addiction to luxury items. “James Bond” has become — gasp — unfashionable by today’s standard, perhaps the most important understanding of the Craig reboot and the keynote of Craig’s great triumph: he’s established Bond as both a “good son” and as a scruffy underdog, something Bond has never been. His orphan status and his Cold War origins connect him not just to Batman but to Don Draper, another alcoholic womanizer who struggles to know himself. He shares Draper’s risk-taking and independence, both signs of orphanhood — when your family is taken away, you quickly learn to live for yourself. (Jon Hamm, of course, is also an orphan, which is how he got the part.)
Silva also makes an intense — if half-hearted — pass at Bond, connecting him to Eve — Eve traveled to Macau to bed Bond, Silva now suggests that he’s brought Bond to his island to seduce him. He also tosses out the entire 20th-century notion of statehood and patriotism — the modern man, Silva says, is stateless. They’re both orphans, really, he and Bond, but Silva has renounced all governing principles, not just family, but also nation and empire, substituting them with nothing but himself. All Bond villians are egotists of one stripe or another, but Silva is the first to have no plan besides erasing the world and filling it with himself. Other villains take over nations or bring them to their knees, Silva doesn’t even see nations any more.
(See the exchange below in the comments with Rob, who better defines this sequence.)
Silva takes Bond outside and forces him to play William Tell with Severine (echoing another Cold War icon, William S. Burroughs). He toasts to “the women we love” with a glass of 50-year-old Macallan (“a personal favorite of yours,” he adds, although I can’t find a reference to Bond drinking Macallan — I assume that it’s a reference to Bond being 50 years old and Macallan, like Bond, being Scottish) (Which he wasn’t, incidentally, until Connery made him so.). The echo left in the air is the fact that Bond has never loved any woman (I don’t buy Tracey from Her Majesty’s Secret Service at all)(although Marie Brennan, below, mentions Vesper Lynd, whom Bond loved enough to spend a whole movie seeking revenge for her death), and therefore Severine is doomed. Bond misses the target by a wide margin and Severine dies, a victim not just of Bond’s fatigue but of his inability to love.
A hair too late to help Severine, backup arrives in the form of some helicopters, and Silva is captured (we never find out what happens to his henchmen), closing out Act II at 1:20:00.