It seems like all I’m posting about these days is movies, but I saw Skyfall last night and I’m going to post about it regardless. I’m also in the middle of The Hydrogen Sonata and it’s pretty solid, though. Anyway, movie review. This is going to have some spoilers so I’ll put in a cut.
So, ok, first thought: computer stuff is generally a bad fit for Bond and spy stories in general. The movie acknowledges this a bit, with Q’s remarks and the minister’s questions, but they’re the sort of “raise the issue and then don’t really answer it” things you stick in when you don’t really have an answer. Basically, here’s the issue: you can’t ignore computers, because this is the modern world and computers are everywhere. But for this kind of movie to work, you have to have something that a person can physically grapple with or else there’s no fight scene. “Computer stuff”, which in practice in movies almost always means “data”, is extremely unsuited for this — you can copy it easily and store it multiple places (so you can’t send a human to retrieve the only copy because there’s no such thing), you can access it remotely (so there’s no need to send a human somewhere to get it), and it can be untethered from a particular person (data can be released or deleted with a deadman’s switch, so there’s no point in killing some dude to accomplish something because the dude can set things so they happen regardless). That’s basically the problem as expressed and ignored in this movie.
But if you re-read that, you realize it’s a pretty shallow analysis. Despite what movies think, most important computers aren’t connected to the internet — the pentagon, the FBI, bank ATMs, all that stuff are their own private networks and if you want to hack them you need to physically get to a place you can make a connection. Furthermore, these days, a substantial fraction of the serious hacking is social engineering — yeah, there’s a lot of automatic exploitation of known security holes in insecure software, but in plenty of cases the software is secure enough you can’t just “hack” it: you need to impersonate an authorized user and pretend to have forgotten your password, or dig up appropriate personal information to answer some other security question, or steal their security dongle and use it to pass half of their two-factor authentication. The most important thing, though, is this is not at all a new problem. There’s a famous line in a few places where Bond’s referred to as a blunt instrument: killing people is sexy and makes for good movies, but the premise of Bond isn’t that MI6 goes around killing people all the time. There are whole layers of diplomacy, surveillance, bribery, blackmail, etc that you go through before you get to the point where assassination is looking like the best option. Just because the safety of the free world is threatened by the sinister plans of a madman blah blah blah doesn’t mean you call in Bond; you only do that when it’s a problem Bond is the best tool to solve, and the fact that the world has more data-driven threats these days doesn’t change that. It just means that for the movie, you have to pick threats that Bond is suited for, same as before. In the modern world, you could do a totally reasonable movie where Bond infiltrates the Iranian nuclear plant to load stuxnet onto their computers, or where Bond has to kill a guy so access on some system devolves to another person who’s already been compromised.
And speaking of threats, let’s talk about Bond villains. I’m sure people have written essays on this before now but I don’t know why recent movies keep screwing it up, so to reiterate: there are three things you need for an action-movie villain — motivation, goal, and gimmick — and of the three, gimmick is by far the most important. It’s the most important because goal and motivation are revealed over time (so on initial introduction, all you have is gimmick to make them interesting), and it’s also the most important because the villain’s goal and motivation almost always turn out to be stupid. I assume this has something to do with how movies get made or something — you start out by shooting the fight scenes and then have to rewrite the goal to explain why the jetski chase is now in Miami instead of Madagascar because that’s all your budget had room for or whatever. Motivation is only interesting if you care about the characters, and in this kind of movie we don’t really care about the characters — we all know that whatever beef this guy has with M is purely imaginary and exists only within the confines of the movie, and we also know that at the end of the movie he’s going to be dead and Bond is going to win, so it’s not like we are on the edge of our seats wondering if the villain will work through his mono-oedipus complex and achieve personal fulfillment.
We are not shocked and drawn into the story when we realize some guy is actually a traitor or has some hidden motivation or whatever, because we don’t have any investment in the character and so we don’t care (one exception of note here is the big shocker in Mission: Impossible when they made one of the beloved characters from the tv show the bad guy, but this was mostly shocking in the sense that people hated it, so I’m not sure it’s a great path to follow either). Another way to put it is gimmick is what the villain does, so you can tell the viewer the villain can do it and then you get hitchcockian bomb-under-the-table suspense as the viewer waits for them to actually do it; but motivation and goals are generally too big to relate to — we know the villain can’t work through them before the end of the movie so there’s no suspense wondering if they will (and the inverse situation is true too — in this movie when Bond captures the bad guy midway through, or in Avengers when Loki gets captured, the audience isn’t thinking “wow, who knows what will happen now?”, they’re thinking “well, obviously this isn’t going to stick because this is only halfway through the movie”).
Also, as a minor peeve, it’s a violation of the implicit laws of the Bond universe for the villain here to be both a master agent and a master hacker with no explanation; these are clearly separate skillsets*. It’s totally possible for them to be combined in one character, but they have to have some special shtick to explain it, they can’t just have them — like, if the guy’s skull had been partly burnt out by the cyanide and he got a cybernetic implant which then granted him hacking powers, that would be fine. I bet you could improve this movie if you split out the hacker and agent into separate characters, though; have your evil Bond and your evil Q and let them be fighting for dominance in the same way Bond and Q are while at the same time working together to bring down MI6. You could even do some plot switcheroo where the audience thinks there’s only one villain until later in the movie.
*Whereas in, say, Lensman, the more powerful a character you are, the better you are at all skills; you don’t really have to specialize.
The stuff with Bond’s death was kind of embarrassing from a screenwriting perspective — like, clearly they decided he had to have a death and resurrection for the anniversary, but it had so little time there was basically no point (and then they do it again when he goes into the lake at the end, which I guess you could say is a callback but in practice makes it look like he’s the Unbreakable guy and his one weakness is falling into lakes). Ditto the stuff with M’s death. I mean, look, nobody believes that these characters are actually going to die in a permanent way (well, ok, M as played by Judi Dench is, but M lives on), but it’s at least traditional to play it up a bit. I mean, what’s the point of writing in a character death if you’re not going to do a funeral scene and people talking about the dearly departed and sad music and putting “special collector’s issue!” on the cover and stuff? Nobody’s making you do this kind of plot point (except presumably the producers in this case), so if you’re going to do it, go big or don’t do it.
And speaking of comics, that’s what the gender stuff in this movie made me think about. Like, I didn’t find it sexist that Eve is a screwup agent — of course all agents in the movie are screwups compared to Bond* — and I didn’t find it sexist or rapey to have Bond get on the boat and have sex with the other lady — that is how hookups work in Bond movies and there’s no reason to think it’s non-consensual and a few reasons to think it is consensual — but what does seem implicitly sexist is the character rollback at the end of the movie. There’s a thing in the comics world now (Chris Sims talked about it in 2010) where they’re going back to the original versions of various characters, and the side effect of that is rolling back a bunch of the diversity that later versions introduced, because the originals reflect their 50s/60s design. So basically we have the same thing here: at the end of the movie, M is back to being male and has a sexy secretary. Really? It’s weird because since they also rolled over Q, they had the perfect chance to put in a female Q. They seem to be moving to a dynamic where Bond and Q have more ongoing (but remote) interaction, so it would have been great to make Q female and they could have a non-sexual relationship develop.
*That said, her banter with Bond about it later is a weird flirty “ha ha I’m so incompetent” thing that is reflective of a particular kind of female socialization.
So, uh, as usual this was mostly gripes but basically the film is fine as a Bond film. It doesn’t really sparkle — I think of slinking around parties in exotic locales as pretty fundamental to the Bond experience, and this one is mostly interested in running around basements in London*, and one of the exotic places is Scotland in winter, which is kind of the antithesis of sparkling — but if the intent is to mix it up a bit, it succeeds at that (like, James Bond doing Home Alone is kind of cute).
*I think you could do an good thing with “the most exotic place for an agent is your home town”, but aside from the one scene on the tube where Q comments that Bond isn’t really used to rush hour, they pretty much blow that.