I have never been more conflicted about any Bond film than Skyfall.
There are some truly amazing moments in the movie, from the opening chase to the neon-soaked Shanghai fight scene. It's the best-looking Bond ever. If Roger Deakins doesn't win the Oscar for best cinematography, then something is very rotten in the state of California indeed. Javier Bardem is an impeccable villain, doing creepy and sociopathic in the way that only he can. Ben Whishaw cements his reputation as the thinking girl's geek. Adele's theme song is an outright stomping histrionic magnificent triumph.
And yet, I can't help but think of Skyfall without an ever-growing sour pit in my guts. As the 50th anniversary rolled around, I guess the idea was to make the most Bond-like Bond movie possible. In a lot of ways, the creative team have succeeded beyond all expectations. Everything that's ever been wrong with the Bond franchise is amplified to a ridiculous degree in Skyfall, to the point where it would be nice if it was only self-parodic, instead of gleefully eating its own tail.
Bond films have always been flabby and over-padded. Skyfall is at least half-an-hour too long. I'm not putting the blame for that on the extended dialogue scenes that Sam Mendes insisted on. They at least give a bit of depth to characters that would otherwise be bare sketches. Instead, the interminable globe-trotting that has been part of the DNA since Ian Fleming first sat at his typewriter is still firmly in place. In the fifties, his audience loved the idea of being whisked off to foreign lands. The escapism was a major part of Bond's early success. Nowadays, the ten minutes of travelogue that have to be shoehorned into the narrative just slow things down.
The borderline misogyny at the heart of the Bond narrative is front and centre in Skyfall. Of the three lead female characters, two wind up dead, and the only survivor is deemed insufficiently skilled to be anything more than a secretary. Killing off Judi Dench's M and replacing her with yet another white upper-class male tells you everything about the mind-set in which Bond still moves.
In fact, everything about the Bond universe is mired in a bygone age, a fantasia with its own weird logic. It's a world in which the twilight world of secret agents can be discussed in open tribunal, in which the idea of a double-0 is common knowledge. It's a world in which Britain has a famous spy. Think about that phrase a second. It's nonsense, and it's the kind of nonsense that is all over Skyfall like a rash. Bond apparently has no gadgets in this film, apart from the Walther PPK with the palm-print lock that's straight out of Judge Dredd, a locator beacon that works instantly and world-wide. And let's not forget the car with the twin machine-guns.
Which brings us back to the whole 50th anniversary chicanery. It's nice to see the DB5, but it's clearly been shoe-horned in to poke our nostalgia gland rather than to serve any motor (sorry) to the story. It's part and parcel of the whole queasy sense of deja vu at play in Skyfall. I'd argue that the plot, or at the very least the villain's motivation, has been rehashed from The World Is Not Enough. From the attack on MI5 to the focus on M as a target, we've seen it all before.
The thing is with Bond, you've always seen it all before. Every film has to hit certain plot beats, certain soundtrack cues, particular lines of dialogue. But I got the feeling in Skyfall that we'd reached critical mass. Bond has to have this drink out of this glass while wearing this suit while flirting with two women simultaneously and scoping the room out for possible threats and there's only so many ways you can do it. It all just starts to feel like a mashup where there's only one song available to cannibalise. The snake is starting to eat its own tail.
It doesn't help that Daniel Craig suddenly looks as if he's aged 20 years. The young, virile 007 of Casino Royale is suddenly a scarred, exhausted soldier who's had one too many knocks. I wonder what the timescale is supposed to be between Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall. How long has M been protecting Bond for? There's an interesting story here about the last battle of an old hero. Sadly, the Bond construct will never let it happen. It's too much of a cash cow for everyone involved, from sponsors to the Broccoli/Wilson cartel, a shrewd bunch that have seen what happens when you try to change a formula. From Lazenby to the failed experiment to Bourneify the franchise that was the universally derided QoS, the reaction has always been the same. The illusion of change, quickly subsumed back into the same old paradigm. If only they'd cop to the well-known fan theory that James Bond 007 is a rank, rather than a character. Like Doctor Who, it could be interesting to change things up. A black Bond. A female Bond. Nice, but it'll never happen.
If the best that talented, world-class directors like Sam Mendes and a writer with the nous and intelligence of John August can provide us with when hamstrung by the same old baggage is a a film that ultimately promises a huge step backwards, then the franchise is in my view in big trouble. Bond back in Whitehall, M back in Bernard Lee's old office with bloody Moneypenny guarding the leather-clad door? Smells like a return to the bad old days of creaky old Roger Moore to me.
Maybe it's about time to call it a day. We've seen it all. Once, nobody did it better. Here in the 21st century, the game has changed, and it's blatantly obvious that Bond cannot adapt to the new landscape. The last great Bond film, Goldeneye, at least made a nod in the right direction, allowing Bond to flounder a bit in a world where the old certainties had collapsed with the Berlin Wall. Ever since, we've seen the franchise stutter and trip as it tries and fails to respond to a changing audience. The very fact that the big climax of Skyfall features the destruction of, rather than a secret volcano base or space station, an old and creaky building that's no longer fit for purpose, should perhaps be seen as an omen.