I didn’t care for Skyfall. The misogyny of the franchise seemed a bit worse than usual, the stakes of the film seemed lower than usual, and the starting MacGuffin’s placement was astonishingly sloppy. But the real weakness of the film is that all of the symbolism of the film actively contradicted everything the characters were saying.
Spoilers abound in 3… 2… 1…
In the film, MI-6, proxying for the CIA et al, has to defend itself against charges of being incapable of addressing modern threats — that is, Terrorism! — and keeping the nation safe from those threats. And the script is about the dangers that national security agents face on behalf of their nation, and the lack of gratitude that the cable-news-addled citizenry heap back upon the agencies via elected proxies, especially when things become in the least bit messy. The spoken message is that questioning the covert agencies on the periphery of the military-industrial complex is bad for the nation.
The other clear message is that women, even the certified field agents, can’t shoot or drive worth a darn. As noted, the misogyny of the franchise seemed a bit worse than usual.
But the symbols and imagery of the film tell a different story: it isn’t the threats we see and oppose that might do us harm, but the things in our environment — that we place in our environment — and disregard that comes back to bite us in the ass. The lead villain of the film is a former MI-6 agent who has turned against the inhumanity of the organization after being forced out of it: he’s not a terrorist, he’s not even The Other, and his attack on London while M is explaining how MI-6 is all the more important to counter the threats of The Other should be wildly ironic but M’s dramatic speech comes off as the most inept of wanton ignorance. The cognitive blind spots here, the lack of allegorical mirrors to reflect in, are not unique. The ironic core of the villain, of course, is his wanton inhumanity towards his underlings on his vendetta against the agency for its wanton inhumanity towards its agents — M’s lack of reflection in action is reflected by the villain who also doesn’t reflect on what he’s doing. Even a minor henchling is dragged off to be the dinner of a decorative Komodo Dragon by his Achilles tendon: the low-cognition Komodo Dragon that people had brought under control and ignored proved to be more dangerous than the highly-trained Secret Agent Man when it was ignored.
When the first terrorist attack hits London, it’s through old insecure software within MI-6 that is somehow tied to gas lines. When the villain escapes, it’s again MI-6 software being taken for granted that lets him go. When a commuter train is crashed, it’s because the older tunnel underneath that tunnel got blown out. When a helicopter is knocked out of the air, it’s smitten by manor house brick-and-mortar launched by an impressive-but-undirected gas explosion. When a major character dies, it’s because a (practically) stray bullet from a henchling does them in despite the lead villain’s express desire for the agent to not be injured by anybody but him. And none of that counts James Bond using his enemies’ guns against them, which happens at least three times during the film.
The visuals and the action of the film is clear: we sow the seeds of our own destruction through our inattention to and lack of control over the environment around us. But this is directly contradicted by the words and the tone of the film: the people who are sowing the seeds of our destruction are most definitely there for our protection from Those Other Guys Who Are Really Bad. It’s kind of like a rather-too-late allegory for Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the United States’ disregard for the fighters fueled in Afghanistan against the Soviets came back to bite us in the ass — except that the denouement of the film, staying mentally indolent — would be a Post-Post-9/11 mindset where it’s so important to protect ourselves from Threats! that we can’t stop to notice where the threats are coming from.
The last point I’d like to touch on is when M is being ousted from MI-6, she rejects the message saying that she’ll leave “when the job is done.” Yet she should know better than any other character that the job is never “done” and in the particular circumstance of Skyfall, the job gets less done the longer one sticks at it. The conclusion of the film with James returning to duty for yet another sequel is thus a perversion of the way Nolan ended The Dark Knight Rises (despite the attempt to make James Bond out to be a Scottish version of Bruce Wayne): Bond is stuck permanently non-maturing in the belief of his own indispensability determined to stay right where trouble can find him, causing the collateral damage that he’s hypothetically supposed to be preventing.
To sum up, the apparent message of Skyfall was that our security complex is keeping itself busy by screwing things up and putting lots of people at risk — but it’s a very important thing to do so we should shut up and sit down and be grateful they do it.
I believe the only conclusion that can be offered up here is: “Wait, What?”
If I were to stretch, Skyfall might qualify as a sort of participatory theatre: by paying to see it and sit dumb for a couple hours as the spectacle unfolds, the audience is doing exactly what the governmental agencies want them to do by way of paying more homage than attention. I don’t think this is the case. First, the filmmakers would have to be cynical and masochistic to spin a story of deeply flawed government agencies and then treat people who are paying to see their work and sheepishly supporting the portrayed agencies. Second, and more critically, the filmmakers must surely realize the breadth of misinterpretation that the target audience of the franchise would happily heap upon their work: that is, their necessary cynicism wouldn’t actually be cynical enough. So this almost certainly isn’t what happened — but it is an interesting expansion of the sphere of influence of this cultural artifact to consider.