After the disappointment that was 2008’s Quantum of Solace, the 23rd film in the long-running franchise wisely, yet surprisingly, decided to eschew all overarching events of the preceding films, choosing instead to focus on an entirely new narrative. Directed by Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty and Jarhead, and with a screenplay by longtime franchise veterans Neal Purvis, John Logan, and Robert Wade, Skyfall is a “soft reboot” of the franchise, once again recreating major elements of the franchise while still keeping some of the major elements established in Casino Royale; the Bond featured in Skyfall is still very much the same Bond we were introduced to in 2006, but it isn’t the same world.
There are several elements that are inherent to the Bond franchise: outrageous and impressive stunts, hot girls, good-looking cars, good-looking girls, an eccentric villain, and gadgets. Bond films were originally intended to be the ultimate escapist male power fantasy. This is something that the franchise mostly excelled at doing. As I mentioned in my Casino Royale review, after Pierce Brosnan’s lackluster run as the character, it was decided that it was time to reinvent the franchise. Casino Royale excelled in doing so, but it was felt necessary to jettison the more outlandish factors that made up Bond in order to modernize the franchise in a more grounded, post-9/11 environment. With Skyfall, it was decided that there was, in fact, a way to have their cake and eat it, too, as it were.
Skyfall premiered in 2012, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Bond franchise. Skyfall is, both on the surface and on a deeper thematic level, a love letter to the franchise that has been a cultural touchstone for many a generation. Skyfall’s brilliant opening evokes memories of great franchise moments. Octopussy’s train sequence came to my mind, specifically. These outlandish and intense sequences of pulse-pounding escapist action continue throughout the film. All of the aforementioned elements of old school Bond return in Skyfall.
The theme tune to a Bond film has always been an important aspect. I have found that a Bond film is quite literally only as good as its theme song. The best Bond movies have the best theme songs and the worst Bond movies have garbage theme songs. (Pun intended) Bond themes are known for big, brass heavy orchestral arrangements with soulful lyrics. Iconic theme songs include 1964’s Goldfinger sung by Shirley Bassey, which is said to have started the tradition of Bond theme tunes being sung by popular artists of the time, and 1965’s Thunderball sung by Tom Jones. 1973’s Live and Let Die sung by Paul McCartney and Wings is iconic for it’s hard rock elements infused with the more traditional Bond fare, and due to it being a pretty great hard rock ballad in its own right, led to the song becoming the first Bond theme to permeate pop culture and move on past the film itself. I am personally also a fan of Chris Cornell’s You Know My Name performed for Casino Royale, which ditched all elements of previous theme’s in favor of an edgier direction, much like the film itself did.
Adele’s Skyfall is a culmination of the greatest Bond tunes, calling on the spirit of Bassey and Jones for inspiration. With Adele’s powerful vocal range, a large orchestral backing, and an appropriately trippy yet uncharacteristically and engaging credits sequence designed by Daniel Klienman, Skyfall ranks as one of the best themes of the franchise.
Skyfall sees the long-awaited reintroduction of gadgeteer Q to the franchise after Desmond Llewelyn’s death in 1999. Llewelyn began his career as Q in 1963’s From Russia With Love. He was 49 at the time, and continued to play the character up until his death at 85 from an unfortunate car accident. Here, Q is played by the much younger Ben Whishaw. Whishaw is a talented actor most known for his stage work, notably in a 2005 production as the title character in Hamlet. He had somewhat of a major film breakthrough in 2006 playing the main character in Perfume: The Story of A Murderer. The young Whishaw, wisely realizing it wouldn’t make much sense to portray the character in the same vein as the much older Llewelyn, adds a sense of arrogance to the character you would expect to find in a 31-year-old computer genius in 2012. Interestingly enough, Whishaw’s father is an IT specialist. The gruff and veteran killer Bond treats the young Q with an equal modicum of contempt, disbelief, and begrudging respect, and Q, though commenting at length concerning Bond’s inefficiency, does the same. Whishaw, I feel, goes under the radar in Skyfall, and his performance as Q is a surprisingly bright spot in one of the best films in the franchise.
Skyfall sees the last of Judi Dench’s role as M, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, in part, I suspect, because of Dench’s unfortunate development of macular degeneration. It is fitting that she gives it her all in Skyfall. M is the role that Dame Judi Dench is most known for, making her impressive debut in 1995’s Goldeneye. Dench portrays the character as one with a brash, blunt, aggressive personality. She is a veteran of the spy game and she knows exactly how it’s played. Her overriding duty is to her country above anything else, including her dignity. Dench conveys her character’s values and personality with such force and will that Dench and her character are nearly inseparable beings.
M has always been set up as a surrogate maternal figure for Craig’s Bond, and Skyfall carries that arc to a very logical and satisfying conclusion while also featuring as a very important plot point that is explored throughout the film.
The standout in Skyfall is Javier Bardem’s performance as Silva. The veteran Spanish actor is the single most intimidating villain the franchise has ever had. There are certain points where Bardem channels his role as Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, but for the most part, this is an entirely different monster. Instead of relying on physicality, emotionless brutality, or weaponry, the character of Silva is an eccentric genius who operates out of sheer force of will and an insatiable lust for vengeance. Most Bond villains are forgettable tools used to drive the escapist action that the franchise is known for, but thanks to Bardem’s performance, Silva is so much more, and is assured to stay in the memories of hardcore Bond fans and the general audience alike for being a very creepy and memorable villain, thanks in part to one particularly uncomfortable scene.
It is clear that Silva will stop at nothing to get his revenge. Unlike Chigurh, he is an emotional being who operates off of a deep, impassioned feeling of hatred and betrayal, which almost makes him more intimidating.
Skyfall is a masterful work of directing by Sam Mendes.The acclaimmed and experienced director handles the franchise with ease. Masterful stunt coordination makes Skyfall one of the most exhilarating films in the franchise. This masterful direction is bolstered by some rather epic assistance from cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins creates a beautiful, vibrant world to contrast with the darkness that is the film’s main narrative. Deakins makes diverse use of colors to draw the audience’s attention. This is especially noticeable during the sequences taking place in Shanghai. Deakins and Mendes are, in fact, able to create a beautifully shot and well choreographed fight scene that is, for me, the standout stunt piece of the film. Despite the fight being relatively brief, it is intense, raw, beautiful, and captivating.
Deakins has always created beautiful establishing shots for his films as well. The long take featured in the Macau Casino does not feature any action, but is an impressive feat nonetheless; the tracking shot features no rapid cuts or edits and seamlessly shows Bond investigating and perusing the casino.
Skyfall is also elevated by an unusually deep and thematic script by Neal Purvis, John Logan, and Robert Wade. There have been 24 movies in the Bond franchise so far; there have been highs and lows. In 2012, with the 50th anniversary of the first film, Dr. No, in 1962, Skyfall is an appraisal of wether or not Bond films have been “played out.” Purvis, Wade, and Logan accomplish this by bringing the consequences of modernization to the forefront. Q boasts to Bind upon their first meeting:
“I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.”
“Oh. So why do you need me?”
“Every now and again, a trigger has to be pulled.”
Bond, Mallory, and even M herself call into question whether or not this is “their fight” any longer, considering that they may be too old-fashioned for the game.
Silva is the main antagonist of the film, but Skyfall is also a story about what was once new and exciting now being old, inefficent, and antiquated. Silva preys on Bond’s insecurities concerning these very ideas throughout the film, and does so in very effective and downright meanacing ways.
At the climax of the film, M, called to testify before a governement committee concerning her failures, solidifies this theme and insists that there is a need for agents like 007 (and thus, a need for 007 films), reading a poem by Alfred Tennyson.
Skyfall provides answers and resolution to that conflict in and of itself. If the coming James Bond films keep up with the immeasurable quality of Skyfall, then this franchise is by no means played out or antiquated, and is, in fact, reinvigorated in an immense way. The 23rd film in the franchise is undeniably one of its best, featuring brilliant acting, action, direction, cinematography, and even a great script, it will also undeniably be a very tough act to follow…