James Bond 007: Skyfall (2012)

By any measure, Skyfall is an achievement. It is not only the highest grossing film in the James Bond franchise (even when adjusted for inflation), raking in over $1 billion worldwide, but after its release it was widely considered by critics and filmgoers as one of the long series’ crown jewels as well. Although the Bond series has never produced a single “perfect” film (no Hollywood franchise has), Skyfall is probably the film that comes closest to achieving that impossible goal. It’s an astounding film, boldly entertaining, but also thematically substantial. It’s neither a reaction to the trends of its time like so many Bond films, nor an empty exercise in formula. Instead, it’s a unifying statement on the lasting appeal of James Bond the character, and, by extension, the franchise. In a sense, it’s the first prestige Bond film, operating primarily as a work of art and less as a genre exercise.

After the commercial success of Quantum of Solace, Barbara Broccoli and Daniel Craig approached Sam Mendes to direct a Bond film from a script by Peter Morgan (The Queen). However, soon after Mendes was contracted for the role MGM declared bankruptcy, which stalled production of the project for two years. Finally, in December 2010 MGM exited bankruptcy and production on the film was slated to begin late the following year. During the interim two years, Peter Morgan left the project, and John Logan was brought on to write the script. After his initial drafts, past Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were also brought on to polish the script and pepper it with more conventional Bond witticisms.

Despite its dedication to seriousness, Skyfall does not belong in the same gritty category of Bond films as Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. It might operate in a world largely the same as our own—for instance, the film uses real news stations to convey exposition such as Wolf Blitzer’s coverage of the MI6 bombing on CNN—but it never touts itself as the “realistic” Bond. In fact, the film is more the marriage of the emotional realism of Craig’s tenure as Bond with the more fantastical plotting and operatic filmmaking of the earlier entries in the franchise. Everything about Skyfall is glamorous, but not everything about Skyfall is realistic.

Skyfall begins in Istanbul, where Bond (Daniel Craig in the role for a third time) and Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) work to stop Patrice (Ola Rapace), an assassin who has stolen an encrypted file containing the names of intelligence agents embedded undercover with terrorist cells worldwide. Like all good Bond pre-credits sequences, Skyfall’s opening is chalk full of stupendous action. Bond chases Patrice across rooftops, through markets, and finally onto a speeding train winding its way through the Turkish hillsides. The action is noticeable for dropping the shaky-cam and rapid-pace editing of Quantum of Solace. The shots last longer than mere seconds and are relatively stable. The rhythm of the action is created as much by the pace of the stunt performers on screen as the impact of the editing. If Skyfall is a grand statement on the series’ classicism, than this opening action scene is a declaration that Bond had returned to elegant action filmmaking—larger Hollywood trends be damned.

The pre-credits sequence ends with Bond fighting Patrice on the roof of a moving train with Eve aiming to shoot Patrice from a nearby cliff. She doesn’t have a clear shot, but M (Judi Dench) orders her to take the shot anyway, and she ends up shooting Bond, apparently killing him as he falls from the train bridge into the river far below. Cue the opening credits and Adele’s already iconic opening theme song (which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2013 and easily ranks among the best themes of the franchise). After the opening credits we pick up a few months later, with M writing Bond’s obituary and attending his state funeral. On her way back to MI6 headquarters she receives word of a digital intrusion into their intelligence networks, which can be traced back to her office. She races back to the office but just as she pulls up outside, the building explodes, killing several MI6 agents and staff. Bond, who has survived his fall, learns of the attack in his beachside idyll and returns to England (and from the dead) to help M track down whoever perpetrated the attack.

Eventually it is revealed that a cyberterrorist and former MI6 operative named Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) coordinated the attack and plans to release the identities of all the agents listed in the records stolen by Patrice in an effort to get revenge on M, who handed him over for dead to the Chinese during the transition of Hong Kong from Britain to China. Bond heads to Shanghai, Macau, and eventually to his childhood home in Scotland, to defeat Silva and protect M from Silva’s plans for revenge.

The plot of Skyfall is primarily concerned with Bond’s relationship to MI6 and notions of “Queen and Country,” a theme that is mostly embodied by the character of M. If Casino Royale successfully explores how Bond became the cold-hearted killer he is, revealing the personal motivations for his attitudes toward women and killing, Skyfall explores the patriotic motivations for his job and his “pathetic love of country,” as he words it to Silva. It seeks to justify James Bond the legend as Casino Royale justifies James Bond the person. And just as Casino Royale successfully lets us glimpse behind the armour of cinema’s greatest spy, Skyfall rousingly explains why viewers continually flock to the films exploring that very same spy.

As our James Bond 007 Retrospective has hopefully shown, the franchise is no stranger to self-reflection, especially as it pertains to questions of moral duty and Bond’s dedication to Britain. Nor is the series entirely uncritical of British intelligence and foreign affairs, even if it ultimately places MI6 and Britain on the side of good in the world. The Brosnan and Craig entries in particular frequently explore the faults of the government. Silva recalls Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), another MI6-agent-turned-villain with a personal vendetta against the British secret service because of their mistreatment of him. The pre-credits scene of Tomorrow Never Dies has M arguing with a general to hold back on an airstrike that might kill Bond alongside dozens of terrorists. The World Is Not Enough addresses the flaws in M’s personality in her manipulation at the hands of Elektra King (Sophie Marceau). The previous Craig entry, Quantum of Solace, has high-up British officials balking at M’s quibbles about dealing with a villain like Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). British officials are not exempt from miscalculations and moral oversights in the Bond canon. But Skyfall makes these shortcomings and M’s oversights a central theme of the film instead of peripheral thematic flavourings.

Skyfall opens with M callously telling Bond to ignore tending to a fellow agent’s wounds, which might save the agent’s life, and instead chase after Patrice. She later orders Eve to take the difficult shot that apparently kills Bond, making the wrong call in not trusting Bond to successfully complete the mission. When Silva finally explains his motivations while in custody in London, he points to M’s betrayal of his trust when she handed him over to torture at the hands of the Chinese. At every point, M, head of British Intelligence and the individual responsible for everything that happens below her in the service, made the wrong call. In spite of such failures, M knows she’s morally responsible. During a quiet moment at Skyfall as she and Bond wait for Silva to arrive, she remarks, “I fucked this up, didn’t I?” It’s a remarkable moment, partly for its vulgarity (a rarity in a franchise that has mostly avoided coarse language in favour of British etiquette) and partly for how it wrings out naked honesty from a character who stands in for the whole of Britain.

For Bond, the United Kingdom represents a moral righteousness that goes beyond its immediate institutions and current politicking. As such, Britain’s overall worth and its championing of justice on the world stage supersedes its institutional and political failings. Britain might be an old ship that needs to be tugged into harbour, like the J.M.W. Turner painting that Bond and Q (Ben Whishaw) admire in the National Gallery, but it’s still a beautiful old ship that has done its duty, so to speak. It’s also easy to read this scene as symbolically suggesting that Bond (and the franchise) is the old ship in need of a youthful injection of energy. However, in light of the whole film, it’s perhaps more fruitful to envision Bond as the tugboat, and Britain as the warship. This counter-reading is not immediately apparent, but reveals itself over the course of the film.

In Skyfall, much of the first act is dedicated to Bond’s ineligibility for continued service: to the fact that he’s old and broken down. He fails his psychological evaluation and his marksmanship exam. Craig sports a beard, pants after physical exertion, and looks considerably older than the youthful, newly-minted 00 of Casino Royale. When Bond resurfaces after his apparent death, M remarks that they’ve both been playing the game of spies long enough to have grown cynical about it. It’s a curious statement when directed at Craig, who has only been in the role for two films prior, both of which explicitly dealt with Bond at the beginning of his career (a fact that confounds the notions of continuity introduced in those two films). But it makes perfect sense when viewed as commentary on the James Bond character beyond Craig’s involvement, which has been around for over 50 years.

The film also goes to some lengths to challenge and eventually rebuff the notion that men like James Bond are inessential in the modern world. The scene between Bond and Q in the National Gallery again explores this theme best. After hearing Q brag about how effective he can be on his computer while wearing his pajamas in contrast to a field agent like Bond, Bond challenges Q, asking him why he’s even necessary if he’s so ineffectual. Q answers by saying, “Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.” Bond cuts in, “Or not pulled. It’s hard to know which in your pajamas.” The second part of Bond’s statement is key. Beyond the fact that Bond can physically shoot people or engage enemies in a physical contest in the field, his essential nature is that he is governed by a moral sense of duty and judgment. He’s not just the “blunt instrument” that M pegs him as in Casino Royale. He has perspective on the larger picture and can make the right decision, even if it’s not the logical one. He can choose to shoot or not shoot, and for the right reasons, because he is both personally responsible for his actions (and thus culpable for mistakes) while also acting on the part of a larger good.

As I discussed in my review of Goldfinger, the thing that keeps Bond on the right side of good and evil is his dedication to Queen and Country. He might be a cad, a killer, an alcoholic, or a “sexist, misogynistic dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War,” in the words of M in GoldenEye, but he’s also a man willing to sacrifice himself for an common good that is larger than his own self-interests. He’s even capable of inspiring others to better duty, to serve the greater good instead of the minutiae of bureaucracy. For example, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) is introduced as a parliamentary stooge, but after witnessing Bond’s dedication to the service in spite of its mistreatment of him, he comes around to defending the service and M, and eventually replacing her after she is killed.

Bond serves the goodness that he believes Britain represents, even if the actual institutions of Britain might fall short of that goodness. He serves the ideal, not the reality, which is part of James Bond’s romantic appeal. In fact, with its focus on Britain, Lord Tennyson quotes, and Bond’s dedication to protecting a woman who stands in for the ruling class, Skyfall envisions Bond as almost a knight, a chivalric figure who selflessly defends noble virtues. (It’s worth noting that Casino Royale and Skyfall build up Bond as a scrappy orphan with a noble lineage taken in by the service to defend justice. In this way, he reflects mythic heroes like Zorro, and even Batman, who express a kind of noblesse oblige.) The film even envisions Bond’s Skyfall estate as a solitary castle, the last bastion of defense against an encroaching evil (Silva) who wants to burn down the kingdom. And like many chivalric figures like Sir Lancelot and King Arthur, Bond does not fully embody the virtues he defends. To borrow M’s language during his parliamentary hearing, Bond operates in the shadows, fighting darkness with darkness, so that the ordinary people of the world don’t have to.

Just as Bond is bound to Britain even if individual aspects of Britain fall short of the ideal, the appeal of the James Bond films is that the entire franchise is larger than the sum of its parts. One film in the franchise might fail, but that failure does not discount James Bond as a character, nor the series’ entire vision. In this way, Skyfall also becomes an argument for the appeal of the James Bond franchise as a whole. In the same way that it argues for James Bond’s effectiveness as a field agent in a world dominated by surveillance and drone killings, the film argues for the Bond series’ worth measured against a cinema full of shinier, trendier (and arguably baser) blockbusters.

The story’s exploration of Bond’s legend and value parallels the film’s exploration of the series’ worth and legacy. Compared alongside homogenous superhero franchises and adaptations and remakes of nostalgic properties, the Bond franchise stands alone as a series governed by tradition. Skyfall is certainly guilty of exploiting nostalgia with its references to previous films such as the appearance of the Aston Martin DB5, but it doesn’t nakedly depend on nostalgia to provide its worth. That’s not to say the Bond franchise is entirely divorced from Hollywood and its machinations, but it’s also not purely Hollywood. It has always been a British product, even if the money backing the productions has grown increasingly American over the years. As well, the series represents a personal investment and vision on the part of Eon Productions that most blockbusters lack. The Bond series is even a family affair, involving two generations of the Broccolis.

As well, beyond all the thematic explorations of Bond’s worth, it’s easy to forget that Skyfall’s sheer entertainment value is as good an argument as any as to the franchise’s lasting appeal. There has never been a more beautifully-made Bond film, nor has the entire supporting cast ever been as complex and varied as they are here. Skyfall is a work of art, and a superb piece of entertainment.

Sam Mendes executes the requisite entertainment fabulously. The action scenes are thrilling and the film’s pace is relentless, making you forget that it clocks in at 143 minutes. Thomas Newman’s score plays with the classical Bond theme, offering new variations while also injecting some quiet nuance into the proceedings. There are more Bond conventions at play in Skyfall than are immediately apparent. Again, the villain is playing on current societal fears, especially notions of surveillance and terrorism. Silva’s knack for cyber hacking and dissemination of classified government information, combined with his platinum blond hair, makes him a sinister analogue to someone like Julian Assange. As well, the secondary Bond girl Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe) dies after coupling with Bond—sex with Bond continues to be a death sentence for any outlying women.

But it’s where Skyfall cuts from convention in its filmmaking that makes it truly special. The contributions of cinematographer Roger Deakins cannot be overstated enough. Skyfall is simply one of the most beautiful blockbusters ever made. Each frame is something of a work of art, perfectly lit, reinforcing its themes through use of visual parallels. For instance, notice how often Bond or Silva are draped in shadows, such as in the film’s opening shot in the hallway or the final showdown at Skyfall, mere silhouettes in the frame. This emphasizes the connection between the two, showing how Silva is Bond’s doppelganger.

Sam Mendes often refuses the conventional way of shooting an action scene, making for some iconic moments. The most beautiful scene in the film takes place in Shanghai where Bond tracks Patrice to the upper stories of a skyscraper. After watching Patrice execute his target in the building across the way, Bond engages him in hand-to-hand combat in front of a glass window, eventually smashing the glass. Mendes cuts back to a wide shot of the combat, both figures black silhouettes in the frame. And he holds on this shot, slowly pushing in as Bond struggles with Patrice, both men trying to force the other over the edge of the shattered window as a neon jellyfish sign dances across the skyline in the background. Eventually the camera pushes over the edge of the building and tilts down as Bond holds onto the dangling Patrice, trying to keep him from falling. Few action scenes are as thrilling as this one. The filmmakers are so confident in their framing and choreography, they patiently allow the action to occur uninterrupted by cuts.

Silva’s introduction is similarly bold. Held prisoner on Silva’s private island, Bond sits in a chair in a large hall filled with computer servers. The elevator arrives at the far end of the room and Silva appears through its door, merely a small speck in the frame. Mendes keeps the camera behind Bond as Silva tells a story about rats on his grandmother’s island and slowly walks towards Bond. The camera stays positioned behind Bond for the entire story. The shot lasts well over two minutes, allowing the dread of Silva’s encroaching presence and his increasingly horrifying story about rats to create unbearable tension. Silva has been teased for half the film’s running time. Severine builds up his legend during her conversation with Bond in Macau and this, his eventual introduction from the shadows, allows the character to live up to that reputation. It’s conventionally counterintuitive to keep the camera still for so long in an action film, as action films thrive off visual dynamism and relentless forward momentum. But by keeping the camera still, Mendes and Deakins achieve greater tension than they could have otherwise.

As for the film’s characterizations, Silva is afforded a far greater level of viewer sympathy than the average Bond villain. His hatred of M and the MI6 is entirely justified. They did callously discard him, knowing full well that he’d suffer at the hands of the Chinese. And his peculiarities register as more than empty tics affording him character. For instance, his bleached hair and oversized teeth are the result of a cyanide pill that failed to kill him; the sight of his scarred face if horrifying and sad. The blond hair also again links him to Craig, our blond Bond, both men the metaphorical adoptive children of M. As for M, the character has never been deeper in any Bond film, even though Dench’s performances in the role grew in agency and narrative involvement in each consecutive film. She’s the main focus of the plot, allowed personal development while still representing the larger responsibilities of the character. It’s a neat trick for the film to deepen a character that is essentially a symbol for British government, nothing more. As well, while the Bond films are iconic for their plots involving villains threatening world destruction, Skyfall registers far greater by keeping its villain’s plot personal. What is at stake is M’s life, and by extension, the legitimacy of MI6 and its 00 agents, not the fate of the world, or even Britain.

The entire climax at Bond’s Skyfall estate in Scotland embodies the film’s dedication to intimacy, tradition, and legacy. For such a massive blockbuster, it’s a startlingly intimate ending, reducing the number of players and restricting the final battle to one manor house and a field. If Skyfall represents the series returning to the conventions of the Bond film with renewed vigour, the plot of Skyfall also returns to ground zero, where Bond became Bond, in a sense. Just as the film examines the entire legacy of the franchise, the narrative examines where that legacy began, with a boy hiding in a priest’s hole in a massive old home after hearing that his parents died in a car accident. Fascinatingly, the film ends by returning to where it all started (as Adele sings in the theme song), personalizing the very conventions of the franchise. It shows that Bond’s attitudes and his actions are a result of something profoundly personal. A modern myth as powerful and lasting as the character of James Bond is shown to have a personal origin.

Skyfall is possibly the best film in the franchise. It’s probably my favourite. It’s one of the franchise’s definitive installments, even though its success is largely dependent on its uniqueness in the franchise. It wouldn’t register nearly as well if every film in the franchise were to attempt its same mixture of meta-commentary and prestige filmmaking. Skyfall defends the Bond formula even if it doesn’t strictly adhere to it. It’s a celebration of why we watch Bond films and the continuing appeal of a character strictly rooted in a different time, which is perfectly fitting for the film that celebrated Bond’s 50th year on the big screen. Skyfall celebrates a man of the past while being a film of the future.

10 out of 10

Skyfall (2012, UK/USA)

Directed by Sam Mendes; written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan, based on the character created by Ian Fleming; starring Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace, and Judi Dench.