Even for a creative team that includes some of the best talent working in cinema today such as Oscar-winning director Sam Mandes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, the prospect of taking on Skyfall must have been a daunting one. No one wants to be the person who fumbles the ball and mortally wounds one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, after all. Quite apart from the whole 50th anniversary hooplah surrounding the latest instalment of the Bond series, there is the worrisome matter of having to follow on from a previous film widely regarded as a disappointment, and after a too-long hiatus caused by the latest financial strife at MGM/UA.
But even the best creative team has to start the process by asking itself: what sort of Bond movie do we want to make? Everyone has their own image of what a ‘true’ Bond film should look like and the elements it should contain but in fact the series has been consistent only in how much it has varied through the five decades, from the style-setting early Connery thrillers to the light-hearted family entertainment Moore outings. Where the series once created a whole new spy thriller genre, it later fell behind and seemed perpetually scrambling to keep up with the competition: hence the blaxploitation and science fiction outings in the 70s, or the quintessential mid-80s drug war/vendetta instalment, or more recently the feeling that the series needed to get back to realism and basics while assimilating the parkour DNA of the Bourne franchise. At times, the series seemed so busy dodging around copycats and wannabes, finding a new raison d’être for Bond after the end of the Cold War and adapting to the latest cinematic trends that it arguably lost the heart and soul of what it meant to be a Bond film altogether. For me, the successful recent run of entries in the Bond series was under Brosnan, which managed to reinvent the character and make it relevant for the end of the millennium, combined the serious thrillers with the spectacular and absurd, and did it all with a sleek new modern style that was both old-time Bond and wholly fresh.
What, then, should Mendes and his team do for a 50th anniversary film? What film in 2012 could possibly adequately pay homage to the entire history of such a multi-faceted storied franchise? The last time that the series tackled the problem was for the 40th anniversary, and while Die Another Day has been unfairly maligned in many ways there’s no doubt that its smug, self-congratulatory little homages, nods and winks to the past hadn’t helped the audience warm to it. In turns out that Skyfall also has plenty of nods to the past of its own – and not just to the previous 22 films, but also to the previously unexplored literary origins of the James Bond character. However, none of these nods and references are done in anything like as obvious manner as they were in Die Another Day, and all of them come from a place deeply embedded within the needs of the story. Even what seems to be a somewhat gimmicky reappearance of a certain Aston Martin DB5 turns out to be a crucial plot point down the road that couldn’t have been done any other way nearly so effectively.
Despite the evoking of Goldfinger with this cameo guest automobile, the film is definitely not from the over-the-top enjoyable bombastic vein of Bond films that also includes You Only Live Twice, the entire Moore era, and later outings such as Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another Day. If you’re a fan of this type of spectacular but empty-headed type of Bond film – and I admit, I myself very much am – then there’s a good chance you might be less than completely happy with Skyfall, which is none of these things. For example, other than the ancient Aston Martin the film is virtually gadget-free: Bond’s equipment from Q branch this time out is a gun and a radio homing device. “What did you expect, an exploding pen?” snaps the new quartermaster, played by the frighteningly youthful Ben Whishaw.
If I were to propose the top three previous Bond films that Skyfall seems closest to in spirit and intent, it would start with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service which was the most emotional Bond film, and the one most focused on character growth rather than action. Then there would be Casino Royale, for this is a return to the promise of that 2006 reinvention that was so frustratingly squandered by A Quantum of Solace. And the third film I would suggest a comparison to is From Russia With Love: arguably the Bond movie least like a regular franchise instalment and yet at the same time the best film of them all in its own stand-alone right.
The best film, that is, until now. For without question, as a film (Bond or otherwise) Skyfall is by far the best I’ve seen for a long, long time.
It’s an astonishingly powerful piece, but almost all of that power is delivered on an emotional level rather than in the form of action and violence. Don’t get me wrong, Skyfall still has its moments in that regard – the pre-title sequence is excellent, there’s a good London-set chase sequence mid-film and a climax that I thought worked extremely well despite its Die Hard/Home Alone feel – but overall it gives the impression that while it’s happy to do a few crowd-pleasing stunts and fight scenes here and there if they happen to fit in, these are not the point of the film. Perhaps uniquely for the first time in 50 years and the 22 previous Bond movies, it’s the story and a deep insight into the characters that are the overriding concerns of the filmmakers.
Right from the opening credits we know we’re in strange territory. Accompanying Adele’s excellent theme, Daniel Kleinman’s credits are a dark, funereal exploration of Gothic imagery with pitch-black graveyards and headstones silhouetted against ominous green and blood-red clouds, organs and skulls, all of which sets us on edge with foreboding. Showing us falling into Daniel Craig’s left eye establishes that this is going to be an in-depth examination of Bond’s psyche to a degree never attempted before.
Craig is excellent here. He gives us a Bond we’ve never seen before in the films but who is a more accurate depiction of Fleming’s literary creation – a man who is washed up and broken, both emotionally and physically. But he’s almost not the star of the film: it’s not far from an attempt to do a “M” spin-off film starring Judi Dench. The closest thing that Skyfall has to a conventional Bond girl is Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine, while Naomie Harris is delightful as a well-trained but ‘green’ field operative working – but significantly not sleeping – with Bond.
And then there’s Javier Bardem as the film’s antagonist, Silva. The surprise is that he doesn’t appear in the film until around halfway through, which usually is too late for a key character to memorably establish himself in a story. Suffice to say, Bardem has no trouble overcoming this potential handicap: with his first ten minute scene he’s pretty much walked in and completely taken over the movie with the most effective intro for a Bond villain of all time. Silva becomes the ultimate boogeyman for Bond and M, an unstoppable Hannibal Lector-style genius with almost supernatural cyber powers who has himself come back from the dead in order to have his revenge on the people and institutions that he holds responsible for his fate.
To say anymore about the film would be to spoil, and I don’t wish to do that. The plot points discussed here are in the film’s trailer, and in fact leave out a lot that the trailers contain as I think they give rather too much more away than they should.
Is the film perfect? Well, no – but what film is? There’s an early odd jump cut from a scene outside MI6 to a beach-front bar in Asia that feels jarring, as though some transitionary shots were missed out. As a Londoner, I found myself distracted by the number of very familiar shooting locations, which is never usually the case watching the jet-setting 007. As well as a de-emphasis on action, stunts and fights, there are a few longeurs here and there in the second half that might have younger audience members shuffling restlessly. Older viewers will likely appreciate the skilful playing with pace that allows extra time to develop the characters like never before, and which also allows the ravishingly stylish cinematography a moment in the spotlight.
One thing I went in pre-prepared not to like was the soundtrack: I’m a great admirer of what David Arnold brought to the Bond franchise from Tomorrow Never Dies onwards, contributing a perfect updating of the classic John Barry ‘Bond sound’ that at the same time knew how best to augment every moment of on-screen incident. I was rather dismayed when Sam Mendes decided he wanted to use his long-time musical collaborator Thomas Newman for Skyfall instead, but in fact Newman does very well with his contribution to the series. The score is without question the best of the non-Barry/Arnold soundtracks. If it doesn’t feel quite the fully authentic Bond score we know and love from previous films, then I think that this was possibly Mendes’ intent in choosing Newman over Arnold: he wanted and got a great soundtrack, but not one quite like any we’d heard before.
Which sums up Mendes’ film as a whole: it’s recognisably Bond, but not as we’ve ever heard or seen it before. If you’ve never seen or liked a Bond film in the past, then see this one. While by no means a ‘reboot’, it’s nonetheless a whole new artistic, stylish take on what a Bond film can be, one that can acknowledge its past while staying defiantly and proudly fresh, original and innovative. It celebrates the series’ past by breaking with it at the same time, restoring Bond to the trend-setter that he was in 1962 with Dr. No and in many ways bringing the 50-year story around full circle at the same time.
Strangely, that closed loop also means that the film feels very much like an ending, especially given its pervasively melancholic, foreboding atmosphere. Even as we say hello to new versions of old favourite characters like Q and end the film back in unsettlingly familiar surroundings, we’re also saying goodbye. It’s hard to come away from this film without feeling moved and rather sad about what we’ve just been through: it’s even harder to imagine Bond ever going back to how things used to be after this, even though we already know that at least two more Bond films have been definitely green-lit.
To sum it all up in a cliché: for once, Skyfall is a Bond film which delivers a vodka martini that stirs us even more than it leaves us shaken. Its a phenomenal, game-changing outing for the franchise.
And all that said, it doesn’t change my loyalty with regards to my favourite Bond film. It might be far from being the ‘best’ in any objective sense, but as far as I’m concerned nobody does it better than The Spy Who Loved Me. There’s no accounting for abiding loves from childhood.
Currently in cinemas in the UK an due for release on the US on November 9. The Blu-ray and DVD are due out on February 18, 2013.