I initially planned to wait until after I had seen all the Bond movies before writing about Skyfall. But I’m not nearly as far along in my Bond movie marathon as I had hoped, Skyfall’s fresh in my mind, and the film is so striking that I thought it would be silly to wait.
Sam Mendes’s turn at James Bond feels less like a popcorn movie than most of the sequels churned out by the Hollywood system. There’s little connectivity with the previous movies, and the plot of Skyfall initiates concepts that dive deeper into the characters than most franchise film’s allow. Besides alluding to Bond’s icy past as an orphan, Skyfall also tests the limits to which M will prioritize her job over the lives of her agents. Where Judi Dench’s M had previously been a playful older sister type, here she becomes the cold pragmatic leader whose legacy is predicated on the success of England’s spy agency on her watch. Central to Skyfall is Bond’s awakening as a person whose been turned into a machine by the organization he serves.
Skyfall begins with an extraordinary chase sequence that finds Bond motorcycling on narrow rooftops and grappling atop a speeding train. As an assassin for MI6 tries to get a shot at Bond’s opponent, M makes the call to shoot at will, even if it means risking Bond. The sniper takes the shot and hits Bond in his arm. He falls to what seems like his death. Flash forward and M et al. have written Bond’s obituary and moved on. That is, until an attack on MI6’s headquarters announces a computer-hacking terrorist named Silva (played brilliantly by Javier Bardem) who has the identity of MI6 agents and threatens to take down the entire system. Bond puts his betrayed feelings on hold and returns to M’s side.
Abandoning gimmickry, Skyfall turns away from the cartoonish, high-concept world-burning that defines recent Bond films, and tells the story of three people who have more in common than each wants to concede. Unlike many 007 adventures, Skyfall is about people: grounded and vulnerable. M plays a central role as the woman who betrays Bond and now needs to call upon him to save her. Borrowing an angle that GoldenEye did with far less motivation, the villain shares a similar story to Bond’s, having also been sacrificed by M when he was previously an British agent. There’s a dynamic of understanding that exists between Bond and the man who threatens to destroy everything he stands for.
Where Bond movies typically function around vaguely drawn villains with an equally oblique plot to destroy the world, Skyfall tells the story of a man with a personal vendetta. Yet, with his ability to attack computer systems, the film also announces an insidious weapon that maniacal people realistically possess in our contemporary world: access to damaging data. The threat to global security purported in Skyfall may be the most topical ever. Interestingly, the picture, whose plots exists because of technology, may also be the least interested in silly gadgets. Just as Skyfall has little invested in the Bond conventions of high-tech toys, it also hardly displays the typical sexuality. Like Craig’s last two Bond’s, sex and violence exist as a gritty necessity that seem to pain him along the way. In Skyfall, there’s hardly even a Bond girl to lend pleasure to the chaos. Instead, this film remains fastened on that dark dynamic between its leads.
I’ve always been skeptical of the notion that a great director can take the reigns of a known action entity and entirely reshape its look and feel. While Skyfall isn’t revolutionary per se, the precision of Mendes’ skill with choreography and performance are felt throughout the movie. Craig, for the first time, looks sunken by the wounds of his past and terrified by what an increasingly viscous world we live in. Instead of relying on a script to talk us through dramatic situations jammed between action stunts, Mendes’ spends most time with the characters as they grapple psychologically. The consistent plot point of Bond’s arm being shaky from the gunshot wound at the beginning, adds a dynamic of realistic vulnerability to Bond that keeps him level. The film’s pace and imagery don’t share the stark cynicism of Mendes’ other dramas, but they do contain much of the nuance that makes him one of the best directorial talents working today. Bond was sacrificed by M and his target tells a similar tale. With as small as a glance between the two men, you get a sense of connection that lay between them.
Roger Deakins’ lush cinematography contributes to the separation between this Bond and anything that came before it. Entire scenes are patiently played in sweeping landscapes or long takes that emphasize performance. Bardem’s long entrance stands as a memorable departure from a Bond aesthetic that had become increasingly frenetic. Often shooting into deep shadows, or even complete darkness, Deakins creates an underbelly of nightmare that lay on the horizon. Deakins sets out to peel away the sheen of market-branded glistening Bond by placing him under practical light sources and motivated silhouettes. Devoid entirely of the flat brightness that hampered moments of other Bond’s, Deakins rebrands the entire look of the series. Skyfall may not only be the most textured cinematography of 007, but also some of the most interesting work you’ll see in any film this year.
On the downside, Skyfall doesn’t entirely live up to the promise of its first half. Once Bardem gets introduced, the film takes leaps in time and space (for instance, the jaunt to Bond’s childhood home) that begin to feel segmented and written as opposed to organic. I would have loved to see more of Bardem’s madness factor directly into putting M between Bond and his loyalty to MI6. The thread of distrust that binds the three main players gets lost in the fire of a typically explosive conclusion. Additionally, Bardem’s momentary homosexual dynamic added a glimmer of intrigue to his chaotic side, but that too gets dissolved as the film progresses. Where the first half puts stock in mental wounds and nuanced plot progression, the second half trudges towards a somewhat predictable end.
I can’t say that Skyfall’s the best Bond film, but it’s certainly the darkest, most rounded, and psychologically confrontational. I appreciated that Bond’s past directly affected his actions, and his wounded arm consistently added a human obstacle for him to overcome. While the compelling plot choices of the beginning didn’t completely inform the end, the film still elevated the series to another level. It’s hard to say how the next film could ascend what’s been achieved here, though, like so many modern TV shows and movies, this film is steeped mostly in set-up, so perhaps the next time out they’ll deliver a payoff. [A-]