Theatrical Review: “Skyfall”
Produced by: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Cinematography by: Roger Deakins
Music by: Thomas Newman (score), Adele (title song)
Editing by: Stuard Baird, Kate Baird
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney
Based on the characters created by Ian Fleming
One of the best things about Skyfall, Bond movie #23, is that, being released on the 50th anniversary of the film franchise means that it gets a bit of leeway for being a bit reverential towards its series legacy. Fans of the series from any era will find a few bits here and there to point at and go, “Hey, look!” A lot of franchises do this on their anniversaries, and the Bond franchise even went and did this ten years ago, when Die Another Day was released as not only the 20th Bond movie, but also on the somewhat less glamorous 40th anniversary of the film franchise.
Whereas that film felt more like an exploitation of the series history through a poorly assembled “Greatest Hits” compilation, however, Skyfall feels more like a reverential tribute that smartly takes these well known and celebrated elements (ridiculous stunts, expensive gadgetry, eccentric villains, and sweeping theme songs) and reworks them to fit into the new tone set in place by the reboot films, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. From the opening gambit onward, director Sam Mendes establishes this tone with a great mix of the old and new, as Bond is faced with not just physical struggles, but also emotional and personal struggles.
(Very mild spoilers ahead.)
Though Casino Royale probably still remains an objectively better film (I’ve probably got to let this latest entry set in for a bit longer before I make any final verdicts), Skyfall is definitely much better at blending these emotional struggles into the action, making the action feel more like an extension of or elaboration on the underlying feelings than just adrenaline-pumping set pieces intersecting a story. A great deal of the reason for this is due to the film’s story focusing so much on the relationship between Bond and the rest of MI6, with M in particular fittingly getting the most fleshed out in terms of her relationship with an agent who has caused her frequent grief, but also, more often than not, frequent results.
It’s funny to go back and watch GoldenEye, Judi Dench’s first appearance as Bond’s boss, once you have watched Skyfall. Though the Daniel Craig and Pierce Brosnan films do not share a common continuity, the continuation of using Dench in the role of M despite the reboot has provided her character with a funny sort of character arch with her relationship to Bond. In that film, she calls Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and a “relic of the Cold War” whom she would not give a second thought about sacrificing if it meant that the overall mission would be better served by his death than his survival.
As the Brosnan films moved forward, however, it became more and more clear that she had started to warm to her best agent, despite any personal grievances either of them may have had with the other. Beginning with Casino Royale, though it takes place at the beginning of Bond’s career, it’s clear that M’s investment into Bond’s missions became a bit more personal than just calling the shots, as M even consoles Bond after the death of Vesper and later reluctantly indulges him in his quest for vengeance afterward.
In Skyfall, the relationship has gone full blown maternal, and while the two maintain their professional facades, it’s clear that, by this point in time, M’s trust in Bond has gone beyond that of her trust in even the rest of MI6. In a callback to GoldenEye, when it’s finally time for M to actually make the call and pull the trigger on 007 in order to complete the mission in the film’s opening, it’s not quite as easy for her as she initially had thought. It’s not long before her fitfulness for duty is called into question, and with Bond becoming older and more damaged as time goes on, so too does his future as a field agent. Together, Bond and M must now make a case for their continued relevance in a world where the necessity of secret agents is called into question when so much can now be done by one man sitting in his pajamas at his home computer.
The film’s villain, of course, factors into all of this in a wonderfully narrative way. Played by a campy but stirring Javier Bardem (channeling the same sort of acting spirit that made Heath Ledger’s Joker so memorable), Raoul Silva is a former MI6 agent and Bond’s predecessor under M. Much like with Bond, Silva shared a special relationship with his superior until the day that M was forced to make a similarly difficult decision to sacrifice her agent in the name of what was perceived to be the greater good. Silva survived, but was scarred in more ways than one, and now he has come back for revenge as a haunting reminder of not just the tough professional decisions that M has had to make over the course of her long career, but also the many personal losses that she had to endure in order to do her job as well as she has. Silva also poses a personal threat to Bond in that he’s also a skilled hacker, something that Bond’s new colleague, a reinvented and much younger Q, is more obviously equipped to handle than the aging secret agent is.
Where Skyfall takes audiences in this relationship is largely predictable, but it’s oh so satisfying as it goes along, helped out in no small part to Sam Mendes wonderful direction of the story, the acting, the action, and the film’s striking aesthetics. I admit that I eat this kind of high-art action flick stuff up as if it was a buffet at my last meal ever, so keep that in mind, but I found every last action set piece to be as riveting as the last, from the more straightforward fist fights to the gorgeous, reflection-heavy silhouette fight at the top of a skyscraper, and I also loved all the nicely integrated narrative parallels and callbacks to series history thrown in to create a rich history for the characters.
On this 50th anniversary, for example, we get to delve into a bit of Bond’s personal history as the character quite literally takes us down memory lane in a surprise that’s sure to please more experienced Bond fanatics. All of the reinvented stuff, such as the new Q and the twisted take on campy and eccentric villains, are given the Dark Knighttreatment — logical, intriguing, and, in the case of the Silva, even terrifying reinventions of old standbys that nonetheless serve the same function and remain recognizable in their new forms.
Perhaps the only thing that may disappoint fans are the headlining Bond Girls, Naomie Harris and Bérénice Lim Marlohe, who are just fine in their roles but are largely underutilized. Marlohe’s character makes for a great emotional impact, however, and Harris’ character, an MI6 agent for once, is more than likely due to make future appearances, but it still feels as though Skyfall maybe could have afforded more for her to due beyond the first half of the film.
Luckily, by the end, you’ll realize that the Bond-M relationship was really what needed to take center stage (and you can kind of think of Judi Dench as being the true “Bond Girl” here, anyway, thanks to the attention given to her character here — I’m more than willing to embrace that). It really does give the film the dramatic punch to elevate the material to such a high level of excellence that it really does rival Casino Royale for the top spot. And while we are on the 50th anniversary of a franchise that has more often than not given way to its baser instincts (which isn’t always such a bad thing in moderation, as Skyfall illustrates), the conclusion of the film brings the franchise around to familiar territory while still keeping us intrigued and excited about what may lie ahead for this series.
We know that we’re going to continue to see Bond banter with Q, quibble with his superiors, and make love to beautiful women, but under what circumstances, under whose vision, and how exactly he will do so is what will keep us coming back. As with some of the better superhero films of late illustrate, we are truly in an era when franchise cinema can be both commercial and artistic achievements simultaneously, and, as with those films, I can honestly say that I, personally, will never get tired of them so long as they continue to be as fantastic as Skyfall.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5