Review: ‘Skyfall’ represents a series high by humanizing the superhuman James Bond

A James Bond movie is a mirror.

When I watch one Bond movie by itself, I can watch it as a movie by itself, but when I’m watching all of them in a row, it is like having a mirror that works almost like a time machine, that takes me back to a very specific year for each of the films.  You look at the Connery films, and the attitudes to spying, the color palette, the new relaxed sexuality and the tongue in cheek violence… it’s all so very early ’60s, so very British explosion, and that’s one of the reasons I love those movies.  That’s my particular aesthetic preference.  The movies in the transition years, like “Diamonds Are Forever” or “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” show the way pop culture was evolving, and as much as the movies imitated, they also innovated.  It was like a feedback loop.  

The Moore movies became more overt about it as they tried to fine-tune the formula.  “The Spy Who Loved Me” was the height of the disco era, the year of “Star Wars,” and “Moonraker” was made not only after “Star Wars” but also after “Battlestar Galactica,” and it seems to reflect what was going on in television as well as in movies.  “For Your Eyes Only” is a reinvention, and that was the early ’80s, a chance to reinvent pop culture in the Reagan era.  And as that era curdled, so did the series, with “Octopussy” and “A View To A Kill” offering up bloated attitude and diminishing returns.  

The two Dalton films felt perfectly timed for the late ’80s, when action films had developed a certain new sheen via Joel Silver and Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Mann, and I’m still baffled why the films didn’t land bigger with audiences.  We’ll get into that in the upcoming article about that era or the Brosnan years, and we’ll talk about what the movies were either reacting to or what reactions the movies caused.  The point is that the Bond films have never pretended to exist in a vacuum.  They have spent 50 years at ground zero for international pop culture because they so clearly encapsulate the way the international pop culture has evolved.  

Bond films, like “Saturday Night Live” or “The Simpsons,” exist as institutions at this point, permanent parts of our digestion of the world around us.  When we are tense about something or scared of someone, it gets expressed in the Bond films.  Right now, people are losing faith in the governments and the institutions that are supposed to care for them and protect them, and they are afraid of random terror, of violence that just lands on someone.  Those fears are part of what drives “Skyfall,” and the film manages to turn that specific focus into real anxiety and momentum.  This film has an urgent energy to it from the very start, but shot through with melancholy that makes it all feel like it matters.  And despite the very real threat and the personal stakes and the grim weight given to things, director Sam Mendes manages to pay sophisticated, sincere homage to the conventions that define the Bond series while remembering that one of the things that makes the series such an enduring presence is fun.  

The iconography of the classic titles in the series is present here in various ways, and there’s a very strong sense that they’re moving some big parts of the series into place so that, moving forward, they have a supporting cast that they can bring back in every film that is every bit as important to the series as Bond himself.  So far, they haven’t done a ton of that with Daniel Craig, and it feels like producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, along with their frequent collaborators, screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, have finally after three films brought in all the familiar series signatures.  This is the film where this James Bond finally becomes THE James Bond.  “Casino Royale” introduced him, then broke his heart.  He bulled his way through “Quantum Of Solace,” damaged and angry and no good at his job.  And in “Skyfall,” he makes the conscious choice to give himself over to Queen and Country no matter what.  He’s a killer, but he’s their killer, and he craves a strong MI6 to point him in the right direction. This Bond needs to have a strong M, needs to have a Q to keep him equipped, needs to have a routine to return to after the surreal nature of life in the field, and this is the movie where he finally gets the full support system he needs and deserves.

All he has to do is die to get it.

One of the things that is impressive about “Skyfall” is how everything in the film works towards a thematic, storytelling-driven goal.  That is rarely the case in Bond films, which are full of digressions and unconnected unmotivated action scenes and which are rarely about anything more than James Bond beating the bad guys.  It would be easy to point at the presence of Sam Mendes and screenwriter John Logan and credit them with getting this right to an uncommon degree, but what makes the Bond films so interesting is how they remain, essentially, a family business, in the same hands since they started 50 years ago, and each shift in the series has ultimately been supervised by the same people, the franchise handed down from father to daughter and stepson.  “Skyfall” is made in large part by the same people who made the awful “Die Another Day,” and it is part careful calculation and part lucky alchemy that makes this such a stand-out compared to earlier entries in the series.

Even within the run of three films that Daniel Craig has starred in, this one stands out.  The opening sequence in Istanbul is a classic Bond opening, and right away, we get a sense how much the film is going to play with the iconography we recognize while also pushing forward with a redefinition of things.  The first image is someone stepping into the far end of a hallway, out of focus, in front of a bright window, and Thomas Newman does a Bond sting, a quick sharp “DA-NAH, nah, DAH-NAH, nah” to get us acclimated, and then we’re in motion.  Craig’s Bond has always struck me as a Great White shark in a suit, a constantly moving threat.  Here, he’s about five steps behind someone who has stolen a hard drive that contains the identities of every single NATO-allied spy currently embedded in terrorist cells, and he jumps into a car with another field agent (Naomie Harris, who couldn’t be any more appealing and effective in the role if she tried) to try to capture the person who’s just taken it.  

It’s a long, non-stop, high-impact opening, and what strikes me watching this film after mainlining a giant chunk of the series so far this year is that they have gotten much more effective at playing to expectation with the films.  Audiences, especially in this age of stunt work and digital trickery, expect a certain level of mayhem, and “Skyfall” goes above and beyond in staging an exciting opening that sets the stakes for the entire film while also serving quite well as a self-contained introduction to Bond doing what he does best.  Things don’t go as they should, though, and the opening sequence ends with the apparent death of James Bond at the hands of Harris, leading into an opening title sequence that is a series highlight.  This is spooky, moody, effective stuff, coupled with that Adele song which sounds spectacular coming out of a pumped up theater sound system.  It effectively sets up some of the visual ideas of the film while also emphasizing the idea of a Bond who is drowning in this world where he may be an outmoded concept, and it ends up being a very strong way to set the stage.

Once the opening title sequence is finished, the movie begins laying out its cards very carefully, and it is a very tense thriller, regardless of whether you compare it to other Bond films or not.  For fans, there are a million small nods to the history of the series that are very effective and smart, but if this is your first Bond film, I have to believe it’s going to work just as well for you as a movie.  Everything you need is here.  The relationship between Bond and M (Judi Dench, who has claimed the role as her own after seven films) is etched completely in the film, and we learn more about their connection here than we ever have before.  What the film does so well is credibly flesh in a human history to Bond, something that they have justifiably seemed nervous about doing in the past.  Sure, we get reminders every now and then that Bond has met Felix Leiter before or that he was married to Teresa Bond for nine minutes, but those are things we saw happen in the series.  This film suggests that Bond may have actually been a person with a life before MI6, and that certain events in his life led him to be the killing machine that he is now, and M appears to have been a big part of that.

I like how they’ve taken some of the set-up from the novel The Man With The Golden Gun and repurposed it here in a way that makes thematic sense.  One of the things I’ve always dug about the screenplay process on these films is the way they’ve felt free to take a scene from one book and use it in an unrelated film if they think it fits.  While they may not have done many straight adaptations of the books, it feels like they’ve worked in so much of Fleming’s material that even now, he’s still a major part of the films.  Here, it’s the idea that Bond shows up after being declared dead and MI6 welcomes him back, but with a healthy amount of skepticism.  He has to be tested, and when they find him lacking, they decide to put him in the field anyway, but against an opponent that would have been a challenge on his best days.  In this case, they’re really not sure who they’re chasing at first, but it’s obvious that it’s someone with a personal fixation on M and an intimate knowledge of their organization.

Thomas Newman’s score is fantastic at referencing the history of the series, but it also seems lusher and more emotionally effective than many of the scores from the series.  One of the inarguable stars of the film is director of photography Roger Deakins, who does phenomenal work here, especially considering he’s working in digital, something that is still new to him.  This might be the best looking Bond film in modern times, and Deakins and Mendes stage scenes in some visually thrilling ways, like an assassination attempt in Shanghai that takes place in a largely glass office with huge neon signs outside.  It’s breathtaking, but it’s also an effective bit of visual subtext about these phantoms who travel the world, hiding in plain sight, operating in shadows, taking life at the whim of governments and billionaires.  Throughout the film, Deakins finds ways to turn even the most routine setting, like the London tube, into a dazzling visual landscape.  Mendes handles action well by simply not trying to reinvent the way you shoot action and by not chasing the latest momentary trend in handheld shaky geography-challenged lunacy.  Each of the film’s big action beats erupt organically, and he uses each of his locations as fully as he possibly can.  Whether the action takes place on top of a train, inside a subway, in an office, or underneath London, Mendes maintains an excellent sense of space and geography, and even when it’s not an action scene per se, Mendes uses the spaces around James Bond to create tension.  It’s a beautifully designed movie, and Dennis Gassner’s sets are stylish and evocative more than they are realistic.  There’s an abandoned island, for example, which is one of the more striking locations I’ve seen for a major sequence in a movie this year, and it speaks directly to the psychosis and the methodology of Silva (Javier Bardem), the film’s main bad guy.

Oh, yes… have I mentioned Javier Bardem yet?  You’re going to read a number of comparisons to “The Dark Knight,” many of which will be spurred by the fact that Mendes himself brought up that movie when talking about the sources that inspired him to make “Skyfall.”  The one way I think the comparison actually works is that both films depend on a charismatic antagonist, and the casting of both roles elevated what could have been routine into something truly special.  Bardem uses every tool at his disposal to make Bond suffer in the film, and while he doesn’t appear until a little over an hour into the movie, his presence is a big part of things until the moment he finally arrives.  Once he does, he manages to turn the cliche of the omniscient villain who manages to do a dozen impossible things to torment the hero into something that feels both genuine and personal, and the film benefits enormously from the feeling that he will not rest until he destroys both M and MI6.  James Bond is just the poor bastard who gets caught in his crossfire, an interesting switch from the traditional approach where it’s all about Bond.

The entire cast is at their best here.  Judi Dench lets us see glimpses of the person who earned her way up the ladder at MI6, and Ralph Fiennes is introduced as Gareth Mallory, a fascinating new addition to the Bond canon.  Ben Whishaw, so good in this month’s “Cloud Atlas,” takes the fairly routine reimagination of Q as a hacker nerd and makes it work by giving him a very sly personality.  And the Bond girls this time are great.  Naomie Harris is a fantastic addition as an agent who is wrestling with the notion of whether or not she belongs in the field, especially after what happens to Bond in the start of the film, and I love how credibly tough she is while sacrificing none of her considerable allure.  And Berenice Marlohe shows up in a small role as a woman who is connected to Silva, but in her few short scenes, she offers up a haunting portrait of a woman whose projected strength hides a deep wellspring of fear.  Even Albert Finney, who plays a gruff figure from Bond’s past, gives more soul than expected to a minor role.  There have been many points throughout the series where Bond feels like the only significant character in the films, with everyone else as disposable background.  In this film, none of these characters feel disposable.

What really got me, though, is the way the film positions Bond somewhere between the past and the future, forced to consider that he may no longer have a place in the world.  Q is a good example of what passes as a spy in today’s world, someone that can sit in his bedroom in his pajamas with a laptop causing havoc halfway around the world, but Bond represents the school of thought that needs to be out in the world, interacting with it.  I love that Craig’s Bond is good with weapons and gadgets but at his most threatening when he is bare-handed.  Over the course of the three films he’s starred in as Bond, he has proven himself a terrifying physical force, and there are moments in this film where he starts to wonder if that’s enough.  The Bond series is always walking that tightrope between nostalgic kick and contemporary relevance, and it’s never been made more clear how hard that is to accomplish than it is here.

I don’t believe it is a spoiler to say that the last title card we see at the end of “Skyfall,” the latest in the James Bond series of films, is a logo that looks like the gun barrel icon with “50 Years” in the center with “James Bond Will Return” written beneath it.  And after sitting through “Skyfall,” I think it’s safe to say that audiences will be eager for Sony and EON and MGM to fulfill that promise as soon as possible.

We’ll continue our countdown to “Skyfall” with our “James Bond Declassified” series, and then “Skyfall” arrives in theaters in the US on November 9, 2012.