Skyfall (Columbia Pictures, PG-13)

skyfall 150At its core, Skyfall is about a weird, almost oedipal love triangle between Daniel Craig’s James Bond, Javier Bardem’s Silva, and Judi Dench’s M.

 

Skyfall 500

Most people tend to think that all James Bond movies are the same, and in some ways they’re right. Bond has always worked from a formula, one that was mostly set by Dr. No back in 1962, and was completely ironed out by Goldfinger in 1964. If you look at movies mostly in terms of plot, I can see how the Bond movies would look repetitive. But the joy comes in the various elements plugged into that formula. How evil is the villain? How beautiful is the girl? How exotic are the locations? How creative are the gadgets? These elements, along with the tone each movie decides to go with, make each entry stand out.

Skyfall had a lot going against it, at least from my perspective. Casino Royale was a great film, which got everyone excited about Daniel Craig and the direction of the franchise. Then Quantum of Solace came along and completely demolished that enthusiasm. Knowing my Bond history, I was afraid Craig would follow the same pattern as Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, starting out with a strong entry, only to follow it up with a series of underwhelming follow-ups. The choice of director had me worried. Controversially, I’ve never been a fan of Sam Mendes, and if anything, he always seemed like a more high-profile version of Marc Forster, whom I blame for most of the bad decisions in Quantum of Solace. I wasn’t happy, either, when I heard that Thomas Newman would be brought in to do the score, replacing David Arnold who has been with the series since Tomorrow Never Dies. Even the title got on my nerves. It felt small and weak.

But what bothered me the most was the fear that they may try to continue the trend of moving away from the formula. A lot of people compared Casino Royale to the Bourne series, but it felt very much like a Bond movie to me. The locations were properly exotic, unlike the dreary landscapes of the latter Brosnan films. Bond was back in a tuxedo playing cards with the villain, a trademark going back to the Connery years. It had an elegance, one that had been completely removed from Quantum of Solace, which seemed desperate not to be a Bond movie, and as a result, ended up as an incredibly forgettable generic action movie. In some ways, Skyfall continues that trend, but for the most part, this film returns to what has allowed this franchise to last for 50 years.

So how do all the pieces of the formula work this time around? We start with our pre-credits sequence. This is the first real entry in the Craig era. Casino Royale’s opening was more about character than action, and all Quantum had was a horribly executed car chase that was over in a matter of minutes. The opening of Skyfall is a massive action sequence, a car chase mixed with a shootout, leading to a bike chase, leading to a fight on top of a moving train. All of these set pieces are fun, but they aren’t as well done as the action in some of the previous films. Still, it’s a very solid opening.

Then we get our opening credits sequence, accompanied by the new Bond song. The credits sequence is done by Daniel Kleinman, who took over in the Brosnan years. I love his work. His sequences are out there and weird, and consist of trippy imagery relating to the film in question. He makes a welcome return here, after Marc Forster’s effects team did a mediocre job on Quantum of Solace. The song is a good one, sung by Adele, whose voice is perfectly suited to a Bond theme. It is melancholic and epic at the same time. And it has the same title as the movie, which is a first for this run of films.

In many ways, the most important element to a Bond film’s success is the villain. The villain in this bardem skyfallfilm is Silva, a former MI6 agent played by Javier Bardem. We know Bardem can play a great villain, but what I found so refreshing was how different he was in this compared to his character in No Country for Old Men. In that film, he was quiet and still, almost like a Terminator, an unstoppable force of destruction. In Skyfall, he is flamboyant and over the top. We get a glimpse into his past to explain his motivation, but he really just seems to enjoy being evil. And his haircut from No Country for Old Men looks positively suave compared to the Donald Trump ’do he’s rocking in this movie. He’s great fun, and at its core, Skyfall is about a weird, almost oedipal love triangle between Bond, Silva, and Judi Dench’s M.

What are the other elements of the formula? We have two “Bond girls,” played by Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe. I use the quotes both because the term itself has been seen as demeaning in recent years, and because neither of them really fits into the role of a traditional Bond leading lady. One is the damsel in distress, the other a fellow agent who can hold her own when it comes to bantering with Bond, but Craig’s Bond doesn’t seem too interested in either of them. Again, they would rather focus on the relationship with M than another temporary fling.

Locations are always a hallmark of the series. The most breathtaking one here is Shanghai, which looks absolutely stunning. It helps that the film is being shot by the great Roger Deakins, whose work throughout is exceptional. The majority of the film, though, is focused on London, which is strangely rare in the series. I liked seeing Bond fight closer to home. He is a British icon, so it’s nice to see him in the U.K.

We also are finally introduced to a new Q, played by Ben Whishaw. Whishaw is a good actor; he was just one of the major characters in Cloud Atlas. If need be, he could hold the role for the next few decades. The gadgets are played down, the main one being Bond’s gun, the classic Walther PPK, now palm printed to only fire when Bond is holding it. Bond had a sniper rifle with a palm-printed grip in License to Kill, but most people tend to forget that one. Q makes a crack about how they don’t really go for exploding pens anymore, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some old-fashioned gadgetry makes its way into future installments.

There is a lot of talk about how Bond—and, by extension the series—is getting old and may have outlived his usefulness. I can respect this, but I could not live with myself as a fan if I did not point out that this is not particularly new or revolutionary. It’s been nearly 20 years since Goldeneye, in which M sits Bond down and calls him a sexist, misogynist dinosaur and a relic of the Cold War. That film, and the Brosnan era as a whole, was always very consciously trying to explore how Bond could work in the modern day.

A lot of critics have forgotten that, and are praising Skyfall for being more original than it is. I was especially reminded of The World Is Not Enough, which had several of the same specific plot points—and I mean major plot points. Skyfall does them better, but The World Is Not Enough did them first, and not that long ago.

I also think it is worth noting that, although I agree with the majority of critics that the film is very good, we seem to fundamentally disagree about what the film is saying. Almost every review I can find says that Skyfall acknowledges the series’ history, as well as the fact that it is outdated and presents a new, fresh, modern way for the series to continue. Admittedly, I am a lifelong Bond fan (as in “fanatic”) and may be seeing what I want to see, but I think it’s the other way around. The film begins asking all these questions about whether Bond is too old and outdated. Q scoffs at the old ways and says that the new gadgets are computers, and that hackers sitting in offices can be more effective than field agents. But then the villain turns the computers against them, and the last act makes a strong case for returning to the old ways. The ending doesn’t set up a brave new vision for future movies, it returns the series to its roots, and for the first time in quite a while, it seems that the next entry may be a return to what made Bond great in the first place. I guess we’ll have to wait for the following film to see who is right.

Obviously, I come to this film with a lot of baggage; I get very personally invested in these movies. Bond is my favorite franchise, and I have an ever-evolving relationship with all of the movies. Perhaps a month from now I will be proclaiming Skyfall the best of all of them, but I think a lot of times it’s easy to fall into the trap of over-praising something just because it’s new. It doesn’t reach the heights of Casino Royale, but it far exceeds Quantum of Solace. This is the film that should have been.

If you’re not a Bond fan and are looking for a review from that perspective, I’m sorry for wasting your time. You’ll probably like it. It’s a smart, entertaining movie that treats its audience with respect, and has a good balance of character and action. You won’t feel annoyed by the repeats of things done before, but you also won’t feel the amazing sense of fanboy euphoria that I felt during the film’s final moments. The one thing that is clear is that James Bond will continue to return as long as movies are being made. When they can still be as enjoyable as this, why would anyone have a problem with that? | Sean Lass

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