Spoilers. Be advised.
007 movies are a dime a dozen enterprise. I don’t mean that entirely as an insult. I mean that Bond films have been around for 50 years now and it is most definitely a franchise that produces movies that speak to their time—from 1962 to 2012. James Bond is a brand. But Bond is a brand for a reason. With movies as good as From Russia With Love and Casino Royale and films as bad a Quantum of Solace and The World is Not Enough, Bond is a mixed bad for the non-super fan, but even those bad films exist to speak to their time, whether they’re ripping off Star Wars (Moonraker) or Kung-Fu films (The Man With The Golden Gun). Paint me, at this point in my life, as a non-super fan.
But after watching a movie as good as Skyfall, I’m willing to convert to the Church of Martinis-Shaken-Not-Stirred. (Or Not-Give-A-Damn?)
Oscar-winner Sam Mendes of American Beauty and Road to Perdition fame, with the great Roger Deakins manning the cameras, crafts one of the most ambitious and visually spectacular Bond films, if not the most ambitious and visually spectacular of the series. If there was ever an impressionistic Bond film, this one is it. Every camera shot is beautiful—beautiful I tell you!—and always necessary to the plot, tone, and theme of the film. The shots mirror the emotion in the film itself, making the viewer feel the impact of each scene to its maximum effect. Skyfall is a Bond for those like me who are a fan of intellectual popcorn entertainment.
People can hate on Daniel Craig all they want, but he pulls off exactly what he supposed to in Skyfall, acting as an aging hero who starts feeling obsolete and must evolve to survive[i]. He is stoic yet reckless, strong yet pained. This is a Bond who is acting as if he has nothing to lose, and by the end of the movie he finds that he has oh-so-much to lose if he doesn’t do his job well. As a spy, he puts himself in danger, knowing that the life expectancy of a 00-agent is short. But when he sees the future of his enemies—tech-terrorists like Raoul Silva played flamboyantly and creepily by the ever-amazing Javier Bardem—James Bond knows that his sort of physicality is as necessary as ever, but with the needed aid of those who can provide him with the paths towards evolution like the new, young Q (Ben Whishaw), the able-handed and resourceful Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and the behind-the-scene aid of Garreth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). And then there is M, played wonderfully by Judi Dench, who is falling by the wayside alongside Bond as a relic of the past—not only in the spy world of Bond’s Britain thanks to the end of the Cold War, but also in the film world for us here in the real world, also thanks to the end of the Cold War.
M’s and Bond’s evolution has to come from within, though, and Q and Moneypeny can only offer them so much. The symbolism throughout the movie of rebirth—even actually mentioned by Bond at one point—comes up time and time again within Skyfall. The symbol of water is present as Bond rides the small boat in Macau to investigate a casino, the symbol of life[ii]. Then Bond rides a boat to Silva’s island, where everyone has left, leaving the city as a dead husk, reborn as a hub of techno-terrorist activity. Then, in the climax of the film, Bond falls through ice in Scotland[iii] into an freezing lake. Does he come up reborn or does he meet his end? It’s James Bond, folks. Of course he rises from the water. And then then the plot twists again, and, MAJOR SPOILER M dies. Bond feels this loss, showing more emotion here than any other time in Craig’s stay as Bond, as the only woman he ever truly cared for[iv], even in his own antagonistic way, a mother figure, falls dead due to the violent rage of another of her fallen, estranged, non-biological children (Raoul Silva, the anti-Bond, the perverted-Bond). Bond knows he cannot become this hateful shell that is a slave to his vices; else he would become another incarnation of Silva himself.
But these themes are only a small part of what makes Skyfall wonderful. The biggest aid to the film, outside of the story and Mendes’s direction, is Deakins’s cinematography. As director of photography (DP) for the Coen Brothers and on the epic Assassination of Jesse James, Deakins has proven time and time again that he is one of the best DPs in the industry. Taking cues from Wally Pfister (Christopher Nolan’s DP, most gloriously in Inception and the IMAX The Dark Knight) and John Ford’s westerns, Deakins uses the action genres with his own eye for mood and impressionistic pictures to give one of the best camera performances of the year.
The opening motorcycle/train chase in Turkey is exhilarating and fresh, matching the high impact action scenes in Craig’s first outing as Bond in Casino Royale. When Bond chases the thief in said Turkey scene to Shanghai, up a skyscraper that is darkened and only lit by digital advertisements from the streets, the movie screen is full of mind-boggling shots and one of the most unique scenes in action movie history. Bond riding the small boat to the Macau casino with its Chekhovian Komodo Dragons[v] is epic and majestic, living up to 007’s legend. M standing over the coffins, draped in British flags, because she failed MI6 by aging and letting Raoul Silva get the best of her, is shot in a devastating, still-camera fashion that is rare in action movies and seen more in contemplative dramas. Also, when the audience first meets Silva in-the-flesh, about an hour into the film, as he walks down the hall, delivering a great super-villain monologue to Bond, it is shot in such an interesting way that is fit for his showy character.
But it all pales in comparison to the symbolism to those final scenes in Scotland, where the sun sets on the young Bond, literally, as Silva and his mercenaries attack Bond’s childhood home, the aptly named Skyfall Manor, to kill the person Silva hates more than anyone, his mother figure, M. When the manor blows up, and the fires scorch the Scottish landscape, the orange and blackish blue color scheme is frightening, perfectly illustrating the duality of Silva and Bond.
I can’t praise this film enough. It takes a lot of inspiration from Nolan’s Batman films, but it is the only film since The Dark Knight (and Inception, for that matter) to actually live up to the billing of serious-minded popcorn entertainment. And that is why the numerous overlaps between the three Nolan Dark Knight movies and this film work: because it lives up to their quality. And a big thank you to Mendes and his crew is in order for making movies that deserve such attention.
Thanks guys, for making movies the way that you do.
I give this film a Decent to Strong 9.
[i] Yes, Batman already dealt with this in The Dark Knight Rises, but this movie rises to the challenge of that film by giving a stronger representation of the theme of RISING. But it doesn’t need to be a competition. Wouldn’t The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall make the best IMAX Double-Feature ever? I say so! #Nerdgasm
[ii] Water, not casinos. Though one might reinvent their checkbook for better or for worse in casinos, I guess.
[iii] Yes, Skyfall features globetrotting as any good Bond film does.
[iv] Bond’s a misogynist. Fact.
[v] “If you put a Komodo Dragon on the mantle in Act One, it must eat someone by Act Three.” – Anton Chekhov