Directed by Sam Mendes
Released in 2012
The first image we see in Skyfall is an out-of-focus silhouette at the end of a narrow hallway. We know this is James Bond, for obvious reasons — who else could it be? — yet we cannot be sure. The scale of the shot matches the trademark “gun barrel” sequence that has opened almost all other Bond films. Instead of obscuring Bond in shadow, as in the early films, or bathing him in bright light, as in the more recent ones, Skyfall does both. Backlit by the sunny window and masked by the dark hallway, Bond just stands there in a distorted haze. This teasing shot captures Skyfall in micro: an immaculately photographed film that places Bond between past and future, paying tribute to his history while forming a distinctly new identity.
Movies today obsess over being the next big thing so much that they overlook the pleasures of fusing multiple, smaller things. Skyfall is not a “high concept” film, in that it cannot be summed up in a one-sentence pitch. Casino Royale, the first in the so-called franchise reboot with Daniel Craig, aggressively distanced itself from its legacy — “Vodka martini.” “Shaken or stirred?” “Do I look like I give a damn?” — while the last film, Quantum of Solace, posited Bond as an action hero when, as Roger Ebert puts it, “he is an attitude.” That attitude returns, with Bond once again bedding beautiful women (Bérénice Lim Marlohe) and taking time to adjust the sleeve of his suit after jumping onto a collapsing train. But director Sam Mendes and screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade shroud Bond in a layer of doubt and mystery that the recent films have flirted with yet never fully developed.
In action films, there are few ways to trigger an existential crisis both profound and palatable, but killing off the main character 15 minutes in must be one. After a reliably thrilling pursuit through the linen shops and fruit markets of Istanbul, M (Judi Dench), the head of British intelligence agency MI6, orders field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to “take the bloody shot,” with both Bond and a bad guy in the crosshairs. The bullet hits Bond, who falls off a moving train and plummets into a raging waterfall a good 100 feet below. This scene transitions into Adele’s title song, with visuals dominated less by the usual naked lady outlines and more by Gothic, visceral and M.C. Escher fractal imagery. There is one animation where Bond shoots mirrors surrounding him, suggesting a split in identity or some Freudian metaphor primed for over-analyzing. It all sets the tone for the “resurrection” motif that runs through the film; both Bond and M must confront their age and failings in order to reconcile them with their duties.
Bond — who doesn’t really die, in case you’re worrying — and M face a conflict that is, in more ways than one, the fault of their own actions, particularly M’s. A hard drive containing the files of cover MI6 agents falls into the hands of the baddie (Ola Rapace) Bond fights in the opening sequence. Since he gets away, his boss, Silva (Javier Bardem), now has the power to slander the image of MI6 and enact vengeance on M, who he believes betrayed him in the past. The compelling part is that M did, indeed, fail him, which places her cold-blooded determination to get the job done — “Take the bloody shot!” — on shaky moral ground. Dench has been the series steady since 1995’sGoldeneye and Skyfall affords the Dame her meatiest role yet. Only Bond surpasses M in screen time, and she rivals in lines spoken. M treats Bond like a son, with all the impatience a mother would have for such cheek, and the script has fun with their relationship, inverting romantic staples like “Why didn’t you call?” to mix arch authority with maternal concern.
Even Silva has some strange “mommy” thing with M, though his obsession with killing her belongs more in the house of Atreus than any working relationship. Javier Bardem balances the camp of the Blofelds and Goldfingers before him with the composed anarchy of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Silva takes more than a few cues from The Dark Knight: Always one step ahead, he compares himself to a “rat” (remember The Joker’s dog analogy?) and fascinates us with a mix of humor, sadism and disfigurement (and I’m not referring to the wig). Of course, Bardem owns the part. What starts as a superficial display of strength — pay attention to how he rolls his eyes and forces a laugh — stiffens to homoerotic queasiness before unraveling to full-out animalism. This is the best Bond villain in decades and the best movie antagonist since Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.
Skyfall may be the first “auteur” Bond film, and I’m not referring to the work of director Sam Mendes. The soul of this film is indebted to cinematographer Roger Deakins, Hollywood’s greatest living cameraman, known for his collaborations with Mendes and the Coen Brothers (Barton Fink through True Grit). Deakins enhances the globetrotting adventure typical of a Bond film by imbuing each locale with a distinct color and lens technique. The Chinese port city of Macau glows yellow against inky black skies, balancing fantasy with sharp acutance. Harsh sunlight saturates the ransacked island colony where Bond first meets Silva. The fog of the Scottish Highlands extends into oblivion through careful manipulation of natural light reminiscent of Days of Heaven (a nod to The Third Man in a sewer chase and Apocalypse Now during a helicopter attack). Skyfall’s most stunning set piece is in Shanghai, which apparently radiates blue everywhere — tunnels, road signs, computer screens, escalators, you name it. The metropolis looks like the futuristic nightclubs in the Mass Effect video games. It serves well for a noir-esque action scene in a skyscraper, where shadows cloak Bond as he sneaks through glass doors to take out an assassin. The hand-to-hand brawl is pitch-black, save for a few muzzle flashes from the assassin’s rifle. Even with such theatrical presentation, the sparse use of light and exacting audio pack a punch. Deakins heightens the exoticism intrinsic to the series by transporting Bond not only to different cities but singular worlds.
Skyfall reminds us how old Bond is — surely a meta-commentary during the franchise’s 50-year anniversary. James Bond’s redemption in this film doubles as a resurrection of the character’s vitality for our age. Skyfall takes on new with old (Albert Finney plays a figure from Bond’s childhood), old with new (youthful Ben Whishaw brings the MI6 Quartermaster “Q” to the 21st century) and composite with middle-aged (Ralph Fiennes as the male complement to Dench’s M). But as Q reminds Bond at their first meeting inside the National Gallery, “Age is no guarantee of efficiency.” For those unfamiliar with names like “Bernard Lee” and “Desmond Llewelyn,” Skyfall remains a uniquely modern film, approaching a story that began in the Cold War with relativist sensibility and production values both visionary and state-of-the-art. And for those of us who consider the Bond canon one with our own, let us collectively weep at the sight of 007 driving his Aston Martin DB5 across the Scottish countryside as the soundtrack strums “duh dadada duh da da da duh dadada duh da da da …”
4.5 Stars Out of 5
This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.