James Bond Retrospective: Skyfall

Do you feel it? We’re getting so close to the end. I’ve done so many of these Bond films, I initially wondered if I was going to have the energy to watch and review every single film. We are two films away from reaching the unreleased film No Time to Die, and I’m so excited to discuss everything about the franchise in the lens of both of these films. Today we will:

  • Look at whether Bond is relevant or not, AGAIN.
  • Discuss how this film incorporates the legacy of Bond into its storytelling and themes.
  • Look at the message this film has for the Bond franchise.

Have you looked outside your window recently? The world falling apart? This film is all about the world falling apart, the film today is…

Skyfall (2012)

The way Craig looks in this image is my favorite kind of pissed. It’s disbelief.

Casino Royale (2006) was a reboot that sought to abandon the baggage of the decades-old franchise in favor of cultivating an actual enduring protagonist. Quantum of Solace (2008) took that character and unique continuity and sought to give a more classic Bond adventure and bring back some of the general tropes and cliches of the franchise, with a modern but troubled execution.

Skyfall is well aware of the mixed reception of Quantum of Solace. I would argue Skyfall is the most self-aware Bond film. We consistently ask in these modern films if Bond is relevant as a character; we ask if his misogyny or his gross fantasies manifested are appealing or toxic. This film was its own reality check. The franchise looked itself in the mirror, and with Sam Mendes as the director and the acclaimed Roger Deakins as the cinematographer, that introspection was visually stunning but perhaps a little empty in dialogue. Let’s just go over the story…

The Plot

I get that they needed to make Q a nerd, but nerds would be way cooler if they gave Bond exploding alligator submarines.

In Turkey, Bond and another agent (much later revealed to be Moneypenny) chase a terrorist thief holding a hard drive containing the information for all active MI6 agents.  During the chase, Bond gets shot in the shoulder and Moneypenny gets a sniper shot lined up while Bond and the terrorist trade blows on a train. M orders her to take the shot and Bond accidentally gets the bullet and falls into the water below, assumed dead.

In London, M is being told of her forced “retirement” by the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Gareth Mallory. M isn’t happy. M then watches as a message is sent to her from an unknown source and MI6 is bombed.

Bond, taking a break from being dead and drinking his sorrows, hears of the attack and returns to M wanting to help. Bond has to be tested and cleared for duty, of which he has significant difficulties. Notably, the shrapnel in his shoulder significantly affects his aim. He passes. Intel from the shrapnel places the terrorist that shot Bond in Shanghai. Bond needs to find him and find who he works for.

Bond meets the new quartermaster, a much younger man. The new Q discusses with him the difference in age and the modern era of technology. Q gives him a ticket to Shanghai and a custom Walther PPK (yes, for you Bondheads: that’s his trademark gun). Also, a tiny radio.

Bond finds the assassin in Shanghai but his performance is lacking. He struggles to follow and when he is holding the assassin in attempt to get information from him, he loses grip and lets the man fall to his death.

Bond goes to a casino in hopes for another lead.  A woman caught up in the mess takes Bond to her lover on his private island. The owner is a former 00 agent named Raoul Silva. Silva confronts Bond, discussing human nature, working for MI6, blah blah blah. Silva admits he was once M’s favorite agent and better than Bond ever was. Silva gives Bond the truth that he wasn’t cleared for duty and the harsh reality that M probably sent Bond to die. To test Bond, Silva gives him a second chance at a marksman test with a live victim. Bond still misses. Thankfully, he gets the jump on the henchmen and backup finally arrives.

Thank goodness Silva let Bond put on his sunglasses. Wouldn’t want your eyes to hurt.

In captivity, Bond and M confront Silva and he confesses his story. A long time ago he was captured and tortured. Silva realized M sold him out and he wasn’t going to be saved. He bit on his government issued cyanide capsule and he didn’t die. Instead, it burned his insides. He wanted vengeance. He pushes M to say his real name, she doesn’t. He reveals his prosthetic hiding the damage.

M tells Bond what happened back then. When Q analyzes Silva’s computer, the computer hacks back! Silva escapes captivity and starts to blend into the crowd. Bond gives chase, and is able to save M before Silva gets to her.

With nowhere to go, Bond takes his Aston Martin and M to the one place where he has the edge: his family’s “Skyfall” estate in Scotland. Along with a gamekeeper he’s known since childhood, they prepare the house with traps and await Silva and his men. A fire fight happens, M gets injured. Silva reaches M in an old chapel, but Bond stops him just in time. He holds M in his arms as she passes away from her wound.

Bond receives a gift from M’s will, given by Moneypenny: a little British bulldog statue she kept on her desk. Moneypenny assumes this is a sign that M wanted Bond to give up fieldwork; Bond says it means the exact opposite.

Then, Bond enters an office that looks very much like the classic MI6 offices, and banters with Moneypenny (who formally introduces herself) at her desk. He then walks forward to talk to the new M, Gareth Mallory (resembling very much Bernard Lee’s own portrayal). Bond is reborn. The gun barrel sequence finally happens.

A Closer Look

I would love to see a movie where all the props are as tiny as that little radio phone.

In the scene where M is interviewed by the committee, she reads poetry from Tennyson.

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” – Alfred Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’

There’s a lot written about what this passage means in the context of Bond and Britain. The poem was about Ulysses (Odysseus) and the poem has layers of irony and confidence to it. There’s aspects of time, innovation, tradition, and heroism that permeate both the poem and the film. When M reads this, her defense is effectively of tradition, espionage, classic Britain, and Bond himself as a person and as a franchise. It’s also not a naked defense; the irony the poem’s context provides creates a doubt that is necessary for the film’s exploration.

This film worries about Bond’s future, and internalizes this exploration through Bond’s own character arc. Bond starts the film completely betrayed by M, the antagonist is a former 00 agent trying to avenge the death sentence M’s bureaucracy has made for all 00 agents. Bond is weak, incompetent, aged, and tired. The world around him and his job has largely outpaced him. Q for instance, suggests that he does more for MI6 in an afternoon than Bond does in a year. The film is unafraid to show Bond’s failings, yet the defense of the character and of itself is within Bond as a man. His duty to his country and his raw heroism in spite of the changing world doesn’t ruin him. Bond has an answer to the problems provided throughout the film, but we only see glimpses of it until the end.

M herself also faces incredible scrutiny. She has a journey much like Bond’s. She has to deal with a challenging Mallory (played wonderfully by Ralph Fiennes) and eventually a questioning British panel of authority. Silva is the product of her bad decisions. Dench’s M has always been characterized as a cold-hearted woman willing to put the numbers before sentiment, and Silva is the reckoning that comes with that. Silva is also the warning to Bond of what happens when an agent loses his utility. Recall a very similar plot thread in the dreadful film Die Another Day (2002).

What is the answer to the changing tides of fate? “Resurrection,” as Bond puts it. He takes M to his childhood home, when everywhere else has failed him. A place Silva and the changing world hasn’t effected anything. The Skyfall estate feels lost to time, connected only to Bond as a man. The gamekeeper tells M that when Bond discovered of his parent’s deaths, he hid in an underground tunnel to the small parish. He stayed hidden for two days, and when he came out, he became a man.

The answer of resurrection and Bond’s own unyielding character are what make Bond immortal. He is both mutable yet represents the absolute best traditional imperial fantasies offer. You can see this answer for resurrection as the series’ own answer to becoming stale or irrelevant. Bond is never too old, he just gets recast. New stories appear, new actors take their places. He can change to the times brilliantly, yet he will always remain monolithic in his image. He will always fight for his country, his strength will never be broken or questioned. He is given the bulldog because the iconography speaks to his spirit, not his flesh. It is in this idea that I think Bond can be played by a person of any origin or identity.

Aside from all that poetic analysis, this film seeks to do a lot of traditional references. Of course, there’s the additions of the classic cast. Q, Moneypenny, and a male M all make an appearance. Different plot threads or images echo different aspects of the Bond legacy.  Bond utters “For her eyes only.” He uses an Aston Martin to take M “back in time.” Bond compares his Walther PPK to a woman’s Beretta by name, and if you’ll recall all the way back in Dr. No (1962) Bond had to sacrifice his beloved Beretta for the new addition of the Walther PPK. Bond’s Skyfall estate is in Scotland, meaning he has a Scottish heritage. This wasn’t originally Bond’s lineage, this fact was only added by Fleming after Connery made such an amazing mark on the character. Craig’s own continuity is also acknowledged: In Casino Royale Bond has to improvise on a mission because his partner couldn’t resist touching his ear to talk to Bond. Bond reminds Moneypenny to not do that in the casino.

Mallory is wearing blue like Bond. Some say color coding, I say Ralph Fiennes got to pick his wardrobe.

Just like Casino Royale, the action sequences ooze with character. Bond chases his target at the start of the film with the same sort of brutal improvisation as he did in that film, but this time the brutality comes at a cost. Every time he does something unconventional to get closer to his target, he gets hurt. His brutality worked with youth, but the mileage is adding up fast. After the injury, the tests provided during the MI6 segment are reflected on the field. He has to hang, run, and aim, and often fails. Only as the film gets closer and closer to the end does Bond get sharper at chasing, at climbing, at aiming. When at Skyfall, he aims with complete accuracy. This film successfully ties Bond’s actions within the action scenes to his character arc, and that deserves to be acknowledged and praised.

For a franchise about secret agents, agency is a theme for the first time. Silva suggests Bond is a slave to his nation, an orphan seeking parental guidance wherever he can get it. The maternal connections between M and Bond are never as explicit anywhere else as they are here. Silva is a free agent, a man with Bond’s skills, but unlike Bond he is completely mutable. He adapts with the times and abandons everything else. This contrast characterizes Bond with loyalty and of stronger will.

Another little fun food for thought: imagine if you will Skyfall has an inversion of the Bond formula. Bond invades the fortress and captures the bad guy around the halfway mark. Silva is the one held captive, Silva escapes, Silva storms the fortress at the climax of the film. Bond’s not the one moving forward within the film, he’s only reacting.

What’s Good?

And now for something completely different.

This film utilizes the supporting cast brilliantly. Dench’s M is in top form, and she is the second main character of the film. Essentially, she’s the Bond girl of the film. The work put into her character since Goldeneye (1995), which is technically different but give me a break, comes to fruition and becomes just as developed and as thought out as Bond himself. Likewise, the future M played by Fiennes is also given an aged retired warrior role that sympathizes with the 00’s. Moneypenny is given much more to do than she ever had before. The flirty banter between her and Bond is beyond office conversation and goes into shared experience and camaraderie. Q is reinvented in the modern era to be a young dweeb. A complete opposite of Bond. The classic Q was much like M, an old geezer that scolds 007 for being irresponsible. The new Q represents the future of espionage and challenges the images of Britain and Bond himself.

Silva, likewise, is a great villain. I’ve said up in the analysis most of what he does to the story, but Bardem performs it with particular skill. His terror is within his fake smile. He feels entirely fake and manufactured, but his psychosis and trauma is very real to Bond’s own. This is probably the best shadow to Bond he’s ever fought. The franchise has often tried to make villains that are almost like Bond, but this time they hit the mark.

I’ve spent so much time talking about the story, I haven’t actually gotten to the actual best part of the film: Mendes’s direction and Roger Deakins’ cinematography. The film is visually indulgent. The Shanghai segment in particular is gorgeous for a Bond film. Bond films are usually made to be eye candy, and this film tries to give each location, each character, a different look to be defined by. Britain is grey and full of rain. Shanghai glows with neon. The abandoned island feels warm yet worn. Silva’s yellow and smile contrasts with Bond’s blues (remember his eyes!), and grimace. Scotland combines the color of the terrain with the dark blues inside the home and the grey mist of Britain.

The theme song and opening credits are also amazing. I’m not the biggest Adele fan, but I like to think singers like Adele are the absolute best pick for a Bond song. They’ve got the range, the depth, the gravitas. The song feels like a suffocating end, and the intro credits are a constant reminder of Bond’s mortality. That’s a common theme in the Craig films. The visuals are beautiful, and more importantly, utilize imagery used throughout the different locations and purposes of the film. Skyfall is shown, deep water is shown, Rorschach tests are echoed, as are Shanghai dragons.

What’s Bad?

I don’t know what’s more outdated, the razor or that watch.

The computer graphic effects of the film are blatant and aren’t aging well. Specifically notable are the fake animals. Bond drinks tequila with a fake scorpion on his hand, and it’s ugly. Bond jumps on top of fake Komodo dragons, these are very dumb and take me out of the film.

The plot, for however much I’ve praised it, is also… Unoriginal. If you’ve been keeping up, the question of whether Bond is relevant or not has been a point of conversation in these films since 1995. These themes aren’t new in the slightest. I think the conversation in the film has escalated and I was quite satisfied by it, but to anyone tired of these themes, that’s completely fair.

The film has an awkward way to portray computers and computer hacking. It very much wants to talk about modern espionage in terms of computers, but the methods are very much an outdated way of thinking. Seeing how Silva handles the computers like a genius honestly makes me cringe at points. Especially when Q tries to hack into Silva’s computer, and we have a big old computer hack-off. You know, like back in the day when movies thought hacking were just video game?

I also hate the idea that Silva was “””planning to get caught”””. This was a very popular cliche at the time the film was around, and it did Silva no favors. A good villain doesn’t need to always have a plan for everything. It’s just not realistic.

The dialogue also isn’t strong for a film that wants desperately to be more than a normal Bond film. Bond himself tries to be witty at points, and it seems wit has merely become subversion. This is particularly notable in early segments, like the psych evaluation. These feel like essential moments, but ultimately ring hollow.

Looking Forward

I gotta say, I like Silva’s style. He’s way more reflective of “Blondes have more fun” than Craig’s Bond.

As of this writing, there is one film left. This was the last “good” film. This film carried a large amount of effort, and while it wasn’t perfect, I thought it was great. If you ask me, especially considering the themes of the film, I think this should have been Craig’s last film.

But no, we are stuck with Craig for at least two more. Following the trend of this film embracing classic Bond iconography, the next film seeks to reintroduce classic enemies. Yes, that’s right. The next film is Spectre (2015). May God have mercy on our souls.

What I Drank

How many tuxedos do you think are in MI6’s budget? What does the accountant say if Bond spills something on one?

Bond drinks a Heineken here, all Hell has broken loose. Other drinks seen are a martini, tequila, and Macallan scotch.

I personally drank a Paloma, which is a fantastic Tequila drink. It’s 2 ounces Tequila, 1/2 ounce of lime juice, 7 ounces of grapefruit soda, and salt for the rim. It tastes GREAT.

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