Skyfall isn’t your typical James Bond movie, and seeing as it’s the 23rd of them to be released since 1962, that’s saying something. It’s not brand confusing, Never Say Never Again weird, or strange in the Moonraker, race-of-hyper-evolved-space-people sense, but it’s undeniably different from every Bond film that has come before it. That includes the previous two Daniel Craig movies, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, which already felt a bit more like stepchildren rather than full-blooded heirs to the legacy.
Both those films can be seen as stepping stones leading to Skyfall, with the serious tone, more grounded action, and rougher-edged hero establishing the telltale signs of the Craig era, like how a ridiculous number of gadgets lets you know that you’re watching a Roger Moore entry. Yet, Skyfall sticks out not just as a culmination of the “Craig trilogy,” but also as an unprecedented moment of self-reflection upon both the franchise as a whole, and the cinematic influences that have been guiding James Bond for the better part of a decade.
While guys like Tony Soprano and Stringer Bell were busy kicking off the Golden Age of the small screen, movies at the start of the 21st century were similarly defined by anti-heroes. The last ten years saw a shift in focus towards more morally ambiguous protagonists, with the internal workings behind established icons – ones who used to just get away with righting wrongs, spouting a one-liner, or just getting the bad guy – becoming more important. Batman changed from a campy comic book superhero to a dark vigilante, Anakin Skywalker fell to the dark side to became Darth Vader, and audiences went to theaters in droves to witness the gruesome last days of the Ur-Western hero, Jesus Christ.
In Bond’s case, the rebirth of Ian Fleming’s time-tested spy as a steely, but deeply wounded government asset had as much to do with the franchise’s past failures, as another’s surprise ascendency. Thanks to a diamond-powered space laser and invisible Jaguar XKR, 2002’s Die Another Day was the closest thing to a death rattle since License to Kill, and it was clear that both Pierce Brosnan, and Bond as the world knew him, were due for retirement. This was made all the more apparent in the wake of Jason Bourne’s explosive appearance on the scene, mere months before Die Another Day. Bourne rewrote the rules of the espionage game: garish villains, impossible tech, and a smarmy, invulnerable lead were out; post-9/11 paranoia, kinetic photography, and a compromised hero were in.
Casino Royale took those lessons to heart when it premiered in 2006, and audiences noticed. Daniel Craig’s straw spun mop was just a taste of the changes the franchise had undergone during its proper transition to the new millenium, with Bond evolving into a gnarly rough and tumble, who seethed and grimaced everywhere a quip and smirk used to fit. Echoing the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (unforgettable to fans, less so to the producers), Casino Royale ended with the newly inducted 007 heartbroken at the death of his lover, the resulting rage over which became the drive for the sequel, Quantum of Solace. Thanks to the writer’s strike, that film hued closer to the Brosnan bunch in terms of plot, characters, and general quality, but it did provide an imperfect coda to Casino Royale, one that teased the mysterious Quantum group (perhaps a 21st century version of SPECTRE) as an ongoing story hook for the next director, Sam Mendes, to pick up.
Mendes didn’t do that, for a number of very good reasons, not the least of which being how tepidly received Quantum was, especially when compared to the near-universal praise garnered by Casino Royale. Delayed by MGM’s bankruptcy, Mendes and his team of writers were given something else to work with, due to the rescheduling of Bond 23’s release date to 2012: the 50th anniversary of Dr. No. What could have easily wound up being a half-hearted acknowledgement of Bond’s continued existence, was actually designed as a proud celebration. Bond’s golden anniversary was hyped and marketed for months, in a campaign that included a serendipitously timed in-character cameo from Craig, during the opening of the London Olympics. Given that Mendes and company had less than a year to film and process Skyfall, and had lost venerated writer Peter Morgan during preproduction, it’s a minor miracle the film lived up to expectations. Since its release, Skyfall has earned massive amounts of praise from critics and fans, and is ready to supplant Quantum of Solace as the best-selling Bond movie ever, only three weeks into its North American run.
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The Death of James Bond
The secret to the film’s growing reputation as one of the greatest Bond adventures of all time, has everything to do with Skyfall’s realization of that key 21st century trend that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace touched on briefly: character development. Sure, the first two Craig movies altered our aesthetic expectations for a Bond film, but their existence as action flicks based around a charismatic, yet intrinsically familiar and static figure, made the resulting changes feel more like an update of style, rather than actual content. It wasn’t until this most recent film that something new and radical was added to the Bond formula.
With Skyfall, Mendes and John Logan (the writer credited for the bulk of the film’s script), introduce theme to the Bond universe, which is a really big deal, considering how important having depth and subtext are when you’re trying to make a movie that’s not just a disposable cash grab. While GoldenEye might have gotten some mileage out of showing how different the world of spycraft had become in the aftermath of the Cold War, it pales in comparison to how game Skyfall is to deliver a thesis on history, something that’s usually been the bane of Bond’s existence.
The lack of overarching, or really any immediate point to a Bond movie is what makes his adventures so reproducible. As a man of mystery, and a character defined by rotating scenarios and actors, James Bond can’t grow, change, or be anything more meaningful than a guy with a cool job, a love for well-shook martinis, and a little black book that’s looking more like the Yellow Pages these days. To create any sort of lasting arc for 007 would be pointless, but also potentially damaging to the series, given that its survival depends on a looseness with chronology, and an always available reset button. Memory is anathema to what makes Bond a lasting icon, so to create a personal journey for him based upon his extensive, goofy history as a screen legend, would initially seem like a fool’s errand, but turns out to be the only way of wedding a proper Bond movie with a message of any substance.
Skyfall opens in uncharacteristic fashion. Instead of an immaculate, mood setting gun barrel sequence, the first thing we see is an unfocused shot down a long hallway, into which enters a dark figure. Two blaring notes from Britain’s other national anthem tell us the man is Bond, but this is an awkward, rather comical introduction for the king of cool, and as he walks toward the camera, you can tell that something’s not right. With no time spared, a breathless opening chase sequence starts up, and would have you believe things are back on track, until the unthinkable happens, and Bond gets shot. Bare in mind, this is only the second time that movie James Bond has ever suffered a gunshot wound, with the first happening more than 45 years ago, in Thunderball. Not only is Bond shot by the thug that he’s pursuing, but he’s eventually blown off a bridge and left for dead, after a fellow agent accidentally slugs him again, following orders from M to stop the target and recover his sensitive cargo at any cost.
The literal sky fall into a river segues into the opening credit sequence, with Bond being pulled deep beneath the waters in what can best be described as a trip to hell, the afterlife being as good a place as any to do a little rumination. Eschewing the heavy guitar riffs of the previous two title sequences, Adele’s titular song for Skyfall recalls the soulful virtuosity of classic themes like Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” or Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” and is more directly linked to the events of the film than the serviceable intros from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. “Skyfall” is both a farewell, and an introduction, as Adele mourns that, “this is the end,” only to let us know that “Skyfall is where we start.” She sings of a demise by drowning, one that’s overdue, and given the circumstances, it’s pretty clear that the death she’s anticipating is Bond’s.
No, I’m not suggesting the whole rest of the film is some sort of a dream sequence (though there is one, more on that later), but rest assured, this film is about the death of our current 007, one that had to happen. The brutal punishment Craig’s Bond nonchalantly subjects himself to is a stark contrast to the methods of his slick predecessors, who could take down an entire evil lair without letting a single hair slip out of place. As the film’s villain points out, all the running around and physical exertion Bond no. 6 does just winds up wearing him out quicker over the long haul. Bad knees are nothing compared to the bullet wounds, broken ribs, and testicular damage added to Bond’s medical history after being played by Craig for 260 minutes. Craig’s Bond going to an early grave was inevitable at this rate, and unlike the fake out at the beginning of You Only Live Twice, Bond really does suffer a death of sorts early in Skyfall, which lets him try a new spin on an old hobby: resurrection.
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The Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey Bond Lineage
The process of 007 replacement is not unlike that of Doctor Who, another British mainstay, wherein the character doesn’t die, but “regenerates” when mortally wounded, altering in facial features and attitude, but maintaining the same identity. We never saw Connery gunned down in Diamonds are Forever, and only Ms. Bond died at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and Bond probably isn’t an immortal, time-traveling alien, though it would explain a lot), but it’s never addressed explicitly in the fiction why the man who is James Bond changes every decade or so. A favorite pet theory suggests that the name James Bond is just a code name, passed down from one MI6 agent to the next; For all its surface logic, the notion is disputed by plenty of evidence to the contrary, among the most pertinent being that Casino Royale details Bond’s entrance into the OO program. The question only gets more muddled when references to the time of the old Bonds get thrown in, even though Skyfall proves rather definitively that 007′s Christian name is James Bond.
So where does that leave bullet-riddled and drowning Craig? If we treat Casino Royale as an on-ramp into the modern part of Bond’s continuity, with a gap separating it from – but not erasing – the old films, then we can say that the rules of Bond death have changed to match the style of the 21st century. Instead of happening between installments, the process of regeneration is what makes for Bond’s journey in the film, forsaking a physical change in 007 for a spiritual one. Appropriate to the film’s theme, Skyfall poses Bond’s rebirth as a struggle between old and new, the poles apart worlds that are set to collide. Casino Royale was a fresh start ready to take the franchise in a whole new direction, but following the confused, hot-blooded teen years of Quantum of Solace, Craig’s Bond saga is finally ready to reconcile with the legacy it so eagerly bucked barely five years ago.
A struggle with identity makes for the refrain of the title sequence, one drenched in grave imagery, equal parts metaphorical, and literal. A flurry of gun range targets in Bond’s image are seen tattered, destroyed, and swaying lifelessly at the bottom of the ocean, reappearing amidst a sea of flames that remind you of the final destination for guys with a body count like Bond’s. Whether the other cutouts are fellow agents, or his past incarnations, Bond definitely has company in hell, but brief flashes of a faceless, chair-bound man, writhing in agony, would indicate there’s a punishment specific for no. 6 (both Casino Royale and Skyfall feature scenes of Bond at his most vulnerable when seated). He even has his own Persephone-like figure guiding him through the underworld, and a shadowy devil hounding him, who is later revealed as the film’s villain.
The montage is meant to evoke the death of Bond’s mind, not his body (a tomb with Bond’s name on it is really a cheeky bit of misdirection), and works on a basic level as a stylish appetizer for what’s to come, repurposing snippets from the big setpieces to show Bond fighting himself, both past and present. He fires at his own shadow in the London underground, and has a Man with the Golden Gun-style shootout with the mirrors from Shanghai, but the most striking moment occurs after the fiery torture, when the style shifts to something more retro. The mix of Casino Royale’s graphic novel silhouettes, and Quantum of Solace’s CG vistas, is interrupted by a cascade of dancing girls, guns, and morbid symbols, a callback to the hyper-sexualized, trippy visuals that used to be a Bond movie’s way of saying hello.
A close-up of Bond’s eye, encased within the titular Skyfall Manor that is later revealed to be this Bond’s childhood home, occurs twice. During the first zoom, Skyfall is intact, but Bond’s eye quivers and twitches. On the second pass that closes out the title sequence though, the ancient building crumbles under a bloody hellfire, but Bond doesn’t so much as flinch, making his true mission for the film clear. James Blonde, 007 version six, Craig, whatever you call him, must destroy his individual past, and make peace with the collective baggage of his storied 50 year-old identity. Skyfall tasks itself with synthesizing the more personal, emotional Bond we’ve seen in the last two Craig films, with the iconic embodiment of pulp heroism and adventure made popular in the twenty films before Casino Royale.
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Reborn, Retired, Recommissioned
With Craig onboard for another two films, and Logan already suggesting that Bonds 23 through 25 will be connected, Skyfall winds up being the end of a trilogy that reboots the Bond franchise, and the start of a trilogy that wants to reboot the character. Saved by means no more complex than “James Bond can’t die”, we find 007 in a nondescript tropical paradise, but in a depressive funk, which he treats with casual sex, alcohol, and drugs. The cold attitude that Bond shows his lover is about his only remaining identifiable feature, as he’s now sporting the baggy eyes and white-touched stubble of a man who really is fifty. Worst of all, he’s not even drinking martinis, instead slumming it with a Heineken, a refreshment choice made shocking once you consider that beer has never touched 007’s lips thus far in the films.
The extent of his rut is highlighted by the film’s funniest gag. At a beachside watering hole, a roaring crowd cheers on Bond, as he raises a belt of dark liquor, while a scorpion rests precariously on his drinking hand. He conquers the feat with gusto, draining his drink, and trapping the critter beneath his glass, while the locals cheer on wildly, and he orders another round. It’s a familiar scene of James wowing strangers with his all-encompassing cool, the way he has countless times before, and it seems like the cure for what ailed him was just a trip to the bar…until the shot smash cuts to Bond in the same bar, only in the middle of the day. He’s all by himself, slouched over the bar, resting his head on his arms glumly, suggesting that what we just saw was merely a daydream. Craig’s gotten the chance to play with Bond’s emotions more wildly than anyone, but a self-pitying 007 is a truly alarming sight.
It’s a bold joke, considering that it suggests we’re actually seeing inside Bond’s head for a moment, an unprecedented move for a franchise this narratively simple, so purists can argue that the cut is merely marking a transition of time. Sticking with the theme of reflection that Skyfall develops though, the joke works like a narrative glitch in the system, as though the difficulty with which James handles his newfound sense of introspection is so great, that his instability impacts how it is we view his world. Realizing that he’s hit rock bottom in retirement faster than when he fell off that bridge in Turkey, Bond finds his salvation via a news cast in the mirror, reporting on a terrorist attack in London. A bombing at MI6 headquarters poses a serious national security crisis for Queen and country…and also provides the perfect opportunity for Bond to get back into action, and try recapturing the mojo that defines him.
After all, who is Bond outside of his job? Removed from all the world-saving excitement that comes with being a secret agent, he’s really nothing special; you could mistake him for a dime a dozen, good-looking older man type, the kind that flirts with college girls on spring break in Miami. Age is what everyone at MI6 sees in Bond upon his return, as both he and M are seen to be holdover relics from the time of boots on the ground operatives, ones in need of rapid replacement by satellites and drone strikes. The new zeitgeist being pushed by M’s incoming replacement, Mallory, is in ironic contrast to MI6’s replacement base of operations, a bomb shelter from when Churchill was under attack in WWII, a look familiar to those who saw last year’s Cold War-thriller throwback, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The movie pairs Bond’s existential crisis with rarely seen physical vulnerability, as he fails his way through aptitude tests covering the usual running, climbing, interrogation, and, most embarrassingly, shooting, that make for an agents employable skills. Bond looks more like a hapless henchman than a OO as he wings shot after shot wide of a range target, so even he’s a little surprised that M clears him for duty. This reignites a confidence in Bond that pretty much evaporated the moment M decided he was expendable enough to be shot by his own people, while also reminding us of the pair’s battle-tested relationship. M’s decision is partly self-serving though: she and Bond are both professionals, and M knows that the only way to prove her relevance, is by making sure her methods, and her agent, get the job done.
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Old Dog, New Tricks
A final moment of age-based humiliation comes from a meeting with MI6′s Q (Ben Whishaw), who hasn’t been seen since Die Another Die, but now looks barely old enough to drive a car, let alone build one with an ejector seat in it. He wouldn’t, mind you, because just like Mallory’s MI6, the new Q is an antique repackaged for the digital age. His scene with Bond is the most heavy-handed in its discussion of the generation gap, as the two bicker over the strengths and weaknesses of past and present, classical and techno, in front of a J. M. W. Turner painting that features a grand old navy sailing ship being towed off into obsolescence by a tiny steamer. The meeting ends with mutual understanding, as the two recognize the importance of one another. After a joke about exploding pens, and a plea from Q that James return his equipment intact, a piece of the Bond puzzle, one that has been missing for a decade, snaps back into place.
Once the actual mission begins, Bond gets back into fighting form through a little globetrotting (Shanghai to start, marking the first time a Bond movie has filmed in the increasingly important market of China) that gives him the chance to retake, and pass, his agent exams in the field. The plot is structured around the familiar Bond beats, such as a trip to his natural habitat (a casino), a risky bedding of the villain’s main squeeze, and a formal introduction as “Bond, James Bond.” Deliberate references to the older films are worked in frequently, including a request to have bullet fragments analyzed for M’s “eyes only”, a warning to a fellow agent to keep their hand off an earpiece (Casino Royale), and the use of a Komodo dragon to escape a pit, just like how Roger Moore did with an alligator, in Live and Let Die.
These are just the little winks and nods though, because the biggest, most important font of Bond nostalgia is the villain himself, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Introduced with a deliciously sinister monologue presenting himself and James as being a surviving pair of rats, and destined to kill one another because of M, Silva immediately brings to mind the showmanship that always made for a true Bond villain. The notion is further confirmed by his evil lair (a deserted island off the coast of Macau), and distinguishing disfigurement (a mangled pair of chompers similar to those of Bardem’s favorite Bond villain, Jaws). Even his role as an MI6 agent gone rogue is reminiscent of 006 from GoldenEye, with Silva’s period of active service covering the gap of suspicious absence Bond had between Dalton’s last film, and Brosnan’s first.
Two sides of the same coin, Silva presents parallels to Bond that run deeper than hair colour. The two spies tango like Batman and The Joker in The Dark Knight: Bond gets a rooftop glory shot near the film’s end, and Silva gets to pull the old “getting caught was all part of my plan” routine. His techno-terrorist capabilities put the world in far more peril than any of the schemes Craig has already thwarted, but Silva’s motives are personally motivated in the way Bond’s were in the last two movies. Burned by M years ago for reckless disobedience (which Bond knows plenty about), Silva is driven to exact revenge on the woman who created him, railing against the shadow war he nearly died for, by exposing it to the light.
Embracing of new technological power where M is obstinate, Silva wrecks hacker havoc, by blowing the cover of double agents on Youtube, infecting MI6’s network, and making an attempt on M’s life during a public inquiry. Were it his point, the film would be laughably out of date by trying to make Silva represent the “new” dangers posed by computers, the Internet, and even social media, but his purpose isn’t just to inspire technophobia. After all, Skyfall is the first Bond film to be lensed completely digital (in IMAX, too), and features nearly as many CG-assisted shots as Die Another Day, though far less noticeably. No, Silva also functions as an embodiment of the theatrical, kitschy history the James Bond franchise is known for, one that Craig’s era has gone to great lengths to push back against, but now must confront. Silva’s catchphrase, “think on your sins,” is as much a challenge to Bond as it is M.
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Bond Goes Home
Putting a bold spin on an old trope, Silva poses a sexual threat to Bond that’s uniquely direct, as it’s never outright said, but heavily implied that he has an erotic interest in James, one that’s either natural, or meant as a power play. Now, this is where Skyfall could have gotten lazy, and made Bond’s reconciliation with history merely a matter of slaying the personification of his campy past, but to do so would be to whitewash the series’ demons, not accept them. Besides, having Bond kill a gay version of himself would be a criminal disservice to his status as a sex symbol to both women and men, and Skyfall pulls no punches with its representation of Silva. Despite his more metrosexual mannerisms, Silva is a chilling, extremely capable nemesis, an effeminate Satan-figure meant to test Bond. In one of the film’s most brilliant strokes, Bond doesn’t evade Silva’s advances, he challenges them, openly proving that, in this day and age, Bond can be a general sexual icon, not just a strictly heterosexual one.
It’s a move of such progressive maturity, that it makes Skyfall’s failure in its treatment of female characters all the more baffling. Of the four women shown to have any real importance in film, two are killed, one is a shrill harpy (an opposition minister who haughtily chews out M), and the most promising Bond girl in ages, the tough as nails MI6 agent played by Naomie Harris, winds up behind a desk, so that Miss Moneypenny can be folded back into the refurbished Bond tapestry. Moneypenny is a brilliant match for Bond (her shooting of him actually being a perfect parallel to how Craig’s Bond fails more often than he succeeds), and the disappointment of sidelining her for the sake of harmonizing the continuity is only tempered by the hope that she will return, and get the chance to fire off some bullets, instead of just emails.
Silva’s warpath eventually forces Bond to hide M, using his vintage Aston Martin DB5 as an impromptu DeLorean that takes them back in time, “where we’ll have the advantage.” Holed up in the decrepit Skyfall Manor, Bond, M, and gamekeeper Kincaid prep a last stand meant to draw out Silva. Setting a Western showdown in a Scottish moor (the alpha Bond’s homeland) makes for an inspired finale, breaking tradition with the bombast of most Bond climaxes. It’s an intimate environment, made all the more so because of Bond’s childhood connection to it, and Skyfall becomes the stage for Bond’s true rise from the ashes.
Fittingly, Bond works through his unresolved familial issues (the source of his disdain for authority, according to the MI6 shrink) in a firefight, aided by both the woman who has been a surrogate mother to him, and Skyfall’s resident man of the house. The process is one of utter destruction: Silva tries to smoke them out of the house with a helicopter and incendiary grenades (unaware of a secret tunnel system), but Bond turns the tables by intentionally blowing up the last real trace of his original identity. He bristles at the annihilation of his Aston Martin (another first), yet bids farewell to the place he grew up in as callously as if it were Blofeld.
But shouldn’t Bond want to return home? Isn’t that the crux of the kind of character-based storytelling that Skyfall is attempting, and why the writers felt the need to include M quoting “Ulysses?” If we consider Bond the everlasting icon, instead of Bond the man, then he’s really more of a Sisyphean figure than a Homeric one; the home he’s trying to return to isn’t a place, it’s an identity. James Bond, the true, legendary James Bond, has no home other than England. He has no parents or origin, he simply exists, saving the world, getting the girl, and looking damn good doing it, whenever we need him to, for as long as we need him to. It’s that ascension to the immortal status of a true 007 that Bond has been working towards all film. In destroying his personal history, Craig’s Bond has nearly come full circle.
Silva is the last loose end, his victory proven a hallow one, because even though M lays dying in the Bond family crypt, it’s because of some random goon’s bullet, not his own. A first for Craig, Bond personally kills the main villain, using a dagger deeply embedded in Silva’s back to prove that sometimes the old ways are the best. As Silva breathes his last, Bond stares at him a moment, searching for something to say, and you can practically see the light bulb go off in his head before he delivers a tart kiss-off: “last rat standing.” After stretching his comedic legs a little further with another glib remark, Bond cradles the fading M, as flashes of Diana Rigg pass through the minds of older viewers, giving Craig license to shed a few tears. Seeing what Craig has turned into, she passes away peacefully, knowing she “got one thing right,” having picked the right man to be James Bond. In defeating Silva, Bond proves he’s not afraid of the legacy that comes with his name, learning from the franchises’ past, instead of ignoring it. Transformation: complete.
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A Promise for the Future
Why though? What’s the point in having Craig, or his movies, pass the Bond bar exam, and become “proper” parts of the canon? Well, giving the audience something satisfying to invest in for two and a half hours is a nice change of pace, but with its ending, Skyfall signals that the franchise will be, at least in the short term, heading in a retro direction. M’s a man again, Moneypenny is working the front desk, and Q is probably off building gadgets. Based on the portrait in M’s office, showing a proudly sailing fleet of the ships from Turner’s painting, the new MI6 will be bringing a classic sensibility to the modern Bond. Style is cyclical after all, so maybe it’s time for Bond to bring back a bit of the old fashioned.
And if nothing else, the sheer success of Skyfall proves that Bond, as an icon, will endure, just like M’s Royal Doulton Bulldog. After 007 closes out the movie with his signature gun barrel shot at the camera, a seal commemorating a half-century’s achievement is joined by hallowed words, a reminder that “James Bond will return,’’ for another film, and another 50 years. Thanks to Skyfall, that’s a more exciting prospect than ever.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out our in-depth analysis of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.Previous