Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond

Skyfall
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2012’s Skyfall gave James Bond a billion-dollar blockbuster in his 50th year on screen – but are the old ways really the best?.

This feature contains major spoilers for Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace, and Skyfall.

“Where are we going?”
“Back in time.”

As we said back when we covered The Spy Who Loved Me, timing isn’t everything, but it’s even more auspicious that the (largely belated) re-release of Skyfall lands in cinemas during the current period of national mourning. Arguably, there’s no film in the modern era that’s more of a pair with old-testament Bond than Daniel Craig and Roger Moore’s respective third outings.

Both were released in royal jubilee years and accordingly put the bunting out. Both came back after a longer-than-usual break with the look of a movie that had everything to prove. And, crucially, both enjoyed massive box-office returns.

Skyfall kicks off with a superb pre-title sequence that leaves 007 missing presumed dead and M facing mandatory “retirement planning” with her government superiors. And three months later, the cyberterrorist who scuppered them is still at large.

After an attack on MI6 headquarters, Bond drags himself to the land of the living for a physically and emotionally gruelling showdown with the man now calling himself Raoul Silva, (Javier Bardem) which takes them from Shanghai and Macau to the Bond family estate in the Scottish Highlands.

On the subject of timing though, it’s a curious mix of circumstances behind the scenes that led to this version of Bond 23 getting made. Production was suspended indefinitely by MGM’s financial troubles in 2010 and consequently, the film was one of the rare Bond sequels with a lower budget than its predecessor, but also the benefit of more time in development.

Cost-cutting measures made this the only Bond film to date to be shot entirely digitally, with location filming largely confined to the United Kingdom and the bulk of financing coming from Sony Pictures and product placement partners such as Omega and Heineken. Simon’s gone into much more detail about this in the Film Stories podcast about Skyfall, which you can hear at the link below…

But what kind of James Bond film does that give us? Eventually released in the series’ 50th-anniversary year, it’s undoubtedly one of the most handsomely mounted and fondly remembered outings – a billion-dollar crowd-pleaser that tells a story about betrayal and failure and offers very little in the way of resolution or catharsis.

Though it sets out its stall and makes a stand, it’s rarely a patch on Casino Royale’s modernisation of the franchise. And at worst, it looks like an over-correction after the dulled reception for Quantum Of Solace.

We’re not just being contrarian here. Hold your breath and count to 10 years later, and it’s entertaining enough, rewatchable enough, and certainly beloved enough to take its bumps. But if you’re somehow reading this without having seen it already, this is your last warning for SPOILERS, which commence after the trailer below…

This is the end

Director Sam Mendes is the first Oscar winner to direct a James Bond film. Originally attached after Craig approached him at Hugh Jackman’s birthday party and then retained as a consultant during the production hiatus, Mendes is a huge coup for the series and gives us something we rarely see in this heavily producer-led franchise – a filmmaker who’s more or less given free rein.

Before the green light for the film came, Broccoli and Wilson drafted series regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade in to write a treatment, their fifth for the series, and then recruited Peter Morgan to rewrite it, which was an approach they’d tried out with Paul Haggis on the previous two films.

Titled Once Upon A Spy, Morgan’s draft was a John LeCarre-flavoured spy drama that sees M being compromised by her grown-up love-child from an old affair with a KGB agent and culminates in Bond being forced to kill her. Mendes disliked this script but wanted to keep the idea of M’s demise in future drafts.

Purvis and Wade then worked on an alternate script titled Nothing Is Forever. Drawing inspiration from the unfilmed connecting narrative between Fleming’s You Only Live Twice and The Man With The Golden Gun, this version introduced the idea of Bond having to return to service after being cast out. It also saw Silva kill M at a safe house in Barcelona, leading Bond to track him across the Andes, and then team up with him to uncover the real villains.

Purvis and Wade’s Nothing Is Forever script was delivered while MGM sought re-financing agreements, with the Bond franchise as one of the main sweeteners for a deal. Crucially, the draft that was delivered in November 2010 restructures the film so that M lives until the third act and a protective Bond takes her where he can keep her safe – his ancestral home, Skyfall.

With MGM back in the black and Sony set up for a co-financing deal on this film and the next one, the film was greenlit, and Mendes was officially hired as director. The Purvis and Wade script was then reworked by Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan, (with uncredited contributions by Jez Butterworth) as pre-production began in earnest.

As a counter to the Bourne-flavoured photography of the previous instalments, Mendes opted for a more classical style, hiring the great cinematographer Roger Deakins. Accordingly, this is the best-looking Bond film of all – Deakins finally won an Oscar for Blade Runner 2049 a few years down the line, but he was rightly nominated for the umpteenth time for his sumptuous work here. And the production really makes the most of its UK-based location work to recreate the usual exotic destinations – the only international shoot this time around is the opening sequence in Istanbul.

In front of the camera, Javier Bardem’s grinning method-hair work stands as the best villain performance the series has seen since Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love – a smooth but short-tempered rogue agent who challenges Bond’s values, competencies, and even his sexuality in one memorable moment. He’s also the last arch-villain in the series to date with a coherent motivation outside of “bothering James Bond”.

That said, with his various agonies, he’s the bad son to Bond’s good one, which confirms and concludes the more maternal role of Dench’s M in this run of films.

Meanwhile, it was Mendes’ idea to reintroduce Q and Miss Moneypenny, here played by Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris. They’re reimagined as tech liaison and field agent respectively, but along with the installation of Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory as a new M, the MI6 family slide back into more conventional roles before the credits roll.

The director also cited The Dark Knight as an influence. Where Casino Royale was already up and running by the time Batman Begins came out, this definitely feels like a post-Dark Knight Bond film, particularly with the sillier second-act recycling of the “the villain planned to be caught” twist, (which was already reused in Marvel’s Avengers that same year) and the third act’s retroactive introduction of a family estate and caretaker figure, in the shape of Skyfall and Kincade (the mighty Albert Finney).

The return to Bond’s roots goes to the theme of old-fashioned methods being effective against modern threats – learning to shoot again with his father’s old rifle is some particularly lovely business and the finale, which straddles the fine line between Straw Dogs and Home Alone, is a creative way around the lower budget.

The bigger action sequences are ingeniously on-theme too, whether it’s Silva escaping by hacking the high-tech locks in the otherwise fortified WW2 bunker where MI6 have him holed up, or more spectacularly, the spectacle of an exploding Scottish lodge absolutely marmalizing an attack helicopter.

Less persuasive is the retro-fitting of the Aston Martin DB5 that Bond won in Casino Royale with the gadgets from Goldfinger, but then that goes to the overall tone of the film.

 

Best of British?

A few months before Skyfall hit cinemas, the Bond movies got an unimprovable promotional spot at the start of the London 2012 Olympics. Director Danny Boyle pitched the idea of Craig’s Bond escorting Queen Elizabeth II to the opening ceremony by helicopter, and entering the Olympic Stadium via Union Jack parachute jump.

The opening of The Spy Who Loved Me does a lot to set the “Bond is back” tone of that movie, but it’s faintly bizarre that this pop-culture moment is an entirely separate prologue to a feature that came out later in the same year. All in all, Skyfall is significantly more introspective than this tongue-in-cheek daftness, with its all-star cameo and Moore-era cheekiness.

In the main attraction, the theme of old vs new looms large, but it’s very strange after Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace that the film seems to characterise Daniel Craig’s Bond as old. By rights, the real emphasis should be on Craig’s newly minted emotionally vulnerable hard-man suddenly being plunged into a world filled with anachronistic gadgets, eccentric villains, and random deadly animal enclosures.

Consciously or not, it still revives the ghosts of third-instalments past, whether in Goldfinger’s gadgets, The Spy Who Loved Me’s boisterous Britishness, or, er… The World Is Not Enough’s basic plot, which also has an injured Bond returning to work after an attack on MI6 to battle a villain who’s got it in for M. The franchise can protest all it likes, but it remains a massive plot refinery.

Instead, the film seems bent on treating Bond as a heritage property. Like Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, it holds 007 among British cultural landmarks like Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire” or Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, but its interrogation of the character’s relevance is a thinly veiled evaluation of where the series stands in the modern blockbuster landscape.

Amid the Britishness of it all, some reviewers have observed an Arthurian bent to the conception of Bond as a hero who dies and comes back again when England needs him. Also, Q has usually been equated to a Merlin figure, here reintroduced with a Whishaw performance that’s more Doctor Who than Desmond Llewelyn.

This goes further in furnishing Bond with a Mordred figure in Silva, a dark relation of himself, and also having our hero repeatedly fall into and return from water. It’s all a bit high-falutin’ for what amounts to a prestige remount of The World Is Not Enough, but it never gets lost in pretentiousness. (Give it one more film though.)

SkyfallHand in hand with the nostalgia, there’s a faint whiff of embarrassment about a remembrance of Bond we haven’t actually seen in at least a decade at this point. For instance, Q’s “exploding pen” gag only goes as far back as GoldenEye, as if there isn’t loads of dodgier stuff that the series just spent two whole movies moving past, only for this one to reinstate a lot of it like armaments on a vintage Aston Martin.

“Vintage” is the keyword there – nobody loves Brosnan’s BMWs, but they’re contemporary cars, like the DB5 would have been back when Sean Connery was driving it. By the time of Skyfall, it’s an anachronism, as representative of the old ways as the radio homer, which also debuted in Goldfinger.

The nostalgia soon gets iffy. Casino Royale is a film where it matters that Vesper dies. Quantum Of Solace is notable in that Camille neither shags Bond nor dies for her trouble. By contrast with both of these, Skyfall not only has Bond impotently quip about the murder of Sévérine, (Bérénice Marlohe) but also has him fail in his only mission of saving the de facto female lead from a similar fate.

The treatment of Sévérine is the film’s biggest unforced error – an uncritical reproduction of a Fleming-style disposable damsel, treated with summary contempt. Defenders of this bit protest that Bond is deliberately cool and collected, not giving Silva the reaction that he’s trying to get out of him.

And fair enough – that’s in-character, obviously intentional, a victory for Bond, in the marketplace of ideas, I guess!

Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond 
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen

But what objectively happens is that we’re back to the villain’s girlfriend being pointlessly executed with no impact on the plot whatsoever. Later on, Bond is more openly upset about his car dying when there’s nobody around to perform that for.

As to M’s death, it’s a strong outcome in search of an actual ending. And it’s followed with a facsimile of old-testament Bond, where the switched-on Moneypenny follows Bond’s condescending advice and chooses life behind the desk, and a new man takes up M’s old leather-panelled office in Whitehall. Cue the gun-barrel and a “James Bond Will Return”. It’s pure fan service and it spikes the real emotion of the downer ending as a return to business as usual, only 50 years later.

 

Bond means Bond

Skyfall

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The air of Skyfall supposedly cleaning a slate feels bizarre in retrospect. It’s building towards a conception of what Bond is “supposed to be” and not what the previous two films took the time to establish. And far from reclaiming the series’ identity, it turns out the next two films want to chase after the serialised storytelling/cinematic universe trend instead.

If you were especially grumpy, you might call it the Brexit Bond – a project that throws away the progress of recent years and glorifies what it thinks it used to be, instead of what it is now.

It doesn’t throw Craig’s underlying character development into reverse with it, but it kids us that he’s the dinosaur that Dench’s M denounced on her very first appearance, even though it suits neither his character nor the audience perception of the franchise at that point to do so.

Ageing the character with the actor is one thing, but this seems to confuse him with the perception of earlier 007s. At one point, Bond remarks that his hobby is “resurrection”, but what Mendes brings is more a retrofitting of nostalgia to a series that had been pressing forward at some pace.

While it’s both a thrilling action film and an intriguing thesis on James Bond’s character, it’s also an odd attempt to fix something that wasn’t broke when they came to it. The old-fashioned tropes clash with the new seriousness of blockbusters, in a film that can’t help but reference itself and what others are doing, as part of its insistence that Bond is still keeping up with the Dark Knights and the Bourne Ultimatums.

Given free rein, Mendes creates something like a gourmet hot dog version of a Bond movie, or what the big kids of film criticism might dub an “elevated” 007. Functionally, in a series built on returns, it should be a one-off, but its success has made it an ideal to chase rather than a replicable template.

Nevertheless, in winning over critics and audiences so completely, Skyfall is plainly the most entertaining version of itself, pulling off a thematic balancing act so tricky that even the same filmmakers messed it up on their second try a few years later. Rich in meaning and detail, it’s symbolic where Spectre is just bollocks.

Ultimately, Adele’s lush, indelible torch song says it all. The identical first and final stings bookend a song (and another cracking Daniel Kleinman title sequence) that sends Bond to his apparent death and then marches him back to life. It’s monumental stuff; “Skyfall” the theme song is an opening that feels like an ending. But in the grand scheme of things, Skyfall the film is an ending that only feels like a beginning.

 

Skyfall is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide this week.

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