POSTVIEW: Skyfall

The James Bond franchise, 50 years on, suddenly feels fresher than Generation Y has ever seen it.

From Brosnan to Craig

Most people under the age of 30 — all part of the Millennial Generation (or ‘Generation Y’) — would probably strain to remember any experiences with Bond films before the Pierce Brosnan era, which stretched back to Bond’s first post-Soviet-dissolution adventures in the mid-nineties. While I never knew a Bond movie until 1999’s The World is Not Enough, my first experience with the walther-packing martini-sucking spy had come a few years earlier through a video game: Rare‘s classic N64 game Goldeneye, released in 1997 as a tie-in for the 1995 film of the same name. James Bond was a video game character first, and movie character second, at least in my eight-year-old eyes.

The James Bond films of the Pierce Brosnan era fit that purview pretty well, focusing on action set-pieces featuring satellites, lasers, hovercrafts, a remote control BMW, an invisible Aston Martin, a tank ravaging the streets of St. Petersburg, a nuclear submarine, and more modern attractions. Character development and dialogue was often limited to varyingly clever one-liners and obvious sexual innuendo, but the films were still invariably easy to enjoy and get along with. They were much like good video games, with the same emotional simplicity and plot over-complexity exhibited in modern hits like Halo 4.

Brosnan was largely a wasted talent — a proper Brit with a dry, serious delivery who was well fit for the role of a classy and cocktail-drinking casanova/spy. Despite a promising start in Goldeneye, Brosnan fell victim to generic script after generic script in Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, and Die Another Day as the franchise settled for rote episodes characterized by the complacent direction of action helmers.

Meanwhile, other spy movies, namely The Bourne Identity and its two sequels, took the mantle of intelligence in thriller espionage. The Bourne films presented Jason Bourne, a former CIA spy driven by intuition, quick thinking, and some mad training. Guns were sparing and most of his combat was hand-to-hand in intense displays of martial arts. 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, the second film of the trilogy (and the one that clued the general public into how good these films, as well as Matt Damon in the lead role, actually were), established Bourne as formerly quintessential film spy James Bond’s superior, and a complexly troubled but outwardly hardened operative with stories both believable and fit for the 21st century.

Daniel Craig, previously a relative unknown worldwide (with the probable exception of the UK), entered the Bond franchise in 2006 with the in-the-beginning story Casino Royale, adapted from Ian Fleming’s first and original Bond book. Essentially restarting the franchise and reinserting its main character to his pre-double-0 inception, the film created an entirely new field on which Bond films could play — and beyond that, the film was also damn good. As Bond’s legendary first girl Vesper Lynd, Eva Green played beautifully off Daniel Craig’s natural serious-but-seductive persona, and the two made us care about Bond again. Unlike any of the Bond films in its recent memory, Casino Royale created a real and tangible romantic relationship, and in the process showed how Bond became the seemingly emotionally bulletproof character we had come to know over the previous forty years.

Quantum of Solace (2008) was the film that needed to follow Casino Royale. It was a righteous effort to establish series continuity reminiscent of the divide between On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever. Quantum picked up where Royale left off, with Bond continuing to investigate the strands of the mystery that ended the first film. The filmmakers (including poor Marc Forster, who probably would have done rather well with a better script) couldn’t be faulted for trying to double-dip on the success of Casino Royale, but the resultant movie was convoluted, too action-filled, and just straight up too sandy for its own good (as in literally sandy, like a lot of it is in the desert). But Quantum also suffered for its lackluster characters, who failed to make much of an impression when compared to their counterparts in the previous film. Nevertheless, Daniel Craig’s depiction of Bond was still fresh and entirely his own. The 44-year old actor is likeable in just about anything, even 2011’s otherwise somewhat unlikeable Cowboys & Aliens. As Bond, he became more than a simple replacement for the character than Connery engineered back in 1962 — he brings an entirely different temperament and poise to the character than we’ve seen before. And, in that sense, even after 2008, the character and the franchise had a potentially bright future.

Skyfall

“Skyfall. Skyfall.”

Skyfall breaks away from the storyline set up by its two predecessors and embraces its franchise history, snatching Bond from his early days as a double-0 and dropping him later in his career. Skyfall lives in between the new and old Bond worlds, the point of division coming back in the early 2000s, right between the Brosnan and Craig eras. In the film, Bond is, despite Craig’s version of the character having started his agentship two films back in Casino Royale, depicted as a craggy and hardened old double-0 carrying 22 films worth of missions in his baggage — a relic of the long-past “golden age of espionage.” Skyfall is more a continuation of the Bond franchise as a whole than of the recent Craig saga, as if Casino Royale took place back in the early 60s and the other 50 years of Bond films happened in between then and now.

It’s a weird identity for the film. But in that sense, Skyfall isn’t so much the follow-up that people wanted in the eventually unmemorable Quantum of Solace, but rather the film that fans everywhere thought Casino Royale was: the resurrection of the franchise.

It is an ironic return to roots, as it simultaneously hearkens back to its twentieth century installments of old and paves an entirely new strategy based on character development and intelligent action. The result is the first Bond film to maturely relate to its era in over two decades — Skyfall, under the direction of Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road), is a three-act, full-bodied movie that counters classic action moments (Bond driving a moto bike across rooftops in pursuit of a baddie) with scenes that willingly show the more vulnerable and human moments of the otherwise oft-invincible double-0 (Bond struggling through his fitness tests in a silly Adidas jumpsuit, or sitting unshaven and alone at a bar in paradise while contemplating his retirement), while still never sacrificing the swagger and style that has made the character iconic.

Following the example of The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day, the film starts by reminding us of Bond’s mortality — he is shot in the shoulder by fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) while trying to apprehend a target and then plummets into a river. Wounded and assumed dead, Bond disappears to a tropical island and lives in retirement for three months. It’s always been an effective start to expose Bond’s humanity in the first act as a character weakness — a target for his enemies. In previous outings where Bond has been injured, captured, or otherwise compromised, the remainder of the film has been dedicated to dehumanizing Bond, removing the weakness set up by the premise. Skyfall is unique in that it acknowledges Bond’s humanity and accepts it as a weakness that he cannot fight away.

Every Bond film in recent memory has dealt with terrorism, and post-9/11 the franchise, just like everything else, has operated in a world where the world “terrorism” conjures up images of something entirely new. Die Another Day started filming only months after 9/11, and dealt with a North Korean terrorist trying to create a new war with the West. 2006’s Casino Royale, whose novel antecedent was published in 1953, updated its villain Le Chiffre from a Soviet counterintelligence (fictional agency SMERSH) treasurer to a terrorist financier. With the premise bringing Bond into a direct game of poker with Le Chiffre, the possibility of the British government’s money being funneled directly into terrorists’ hands seemed all the more immediate in the 21st century.

Skyfall takes on a complex of terrorism — cyberterrorism that quickly turns into actual domestic destruction in the UK. Ten years after 9/11 and seven years after the London underground bombings, Skyfall‘s understanding of its villain is in tune with both its times and the film’s circumstances as a whole. Caught in an embarrassing intelligence leak followed by a very public security breach (gas explosion) at their HQ, MI6 is brought before a public inquiry to explain its failings. M (Judi Dench) explains her fears of the new world’s enemies, stating that they exist only in “the shadows.” Showing that MI6, and agents like 007, are the keys to finding those enemies, Skyfall brings Bond and his agency into 2012, breathing new life into their mandate to protect Queen and country.

Made for an audience no longer impressed by Q Branch’s latest tech innovations, the film rightly strays from pushing itself into an endless future of gadgets triggered by 007’s Omega watch. Technology is nonetheless central to its plot, which starts with the robbery of a laptop hard drive containing the identities of undercover agents across the world (the Mission: Impossible similarities do end there, however). The subsequent hacking of the list, followed by the posting of agents’ names on the internet, leads to a manhunt for the culprit behind it all. Technology occupies the same role in the film that it does in the world it tries to imitate: it is the basis of worldwide communication, a helpful tool to some, and a potentially frightening weapon for others.

The story ironically uses that technological basis to explore some more traditional Bond elements and memories from earlier films. Allusions to earlier films’ gadgets — such as Goldeneye’s exploding pen and Goldfinger’s DB5 ejector seat — are fit lovingly into a script that seems to genuinely respect the franchise’s history.

The rest of the story is centered around M, who is played in another consistent performance by Dame Judi Dench. Throughout Pierce Brosnan’s era, the relationship between Bond and the first female M was largely strained, starting with her introduction in Goldeneye and her calling Brosnan’s Bond a “misogynistic dinosaur.” Daniel Craig’s boyish charms and wry smile have given M a disapprovingly maternal aura in recent films, as Bond’s hijinks seem to perturb her just as much as a teenage boy’s might affect his worried but helpless mother. Skyfall is a terrific capitalization on that relationship and on Dench’s unique place as Bond’s only-ever female chief, self-consciously placing M’s decision-making role on censure in relation to the fates of her employees, and testing the supposedly impersonal nature of her job. The uncovering of a dark moment from her past reveals her own struggles with her job, as she admits that regret is a weakness she won’t entertain.

The film’s third act is what shines the brightest here, even though the first two are a marvelous set-up. Chugging along in a 1964 DB5, Bond and M retreat to the Scottish highlands to go “back in time, where they’ll have the advantage.” That is where the question of what the film’s title refers to, a question largely unconsidered before this point, is finally answered. And the conclusion that follows is nothing short of a legendary moment in the history of the franchise. While not giving too much away, it involves: a Scottish castle, a helicopter with music blaring from its speakers, explosions, and an ice-covered pond, all part of a cross between Apocalypse Now and Home Alone. It’s one of the smarter action sequences in Bond’s history and also one of the most satisfying.

The film is a triumph in reserved filmmaking, especially when considered in relation to some of the more excessive Bond installments before 2006. The film is largely contemplative and dialogue-based, albeit bookended by bombastic action sequences. The script is concise but never too brief, playing characters within themselves while giving them time to develop over the 145-minute runtime. The score, orchestrated by prolific American Thomas Newman (Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Jarhead, WALL-E), is built as its own original composition quite different from the techno-tinged David Arnold scores of the Brosnan era, and only sparingly ventures into the classic Bond cue. But the puppeteer here, the head coach of it all — British director Sam Mendes, who won an Oscar back in 2000 for American Beauty and has since directed Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, and Away We Go, brings a clever sense of country and an admirable patience to both the script and its main character. Directing Craig is Mendes’s largest task, and that’s where the director shines. It’s Bond’s stillness that is so original and revealing in the agent’s more vulnerable moments, and Mendes visually creates the character in such a way that the aging spy seems almost like a machine, lying in patient wait until the moment arrives, a switch is flipped, and he quickly springs into action.

For his part, though, Daniel Craig should be credited for how well he uses his natural on-screen traits and mannerisms to portray an actually rather different character than he played in his two previous Bond outings. Craig, although many were skeptical of his look, his hair color, and his potential upon his announcement as the new Bond back in 2005, is quite naturally suited to the role that’s been written for him in his three films. He wouldn’t have fit in the scripts written for Pierce Brosnan or the Bond actors that came before. But for this new James Bond — a more physically imposing, patiently static, and jadedly sad Bond — he is just about perfect. The rest of the cast, led by Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, and Naomie Harris, are all very British and well cast. Their continuing roles throughout subsequent Bond films are certainly highlights to look forward to.

The villain of it all — played by Javier Bardem — is hacker/cyberterrorist Raoul Silva, a character from M’s past. Different from your average Bond villain, Silva has no facade or mask for the outside world; living on his own abandoned island, he’s a straight up demented terrorist and proud of it. In this post-The Dark Knight world, an immediate connection can be made to that film’s villain The Joker and Heath Ledger’s performance as the maniacal ginger. Bardem’s turn as Silva is not nearly as out-of-his-body or brutal as Ledger’s, but a similar creepiness oozes from him and his bleached blonde locks. Bardem brings a few of his own quirks to the role; for one, his unmistakable voice and its accented baritone when pronouncing English are just as creepy as in No Country for Old Men. His gait and the high-pitched “pip” noise he makes while pretending to squish something into oblivion are, however, new. The character, as a whole, is nowhere near the perfect villain to his good counterpart (Bond), which The Dark Knight‘s Joker really was. But therein lies the subtlety of the plot itself — Silva’s real target is not in fact Bond, but rather his boss M. And for the film as a whole, Silva’s identity as a person quite apart from the world but also capable of reaping powerful destruction upon it fits with its search for the villains “in the shadows.”

Visually, the film has some of the same beautiful lighting and cinematography by D.P. Roger Deakins as was seen in Jarhead, which had also paired him with Sam Mendes. That said, Skyfall takes it to an entirely different level, which a larger color palate and a more diverse set of locales to represent. Taking the film from Turkey to London, Shanghai to Macau, and finally into Scotland, the camera captures each location beautifully through creative angles and lighting effects. Deakins and Mendes use ambient light, fire, and bright city lights to amazing effect without overdoing it or becoming gimmicky. The colors have the same sharp, highly saturated tone in tune with the previous two Bond films and evolved from the muted film tones of the Bonds films from the 90s. The opening credits sequence — a mainstay of every era of the Bond franchise — is in top shape in Skyfall, in which it’s set to Adele’s song of the same name. With delicately composed CGI and imagery alternating between fire and water elements prevalent in the film, it’s a sign of Skyfall‘s attention to detail and commitment to its storyline.

Skyfall is the Bond franchise’s acceptance of its time — the first smart Bond film in a while to represent and comment on its era, and probably the most creatively structured Bond film in decades. Amidst all that, Skyfall is also the Bond franchise’s embracing of its own Britishness. Whereas twenty years ago British slang like “cock it up” and a mention of earl grey tea might have alarmed studio execs as too alienating of U.S. audiences, these same British touches today fit quite comfortably into the flatter world of today’s media and entertainment, a world in which Harry Potter has made “brilliant,” “bloody,” and “wicked” words U.S. adolescents are readily accustomed to. Beyond that, though, Skyfall chooses to champion its British origin in its casting choices, which may prove to be long-term, and through its plot, which speaks to the evolution of the U.K. itself. The film’s casting of prime British actors such as Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Ben Wishaw represents a commitment to make Bond a quintessentially British franchise, just as Harry Potter lived up it British identity throughout its run. Thus, the selection of mega-artist Adele to perform the title song was perfect for this film specifically — the effective coalescence of the best British talent in a single work to show off to the world. Made in 2012, when James Bond is not only a phallus- and pistol-wielding spy but also a national symbol capable of appearing alongside Queen Elizabeth herself at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, Skyfall feels like Britain’s acceptance of the man that has been fictionally saving their lives for ages.

In the film, MI6 is considered by some as a relic of an old England — a carryover from the cold war, when espionage and secret agents could make some sort of difference. In a British democracy, MI6 — as Fiennes’s character Mallory states — is answerable to the people it’s supposed to protect. That Bond’s fight to save the day ends in Scotland rather than an exotic locale such as Turkey, Bolivia, Shanghai, or Azerbaijan is further sign of the film’s interest in its home country, especially considering how few Bond missions conclude anywhere near the U.K. And most importantly, Bond’s acceptance of his own age as an agent, himself a relic of another time, mirrors the film’s representation of Britain — an old country with a rich history but just as uncertain a future as any country facing the shadowy and flag-less enemies of the 21st century. The film’s example of that enemy — Bardem’s Silva — is himself a relic of an old Britain turned to the dark side of its evolution, much like Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) in Goldeneye: Silva worked with M in the MI6 Hong Kong Station when it was still under British control, but he was captured by the Chinese before the peaceful handover of power. His past is much like Bond’s past, but while Silva came out on the wrong side in the future, Bond’s steadfast commitment and nationalism is what keeps him going so many years on.

It’s very easy to commend Skyfall as a gem within the larger Bond franchise — a special commencement of a new path within its 50-year history. But it’s important to note that Skyfall is simply a damn good movie, no matter your level of familiarity with the protagonist’s previous adventures. Until 2006, the entire franchise was largely resting on its already established legacy, but with these first three Craig-led films, the 21st century Bond franchise feels much more intent on establishing a new legacy of its own. With that comes the question of the future, and what episodes lie on the series’ horizon. Despite the unmitigated success that Skyfall is, and perhaps even because of it, Bond will have a tough time following it up. After Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace stylistically felt much like Achtung Baby “cutting down the Joshua Tree” that was its predecessor — Skyfall doesn’t exactly leave that option open, as it will be hard to see Craig’s James Bond as anybody other than the man revealed throughout the course of the film. Having struck a different and more rewarding chord in its characters than any Bond film in recent decades, the filmmakers behind Bond are unlikely to stray from the style they’ve herein created. After Skyfall, making another ‘Bond-saves-the-day’ rote franchise episode will be more than disappointing.

Good news, then, to hear the unique plans filmmakers already have planned: Skyfall co-writer John Logan recently pitched a two-movie arc to Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, which they accepted. Logan is currently writing the two scripts, the first of which is hopefully coming around 2014. If everything goes to plan, it will be the first time a single story, or mission, has spanned more than one film. Considering the economic opportunities for such films (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, The Hobbit), it represents a smart creative and financial opportunity for the franchise. The future of Bond, at least right now, seems more about character, charm, and development than action sequences, sex, and invincibility. Case-in-point: the end credits of Skyfall, while celebrating 50 years of Bond movies, display the message “James Bond will return” — the tease which marked every Bond film for decades. Perhaps Skyfall is acknowledging its roots to finally find a path beyond them, into the reality around it in the 21st century.

Bond fans have long debated who played the character the best — Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, or Brosnan. Some people say Connery invented the role, and will always be the best. Others say that Moore played Bond the longest, and determined the future of the role the most. Younger people — those in Generation Y — might say that Brosnan was the classy, impervious Bond we grew up with, and that he essentially created our understanding of who 007 is.

With Skyfall, though, Daniel Craig enters that discussion with serious chances, having been part of creating the most introspective and self-aware movie in the franchise’s history. As M quotes from Tennyson, Britain and her MI6 is “made weak by time and fate, but strong in will.” And that, too, can be extended to our old boy Bond.

More Skyfall & James Bond articles:
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‘Deadline: Gladiator’ Scribe John Logan To Write Next Two James Bond Films

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