Bond comes full circle (spoiler notice)
“We can’t keep working in the shadows,” says MI6 chairman Gareth Mallory to M, “there are no more shadows.” But he’s proved wrong by her, by circumstance, by reality. Now more than ever the world needs secret agents like Bond. A man unafraid to pull the trigger on enemies without allegiance, without a flag. Skyfall is an affidavit to that effect, and so much more.
After 2008’s Quantum of Solace and studio MGM’s financial ruin, the future of Bond was uncertain. Casino Royale had been an artistically successful reboot, but now the wellspring seemed dried up all too soon. With no money to produce even their tentpole franchise and the vice of formula rearing its ugly head again, Bond appeared dead in the water. Fortunately, MGM was resurrected and Skyfall resumed production. It appears the longer gestation period did the film a lot of good, allowing both its story and its visual language to mature into something special.
The plot is unusually simple, but doesn’t feel that way because of how expertly its details are drip-fed to the viewer. Skyfall starts in medias res, with the theft of a list of undercover agents. When Bond fails to retrieve it and is accidentally shot by his partner, he is assumed KIA. In fact, he recovers on a beach, but in a morose state. Upon learning that MI6 has been the victim of a terrorist attack, he returns to duty – more wreck than warrior.
Bond tracks the unknown assailants by going after the stolen list and eventually discovers the man behind it is an ex-operative named Silva. He once worked for M, but things didn’t go well between them and she allowed him to be captured. It was a strategic decision. The list turns out to be a ploy by Silva to get into MI6 and enact vengeance on M. Now the hunters have become the hunted and Bond takes M to the safety of his parental home in Scotland: Skyfall. The face-off between the two agents, both hurt by their assignments, is brutal, shocking and personal. M dies. Bond is galvanized. The story that began with 007 dying ends with him being born.
This is a spy thriller in every way. It’s dark, mysterious and doesn’t surrender its secrets easily. We don’t learn the villain’s identity or his plans until the second half. Until that time the suspense ramps up. Letting all the tricks out of the bag at once ruined Tomorrow Never Dies, which irresponsibly explained the plot in the first five minutes. Not Skyfall. It knows that you can keep the audience guessing for a long time and come out the better film. That takes courage, and Skyfall is full of it.
I held out two hopes for this film. The first was that the conflict with Quantum, the main enemy in the last two parts, would escalate. The previous installment had centered around a petty scheme to control the water supply of a single country, this time I wanted the big guns. Surely, after being exposed, Quantum would reveal its hand? Instead, the organization takes a backseat and isn’t even referenced in Skyfall. Perhaps they’ve gone into hiding, licking their wounds. They’ve made room for a deeply intimate story with a villain reminiscent of Goldeneye’s: a rogue agent from MI6’s past. With the title I’d been expecting a plot involving satellites, a Bond staple since the earliest days. “Let the sky fall,” sings Adele in a song that took some getting used to, but was sure to please afterwards. But this isn’t an action extravaganza about the world being threatened, it’s a thriller where Bond’s ‘family’ is. I’m glad my expectations were waylaid.
The shift from Quantum to Silva is one from the methodical business man bad guy to a truly demented villain. As is en vogue in the current film climate, he is an anarchist with no regard for his own well-being. In what is swiftly becoming a modern trope; Silva is captured and interrogated shortly after his introduction, only for it to turn out an elaborate setup to inflict even more damage. In this he pays tribute to The Dark Knight’s Joker and The Avengers’ Loki.
The second hope I had was for the plot to be meaningful to James Bond as a character. His best films see him endure personal trauma. Especially after the generic Quantum of Solace I feared the worst. Skyfall redeems the series’ reputation spectacularly: the conflict between Silva and Bond, and the evolving relationship with M, are thrilling and important. Silva is a future image of Bond, come to haunt him like a Dickensian ghost. Look what happens to you when you continue on my path! “Orphans always make the best recruits,” M says late in the film. We assume Silva, like Bond, lost his parents. He refers to M as ‘mother’. The issue of loss culminates in the ancestral mansion, placed in an isolated moor right out of a dream. When it starts burning, destroyed by the battle between agents, the whole area turns into a flame-engulfed phantasm. Bond has never been as metaphorical as this.
And a warning Silva (played by the imposing Javier Bardem, the murderer in No Country for Old Men) is. He wears a mask: his own face. How it used to be, specifically. In a gruesome reveal we learn how he is horribly mutilated, and but a large subdermal prosthetic keeps his handsome features intact. The damage was inflicted in the line of duty, when he wanted to protect England’s secrets by swallowing a cyanide pill hidden in one of his molars. He unfortunately survived and the chemical burned away the inside of his face. This is a return to the grotesque villains of the past, something previous director Marc Forster wanted to do away with in Quantum of Solace. Sam Mendes decided correctly that it suits this modern, yet backwards looking Bond.
As bold and contemporary as Skyfall is, it is also a love letter to fifty years of 007. Near the end, the film gets increasingly more evocative of the past, culminating in the appearance of the quintessential Bond car: the Aston Martin DB5 as used by Sean Connery in Goldfinger. Fitting, since the car itself is fifty years old this year too. What a thrill to see it driving around the magnificent countryside. When it is inevitably blown to smithereens, Bond gets particularly angry – and so do we.
But that’s all just part of the other big theme of the film: the old versus the new. M’s forced retirement and subsequent replacement. The introduction of a very young Q, living in a brave new world Bond doesn’t even understand. The discussion on whether secret agents still have a place in current affairs. Silva’s expertise of computer crime offset with the almost comically lo-tech booby traps employed in the manor. It bears stressing how craftily Skyfall deals with its themes. One of its triumphs is how thoughtfully it’s all laid out.
Another is the visual language. Skyfall shows what a director with vision can do with Bond. Quantum of Solace was restricted by formula, stilted decorum, and haste. It was a victim of being rushed. The plot was adequate but humdrum and the cinematography was unremarkable. Worse, the action scenes were difficult to read and shot with neither style nor grace. Now look how Mendes brings a great sense of visual symbolism to the franchise.
Take the lethal fight between Bond and mercenary Patrice in Hong Kong, which happens almost entirely as silhouettes against psychedelic skyscraper advertisements. It’s a stark image, daring in its simplicity. The visual is repeated during the climax, when Bond’s parental home is burning and both he and Silva are black shapes against the dimmed sky. The artistic choice is no coincidence. As we saw at the beginning, shadows are another important theme of the film. The message is clear: these men operate in the dark. What they do abides no scrutiny. The visual supports the narrative.
Hopefully the series will continue evolving the character, putting him through the ringer. Embrace this murky thriller genre. Continue fleshing out characters like M, instead of treating them like stereotypes. Returning to the old formula would be a step back. However, Bond is also a tradition, an enduring character that’ll exist and be celebrated decades after others are forgotten. Balancing the two will be endlessly tricky.
Skyfall ends with the famous barrel-view killing, its premiere in the Daniel Craig run. The preceding scene takes place where Bond began half a century ago: in the leather-bound office of M, Moneypenny entrenched behind her desk. The setup for this is well-designed and the whole thing plays like a kick of nostalgia. It almost feels these three films were all part of an introduction. Fifty years of Bond ends where it started.