Review: Skyfall (2012)

2012 was James Bond’s cinematic golden anniversary. Dr. No, the first James Bond film, was released in 1962. For a film franchise to last 50 years seems no small feat: Bond has had to morph through various actors and through changing times to remain relevant in today’s entertainment sphere. Naturally, there have been successes and failures along the way, but audiences still seem fascinated with the British super-spy. With the twenty-third entry into the series, Skyfall, Bond once again finds himself struggling, not only against a shadowy enemy, but also against the passage of time. It’s not much a spoiler to say that, as usual, he comes out on top.

After losing an encrypted hard drive containing sensitive information, and being shot and “killed,” Bond returns to help out his superior, M (Judi Dench), who is under attack, both from the unknown terrorist who has stolen the drive and from her government, who believe her to be obsolete. Under the watchful eye of Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a bureaucrat brought in to “transition” M out of office, M and Bond must work together to discover the identity of their enemy, who has destroyed MI6 headquarters and is using the information on the hard drive to out agents embedded in terrorist organizations. After a few adventures in exotic locations, Bond meets Severine (Bérénice Marlohe), an exotic beauty who naturally falls for Bond and leads him to his quarry: a former MI6 agent named Raul Silva (Javier Bardem). Silva has a personal vendetta against M, and has well-laid plans in place to provide him with a chance to take his revenge. Ultimately, Bond and M make a run for it and force a final showdown with Silva.

Skyfall, unlike its predecessor Quantum of Solace, feels like a natural continuation of Casino Royale both in style and substance. Directed by Sam Mendes, the film loses nothing in terms of action sequences and fancy camera-work to provide us with the stylish look we’ve come to expect from Bond in general, and from Daniel Craig’s tenure in particular. While the plot is straightforward Bond (we’ve seen turned agents before), the themes explored within the plot make Skyfall a thinking man’s action flick. Not only is there the reality of Silva’s gripe with his former boss, there is also the continued idea of MI6’s obsolescence in the twenty-first century. Bond is aging, and he doesn’t bounce back from his brush with death as well as he once did. M’s methods are questioned, and the very notion of what constitutes national security seems to be changing along with technology and society. That these themes make an appearance in an action film at all is unusual, and it’s a testament to the actors in the film that the finished product is a seamless and stylish entertainment.

Did you get a load of that cast? Daniel Craig continues to redefine Bond as a thug with a heart, and Skyfall provides us with more insight into what makes him tick. Judi Dench has been impeccable throughout her time as M (17 years!), but for her as well, Skyfall offers an opportunity to expand her range and show us what she’s really made of. Ralph Fiennes’ appearance classes up the place a little, and Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe (as the requisite Bond girls) actually show a bit more depth than many of their predecessors as well. I was skeptical of another new addition: Ben Whishaw as Q. The re-introduction of the Quartermaster as a baby-faced computer geek seemed a bit gimmicky to me, but it fit into the broader theme very well, and Whishaw’s interactions with Craig are some of the most entertaining of the film.

And then…there’s Silva. Javier Bardem is nothing short of a revelation. If anyone would like to argue his status as the best Bond villain ever, please apply within. Silva takes all of the components of effective villains past, and combines them all into one riveting, creepy package. He’s efficient (not one of those bumbling baddies), cold-blooded, brilliant, and more than a little insane. Ultimately, though, what makes him fascinating is that his motives are realistic. Instead of a bad guy who wants world domination, or just wants to destroy everything, Silva is actually sort of relatable. His experiences tie into the government’s issues with the operations of MI6, and shine a light on the complicated relationship between an agent and his superior. Bond himself could easily end up in a similar position, were he made of different stuff. Ultimately, Skyfall is about the connection between Bond and M, explored through the catalyst of Silva himself. It’s hard to say whether or not another actor could have accomplished all of that, but Bardem manages to create a fully-developed character who is, if not exactly sympathetic, at least somewhat understandable, and certainly more realistic than most Bond villains.

I had a conversation recently with a die-hard Bond fan, about who our favorites were, and such. After seeing Skyfall, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not really valid to compare Connery to Craig, especially with regard to the movies themselves. They’re so clearly the products of different eras: the early Bond films were often campy and unrealistic, while the later films, particularly Casino Royale and Skyfall, have been rooted in the more gritty and practical film-making of today. The action sequences still strain belief, they still take place in a world very different from our own in terms of glamour and intrigue, but for the most part, they take place in the “real world”. All of this is to say that for me, Skyfall may very well be the best (so far) of the Bond films, but I hesitate to call it a “Bond film.” It’s so far removed from the earlier aesthetic and feel of a Bond movie that it feels like something almost entirely different. It’s a superior movie that happens to be about James Bond, and as a fiftieth anniversary gift, I’d say it’s worth its weight in gold.

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