SPOILER ALERT! Do not read this essay until you have seen Skyfall. I would not want to ruin your experience of seeing the best James Bond film in many years.
Bond films always seem to be judged “good” or “bad” relative to other Bond films. But Skyfall is not only a good Bond film, it’s a good film period. Daniel Craig apparently ran into Sam Mendes at a party and, on a whim, asked if he might be interested in directing a Bond film. This was a real stroke of good fortune, as Mendes’s Skyfall is perhaps the most exciting, visually arresting, and emotionally moving film in the entire series.
In the old Sean Connery days the Bond films were both innovative and daring. The cinematography, editing, set design, and music set new standards and were endlessly imitated. The films were also considered daring in their violence and in their rather frank and amoral approach to sexuality. But though the Bond films have made gobs of money for fifty years, they have been neither innovative nor daring since the 1960s.
Yes, they are still imitated. But it’s primarily the elements of the archetypal, ’60s Bond that have been the object of imitation. And, notoriously, the Bond films began imitating themselves practically as soon as the ’60s came to an end. Worse yet, Bond has often been guilty of following trends set by other films. First came the Blaxploitation Bond, Live and Let Die (1973). Then The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) tried to cash in on the popularity of martial arts movies. The nadir was reached when Moonraker (1979) took Bond into space, chasing after the Star Wars audience.
But the Daniel Craig films, which “rebooted the franchise” (an expression I detest), have changed all that. These films, starting with 2006’s Casino Royale, are fresh, original, and feature cutting-edge talent in all areas. And Skyfall is the best of them, by far (better than Casino Royale, which was excellent, and far better than the lackluster Quantum of Solace, which appeared in 2008). This one is going to inspire imitators, and it is destined to be thought of as one of the “classics” in a series that might well celebrate its hundredth anniversary someday.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins has filled Skyfall with scenes that are often extraordinarily beautiful (especially those set in Macau – a location Bond visited in The Man with the Golden Gun, but with rather less spectacular results). The acting is also the best in any Bond film. Craig has managed to turn Bond into a believable, three dimensional character. He is still larger than life, but he contains depths never plumbed by any other actor. And, yes, that includes Sean Connery. Craig is the better actor, and his is the more credible Bond. I realize that this is heresy, but the same opinion was recently put forward (albeit more politely) by Roger Moore, who has never been accused of great acting. (Connery himself could not be reached for comment.) Judi Dench (as M) and Javier Bardem (as Silva, the villain) are also excellent.
Skyfall’s screenplay (by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan) is fresh, the dialogue intelligent and snappy. There’s not a line in it that made me wince. Even Bond’s one-liners are excellent (leaving a Chinese thug to be devoured by a Komodo dragon, he quips, “Ah, the circle of life . . .”). The story is also thoroughly surprising and unpredictable. How many times have you been able to say that about a Bond movie? When A View to a Kill appeared in 1985, one critic commented, memorably, that going to see a Bond movie is like going to the zoo: you’re either pleased to see the same animals again, or you’re not. Gone are those days. Even Thomas Newman’s music score for Skyfall deserves praise: it’s a great improvement over David Arnold’s often shameless attempts to imitate John Barry. (I honestly think it’s the best non-Barry score for a Bond film.)
The plot, as everyone knows by now, concerns a former MI6 agent (Bardem) out for revenge against M, who betrayed him years earlier to the Chinese. The story takes many twists and turns, but the basic simplicity of the villain’s motivations is actually a great virtue of this film. (Some Bond movies have plots so complicated they rival film noir.) It’s not the first time there has been a Bond revenge movie: 1989’s Licence to Kill has Bond going rogue, out for revenge against the villain, and the bad guy in 1995’s GoldenEye is motivated by revenge.
But this film breaks with a lot of Bond plot conventions, and the major one concerns “the Bond girl.” The classic Bond formula actually involves three girls. Two of them usually only appear briefly. One is often killed, and sometimes one is an enemy agent (who also gets killed). The third is often introduced well into the film (e.g., Honey Rider in Dr. No, Pussy Galore in Goldfinger), but she sticks around until the end, and is the “female lead” of the production.
Skyfall follows this formula – up to a point. There’s a black female MI6 agent named Eve (played by Naomie Harris) who’s introduced at the beginning of the film, then disappears for much of the rest of it. Then Bond encounters another female, this one held in thrall to the villain (another nod to The Man with the Golden Gun). She is Séverine (a name lifted from Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour), played by Bérénice Lim Marlohe. And she is the film’s “sacrificial lamb,” killed by Silva before Bond’s eyes. As I discussed in my essay “The Importance of James Bond,” this is a familiar plot device in the series. It’s there to allow Bond to show his human side, and to make us hate the villain more. Though here, curiously, Bond reacts coldly to Séverine’s death.
The curious thing, however, is that after Silva blows poor Séverine away with his dueling pistol, no beautiful babe shows up to help Craig carry the rest of the film. There is no “third girl” in Skyfall. This struck me as strange . . . until I realized the obvious: in this film, M is the Bond girl. (A point which has been made by a number of reviewers.)
In large measure, Skyfall is really about the relationship between Bond and M. It’s a relationship which hasn’t been explored much in the films. In Fleming’s novels, it’s made clear that Bond both loves and hates his boss. M is usually cold and stern with Bond – but there are occasional, brief flashes of fatherly affection. M is actually a keen psychologist, and he no doubt realizes that the best way to keep Bond on his toes is precisely through leavening his disapproval with only a small amount of warmth. Bond is, after all, an orphan who lost his father and mother at the age of eleven. Inevitably, he can’t help but see M as a father figure. And M is surely not above exploiting this.
This dynamic between Bond and M was never explored on screen before the Daniel Craig era. And his films faithfully draw upon the problematic Bond-M relationship as depicted in the novels. Except, of course, that Craig’s M is a woman. And if anything, this makes the situation much, much more complicated.
M is a mother figure to Bond, but she bosses him around like dear old dad might have. And though he is drawn to her and desires her approval, the truth is that no adult male ever quite gets used to taking orders from a woman. He loves M, and resents her at the same time – probably much more than he would a male M. To make matters even more complicated, M makes it abundantly clear – especially in Skyfall – that she is willing to throw Bond to the wolves if the situation demands it. Like all orphans, at some level Bond feels abandoned. He longs for the love of the mother who left him (twice in the Craig films he breaks into M’s apartment – wanting to be near her). But the love of his mother-substitute is more than a little doubtful. After all, she is willing to have him killed!
Poor, confused Bond. The key difference, in fact, between Craig’s Bond and all the others is that he’s very believably screwed up. The Craig films explore all the psychological dynamics one would expect to find in the life of an orphan who becomes a cold-blooded, government assassin. And they do so very credibly, very plausibly. This extra depth to the Craig films makes all the difference in the world. As I’ve said, Bond is still larger than life, but he is no longer a kind of unapproachable cartoon superman (as Brosnan generally played him). We admire him, and we feel for him also.
Much has been said about the Craig movies making Bond “relevant to today.” Indeed they do, but it has nothing to do with Bond banging black chicks (which he’s been doing since Live and Let Die), or wearing a Bluetooth headset. What has happened is that Bond has been made relevant to today’s younger males – mainly thirty-somethings (according to what I’ve read, the audience for Skyfall is overwhelmingly male and over the age of 25). Few male Bond fans are orphans, of course, but most feel arrested at some earlier stage of development. Arrested, for instance, by overbearing parents and a society that has never challenged them sufficiently. They . . . uh . . . we are all like Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club, who calls himself “a thirty-year-old boy.” Like us, Bond is screwed up. But he holds up to us the possibility of transmuting the shit of our lives into gold.
Skyfall takes the complicated dynamic of Bond’s relation to M and pushes it toward a climax that is truly bizarre and dreamlike – thick with symbolism and psychological catharsis. At the risk of understatement, it is unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a Bond film before. (And if you’ve made the mistake of reading this far before seeing the film then STOP – this is your last warning!)
To make a long story short, Silva almost succeeds in killing M, and Bond realizes that the only way to protect her is take matters completely into his own hands and spirit her off to someplace safe. So, he essentially kidnaps M and tells her that they must go back “into the past.” The first stop on the way is to pick up Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger. When the car is first seen, the audience in the theatre where I saw the film cheered and applauded (and I have read that audiences have reacted similarly all over the U.S. and Europe). In a delightful touch, Bond threatens to remove a censorious M from the car by firing the passenger ejector seat. Like a passive-aggressive Jewish mother, M grumbles “Go ahead. Eject me. See if I care.”
They head north, all the way to the Scottish Highlands and to Bond’s ancestral home, Skyfall (this is not mentioned in Fleming, nor is the name ever explained in the film). It’s a broken down, disused old manse. One gets the impression that Bond has not seen it since he lost his parents. (Fleming tells us that after his parents died – in a climbing accident, no less – Bond was raised by his aunt Charmian in “the quaintly named hamlet of Pett Bottom near Canterbury in Kent.”) A kindly old caretaker named Kincade appears, a figure from Bond’s childhood, played by Albert Finney. And with the addition of this new character, a strange new dynamic is now established. M, of course, is cast in the role of Bond’s mother, while Kincade now emerges as a father figure. (In one amusing scene, he even tries to teach Bond to shoot! In another amusing touch, he hears “M” as “Em” and addresses her henceforth as Emma.)
They know that Silva will eventually track them down, so Bond is keen to find out if the gun cabinet is still well-stocked. Alas, all the guns have been sold to an American collector (it just had to be an American, didn’t it?). All that remains is the old hunting rifle that had belonged to Bond’s father (inscribed with the initials “AB,” for Andrew Bond). And a knife. “Sometimes the old ways are best,” says Kincade, laying the knife on the table. Bond and Kincade then lay a number of clever booby traps for the villains. A last resort for M, should the going get really rough, is a secret passage leading out of the house, built centuries earlier.
Rifles, knives, secret passages, escapes across (and under) the heath. It’s all very, very “low tech.” In my essay “The Importance of James Bond,” I discussed Bond’s equivocal relationship to technology, and I expressed the concern that Daniel Craig’s Bond was becoming too tech-friendly. I’m happy to say that Skyfall has allayed all my concerns about this. From beginning to end, this film is strongly traditionalist, and deeply skeptical about the “blessings” of technology.
Indeed, the event that catalyzes the whole story is the theft of a hard drive that stores the identities of all British agents who have infiltrated terrorist organizations. Smart move, putting all that on somebody’s hard drive. Naturally, Silva gets ahold of it. And then he hacks into MI6’s network and brings it down. Oh, and then he blows up MI6’s high-tech HQ! M and company are forced to relocate to a bunker used by Churchill during World War Two. All of this is importantly symbolic: the gee-whiz computer technology overused in Quantum of Solace is gone. Now all that can save the day is Bond’s cleverness and guts.
But the “experts,” armed with electrocardiograms, word association tests, and other paraphernalia pronounce Bond unfit for duty. Bugger the experts! Bond proves them all wrong, accomplishing what techne pronounced impossible. And he does it with precious little from the new Q, now a young computer geek. Q equips him with exactly two gadgets: a gun that only he can fire and a little radio. “Not exactly Christmas, is it?” quips Bond. But the both the little radio (actually, a homer not unlike the one he used way back in Goldfinger) and the gun (a similar gun appears in Licence to Kill) save his life.
At one point we see M is testifying before a subcommittee of the House of Commons, being grilled by “experts” who think that putting actual agents in the field is rather old fashioned in this high tech world. Patiently, M – no stranger to high tech, but souring on it – explains to them why the old ways really are best. Then, in a scene that made me tear up, she quotes Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” as her men risk their lives in the streets to stop Silva:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
And where does it all wind up? Again, with a journey back in time. All tech is gone. Bond is reduced to loading a hunting rifle, setting booby traps, and strapping a knife to his body. And the tough, ball-busting M is reduced as well – reduced to being a woman who must be rescued by a man. But Bond himself is not personally reduced. He has returned to this strange, primal scene, and has been reunited with his “mother” and “father.” But now he must do what he was unable to do when he was a child, but which he can do as a man: he must save them from death. In doing so, he exorcizes these ghosts from his past.
I won’t discuss all the details of what follows. But I must correct one omission in what I’ve said above. The one piece of “tech” Bond makes use of is the Aston Martin. I was pleased that, unlike some of the other films in which the car has reappeared, some sensible use was actually made of it here. Bond hides in the car, then fires its front machine guns at Silva’s men as they approach the house. But this use of tech delighted me – and it has important symbolic significance. Today’s younger audiences tend to look down their noses at anything predating the era of the internet (I’ve even heard young audiences laugh out loud at rotary phones). Here the one piece of tech Bond utilizes – with deadly effect – is that old-fashioned, pre-electronic Aston Martin from that hopelessly old-fashioned film that grandpa loves.
In the end, Bond winds up killing Silva with the lowest-tech gadget imaginable: the knife seen earlier, plunged deep into Silva’s back. Much to my shock, M then dies in Bond’s arms, of wounds suffered during the attack on the house. And, yes, I shed a tear at this as well. But, in my defense, so does Bond! This is only the second time in the history of the series that Bond has cried. The first time, of course, was in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when Blofeld murdered Bond’s bride, Tracey. That was a moving scene as well, but Craig is a much better actor than George Lazenby, and this time we actually see the tears, which seem quite real (in OHMSS we don’t actually see the tears, we just hear Bond sob). I thought of OHMSS as I watched this scene, as Bond cradles his “mother” here much as he does Tracey. That there is something Oedipal to this is more than obvious. The film’s entire Scotland sequence plays like a long, Freudian dream.
But this is not all. The final scene of the film is extraordinary. Eve, the black MI6 agent seen earlier, returns and reveals herself to be Eve Moneypenny (who never had a first name in the books or any earlier film). At the beginning of the film she accidentally shoots and almost kills Bond. (Memo to the screenwriters: there’s a reason that there aren’t any black female sharpshooters in real life.) Now she has decided to take a new job: as M’s receptionist. Sometimes the old ways are best . . .
And what of M himself? The new M is Mallory, a character seen earlier, played by Ralph Fiennes. But the most extraordinary thing of all is that his office is a recreation of the one seen in the old Bernard Lee days, complete with the padded leather door. Gone are the female M’s high-tech digs from the past six films. And M has gone back to being a man! Yes, it bears repeating, sometimes the old ways really are best. And this film returns us to them. It is an unabashed celebration of tradition, and a clear reaction against the “modernizing” of Bond that has taken place since GoldenEye. It is, in fact, a reaction against much of modernity itself. And – if I do say so – as a confirmation of the thesis I advanced in “The Importance of James Bond” it is everything I could have wished for. “James Bond is back!” the ads always proclaim. Indeed he is.
I’m such a big Bond fan I once had a nightmare that I had gone to see “the new Bond film” and found it to be an unimaginably lame and pathetic failure (sort of how Indiana Jones fans must have felt when they went to see Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). But Skyfall feels like I went to sleep and dreamed of that Bond film than which no greater can be conceived. One that not only delivers in terms of action, thrills, and all the traditional Bondian elements – but which also contains philosophical and psychological depth of a kind I never expected to find in this series.
I cannot praise Skyfall enough. Do yourself a favor and see it today. Even if you don’t think you like Bond films, see it anyway. This one will convert you.