Obviously Skyfall was never going to surpass From Russia With Love as my favourite of the series (what could?), but I was hopeful that it could rank alongside my other favourites: GoldenEye, Casino Royale, and OHMSS. Judging by this first viewing, I’d say it does – which means that The Living Daylights is finally edged out of my top 5. (Sorry, Timmy!)
The first thing that hits you about the film: as was clear from the first trailer, it looks utterly fantastic. God bless Roger Deakins! Skyfall, like Quantum of Solace, does not begin with the traditional gun barrel sequence; but just as Casino Royale incorporated the “turn and shoot and blood” action into the movie itself, Skyfall’s opening shot subtly does the same with the “walking in from the side” element. By far my favourite action sequence in Skyfall is an apparently-one-take fight scene shot entirely in silhouette – it’s almost certainly my favourite 007 hand-to-hand combat scene since the train fight in From Russia With Love, and its success is as much down to the cinematography as to the choreography.
Whatever you thought of Quantum of Solace, love it or hate it, there was no doubt that it was attempting some new things for the Bond series. (“But they weren’t new things for the Bourne series LOL!!!”) Skyfall also tries many new things, but as the 50th anniversary movie, it’s appropriate that it should also refer back to the past, and it does so very well.
This blend of the old and new is one of the most effective things about the film. Skyfall feels like a big departure from the 007 formula thanks to things like M being featured a lot throughout, the majority of the film taking place in the UK, and the focus being on the villain’s threat to M and Bond rather than a large-scale planet-threatening scheme. Even things like quotations from Tennyson poetry and discussions about Turner paintings contribute to making the film seem different from all the others. (Also, here’s an excellent observation about the film that unfortunately I can’t take credit for: Skyfall climaxes in Bond’s secret lair, an exact reversal of the formulaic idea that these films must conclude with him infiltrating a bad guy’s high-tech HQ.)
Attached to those new elements you have numerous crowd-pleasing backward nods to Bond tradition. Remember how in Die Another Day, all the cute 40th anniversary/Film #20 callbacks were all crammed not-very-creatively into one John Cleese Q scene? I wouldn’t say that Skyfall’s backward nods are much more subtle than those, but they’re all introduced much more tastefully, and are more evenly paced throughout the film, and I welcomed all the moments of levity they bring to the movie. The Daniel Craig sub-series is gradually reintroducing the staple elements of the Bond franchise, so that even played-out old Dr Evil clichés like deadly exotic animals can feel new again. (The appearances of Q, Moneypenny, and M’s wood-panelled office are the most obvious example of this, but we also get several jokes about gadgets, and I liked how instead of hearing the line “shaken not stirred”, there’s simply a closeup of the martini being prepared.)
Anyway, enough of that; let’s talk about the action!
The pre-title sequence is outrageous in a very good way. It builds and builds and becomes more and more over the top in a ridiculously entertaining way that reminded me very much of the videogame Metal Gear Solid 3 (and not only because early on in that scene we see someone using what looks like the infinite ammo magazine from that game). Come to think of it, MGS3 also features a a hallucinatory sequence being triggered by a high fall into a river…
One of my only real problems with Casino Royale was that its novel-faithful structure inherently meant that its flooding/collapsing building climax couldn’t help but feel like an afterthought. No such problems with Skfall’s climactic action scene, which is very well built up (“Some men are coming to kill us. We’re going to kill them first”), delivers all the spectacle and tension you’d want from a blockbuster, and feels of a piece with the rest of the movie in a way that the aforementioned Casino Royale finale did not. (Having said that, it does occasionally threaten to turn into Bond Home Alone1 – and surely M would know better than to use a torch in that situation?)
The strong emphasis on Bond and the villain’s relationships with M works very well. The World is Not Enough had M more prominently involved in the plot than he or she had been in any previous Bond film, but that movie never really took full advantage of that idea’s potential. Skyfall does.
Javier Bardem’s villain has generally been pretty strongly praised by most people. It is a good performance, and his status as Evil Mirror Image of Bond links him to baddies like Alec Trevelyan and Red Grant, which is always something I welcome. The shot that first introduces him is excellent, too. His flamboyance is entertaining, but is the whole “villain gets captured halfway through the film but it turns out they’re still one step ahead and completely in control (and maybe even planned to be captured)” thing a bit played out by now? Mission: Impossible 3, The Dark Knight, the most recent episode of Sherlock, Avengers Assemble… and now Skyfall, and I found Skyfall’s version of it one of the least interesting examples from that list.
Although I knew in advance of watching the film that Skyfall would not continue the Mr White/Quantum plot thread from the previous two Craig movies, the way the film conspicuously avoids any mention of the Quantum organisation was a little distracting to me. It felt like Quantum should have been somehow linked to Silva, because their actions were so similar to his: Quantum breaching MI6 security by planting a sleeper agent as M’s bodyguard, compared to Silva breaching MI6 security via their computer systems. (The SIS infiltrated twice, two films in a row? They really are a bit crap at this security lark!) The sort of conspiracies Quantum were involved with also sounded pretty similar to the ones Silva described in his “you can pick your own missions” speech to Bond. So it seemed a waste not to link them. (FAN THEORY TIME: Maybe Skyfall’s villain could have been folded into that overarching storyline with a couple of lines of dialogue explaining that the reason Quantum and their embedded agents had remained undetected by MI6 for so long is that Silva had been advising them with his knowledge of MI6’s methods?)
Problems with the film? Well for one thing, perhaps because of some Photoshops from a few months ago, whenever Q was on screen I could never shake thoughts of Richard Ayoade’s Moss From The IT Crowd! And if people thought that Quantum of Solace’s action scenes belonged in Bourne rather than Bond, then some of Q’s Hollywood Hacking actions and the conversations over the radio earpieces feel like they edge into Mission: Impossible territory.
When I first heard Adele’s theme song, the previous Bond tune of which I was most reminded was “The World is Not Enough”, in its arrangement and “good chorus, unmemorable verses” structure. Bond composers often incorporate the melodies of the films’ theme songs (or secondary themes) into their scores, and the melody of “TWINE” was well-integrated throughout that film. (Other good examples of this being done: “You Know My Name” taking the place of “The James Bond Theme” until the very end of Casino Royale; melodies from k.d. lang’s “Surrender” being more prominently featured in the score of TND than the song itself was in the end credits; and John Barry making good use of The Pretenders’ “Where Has Everybody Gone?” in his score for The Living Daylights.) Although Adele’s “Skyfall” has grown on me since the first listen, it’s a shame that I didn’t really notice its melody being very prominently incorporated into Thomas Newman’s score for this movie. (Although I hope to pay more attention to the score when I watch the movie again.)
Single favourite moment of the film? Gotta be Bond’s “radio” line, which is a wonderfully triumphant moment that put a huge grin on my face.
[4.5 out of 5]
1 Yes, that’s the reference point I choose to use, because unlike everyone else who’s comparing that bit to another movie, I haven’t seen Straw Dogs.