A disclaimer: In the US, Skyfall was released one day early on IMAX screens only. If you’re reading this late on 11/8/2012 or early on 11/9/2012, you may not have had a chance to see the film. This post is probably best enjoyed after seeing Skyfall, but I’ve tried to avoid major spoilers.
For a blog with a name inspired by a James Bond movie, it would be a missed opportunity not to feature at least something about the newest James Bond movie, Skyfall. Below are simply my initial thoughts and a lot of the usual rambling. I saw Skyfall last night, in a true IMAX theater, at the midnight (technically 0:07AM) screening. Skyfall is unique in that although it was not shot with IMAX cameras, it has been specially formatted in post-production to be screened with a larger aspect ratio than a typical widescreen movie (go here for more info). For this reason, it’s totally worth seeing in IMAX if you have the chance. Surprisingly, the theater was not sold out, which was nice, because back row seats were available, a welcome change from the front row, where my wife and I ended up for The Dark Knight Rises. What follows are some of my rambling initial thoughts on the film, having seen it just this one time. As I said, I’ll try to stay free of major spoilers, but some little bits here and there will probably fall through the cracks.
Skyfall is a departure from the previous two Daniel Craig-starring Bond movies in that it is free from the task of re-introducing the character and it operates more as a standalone film. Sure, there are recurring characters (Bond, M, Tanner), but there is really no direct connection to the plots of Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace, and I’m inclined to say that the movie is better for it. I really liked Casino Royale, but not so much Quantum (though a recent revisit has slightly improved my opinion on the latter). Skyfall falls somewhere between them for me, though closer to the Casino Royale end of the spectrum.
As much as Skyfall fits into the new era of James Bond films, it is also a sort of return to formula for the series. Of course the big action setpieces never went away, but Skyfall also has a bit more globe-trotting, an over the top villain, the introduction of a couple of new, old friends, including Q (Ben Whishaw) who supplies Bond with at least one gadget. There are several references, whether knowing or not, to previous Bond films, and several moments that feel like they could’ve been taken out of earlier efforts. As familiar as some of these things are, it’s strange to see Craig throwing off one-liners à la Sean Connery, or giving a bug-eyed look at a Komodo Dragon à la Roger Moore. It is also difficult not to see some of these moments as fan service, though I think they work for the most part.
One major observation (I hesitate to call it an issue) I have is the change in tone between the first and second half of the film. The first part of the film feels like classic Bond, including a great pre-credits sequence, trips to exotic locations and the introduction of the scene-stealing/scenery-chewing super-villain, Silva (Javier Bardem). The thing is, once Silva is introduced, the film starts to shrink a little bit. As much as I enjoy Bardem in pretty much everything, and as good as he his here, I never fully understood the source of his power. His motivations, or at least his end goal are pretty clear, but how he does what he does and why he does it that way ultimately remain a bit hazy for me. He does a great job with the material, being creepy, funny and in the end, crazy, but something tells me the film may have benefited from introducing Silva earlier in the film. Of course, that might have robbed us of his great introductory scene, so maybe it was the best choice.
I think the actual plot of the film works pretty well, though as I said, it seems to grow smaller as the film progresses. There are a couple of larger action/destruction moments having to do with MI-6 HQ and the London subway, but those seem to be forgotten (at least the latter is). Despite high-ranking official Gareth Mallory’s (Ralph Fiennes) best efforts to tie the story to the larger world of British Intelligence and the responsibilities and failures of MI-6 to protect the agents and people of England, it all ends up feeling very personal for the trio of Bond, Silva and M (Judi Dench). Of course, this is nowhere more apparent than in the finale, set in a location at which the series has barely hinted. It all seems a little atypical for a Bond film, but the more I think about it, the more I think I like it.
As is common with Bond films, Skyfall ends with the promise that James Bond will return. As long as they can maintain this level of quality, I certainly won’t be complaining.
Some more notes about Skyfall:
Adele’s theme song is pretty good. It’s better than anything since “A View to a Kill,” with the exception of Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” (I’m also willing to consider exceptions for “Goldeneye” and perhaps “The World is Not Enough”). I didn’t listen to it before the film and I haven’t listened to it (in the one day) since, but I think it’s probably better than average. Sometimes Bond themes are saddled with fitting the title into the lyrics which makes for some awkwardness (“Thunderball,” “The Living Daylights”), but most of the time the titles fit in pretty well. “Skyfall” is fine in that regard.
I’ve already said my piece about Javier Bardem as Silva, but I haven’t mentioned the Bond girls for this one. Probably because they’re not really traditional Bond girls. This might be a bit of a SPOILER but there’s not really a romantic lead. The movie opens with Bond working alongside Eve (Naomie Harris), who is more of a partner throughout the film than a love interest. Think of her as a less-action-y Wei-Lin (Tomorrow Never Dies) or a more competent Mary Goodnight (The Man with the Golden Gun), minus the sex. Bérénice Lim Marlohe is the other prominent Bond girl in the film, Sévérine. She‘s quite good in the role, but doesn’t have too much to do.
Of course, M is the ultimate Bond girl, and Skyfall gives her more to do than ever before. She’s involved in some of the action scenes, but thankfully, the script and the filmmakers don’t ask her to do too much, keeping it believable. I’ve really enjoyed the Bond/M relationship in the Craig films. Despite the nature of their work, these characters care about each other, and Dench and Craig sell their relationship as one that has gone beyond the professional. Dench works better with Craig than she did with Brosnan, or at least more consistently well.
One of the best things about the movie is how it looks. Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers in the business and this may be the best looking James Bond movie ever. The opening action scene has the expected level of grittiness and the views of Istanbul, Shanghai and even London are spectacular. Deakins’ work really shines as the film nears its conclusion, finding loads of atmosphere among the misty moors of Scotland. As director, I think Sam Mendes succeeds in bringing us a good action film with some smaller moments, but I’ll have to watch Skyfall again to determine if there is any kind of Mendes stamp on the film or if he becomes mostly lost in the franchise. I’d consider myself a mild Mendes fan. I like his Oscar-winning American Beauty and I’d argue that Road to Perdition is probably his best film (and under-seen). Both of those films are shot by the late, great Conrad L. Hall, and both earned him Oscars (Perdition posthumously). [As a side note, Roger Deakins has the record for most nominations (9) for the Cinematography Oscar without a win, for someone still living.] Anyway, I was excited to see what Mendes might do with a Bond film, and I’m pleased with the result.
As far as the action goes, I have few complaints about the film. The aforementioned pre-credits sequence was perfect. The climactic battle delivered as well, though it initially looked like it might be a bit Home Alone-y (with a touch of Straw Dogs thrown in). It was loud, explosive, brutal and even featured some beautiful shots. Mendes stages action scenes so they’re much more comprehensible than Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace. I really liked how inventive Forster tried to get with some of the shots in Quantum, but the cutting in that film was so quick and all over the place that I didn’t have time to enjoy what worked. Skyfall brings back Casino Royale editor Stuart Baird, somewhat loathed director of Star Trek: Nemesis, but notable editor of several films by Ken Russell and Richard Donner, including The Devils, Tommy, Superman, and Lethal Weapon.
Perhaps my favorite bit of action in the movie is a fairly short, stylized scene in which Bond fights with a baddie while silhouetted against the fluorescent lights of Shanghai. Although it’s a fairly quick scene, the bulk of the fighting is done in one take. Shadows against a blue background, the men throw punches at each other and grapple for a gun which goes off periodically, lighting up their faces and blasting holes in the ceiling of the room. It’s a quick moment, but it’s one that really stood out to me.
A big question to consider in the days ahead concerns where Skyfall ranks among the other films of the Bond canon. I think it’s too soon for me to decide, considering I’ve only seen it once. I don’t think it tops Casino Royale, but it’s a definite improvement on the disjointed Quantum of Solace. This latest batch of Bond movies has been so different in tone than almost all of the others, plus, the series has been around so long (celebrating 50 years now) that it’s like comparing apples to oranges to sausages to graham crackers. I’ll play it safe and say that Skyfall is probably in the “Top 15” of Bond films (I hesitate to say “top half” without appropriate consideration). I have a long-term plan to write more in-depth posts about every James Bond movie, but that’s going to take a while (I’ve actually been sitting on my Dr. No post, but you can currently read my post about the 1954 TV version of “Casino Royale”). I’d like to write a post that is strictly concerned with ranking the Bond films, but it may have to wait until I’ve seen Skyfall again, which I might just do soon.