There was a point – and by a point, I mean four solid decades – where a James Bond film meant two solid hours of mindless action, sex, nifty toys, and exotic scenery. Then at some point in the 2000s, our culture started to shift, and we collectively began taking former mindless pleasures very, very seriously. Star Wars films started presenting themselves as biblical epics, and Batman films doubled as civics lessons. This isn’t necessarily a bad trend – indeed I think it’s refreshing that audiences now seem to actively want blockbusters that ask thought-provoking questions. But it means that James Bond, formerly the most brazenly cartoonish action icon, now inhabits a world where all of his adventures are treated with solemn reverence. Gone are the smirking (borderline sociopathic) wisecracks of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. Now we have Daniel Craig, a scowling blond who looks like one of the henchmen Bond used to dispatch and speaks like Cary Grant’s sulky teenaged son. Yet somehow, this dark approach works for the character, and it has resulted in legitimately good films from a franchise that used to stop at mindless entertainment. Craig has been so effective in this role, and the films so tailored to his pained, moody approach, that he nearly makes one forget that the character wasn’t always a broody, tortured loner. Prior to Skyfall, the EON producers made two tries at re-inventing Bond for a more cynical modern audience. The first was the extremely effective Casino Royale, a bare-bones thriller that stripped the character to his gritty basics. The second was the considerably less-loved Quantum of Solace, a film that attempted to advance Casino’s plot but fell short of bringing anything remarkably new to the table. Quantum also marked the first time that prestigious Oscar-talent was in complete control of a James Bond film, with Monster’s Ball’s Marc Foster directing a script by Crash‘s Paul Haggis. Given the negative reception that film ultimately received, you’d think the producers would have aborted OPERATION: SERIOUS BOND for Skyfall. Instead, they’ve returned with an even MORE prestigious director: American Beauty‘s Sam Mendes. This is apparently what a post-Dark Knight Hollywood looks like – the people who used to make kitchen-sink domestic dramas are now handed the most expensive toys in the playroom. Again – not a bad thing – but a mark of how bizarre Hollywood in 2012 has become.
The film recognizes this to a certain extent, and to its credit, the filmmakers are intent on doing more than simply providing Bond with another somber thriller. As it turns out, Skyfall is by far the most ambitious James Bond film to date, at least in terms of what it’s trying to accomplish. It attempts to be nothing less than an old-fashioned James Bond adventure, a clever meta-reflection on the franchise’s history, a more serious reflection on the traumatic cost of espionage, a gripping psycho-drama, and a grand British epic all at the same time. In other words, it wants to be every possible version of a James Bond film simultaneously, a lofty ambition that the film isn’t always capable of reaching. But though the resulting film is uneven and tonally schizophrenic, it’s also compelling and moving in ways that are completely new to the series. At it’s best, the film achieves a level of epic greatness previously unthinkable for the character.
Credit Sam Mendes then for bringing qualities that seem antithetical to a James Bond movie and making them work. As a director, Mendes can perhaps best be characterized by his eye for human relationships. For Mendes, characters are rarely as interesting by themselves as they are when they interact with each other. This makes for an interesting challenge here, as human interaction has never had much of a place in James Bond’s world – every iteration of the character, from Connery up to Craig, has been a staunch lone wolf. Mendes’s solution is to focus on the one relationship that has been a constant in Bond’s world for the past 17 years – the spy’s relationship with the head of MI6, Judy Dench’s M. Dench has been Bond’s boss since Brosnan took over the role in 1995, and throughout she’s maintained a commanding, hard-edged presence that rarely draws attention to the fact that she is a woman in a traditionally masculine role. Yet when Craig took over Bond in 2006, the series began making subtle overtures towards a more maternal relationship between M and her best spy. Those hints rise to the surface in Skyfall, which explicitly delves into the Freudian dimension between M and her agents. Bond, we learn in learn in this film, is an orphan, as are most of his fellow MI6 agents. M relies on this, knowing that she can count on steadfast loyalty from her agents because they don’t have competing loyalties to family and friends. But it also means that for these orphans with severe unresolved childhood trauma, M ends up filling a maternal role. And in order for M to do her job, that relationship can only be one-sided. Her agents may see her as a mother figure, but she can only view them as tools – tools that must be traded and discarded the moment the situation calls for it.
The film establishes this dynamic from the start, when at the peak of an intense chase sequence, Bond nearly dies because M knowingly sacrifices his safety for the good of the mission. Bond ultimately accepts M’s defense that she was simply doing her duty, but the ugly reminder that he’s completely dispensable to the country he’s sworn to defend leaves him visibly shaken for the rest of the film. The full scale of that trauma, however, does not play out on Bond – it plays out on Raoul Silva, an ex-field agent M long-ago abandoned to the Chinese. Silva re-emerges as a modern-day cyber-terrorist, one with a very specific vendetta against M and the institution she represents. Played with theatrical gusto by Javier Bardem, Silva marks an abrupt change of pace from the villains that Bond usually faces. Silva is not a crime lord bent on world domination, nor is he a business tycoon trying to trigger a new World War for profit. Instead, he’s another emotionally damaged killer with mother issues. For M, who can only function by viewing her agents as numbers, Silva represents the worst imaginable threat – an agent who all but forces her to recognize their relationship on human terms. He launches a grand scheme to kill and publicly humiliate M, but he wants more than revenge – he wants to force her to recognize herself as the “mommy” who betrayed him, to personalize a relationship that has always been professional. Silva, unlike Bond, either can or will not accept his role as an inhuman blunt instrument, and he plummets into madness as a result. He’s the best sort of villain in that he represents, not the hero’s opposite, but rather a glimpse of what the hero could become with just a little more trauma and a little less self-control.
Having said all of that, however, dwelling on the story’s mommy issues suggests a film that’s much more coherent than Skyfall ultimately is. Mendes is at his best when he’s treating the character relationships seriously, but the intimate scenes often co-exists awkwardly with lighter attempts at self-referential humor and over-the-top spectacle. Action, it must be said, is not the film’s strong suit. Mendes comes from theater, and he is most at home building exquisite tableaux in front of his camera as though he’s dressing a stage-set. He never seems particularly comfortable with the frenetic editing and movement required for action set-pieces. Characters often dawdle for no reason right in the middle of chase scenes, reflecting pacing problems in the editing room. The film also has a bad habit of abruptly throwing Bond into elaborate stunts that defy the laws of physics, stunts that seem strangely out-of-place in a film otherwise so committed to grounded realism.
Yet when the film isn’t stumbling at spectacle, Mendes’s love of poetic still images often works in the film’s favor. Skyfall has by far the most striking imagery of any James Bond, and Mendes knows how to pose Bond against his exotic settings for maximum iconic effect. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins also work miracles with expressionistic lighting, often reducing the characters to shadowy silhouettes against their exotic backdrops. Sometimes this can get excessive, and anybody hoping for a fast-paced action thriller might get restless during the long sequences that seem to exist entirely to show of the arty imagery. But if you can accept the often-leisurely pace, watching the film play with light and screen space is thrilling in its own way. This is particularly true during the chilling final act, where small shafts of fire provide the only lighting on the vast expanse of the Scottish Moors at night. James Bond films have always been filled with beautiful scenery, but it’s rare to find one that gets so much mileage out of pure aesthetic beauty.
It is, in other words, a James Bond film that makes a very aggressive reach for high art, and your enjoyment of the film will ultimately come down to your ability to accept it as such. Bond doesn’t just chase down terrorists in this film – he chases them down while Judy Dench recites lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” One could argue that scenes like this are overwrought, and there are certainly points where the film seems to scream, “I”m a Sam Mendes movie, Give me an Oscar!” But no Bond film has ever had the same visceral emotional charge, nor the same weighty sense of high drama. Skyfall wants to be the first genuinely epic James Bond film and simultaneously function as a meta-commentary on the very idea of James Bond. It can’t do all of that at once, but when it succeeds, it really is phenomenal. The last 30 minutes of the film are easily the most powerful 30 minutes of any Bond film, and for all of its flaws, the film holds its own with the series’ very best. If we have to take James Bond seriously, we might as well do it like this.
Thomas Newman’s score is more of a mixed bag. Like Mendes, Newman is primarily famous for his austere music for prestige films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road (with a few quirky scores for Pixar films like WALL-E thrown in for good measure). He is one of the few remaining film composers with a strikingly distinct style, generally distinguished by his experimental instrumental textures and atmospheric mood music. But the qualities that often make him a great film composer do not necessarily make him right for the James Bond franchise, which tends to require composers flexible enough to adapt to the series’ established “sound.” John Barry established this sound – a swinging combination of ’60s big band jazz and surf rock – with his arrangement of “The James Bond Theme” in Dr. No, and he cemented it with iconic scores to films like Goldfinger and Thunderball. Not every score since Barry’s departure has stuck rigidly to that style, but few have been able to stray too far from it with any success. Like the catch phrases, cars, and drink preferences, “Bond music” has been a stable control element for the series, a signifier that reminds us we’re watching a James Bond film even when the actors and settings change dramatically. Thomas Newman acknowledges this musical tradition to a point, and he at times does find interesting ways to slip the James Bond theme into the score without abandoning his own identity as a composer. But when he’s not quoting some aspect of The James Bond theme, his music is so staunchly “Thomas Newman” music that it might as well belong to a different movie.
That doesn’t mean it’s bad in its own right. Newman remains a great dramatic composer, and he’s written a score that’s filled with the same delicate instrumental quirks that mark his most interesting scores. And at certain points his approach is very effective – at one point his quirky prelude to a prison-break nearly turns Bardem’s movements into choreography, and I also love the lush orchestral arrangement of Adele’s theme during Bond’s entrance in Macau. Moreover, the score never outright hurts or dates the film. He avoids the pitfall of some of the series’ musical low points (*cough* For Your Eyes Only, *cough* Goldeneye) by ignoring contemporary pop trends – this is simply a Thomas Newman score, the same kind of Thomas Newman score he’s been writing for the past two decades. For that matter, his music is generally so subtle that it’s never an outright distraction. But it’s also subtle in places that would benefit from a more assertive musical presence, particularly during several anonymously-scored climatic sequences that cry for a bigger shout-out to the series’ brassy and melodic tradition. It’s not a bad score, and I can understand why so many people appreciate its freshness after hearing David Arnold for five straight films in a row. But it does seem like a shame that a film so painstakingly knowledgable of James Bond’s cinematic heritage has a score that isn’t particularly interested in James Bond’s musical heritage. I’m not saying that it should sound like John Barry, or even like David Arnold – I just wish the music was as interested in deconstructing the Bond sound as the film is in deconstructing the Bond legacy.
Film Grade: * * * * 1/2
Score Grade: * * * 1/2
Post-Script: I haven’t mentioned it because it isn’t strictly part of the score, but Adele’s song is excellent, and it manages to do what I wish the score had done – balance the franchise’s history with the artist’s own personality. “Skyfall” is a beautiful homage to the Barry/Bassey belters from the ’60s, but it’s also very much a contemporary Adele song. The song’s lyrics and concept also foreshadow much of the film’s central drama, which is a nice change of pace from a run of Bond songs that seem to be based on their films’ titles and nothing else. And the opening sequence it accompanies is phenomenal, a surreal nightmare that more or less sends Bond into his own personal Hell for five minutes. Whatever problems the film as a whole may have, the title sequence marks a new high for the series.