007 was losing his edge. We all knew it, on some subconscious level, when the half-hearted effort that was Quantum of Solace came out back into 2008. Casino Royale’s brief infusion of glamor and excitement after the average Brosnan years couldn’t last forever, and it seemed inevitable that the Bond franchise would survive (if it could survive at all) only as a relic of an earlier time in which espionage was actually relevant. Bond, an adaptable symbol of British toughness throughout the Cold War years and those immediately following, couldn’t hack it in the 21st century.
And then came Skyfall, which – on the 50-year anniversary of the release of Dr. No – turns squarely on its heel, acknowledges the series’ age and increasing obsolescence, and in doing so creates arguably one of the greatest films in the entire franchise.
Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Skyfall opens with a classic 007 chase scene in which Bond (Daniel Craig) pursues a thief through Istanbul in order to recover a stolen hard drive containing sensitive NATO information. The scene culminates in a train-top fight, during which 007 is accidentally shot by fellow MI6 operative Eve (Naomi Harris). Bond is presumed dead, and MI6 Operations Head M (Judi Dench) writes his obituary in what’s apparently a nod to series creator Ian Fleming’s famous inclusion of Bond’s obituary in You Only Live Twice, the last 007 novel published in Fleming’s lifetime (which, coincidentally, also dealt with Britain’s decline on the world stage). Unbeknownst to MI6, however, Bond is still alive and grappling with conflicted feelings: whether to comfortably live out his existence as a dead man or rejoin MI6 in order to counter attacks led by cyber terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).
Of course Bond does his duty, and it’s his ‘resurrection’ – a dominant theme of Skyfall – that stands as a parable for what the franchise hopes to do: remind everyone that 007, whether fighting an assassin on a train through Soviet Russia or dueling with shadowy cyber-terrorists in Shanghai, will endure. In fact, Skyfall brilliantly reconciles the two by giving due credit to 007’s rich fifty year-long history – including an emotional trip to Bond’s childhood home and a particularly iconic car – and yet equipping him to deal with the hidden threats of today’s technologically advanced world. Yes, the character of Bond as an allegory for the series’ resurrection is a little heavy-handed. But Skyfall is so gloriously, self-referentially meta that it doesn’t really matter.
Symbolism of Skyfall aside, it’s also arguably the darkest and most emotionally rending Bond movie ever, a theme for which Craig’s sensitive interpretation of 007 seems uniquely suited. Contrary to the pattern set by Bond portrayals like those of Roger Moore, jokes are the exception rather than the rule in Skyfall, and the humour we do see tends to be rather grim. Craig, his face lined and his smiles infrequent, is perfectly suited to playing a 007 who must deal with the onset of age and the digital threats of a new era; a segment in which he returns to his old home in Scotland, bringing the series full-circle fifty years later, is among the most moving bits in the entire Bond film series.
Other performances are noteworthy, if not quite as impressive as Craig’s emotive show. Judi Dench brings a depth to the cold, calculating M that we’ve never seen before, her unquestionable loyalty to the United Kingdom warring with an almost motherly affection for 007. The flaws that have been noted in Javier Bardem’s character, Raoul Silva, are less a result of Bardem’s performance than they are of the villain himself; indeed, Bardem switches between the playful, confident moods and the truly psychopathic states of his character with apparent ease. Comparing the clown-like Silva to the silent ruthlessness of Bardem’s most frightening role to date, No Country for Old Men’s sociopathic hitman Anton Chigurh, suggests that this is an actor capable of portraying evil in whatever form it may take.
Skyfall’s cinematography also deserves a special mention, as certain segments – a high-rise battle in Shanghai, for example – are downright breathtaking.
Ultimately, whether or not Skyfall is right – that there is still room for Bond, for romantic espionage, for a once-massive British empire that’s now a shadow of its former self, in this “brave new world” of machines and information – is irrelevant. The series, for all of Fleming’s gritty original depictions of life as a spy, has never been about realism. But whether Bond survives in the coming years or mediocrely peters out, fans will have the brief brilliance of Skyfall – the franchise’s ode to its own iconic nature, to its rich history, to the glamour of 007 and to the potential future of Britain’s romantic espionage – to hold onto.