“A Cinematic Critique of the Film Skyfall”
By Edward Lindenhofen
For over 50 years, James Bond fans have enjoyed the action-packed exploits of their favorite fictional British super-spy. No other movie franchise in history has enjoyed such an epic lifespan. First appearing in the espionage novel Casino Royale, penned by author Ian Fleming in 1953, James Bond’s 24 films continue to wow audiences through the tried-and-true formula of impossible gadgets, incredible locations and of course a bevy of beautiful “Bond Girls.” Skyfall, an epic action-thriller directed by Sam Mendes, was the 23rd film in the EON Productions stable, and was released in 2012 on the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise. The film was the third to star Daniel Craig in the title role, and took the character in a completely different direction. No longer the eternally-confident and unfailing hero, Skyfall exposed a fragile, aging and human side to the character, setting audiences up for a roller-coaster ride toward an explosive conclusion. Analysis will include the cinematic elements which Sam Mendes and his team used to construct this epic film; a break-down of the plot and story, and how they support the overarching themes of the film, as well as an examination of the cinematographic and narrative elements which make Skyfall the most thoughtful and well-produced Bond film to-date (Neuendorf, Gore, D’Alessandro, et. al. 747-748; Dodds 118).
The Birth of Bond
James Bond was born in 1953, when author Ian Fleming (1908-1964) penned his first novel featuring the iconic British spy, Casino Royale, while at his Jamaican estate “Goldeneye.” The protagonist was based on Fleming’s experience serving in the British Naval Intelligence Division during WWII, and was interestingly named for an Ornithologist and author of the book Birds of the West Indies. While much of Fleming’s wartime experience occurred primarily behind a desk, Bond in contrast was a dashing field agent charged with defending Queen and Country at any cost. Critical reception of the Bond novels was tepid until the film rights were purchased by Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman in 1961, who released their first film Dr. No, directed by Terrance Young in 1962, which starred Sean Connery as the infallible spy. Together Broccoli and Saltzman produced all Bond films until 1975, when production of Thunderball, also directed by Young, embroiled the pair in a licensing controversy, which resulted in the film rights reverting to a third party, Kevin McClory. The Broccoli family later reacquired the rights to the franchise and have produced all films with the exception of one. Never Say Never Again, a remake of Thunderball, starring Sean Connery in one last appearance in the role of Bond, was produced by Jack Schwartzman who acquired the rights from Kevin McClory. Never Say Never Again is considered to be outside of the franchise cannon. A total of six actors have donned the tuxedo over the past 53 years (Dodds 2-7).
As important to the success of the films as girls and gadgets, is the iconic theme song “The Name’s Bond…James Bond.” Monty Norman was tapped by Albert Broccoli to compose the theme, who adapted the theme from an earlier un-staged musical he had written called “A House for Mr. Biswas,” which was based upon the 1961 book of the same name by Indian author V.S. Naipaul. The theme was orchestrated by John Barry, and has been featured in every film since Dr. No. John Barry tried unsuccessfully to claim that it was in fact he who had composed the piece (Coleman Film Media Group LLC).
Skyfall (2012) was produced by Barbara Broccoli and EON Productions and released jointly by Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures. The screenplay was written by Neal Purvis, John Logan and Robert Wade, and was director Sam Mendes first time at the helm of a Bond film. Prior to Skyfall, Mendes directed the 2008 romantic drama Revolutionary Road, and the 2009 romantic comedy And Away We Go. In addition to Craig, Skyfall starred Javier Bardem as the ruthless ex-MI6 agent-turned-cyberterrorist Silva, Dame Judi Dench as “M,” Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny and Bérénice Marlohe as tragic Bond Girl Severine. Roger Deakins helmed Cinematography (“Skyfall“).
Skyfall represented a departure from previous films, taking Bond in a decidedly-different direction by focusing on his vulnerability, both mental and physical. Rather than the quip-laden, tongue-in-cheek humor which was the foundation of most of the prior films’ storylines, Skyfall portrayed the modern Bond as a gritty, vulnerable, misogynistic, aging and tortured soul. A key element which has contributed to the continued success of the films is the adaptability of the storylines. The villains and their evil methods have reflected the social and political times in which the films were released, from the cold war weapons of Dr. No, to the war in space of Thunderball, to the monopoly of clean water in director Marc Forster’s 2008 Quantum of Solace and cyberterrorism reminiscent of hacker Edward Snowden in Skyfall (Dodds 121; Wight 5-7).
Mendes introduced audiences to a very modern antagonist. The tried-and-true formulaic approach of beautiful women, explosions, fast cars and easily-defined villainy was modified to include a very new type of enemy, one who operated in the same “shadows” as Bond. In interviews conducted prior to the release of the film, Mendes pointed out the fact that he and the crew watched director Christopher Nolan’s films for “inspiration”, which is evident in several elements in the storyline which draw comparisons to Nolan’s Batman films, with both sharing more than just a common genre. Tortured childhood suffering the loss of both parents, Wayne Manor and Skyfall both destroyed, bad guy dresses as a cop, bad guy escapes from custody, and on and on. It’s clear then Mendes drew upon Nolan’s formula for the foundation of Skyfall’s backstory (Wight 1-1; “Literary Analysis”; Wright 2).
The plot of this installment finds Bond in Turkey chasing down a stolen computer disk (ala the MacGuffin) containing the secret identities of NATO agents. The mission goes horribly wrong and Bond is accidentally shot by a fellow agent and presumed dead. Meanwhile MI6 and M find themselves under attack as a mysterious cyberterrorist blows up MI6 headquarters and exposes the identities of five agents, leading to their execution. As M battles the British government to save her job as well as MI6, Bond returns from the shadows to hunt down the villain responsible to save M, England and himself (Mendes).
The themes of the film center around death and resurrection, both in terms of MI6 and Bond himself, and the narrative supports that theme throughout the story. After Bond’s failed mission to recover the stolen NATO disk as a result of an errant shot by fellow-agent Moneypenny, he exiles himself on an island, indulging in his favorite manic-depressive pursuits of women and drink and generally feeling sorry for himself, as he has let down England, M, and himself. M is facing a similar crisis as she confronts the potential end of the MI6 section as well as her job as she battles obsolescence, while at the same time dealing with the loss of her favorite agent and her headquarters, which is blown up by an as-yet unknown villain. It is only after a shocking attack on MI6 headquarters does Bond return to Mother England, re-enlisting himself in the service of Queen and Country. He then begins the arduous process of resurrecting himself while at the same time struggling with his increasing age and fragility; his only purpose in life is now threatened (Dodds 37-41; Mendes).
The stage is now set for his resurrection, which occurs in stages throughout the film. M directs Bond to undergo a series of tests in order to be declared fit for service, and his difficulty in accomplishing them shows the toll his age and his lifestyle is beginning to take on him. He is sequestered away in a solitary room, clad in a solid blue tracksuit, with only a single overhead fluorescent light, which in combination with the room’s desaturated gray color scheme, vividly portrays the un-shaven Bond as a “hamster in a cage,” with his every move viewed from behind a two-way mirror. Age is the enemy which vexes him at this point in the film. During his rehabilitation, we see his utter exhaustion as he struggles to perform pull-ups, collapsing after M Aide-de-camp Tanner played by Rory Kinnear leaves the room. The medium close-up shot of Bond clearly portrays his pain and frustration, exacerbated by the gunshot shrapnel still lodged in his shoulder. It is this scene where Bond resolves to overcome his weaknesses, displaying the resilience of which we are accustomed. Resurrection, not death, is foremost on his mind, made evident by the surgery he performs on himself, which we watch through the reflection in the bathroom mirror, to remove the scarred-over bullet fragments (Goodykoontz and Jacobs; Mendes).
With some less-than factual interpretation of the results, Bond is restored to active duty. In this scene, we begin to see his transformation back to the Bond we know; dressed in a perfectly fitting suit but still sporting the 5 o’clock shadow. Defense minister Mallory asks why he did not just “stay dead,” reinforcing the theme element of age by declaring that field work is as he calls it, a young man’s game, further admonishing Bond to not “cock it up” (Mendes). Age as a theme continues to thread its way throughout the film, a backstory of which is the British government’s questioning of the continued viability of the MI6 service. M battles the Parliament, insisting the importance of a spy service which operates “in the shadows” is as relevant as ever. Bond’s first meeting with a much younger Q played by Ben Winshaw in an art museum before a painting of a ‘bloody old ship” is a great example of the burgeoning new and younger MI6. As Q hands Bond only a gun and a radio beacon, Bond quips “not exactly Christmas is it?” to which Q responds “were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that sort of thing anymore.” This exchange is critical, as it exemplifies the new world in which Bond, like it or not, is now forced to operate (Dunt 2; Mendes).
Another reference to the theme comes in the form of a straight-blade shave performed by Moneypenny. While Bond gets the shave he so desperately needed, she comments on the antique nature of the blade, and refers to him as an “old dog with new tricks.” The low-key lighting and gold-hued overtones in the hotel room, combined with the out-of-focus view of the Singapore skyline through the patio doors give a very romantic feel to the scene. In contrast, even the evil Silva gets in on the game, as after Bond is captured and taken to his island hideout, Silva declares Bond to be a “physical wreck,” as he sits tied to a chair in Silva’s cavernous computer room. Later, Silva forces Bond to put his decaying marksmanship skills to the test, as he competes to shoot a shot glass off the head of the beautiful Severine using a black powder pistol in the bright afternoon sun, which conveyed the difficulty Bond experienced in not only handling the archaic weapon, but also the challenge of clearly seeing his target (Goodykoontz and Jacobs; Mendes; Wight).
Finally, the climax of the film begins at Bond’s foreboding childhood home in the Scottish Highlands, the aptly-named Skyfall. As Bond and M begin to layout their strategy to defeat the approaching Silva, they meet longtime family friend and gamekeeper Kincaid played by Albert Finney, who reveals the only remaining weapons at their disposal are a shotgun and a knife, declaring “sometimes, the old ways are the best ways” (Mendes). This scene sums up the theme of the film; Bond’s age has gone from being a detriment to an asset, as he uses old-school improvisation to build an arsenal of crude weapons, meant to take Silva and his crew by surprise. The English bulldog figurine bequeathed to Bond by M after her death is symbolic of the fortitude of both England and Bond, imploring him to press on in her absence (Mendes).
While this film has all the trappings of a dyed-in-the-wool action-thriller, it did not insist upon overuse of elements typical of that genre for action’s sake; there wasn’t even a car chase in the entire movie, which was just fine. The Bond Formula as it has been called (cars, gadgets, girls and scenery) were used sparingly and intelligently. The car, in this case a 1965 Aston Martin DB5, which was originally seen in Goldfinger was important not only because it provided an inconspicuous get away for Bond and M, but because it represented something that Bond has so little of in his life; emotional attachment. When Silva orders a helicopter to destroy the car at the Skyfall estate, we see the pan-in shot of sheer anger on Bond’s face when he realizes his beloved car has been destroyed. The gadgets issued to Bond in this film are sparse, and support the overarching theme of the movie, which is MI6 has entered a “brave new world”, one without exploding pens as Q quipped. Instead, Bond must rely on himself to get the job done, which plays to the theme of resurrection which pervades the story (Goodykoontz and Jacobs; Hamilton; Mendes).
The story of course takes Bond to several exotic locales, such as Turkey, Singapore and Macau, however in contrast to prior films, they were not shoved in just to give him somewhere else to go; each location had a purpose in developing the story as Bond continued to close in on Silva. Turkey started the film off with Bond chasing after henchman Patrice, played by Ola Rapace, who was in possession of the stolen NATO disk. Singapore is where Bond tracks Patrice, and where we first meet the film’s tragic Bond Girl Severine, and also where Bond finds the casino chip included in the gun case as payment for the hit on the art dealer. In Macau, Bond follows the trail to the casino, where he locates Severine and convinces her to take him to his ultimate target, the former agent-turned terrorist Silva. Perhaps no location was more critical to the film however than England, where much of the principal photography was shot. It is England which represents the ultimate goal of Bond’s resurrection.
Another departure of this film from those of prior installments is the obvious lack of salacious-sounding names for Bond’s girls. Names like Pussy Galore, Honey Rider and Holly Goodhead are nowhere to be found, which points to the grittier, more realistically-tangible Bond featured in this film. With all of these diversions from the tried and true “formula,” the film still works (Neuendorf, et.al. 747-748).
This film is visually stunning. Gone are the choppy scene cuts of prior films, where we would see Bond hang gliding over the Swiss Alps in one scene, and standing on the beach in Jamaica in the next, or the frenetic and off-kilter camera angles a la Bourne which were so prevalent in Quantum of Solace. Every scene in this film was introduced with smooth transitions, and served a specific purpose in developing the story. We followed Bond as he followed the clues and were kept in the dark until the very end. Mise-en-scene, the composition of all visual elements on screen, was perfection, with several impactful scenes standing out. When the bodies of the five assassinated agents are returned to England to lie in state, we see M standing at the end of the row of flag-draped caskets in a stark white room. She looks rather small, which emphasizes her diminishing role, as well as the fact that she is overwhelmed without her key agent by her side. Thomas Newman’s score for this scene is brooding and lush. Appropriately titled “Mother,” it enhances the utter sadness of the scene by enveloping the audience in both her pain, as well as her growing resolve to capture whomever is responsible for committing this horrific act of terrorism against her beloved MI6. Two additional scenes which were impeccably staged and shot are the scene where Bond is standing on the jitney boat crossing the river toward the casino in Macau. His stance signifies the return of his self-confidence, the dark-blue crushed velvet tuxedo chosen by costumer Jany Temime exudes the Bond style we have come to expect. The low candle-lit lighting gives an aura of mystery and sheer sex appeal. Another impactful scene features Bond and Severine standing on the bow of Silva’s yacht as they approach his island hideout; Bond’s stance again exudes self-confidence, and signals the fact that he is back in full form. Again, Newman’s sweeping orchestration in this scene, entitled “The Chimera” (the name of the yacht), increases the tension and hints at the dramatic turn of events that lies ahead (Goodykoontz and Jacobs; Mendes; “Skyfall“).
The Bond character is among other elements, very much defined by his sense of style. Always impeccably dressed for the occasion, his appearance is once of subtle perfection. Costumer Jany Temime continues the tradition by dressing Craig in Tom Ford suits, Berlioni Italian shoes, and Omega watches; a cinematic element that is not lost on the viewing public. Likely more than any other film franchise, Bond’s societal impact is firmly rooted in product sales and marketing. Craig’s first film, Casino Royale (2006) introduced Heineken, much to the horror of Bond purists, who argued their favorite spy would never lower himself to drink such swill. Undeterred the trend continued through the next two films, including Gordons Gin as well as the aforementioned suits, shoes and watches. There are websites dedicated to the sole purpose of helping the “average Joe” dress the part; that is if they can afford it (Mendes).
Daniel Craig solidified his place as the iconic spy in this installment in the franchise. His human imperfections, frailty and vulnerability shined through and enhanced the dramatic power of the character. The struggle for survival was neither slapstick or accidental, but rather gritty and tangible, and made real by the exceptional photography, well-paced character development, and sweeping musical orchestration. You don’t need to be a “Bond fan” to enjoy and appreciate this film, which in total makes it one if not the best Bond film ever produced. Having seen Spectre (2015), which was also helmed by Mendes and is an outstanding film in its own right, Skyfall is considered by many to be Mendes’ and Craig’s best collaborative work.
Filmmakers are of course trying to entertain, but they are also trying to convey a message through their storytelling. That message hopefully develops over the course of the film, and having the ability to pick up on the breadcrumbs being left for the viewer enhances the overall enjoyment of the movie-watching experience. Having said that, not every movie is what you would consider “deep” (think 1994’s cult favorite Dumb and Dumber), and there is the potential to over-analyze, which can interfere with the viewer’s ability to “suspend disbelief”. Movies certainly have a connection with society, either culturally, socially or politically. They draw upon real-world events and norms to either spoof, exaggerate or even teach the audience about what is important to the film makers, who are in turn, creating a reflection of what they believe is important to the viewer. They may not always get it right, but aren’t we glad they continue to try?
Edward Lindenhofen is in his third year at Ashford University, pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration. Ed is a tall ship sailor, and part-time high school marching band instructor, in addition to his role as a Vice President at JPMorgan Chase, where he has worked for the past 16 years. Ed is a member of Sigma Beta Delta, Alpha Sigma Lambda, Golden Key International Honour Society and Salute Veterans National Honor Society.