Skyfall walks a precarious line. It’s the third film in the Bond franchise’s Daniel Craig-helmed reboot. It’s the gritty Bond. It’s the psychological Bond. But it’s still Bond. It’s helmed by director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) whose work doesn’t necessarily call to mind the sex and glamour that we’ve come to expect from James Bond. No, Mendes’ wheelhouse is the personal drama. The action comes second, if at all. Think of Jarhead, a war movie where the protagonist never fires a shot.
It’s not surprising, then, that this entry into the Bond canon becomes more elegant and engaging when it shifts away from the perfunctory car chases. The cinematography, especially in the final act when the film relocates to a desolate and haunting Scotland, is gorgeous. Skyfall is by far the more beautiful of the Bond films. In terms of storytelling, this is perhaps the most symmetrical in the franchise. Mendes has created a Bond film that, under the surface, deigns to be a poetic incarnation of the spy film. There are two train sequences, one in each half of the film. Bond (Daniel Craig) is tossed underwater as the opening titles start and minutes before the ending credits roll. He’s presumed dead but returns to action like his villainous foil. Every set piece, every character, has their counterweight.
This is a film that is at its best when characters are sparring verbally, not physically. Bond’s first encounter with Silva (Javier Bardem) is as much an exercise in interrogation as it is flirtation. Silva, a burned MI-6 agent, was once M’s (Judy Dench) favorite agent. The tension here, as it is throughout the movie, is the division between the old and the new. Who is the better agent, Silva or Bond? What’s better used to fight a war, men or machines? MI-6, we’re told, is a relic of a previous war. There’s no room for field operatives in a time of cyber war and drone strikes. Bond, Silva, and M are all on their way out.
Yes, everyone in this film has a personal stake in the plot, and as such Skyfall offers glimpses into M’s past, as well as 007’s. While they’re not entirely revelatory, it’s more than we’ve ever seen of either character. But don’t be fooled. This isn’t the tell-all you might be expecting. It’s still a Bond film. Any turn to the past is merely a plot device.
This film is as much about its character’s heritage as it is the franchise’s. Skyfall makes a few (stretching on too many) callbacks to the pre-Dalton franchise, but a film this concerned with legacy could be forgiven; as much as it winks in the direction of Sean Connery, it also winks to The Third Man with its returned-from-the-dead spies and subterranean tunnel chases (not to mention John Ford’s way with the silhouette).
But Skyfall’s relationship with the past is complicated. It honors its roots and destroys them—the most overt callback to the previous films is the inclusion of the famous Aston Martin DB5; the car is then promptly destroyed. There’s even a conversation between Bond and his new Quartermaster where they quibble over what’s better: novelty or experience. It’s hard to say where Mendes comes down on this argument, but the film does repeat a line which might hold the answer: “Sometimes, the old ways are the best.”