Skyfall premiered in the US five years ago today. At some point between its record-breaking box office take and now, the 23rd Bond film became a popular target of fan backlash. “Too derivative of The Dark Knight;” “too implausible a villain plan;” “too early in Daniel Craig’s run to be playing this ‘over the hill’ Bond angle.” Billion-dollar haul and 93% Rotten Tomatoes score notwithstanding, the fickle masses decided that Skyfall maybe wasn’t all that.
But as we sit here in the post-Spectre funk of 2017, with two years to go before 007 returns to screens in Bond 25, Skyfall is looking pretty damn good. It’s beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins - possibly the best-looking Bond film of all time, give or take an early Technicolor entry. It restores an earned level of humor to the proceedings without tipping into silliness. It’s maybe the only Bond film to have some kind of thematic throughline - no mean feat for a film 50 years into a franchise’s run. That throughline gives 007 an emotional arc that in turn feeds what might be the best performance of Craig’s tenure. Most importantly, it’s a weird, emotional, stealthy return to formula while simultaneously insisting on turning everything upside down. Skyfall is a film keenly aware that deconstruction is fun and healthy, maybe even necessary, but deconstruction eventually leaves you with an absence of construction. In its push-pull trick of moving forward while resetting the table, Skyfall remains, five years on, the perfect example of how to rebuild a property once you’ve taken it to pieces.
Forget the backlash: Skyfall is special, and that’s at least partially the result of its makers recognizing out of the gate that it needed to be special. It was the 50th anniversary of the franchise; it was Craig’s “third Bond”, that make-or-break moment of every Bond actor’s legacy; and it was to be the swan song for Judi Dench’s M. (And in a chicken/egg moment, it was going to be the first Bond film in four years. External circumstances be damned, a four-year break had damn well better net audiences a solid entry.) “Make it special” feels like the marching orders given to every creative department on the production, and they all ran with it. Bond films were never exactly high art, but at nearly every turn - title sequence, cinematography, supporting cast - Skyfall feels like a carefully filigreed objet d’art, with greater pains than usual taken to render each facet. It’s alive with creative excitement, and you can feel everyone rowing in the same direction. It’s electrifying.
On social media in 2012, one of the films I told people to watch in preparation for Skyfall was Never Say Never Again. They’re the only two films to really acknowledge an aging 007. Both had some fun with the notion, but Skyfall took it on in a much more meaningful way. Any complaints that it was too soon in Craig’s run for such an exploration can be dismissed as “franchise before content” concerns, which is no way to watch a film. You’re owed nothing but a good story well told between the studio logo(s) and the end credits, and Skyfall took that as its main priority.
But not its only priority: the story - a burnt-out, left-for-dead 007 (Craig) returns to duty when M (Dench) comes under attack from a mysterious figure from her past - was carefully crafted to navigate a very specific checklist. It needed to tread new ground, it needed to lean into the four-year production gap, and it needed to deftly and creatively put the familiar pieces of the franchise back in place. Also, an edict was issued to make it very Brit-centric. And to make sure the Aston Martin DB5 shows up because director Sam Mendes had the toy as a kid.
A rewatch of Skyfall reveals just how amazingly the film pulls this all off. Though it’s slid a bit down the film’s timetable, there’s a string of scenes meant to bring back the staples of the formula while coloring ever-so-gently outside the lines: Bond has a flirtatious exchange with Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) outside M's office (though here the topic is the bullet she accidentally put into him at their last interaction); he’s given a mission during a meeting with M (a meeting with both the current and future holders of that title, as it turns out): he has a verbal sparring match with Q (Ben Whishaw) while picking up his gear (but the franchise tradition has been wryly inverted: Bond is now the grumpy old bastard while Q is now the snarky upstart, and the “gadgets” are woefully un-fantastic). Three interactions that feel as familiar as a comfortable pair of shoes, but each one reimagined and given new vitality. It's a triptych of scenes that, I submit, hold the key for how to restore the blessed “formula.”
Other franchise elements are gleefully reinstated, and these are moments in which the film luxuriates. There’s a villain monologue to end all villain monologues. There’s a glamorous, luminous casino sequence rendered in vibrant colors. There’s a climactic siege on a lair, but it’s the villains attacking Bond’s secret hideout. Skyfall is as traditional a Bond movie as it gets; it’s just really sneaky about it. That the script achieves all these things is something of a miracle, and is the strongest argument one can present in asking for clemency toward, say, digital face replacement on stuntmen or Silva’s somewhat impossible planning skills or, more substantially, the film’s one legitimate narrative stumble (the clunky handling of Bérénice Lim Marlohe’s Sévérine). For fans who just wanted to see a “classic Bond adventure,” Skyfall put it right under their noses. But it earned every restored formula beat, so nothing that happens feels rote.
But “what happens” and “what it’s about” are of course two different things, and this is a franchise that’s almost always left that second space blank. And that second space is where Skyfall soars. “It’s a young man’s game,” Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tells a scratched & dented Bond. The truth is the world of James Bond - ever since Fleming was first writing him - is a middle-aged man’s game. Fleming crafted his “man who was a silhouette” so that every gone-to-seed male reader could imagine himself in Bond’s place, living out those adventures. But at the same time, Fleming’s gentleman spy spent quite a bit of time on the page questioning his life choices and worrying about dying. Skyfall is the first Eon-produced Bond film to address that, and leaning into Craig’s haggard Mount Rushmore face was a canny move on this front. It’s as if the franchise noticed their leading man happened to look like he’d been to hell and back, and then crafted a story to fit his visage.
So rather than ignore the craggy elephant in the room, Skyfall introduces 007 as a bull who’s been through a few too many china shops. Stuffed into suits so tight that style bloggers are still gnashing their teeth about it, his frame threatening to burst those Tom Ford seams at any moment, 007 hurtles himself through the pre-title sequence like a human cudgel. He’s the same guy who crashed through that drywall in Casino Royale, but here you can start to see the miles on the old dog. Where his predecessors often sported perfectly blow-dried hairstyles, Craig’s 007 rocks a “fuck it” buzzcut that he might well have given himself. His steamroller approach catches him a bullet or two and lands him in a river, where his past, present and future flash before his (and our) eyes in the film’s spectacular deathdream of a title sequence.
Once the film gets going, Bond looks every bit the burnout case “held together by...pills and drink” that Silva (Javier Bardem) accuses him of being. And Bond’s arc (a rarity in itself) becomes deciding, upon getting a clearer picture of his worth to his employers, whether or not to keep doing what he’s doing. What’s amazing is how well this all lines up with a thread in the original novels - one that has remained largely untouched in a half century of film adaptations. Fleming’s Bond often morosely questioned his career path, that of the blunt instrument kept on hand for unpleasant tasks, until the day he’ll finally be used up. Here his cinematic counterpart finally gets to ask himself those questions.
The idea of MI6 agents being expendable pawns is front and center from the very first scene in Skyfall, as M coldly orders 007 to let Ronson (who, not coincidentally, looks an awful lot like 007 himself) bleed to death, lest his quarry escape. Moments later, after a suicidal chase through Istanbul, Bond hears M order another agent to take a shot that could - and does - hit Bond instead. Though he bitterly returns to service, hearing his master say “take the bloody shot” sticks in his craw for most of the film’s runtime. If part of Skyfall’s story is M finally being called to account for the lives she’s sacrificed in the course of her career, Bond taking her to his childhood home feels like a strangely spiteful part of that reckoning. Look at this place. I am a person. I came from somewhere. Someone loved me. It’s a cocktail of duty and affection that drives Bond to protect M from Silva, but part of him wants her to answer for the lives she’s burned through just as badly as Silva does.
“Orphans make the best recruits,” M tells Bond. The cruelty of her statement is that those orphans run to the service seeking a new family, and instead form a contract with death itself. Since signing up, Bond’s real job has been to die for M, with the added torture of an indeterminate end date. Skyfall’s big conflict isn’t 007 vs. the monstrous Silva; It’s James Bond vs 007 - the wounded orphan with abandonment issues staring down the clarity of what it means to be on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And this clash ends with an uneasy truce.
Or does it? There’s another, rather chilling reading of that ending in M’s office. It requires a dash of “death of the author” but the facts are there. As discussed, Bond is awoken in the pre-title sequence to the fact that he’s nothing more than cannon fodder for M’s professional whims. Whoops, I lost a top secret list; this many agents get to go die for it. He sulks over this for three months, but comes running back at the slightest suggestion he’s “needed.” Later, Silva shows him that M has lied about Bond’s scores on his physical - concrete proof that M has seized 007’s return as simply one more opportunity to use him up to serve her ends. Silva himself is a living example of what blind loyalty to M ultimately costs. Through the entire film, Bond is shown that his career choice is a kind of terrible one.
He clocks every single one of these examples, but it’s futile. Bond has learned the truth too late. He doesn’t know what else to do with himself, so he continues with the job at hand, as if the decision is beyond his control. (“Hire me or fire me; it’s entirely up to you.”) And after his master is cut down, Bond marches right into a new M’s office, robotically intoning “with pleasure” at an offer to be sent hurtling toward another potentially fatal scenario. Though it’s played as a stand-up-and-cheer finale, it’s also a dark, dark ending, up there with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond comes through the film more clear-eyed than ever of how disposable he is to those he serves, but he’s powerless to break the cycle. His loop is eternal. Skyfall is both finale and jumping off point, leaving 007 poised once again and forever to be fired like a bullet to whatever corner of the world M needs something unpleasant handled.
Dark reading or not, Skyfall's end credits roll on a perfect reset for the franchise. As we now know, it’s a reset that wasn’t capitalized on with Spectre, but that’s not a fault of this film. In fact, despite that 2015 misfire, the stage is still set for a Bond 25 that takes the right lessons from Skyfall.
One of those lessons is “don’t rush it.” The book Some Kind of Hero is a thorough look at the Bond film franchise, and the info its authors have amassed on Skyfall is fascinating. Culled from various sources as well as their own interviews, the book’s chapter on the 23rd Bond film makes a strong case that the franchise’s installments benefit quite a bit from not being cranked out on a set-in-stone, accelerated schedule. Bond fans on forums gnash their teeth over the fact that “Cubby was able to get a film out every other year,” as if the motion pictures of today are made in the same fashion as they were in 1971. It’s a ridiculous assumption, but the development of Skyfall points to its (somewhat involuntary) gestation period as at least a partial reason for its success.
Some Kind of Hero notes that MGM’s financial problems in 2010 caused the Bond producers to retreat and regroup, with associate producer Gregg Wilson noting “Skyfall would have been a very different, and not as good a movie, if we had to shoot it a year earlier. There was a whole different movie that we eventually just threw away, because we felt it wasn’t quite right. If the calendar year was different, we would have just had to make that movie.” Mendes cites the delay as a boon as well: “It made such a difference to the script to have time to go down certain roads that turn out to be blind alleys, as you so often do.”
The book goes on to describe a treatment by Peter Morgan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade called Once Upon a Spy which finds a young M during the Cold War (!!), having an affair with a KGB spy in Berlin. The present-day plot involves that agent’s son blackmailing M and ends with Bond being forced to kill her. “It didn’t work,” say the involved parties, and when MGM’s situation delayed a production start, the script was tossed. Mendes and Craig faced the delay by re-reading all 14 Ian Fleming novels. Skyfall was of course its own story, but those re-reads made their way to the eventual film, which leaned heavily on elements from Fleming’s You Only Live Twice and The Man With The Golden Gun for its story. (A sad casualty: Moneypenny’s original introduction was apparently cribbed from Fleming’s 007 in New York, one of the last remaining bits of Fleming’s work to not find its way to the screen.)
I’ll not spoil the other fascinating details about the development of Skyfall found in Some Kind of Hero; it’s well worth picking up and discovering the nuggets on your own. But these anecdotes speak to my belief that demanding Eon Productions hurry up and crank out a new Bond movie every other year will only serve to net you a lackluster Bond movie. Casino Royale came after a four-year break; Goldeneye was the result of a six-year gestation. Tomorrow Never Dies, Quantum of Solace and The World Is Not Enough are all products of two-year breaks. (Die Another Day and Spectre took three years each; my theory is not foolproof.)
As the publicity machine for Bond 25 groans to life in the year ahead, I’ll wager you’ll hear Eon reference Casino Royale as a kind of creative touchstone. You’ll see carefully crafted sentences like “We wanted to bring it full circle, and take things back to what made Casino Royale so special.” They would be foolish to say “we’re gonna go bigger again,” and in distancing the new film from Spectre I suspect they’ll cannily name drop the earlier stone classic that revitalized the franchise. It’s what people will want to hear.
But behind the curtain, we should expect - indeed, hope - that the filmmakers will try to duplicate the creative recipe of Skyfall. Like the 2012 film, Bond 25 needs to be an energetic reclamation/embrace of the formula that at the same time feels fresh and original. A film that, as Craig's farewell, knows it needs to be special, and one that successfully closes that loop once again, leaving 007 in a safe limbo to be picked up by the next actor to take the role. And actually being about something wouldn’t hurt either.