After some unexpected delays, Daniel Craig’s third Bond film finally arrived in 007’s golden anniversary year 2012, but Skyfall more than rose to the occasion.
Half a century after 1962’s Dr No, the film is an end that feels like a beginning, which may be why the traditional opening gun-barrel sequence only appears before the credits roll, along with a “50 Years” logo. Skyfall celebrates the anniversary by reckoning with the series’ past and assessing where it stands in 2012.
That’s why 007, who starts off the film missing presumed dead after taking a bullet in the line of duty, comes back to the land of the living to tackle agent-turned-cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Spanning from London to the Bond family home in the Scottish Highlands, his mission to protect M (Judi Dench) becomes intertwined with the relevance of the 00 section in the modern world.
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As well as becoming the first billion-dollar Bond film at the global box office, Skyfall won a clutch of awards and drew rave reviews for just about every aspect – from Roger Deakins’ sumptuous cinematography to Thomas Newman’s superb musical score.
Of course, that includes Adele’s funereal title ballad, which starts solemn and then soars into mounting Bond-esque flourishes, marching our hero back to life. It’s a song that suits the film perfectly.
'This is the end'
Perhaps it’s the unexpected four-year gap between films that gives us the whiplash of a double-headed origin story, followed by a sequel in which everyone is telling Bond he’s past it already.
And yet, it’s a portrayal that suits Craig’s interpretation – his work has made him old before his time. As Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory observes, there’d be no shame in admitting 007 had lost a step in his time away, but the filmmakers came out swinging after the unexpected delays.
Development on the 23rd film started promisingly, with Sam Mendes in negotiations to direct. But in 2010, development was halted by MGM declaring bankruptcy in the wake of the global recession. Happily, the studio resolved its financial difficulties by December 2010, and Mendes officially became the only Oscar winner to direct a Bond film to date.
Notably, M was killed off in both Bond 23 story proposals – Once Upon A Spy (drafted by Peter Morgan) involved her long-lost Russian son, and Nothing Is Forever, (by series regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) had Bond pursuing her killer across the Andes mountains.
When producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli set a November 2012 release date, the director kept the decision to write out M, but worked with Purvis and Wade and fellow Oscar winner John Logan to develop the script that became Skyfall.
Instead of picking up the story of Quantum, this was intended to be a more standalone adventure (although Bardem’s character’s chosen alias of Silva fits the colour scheme of villains White and Greene). It’s not a total reversal of the modern approach, but it refits some familiar Bond tropes onto the series like miniguns on an Aston Martin.
For starters, the film introduces modern incarnations of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) – the former a capable agent who first encounters Bond in the field, and the latter a “man in the chair” tech liaison. Both have remixes of the more traditional scenes associated with their characters, but the film balances this with the status quo.
The filmmakers previously joked that they would struggle to create new Q Branch gadgets that weren’t already invented by Sony or Apple. Accordingly, Skyfall hangs a lampshade on Craig’s Bond receiving gadgets his predecessors already had: the radio homing beacon from Goldfinger and the handprint-recognition Walther PPK from Licence To Kill.
It cribs from other recent hits too. Though the Bourne-style editing relents this time around, Skyfall follows The Dark Knight much as Casino Royale followed Batman Begins. More than just capturing the villain to discover that’s part of his plan, the film gives Bond an estate and even an Alfred figure in groundsman Kincade (Albert Finney). Mendes admits that he briefly considered casting Sean Connery in this role, but the throwbacks are more restrained than that.
Unforgettably played by Bardem (another Oscar winner!), Silva is the film’s Joker. He openly mocks MI6’s values and challenges Bond’s fitness, competencies, and even his sexuality. The film also recalls Purvis and Wade’s first Bond script, The World Is Not Enough, which similarly has Bond coming back from an injury and a villain from M’s past, but it goes one step beyond by making Dench the de facto leading lady.
That said, not every throwback here is triumphant. There are iffy moments with women, especially with former sex slave Sévérine, (Bérénice Marlohe) who becomes another ill-fated bedpost notch for Bond. Both previous Craig films include the doomed lover trope, but it’s decidedly callous this time around.
Combined with the restoration of a male M and Craig’s third “alright, NOW he’s 007” ending on the bounce, there’s much that could have gone wrong here, but Skyfall’s jubilee atmosphere remains persuasive.
Since Ian Fleming created them, Bond’s adventures have always negotiated with Britain’s declining global influence. Largely shot and set in the UK, Skyfall holds 007 up for celebration alongside the other cultural works that it references, whether it’s Bond and Q discussing Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, M quoting Tennyson’s Ulysses, or whatever all that business with the London Underground map is.
Most of all, there’s the worn-out British bulldog that survives all onslaughts, and the porcelain ornament he inherits from his late boss at the end.
It’s not for nothing that Skyfall came out a few months after Happy And Glorious, the Danny Boyle-directed Bond short in which Craig and the Queen parachute-jump into the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Holding onto the past with one hand and pointing to the future with the other, this golden-anniversary outing boasts the same crowd-pleasing prestige.
No Time To Die is in UK cinemas from 30 September. Watch our interview with director Cary Joji Fukunaga below.