Skyfall: a spoiler-filled exploration

Feature James Peaty 2 Nov 2012 - 07:01

With Skyfall breaking records at the box office, James takes an in-depth look at where the movie takes the Bond franchise...

Final warning: the following contains spoilers.

With its blistering box office success and near unanimous critical acclaim, the success of Skyfall – the 23rd film in the James Bond franchise – confirms that the 50-year long love affair between moviegoers and Ian Fleming’s iconic spy shows no signs of cooling.

Revitalised by both the canny casting of Daniel Craig and the decision to reboot the series from scratch, long-time Bond producers Michael G Wilson and Barbara Brocolli have not only successfully repositioned the franchise for the 21st century, but also taken it into areas that previously seemed out of bounds.

Apart from one or two notable exceptions, and those exceptions have tended to be some of the least financially successful entries in the series, Bond movies have eschewed any real exploration of what drives its leading character.  

Taking its cue from such pop culture sources as Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, and even original series producer Cubby Brocolli’s own 1950s action films, the Bond of the silver screen has generally been portrayed as a cypher, a 2-D fantasy figure animated by the charm and quirks of the actor playing him at the time. 

However, with the advent of 2006’s adaptation of Casino Royale, Brocolli and Wilson began the process of allowing the more doubtful and conflicted character that Fleming created back in 1952 to finally emerge onto the big screen.

This approach achieves its strongest interpretation in Skyfall, which offers up a vision of Bond that’s at once faithful to Fleming’s work, while at the same time rooting itself within the archetypes of modern action cinema.  

Much has been made in the build up to the films release about the influence of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman sequel, The Dark Knight on Skyfall, but I’d argue there’s actually a much stronger connection to this past summer's The Dark Knight Rises than anything in Nolan’s earlier film.

Much like TDKR, Skyfall is both a story of consequences as well as a modern folk tale about the rebirth of an aging hero who’s recovering from a devastating fall that has left him both wounded and bereft.

Taking its cue from 1967’s You Only Live Twice, Skyfall opens with a furious pre-credits actions sequence in Istanbul that culminates in Bond’s apparent ‘death’ at the hands of Naomie Harris’ rookie MI6 field agent, Eve.  

However, unlike Bond’s earlier brush with the grim reaper, which is revealed to be a secret service ploy after the opening credits, Skyfall takes the concept of Bond’s ‘death’ and eventual ‘resurrection’ as the spine of the film and runs with it. 

Wounded by the shooting and his seeming betrayal by M (Judi Dench), Bond not only lets the world believe he has died, but in the process becomes a virtual dead man walking. Shorn of mission and country, the former 007 is soon drinking himself into oblivion by an unnamed beach somewhere in Asia.

But when news of a direct attack on MI6 headquarters by a rogue former British agent, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) reaches him, Bond is drawn back to the UK to help protect not only his country, but also the one person to whom he feels any real personal loyalty, M (Judi Dench).

Forced to qualify for active status again, Bond is put through his paces with the seemingly officious chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) breathing down M’s neck as she tries to fast-track 007 back into the field.

With a strong accent on character over action, first time Bond director Sam Mendes and new scribe John Logan, aided and abetted by Roger Deakins’ sumptuous cinematography, create a solid framework that throws focus onto the most powerful special effect the Bond franchise currently has at its disposal – Daniel Craig. Arguably the finest actor to play the role, Craig is finally given a script that’s not only built around his particular incarnation of the character, but one that also deconstructs this venerable character in unexpected and surprising ways.

Dispatched to China to track down Silva, Bond soon crosses paths with what appears to be the films love interest, the beautiful yet tragic former sex slave, Severine (Berenice Marlohe).

Serving as Bond’s link to the villainous Silva, Severine’s unexpected and early death is a brutal and shocking moment, which shows just how out of sorts Bond has become and that perhaps the greatest threat he faces this time out is his own inertia and ineptitude.

Even more interesting is that Bond’s failure to (ahem!) rise to the occasion and save the girl follows Silva’s own attempt to seduce 007 during their initial encounter. Caressing Bond’s scarred body with lip-smacking enjoyment, Silva is clearly meant to be a dark, theatrical and (in classic Fleming fashion) disfigured and sexually deviant character who serves as a distorted reflection of Bond.

There’s more than a passing call back to Casino Royale’s famously eye watering torture scene between Bond and Le Chiffre in this face-off between Silva and Bond. However, while that particular scene played with homoeroticism indirectly, in Skyfall the issue is addressed head-on, with Bond himself implying that he’s no stranger to homosexual experience.

While this tease isn’t mentioned again, it’s interesting that once this particular cat is let out of the bag Bond not only fails to save the doomed Severine, but instead transfers all of his affections and energy into protecting the real woman in Bond’s life: the mother surrogate, M.  

Matters of sexual subversion apart, another area where Skyfall succeeds is in its connecting of Bond to broader streams within the English cultural imagination. It would be too easy in a 50th anniversary picture to make a film that solely celebrates the series and its own internal history.

Thankfully, Mendes and his team wisely avoid overplaying that hand and instead focus on defining Bond as representing something both archetypally and poetically British. This is drawn out most effectively during Bond’s first meeting with the new Q (Ben Whishaw) at the National Gallery. 

In this scene, both men are looking at Turner’s famous 1839 painting of the soon to be scrapped battered British gunship, The Fighting Temeraire. While Q’s poetic reading of the picture, and its implied connection to 007’s naval heritage, is insightful, it’s soon undercut by the taciturn Bond who doesn’t see any poetry or metaphor at work, bur rather just a painting of ‘a bloody big ship.’

This parallel between Bond and British art is revisited again when M reads Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses at the Parliamentary Select Committee she’s addressing. Musing on a discontented hero returning home to his kingdom after years of far ranging travels, Tennyson’s poem is heard as Bond rushes furiously across London in an attempt to save M from Silva’s latest assassination attempt.

Tennyson’s poem also serves as an overture for the final act of the film. And it’s in this section that Mendes arguably makes both his boldest statement about the character, while also taking the biggest risk by radically departing from the standard template of a Bond film.  

Forced to flee London after Silva’s attempt on M’s life, Bond and his boss head to Scotland and hide out at 007’s childhood home, Skyfall Lodge, the place where they’ll make their final stand against Silva and all the chickens will come home to roost.

A dilapidated and empty country house on the Scottish moors, Skyfall is maintained by the gamekeeper, Kincaid (Albert Finney). It was Kincaid who kept an eye on the young James after the death of his parents and who taught Bond, the future gamekeeper of the British Empire itself, how to handle a rifle.

Watching Bond in this unusual rural setting is a jarring, yet oddly bracing experience and the deviation away from the familiar Bond tropes gives the final act of Skyfall a bracing, unpredictable quality that unspools like an expressionistic, paramilitary version of Straw Dogs.  

It’s also clearly not an accident that in this final stretch 007 is stripped of any and all identifiable contemporary trappings. The iconography of martini, tuxedo and Walther PPK are gone, and instead Bond is reduced to his purest form, a British archetype stalking the flaming landscape of our collective imagination. 

However, despite all the pyrotechnics and mythopoeic allusions, the finale's real power comes in the way it unifies all the film's strands into one contained location. Set inside the chapel that contains the graves of Bond’s parents and illuminated by the fiery spectre of the burning Skyfall, it’s here that Silva and M meet their mutual end with Bond as both perpetrator and witness.

It’s also here that Bond is finally given the blessing he’s always sought from M, a parental seal of approval that allows the fog of doubt that’s followed him throughout to finally lift.  It’s the stuff of classical drama (which Mendes knows a thing or two about) recast as popular entertainment - and it works beautifully.

But these scenes aren’t the end of the film, and the filmmakers have one last trick up their sleeves as, after spending 140 minutes deconstructing the myth of James Bond, they give the character the ultimate resurrection.

As Bond talks to Naomie Harris’ Eve in a familiar office setting, we know that she’ll reveal that her surname’s Moneypenny, and that when Bond passes through an oddly familiar leather studded door, he’ll walk into a plush and seemingly timeless office and meet Mallory who’s now ascended to the role of M.

Having been truly tested by fire, 007 has emerged reborn and recast in a new and purer form. It’s one that’s both oddly familiar and yet excitingly different, a tantalizing glimpse of a future informed by the past that teases and comforts us with the knowledge that… James Bond will return.

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Very good exploration/account of the film. Felt some parts of the film worked really well, like combing old and new, great characterisation and plot, big bold locations against rural traditionals ones. Only thing I would have liked to see a little bit more was since they opened the pandora's box of Bond's past and childhood - a bit more, like a relevant flashback, a la Casino Royale toilet scene. Certainly one of the best Bond films, not sure if better than Casino Royale. Will need to watch again to make my mind up on that one!

One thing that wasnt clear to me at the end of the movie (which I loved!) did they get the disk back?

Fantastic review and analysis - loved every minute of the movie and i think for todays viewers and fans of bond all crave the depth in character and mendes does it beautifully :) Daniel Craig unquestionably the best bond ever - long may bond reign for queen and country and millions of fans world wide

I think it's meant to be in the laptop that hacked MI6's systems when Q plugged it in. M had a line about "seeing if he's sent the information to someone else" (I'm paraphrasing here).

Sounds similar to a script , I wrote during my time working at Fubar studios , Liverpool. It was run by a hut from Wirral , and we were dealing with the get rid of Pierce Brosnan saga. As he didn't feel he could carry on with the typical ironic Bond style sayings and doings. Not to worry it similar to Synopsis and part of script I wrote, with a few twists. I contacted Eon and left the contact details , when or if they were contacted , I was not informed. But yesterday the studio owner travelled to London , for what purpose he didn't disclose.....

If you like stunts, chases, explosions, exotic locations, iconic locations but put all that to one side and what do you have. Yes the production is first class but what we have is a film driven by the most ludicrous of plot, ie, disgruntled Operative (Javier Bardem) seeks revenge on M (Judy Dench) for giving him up when the Brits handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

Could one man really take on the might of MI6 with such devastating effect. I honestly believed Bond had moved on since the days when one man ran an independent terror organisation that threatened the world.

It's comic book stuff but if that's what Bond fans enjoy so be it but I'm staying well clear of this nonsense in future.

I watched a preview of this film on Film 4 yesterday evening and Judy Dench, Daniel Craig and Javier Barden were going on about what a great script Skyfall was. Trust me there is nothing great about this script, it really is instantly forgettable.

Did anybody else think that the battle in Skyfall Lodge was a bit like a Home alone movie?

"If you like stunts, chases, explosions, exotic locations, iconic locations but put all that to one side and what do you have?"

Isn't that the entire point of the last act? They have taken away all the trappings and what is left, the entire last third of the film, is everything Bond is outside of the characters 50 year legacy.

I think your point about the villain's plan seems flawed. Could just one man take on MI6, no, of course not - but THIS man could. He had the inside track, skills and motive necessary to do it, and years to plan. That part of it didn't seem ludicrous at all. Now, his talking about destabilising the economy in a day via one computer (or some such boast) seemed a little out there...

I'm going to assume we will still disagree about this film, but I thought it was fantastic. great actors, wonderful cinematography, great soundtrack and a good plot that facilitated some brilliant moments and call backs. Just what I love in a film and not, to my mind at least, forgettable at all.

Loved the film, interesting exploration; the only thing I'd really dispute in this is the "unexpected" death of Severine - a frequent element of Bond is the girl/woman who dies part way through. I'm not disputing the impact, just the 'unexpected and early'.

Even the bit about destabilising economies is realistic when you look at what happened on the NYSE when an automated trading computer went berserk. Do it deliberatly and you can cause chaos.

The whole point of the finale was that Silva was always a step ahead of them. Bond got Q and Tanner to lay a trail for Silva to find him and M somewhere where they would have the upper hand. M's death was beautifully poignant and it it has divided my friends over the necessity of it. I think it's a great scene, bringing emotion to Bond that we haven't seen since OHMSS. I'm just really glad we got to see the Aston DB5 with it's gadgety glory and ejector seat gag once more - RIP BMT 216A

Twas a great film but the plot was daft. All that convoluted effort to get captured and escape just to shoot your way into a meeting room. Surely Silva could have done that without the overelaborate plan?

I was a little puzzled by some of the film regarding the resurrection, I thought at the end of CR he WAS Bond, then at the end of QOS he WAS Bond. Certainly in CR he was the young buck agent just starting out on his MI6 career and QOS was directly afterwards, then suddenly we have him being questioned as too old and burnt out after just a few missions and then at the end, after 3 movies of setting him up as the Bond we know and ready to become a legend he FINALLY walks through the traditional door, past Moneypenny into Ms office and off we go ... but he's no longer the young Bond we started with he's now in the later stages of his career whereas he should still be at the start???? I know Daniel Craig has aged in 7 years and I don't think the grey beard helped but still!!!!! I did like the it strapped to the chair though and he should have said, " I've been in this position before...but naked!!" I think that would have got a laugh. Also I was shocked when Severine was killed I really didn't expect it and it took a few moments to sink in. Overall 8 out of 10.

I think this ties with Casino Royale for me as best Bond film. Maybe Bond's past will now be explored in Craig's next outing. It'd be a nice way to keep shaking up the formula what with it having re-established the status quo of pre-Craig Bond. Seeing him surrounded by the trappings of classic Bond while also exploring him as a fully-realised, damaged person rather than a suave cardboard-cutout would be a wonderful way to go, if you ask me.

People seem to miss the point of the Javier Barden's character, he wasn't trying to "just" kill M it was to humiliate her first, torture her for her treatment of him - don't forget he could easily of killed her in the first explosion but he deliberately timed it for her to see, likewise the inquiry, what greater humiliation for her to be kidnapped in the middle of an security inquiry?

look at what Gary McKinnon did with no malice, breaking in to NASA and the Pentagon and caused $700k of damage and could have done hundreds of millions of damage if he had wanted to.

Really enjoyed this, it was everything Casino Royale should have been; it had a contemporary feel but not at the expense of what makes a Bond film a Bond film. The only flaw, Moneypenny. At a time when yet again we question the portrayal of women in 007 movies she starts off as a field agent, isn't good enough so gives it up to become a secretary!!!

Can anyone tell me what film the Aston Martin was from. I've been wracking my brains and can't remember! D'oh.

Is it not from Goldfinger?

Not as great a film as everyone's going on about. Strip away the Bond brand and it would have been slated for poor acting, stilted dialogue,nonsensical plotting, and really poor set pieces. 4/10.

Yep, said exactly that when I saw it...great film though

Goldfinger it is!

I did think that, but then I realised what it actually was: an inverted Bond movie finale. Silva's playing the role of Bond, while Bond and M play the role of henchman and villain, complete with self-destructing lair and tunnel escape. It's a spot of genius, actually.

Seriousley. Am I the only one who realises who the villain was? The new bond films are a restart so are re introducing old characters but in a more gritty, realistic, less cartoon way.

As soon as the villain removed his prosthetic showing his warped messed up teeth I realised all along he was Jaws. All of a sudden the guy tool on a new twist for me and made the finally that much better.

Whilst enjoyable, I found the movie to be weak on plot and full of chase scene filler. Very little content when you strip back the running, chasing, car driving, motorcycling.. I almost expected Bond to turn into Doctor Who and start saying "Run! Its what I do!".

The plot seemed to be taken directly from Mission Impossible, with them all looking for the Noc List...

Also.. if this was the original story for Bond, how come he had the fully kitted out Aston from the 60's?

Overall it was ok, but weak on story.

Goldfinger originally, plus cameos in other films, much like in Skyfall. However the one in Skyfall was the original pimped-up DB5.

I felt that the middle of the film was outstanding but sandwiched between two awful acts. I've never been the biggest advocate of Judi Dench as M and my annoyance extends to the fact that all she has to do is blow her nose and an academy award is being forced down her throat as a result. Seeing her in 'Home Alone - Scottish Siege' was jarring and ridiculous. It was passable for Helen Mirren in RED because that film was always set up to be very tongue-in-cheek but I felt like they couldn't decide if this was a Bond film to be taken seriously or the worst kind of Moore/Brosnan parody that made me fall out with the franchise in the first place.

I thought that with the advent of Casino Royale, we were going to see a revitalised Bond, bereft of all the campy hi-jinks that were seeing the franchise into the ground. It's almost like they were brave enough to do a brutal Bond movie but then bitched out of it at the last minute.

It's in Thunderball too. It's essentialy Connery Bond's car.

Went to see it day, and loved it ! I was happy that even with it's ubiquitous nature, I managed not to see much of it, so was shocked when M died, and when Eve said she was Moneypenny. I think a lot of people who have talked about this film, have failed to see the humour in it. Parts of it were absolutely hilarious. Just like Bond, the humour was very dry lol !

Surprised more people aren't talking about the obvious similarity between orphan Bond' Skyfall Lodge scene and Harry Potter finale, complete with flourish of magic wand/flare while being dragged underwater

First Dark Knight, then Avengers, now Skyfall. I'm not sure why everyone is suddenly jumping on the 'the bad guy MEANT to get caught!' plot twist, but it's getting pretty tired already.

Didn't ruin the film for me at all, but I really hope this isn't becoming a trend.

Lots of people seem to question the timeline of the Craig films. For me, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were parts 1&2 of the reboot. They were the beginning of Bond. I got the impression Skyfall was set at an undisclosed time later (there were allusions to him having many missions under his belt and that he was getting a bit too old for the job. If you take this to be true, you can, loosely, regard elements from the old Bond films as the missions inbetween. Obviously this doesn't solve all continuity errors, but it does give a vaguely plausible timeframe for the newer films. Just my opinion!

Anyone else think Kincaid was written for Sean Connery to come out of retirement?

I'm surprised there hasn't been any post-release chat from the producers as to that character's creation & potential casting.

Everyone keeps making this comparison about Home Alone! Has no one seen Straw Dogs?

Frankly, I found myself unable to empathise with a Bond reduced to being a late stage Roger Moore oneliners machine. To me, he lost everything that made him an interesting character.

More recently though, Daniel Craig's Bond won what was presumably meant to be this particular DB5 in Casino Royale.

I saw the film today and it is so gob smackingly good that it is hard to
believe that it exists in the same franchise as dogsh*te like Die
Another Day

I thought
Casino Royale was interesting because for the first time I could
recall, they were doing thematically interesting things in a Bond film.
The exploration of violence (on those who do it, those who witness it
and those who suffer it) wasn't very deep but it was interesting and
woven into a film with intelligent characterizations.

Skyfall
takes this thematic depth even further with its obsession with death and
resurrection. Bond and Silva are both left to die by M, but whereas
Bond is able to resurrect himself (he says at one point in the film to
Silva that his hobby is resurrection), Silva is a walking corpse.

The
cyanide pill he took which ate his insides quite literally left him dead inside, and when he removes his false teeth thing he looks like a
zombie. And It is no coincidence that the occasion of his betrayal by
M was the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese. This was the death of
Empire for Britain.

At the end of the film we have the ultimate
resurrection of all, as the classic Bond Film Setup is reborn (Bond
walks into an office, flirts with Moneypennie and then goes into male
M's wood panel office to get down to business).

The film looks
stunning and has really interesting ideas running through the visuals.
In particular, the 4 big action scenes seem to riff on different ways of
using and framing light

We have the opening in Istanbul, all
bright sunlight. Then we have the fight in Shanghai, with the mind
boggling use of neon and silhouette. Then we have the chase through
London, which is grey and drab. And finally the shootout at Skyfall with
the orange bloom of explosions and gunfire on the Scottish night.

A brilliant film

It had Connery's gadgets though.

I fear that bits of this latest Bond offering were cut in Thailand which is not unusual out here as even cigarette smoking on screen is banned and for example when Silva kills Severine we were only allowed to see a glass hit the ground with any suggestion of the blood and gore of her head presumably being blown off left to the imagination. Was that the same in the European version. That aside we in general are not allowed to see any female anatomy, so, therefore can anyone tell me what Modigliani painting was used in the Shanghai set, because again we were only allowed to see the head part of the painting and none of the anatomy making it difficult to identify. The one who comes up with an answer may go to the bar and buy themselves a drink!

I got exactly that impression, especial at the line "Welcome to Scotland!", which would have had the triple entendre of Kincaid blowing away a henchman, the terrorist incident at the Glasgow Airport turned into a welcome poster, and Connery's own involvement in Scottish rule devolution.

I appreciate Sir Sean may have been too much, however, I am wondering if we would have been better off with a Scott actor like Billy Connolly, rather than someone from Manchester.

Barden says that one of the first villains he loved was Richard Kiel's Jaws. I wonder if that bit was added for Barden's personal tribute to other Bond villains.

You questioning the portrayed of women in 007 movies? But you would be ok with all those male agents getting killed right? Maybe you should join the feminists movement fighting bonds movies!

Yeah, same thing happened in Dark Knight Rises, too. (Bane at the beginning of the movie.) It had become a cliché before Skyfall hit cinemas.

I adored the film. I am no fan of Daniel Craig and would happily forget CR and QOS. I felt this film brought many of the elements I so enjoyed in predominately Brosnan's time namely Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies whilst arcing back to Connery time. I always felt that whilst Connery had suave, Moore had fun and Brosnan had that upper-crust style one associates with the UK, Craig had up until now seemed so disdainful toward himself and others that I was not drawn into his character. For the first time in his Bond adventure I felt Craig played it right, he had elements of Dalton in his stronger silent stature and also small yet identifiable elements that made him 'Bond'. I sorely missed Moneypenny and Q in his previous outings and am glad to see them return. I would happily line this up as Craig's first Bond!
I loved Judi Dench, but there is very little that she doesn't do well, I can't believe that people found the 'Home Alone' sequence out of character, she is a major figurehead but to draw a line back to TMND and furthermore The World is Not Enough she is resourceful and swift.
The elements of Bond which were so sorely lacking in CR and QOS returned here and I am all the more grateful for it.

Severine's death was done stylishly, there was no need to show blood etc. so I assume your version is uncut at that point. The movie doesn't have any gruesome scenes anywhere else, either - and it's a better movie for that. The Modigliani painting in Shanghai was The Woman With A Fan. The woman in the painting is fully clothed, so I'm confused what part of anatomy you wouldn't be allowed to see - neck or arms?

same thing happened in an episode of Sherlock.

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