Monday, November 19, 2012

Skyfall: Goldeneye Redux

I'm going to start this review off by dating myself in saying that my first experience of the James Bond franchise was Martin Campbell's 1995 classic Goldeneye. As the first Bond film after the fall of the USSR, Goldeneye was explicitly about whether or not the Cold War era icon could exist in a post-Soviet world. It was a brilliantly layered piece of meta-cinema that enamoured me with both the Bond franchise and film generally. It's no surprise then that I so thoroughly enjoyed Skyfall, as in many ways it's as near a remake of Goldeneye as we're likely to see on screen.

Skyfall is once again a meta-narrative about James Bond's continued relevance in the modern world. Just as Campbell's Goldeneye did in 1995, Skyfall reiterates that Bond may be an old hand but he's definitely not ready to be retired. Curiously, the 2006 reboot of the Bond franchise, Casino Royale, was also a movie that reasserted the franchise's ability to entertain after The Bourne Identity shook up the spy genre in 2002. That makes (count em) three Bond movies in the last two decades that are broadly about the concept of whether or not James Bond is still a fertile source of storytelling. I'd also go so far as to say that the three films in question are not only the best the franchise has had to offer since the fall of the Berlin wall, but moreover among the best Bond movies ever made. Maybe it says something about the Bond franchise that its best contemporary work is repeatedly its continued assertion of its own relevance. But whatever the answer to that question, it does nothing to detract from the quality of Skyfall.

Whereas Goldeneye examined whether or not Bond could exist after the Cold War (answer: yes) and Casino Royale asked whether Bond could keep up with Jason Bourne (answer: also yes), Skyfall explores whether or not Bond today is -- or can be -- the same old Bond he's always been. 50 years on and the spy who loved me is getting a bit introspective, go figure. In any case, the answer is most definitively yes, as Skyfall explicitly asserts that 007 has still got it, is still needed, and is more like his old self than ever. In some ways this movie bring the franchise full circle since the Casino Royale reboot, and while I could explain or substantiate that claim to do so would be spoiling much of the fun that Skyfall has in store. The film is littered with both commentary on and vestiges of Bond's old fashioned ways, and that's a huge part of its meta-cinematic appeal. The best description I've heard of Skyfall was Drew McWeeny saying it's a fitting tribute to where the franchise has come from, and also a sign of where and how it will move forward. It's cryptic, it's accurate, and fans should see the movie to understand what it means.

If I have one complaint of Skyfall it's that it frankly wasn't very clever. For a film so littered with meta-cinematic references, nods to a rich franchise history, and a villain that explicitly calls for intelligence over brutish violence, Skyfall is fairly predictable and by the book. Maybe that's because of its role as the series' 50th anniversary and semi-reboot (although it'd be more accurate to call it a re-grounding), but I never found myself surprised by the movie. It's very traditional in how its three acts function and are clearly delineated, and just about every standout object or quip has an obvious Chekhovian callback in store. The result is that nothing in Skyfall is surprising, but likewise nothing feels unnatural or forced. Predictable though it may be, the film is expertly crafted in terms of its tight script and effective (and appropriately cheeky) handling of 50 years worth of franchise lore. Given what it's trying to do I suppose it makes sense that Skyfall doesn't so much try to reinvent the wheel as much as reintroduce and refine it. Shocking twists or not, the movie is extremely effective in what it sets out to do, and though you'll see the end setup coming a mile away you'll enjoy the journey there all the same.

It also can't be said strongly enough that Skyfall is a stunningly beautiful film. I saw it on a regular sized screen and as I write this sentence I'm kicking myself for not making the effort to see it in IMAX. Shot in digital by Roger Deakins, Skyfall is the obvious choice for the Best Cinematography Oscar. I was constantly reminded of Conrad L. Hall's legendary work on Road to Perdition, and the obvious takeaway is that director Sam Mendes has both an incredible aesthetic sensibility and a great working relationship with his directors of photography. Numerous shots straight up took my breath away -- particularly those in the third act -- and they stand out as strong arguments in favour of digital film as a medium. I've never seen a traditionally shot film capture shadows, fog, and refracted light the way they are in Skyfall, and in that sense it's a defiant statement about the unique potentials of modern filmmaking. The superb cinematography reflects the film's themes and narrative exploration of contemporary refinements on traditional concepts, and the interplay and coherency of these various aspects of Skyfall are what make it among the best Bond films ever made.

Just as Goldeneye did after the Cold War ended, Skyfall reinvigorates the classic Bond formula and shows that 50 years on the old dog still has a few tricks up his sleeve. The film is a reverent ode to franchise canon that makes the whole shtick feel as fresh and relevant as it ever has. Beyond that though, Skyfall is a fun, exciting, breathtakingly beautiful movie that stands out as one of the best films of 2012. Don’t miss it, and if at all possible make sure to see it in IMAX.


  1. I find it so interesting that Mendes basically rebooted Bond yet again (having him die and then come 'back to life') considering Casino Royale itself was a reboot. I remember critics and audiences were saying that Casino Royale made Bond relevant again, and now people are saying the same about Skyfall - it's like we forgot that it has already been made relevant just because of one bad movie in between (Quantum of Solace).

    I loved Skyfall, but are we going to get a Bond without a self aware discussion of its own relevance? Or is this what Bond movies are going to be from now on?

    Also, note Martin Campbell did Goldeneye and Casino Royale - what a director. Goldeneye is a masterpiece.

  2. I totally agree with your comment about it being strange for a semi-reboot to so closely follow the Casino Royale reboot. One take I've heard is that this one sort of close the reboot trilogy that started with Casino, and the common theme tying all of those movies together was Bond figuring out who he was, what his role in the modern world is, and (particularly in Skyfall) his ability to reinvent himself. It's an argument that I think is weakened by the inclusion of Quantum of Solace in the so-called trilogy, but then it's hard to make any good case for/that includes that movie.

    I share your curiosity about whether a good new Bond movie can be made without being so introspective, although I'm eager to see one delve into some of the more problematic aspects of Bond generally and Skyfall specifically. I have a new post coming up where I get into some of Skyfall's problems, but suffice to say I'd love to see a Bond movie go introspective about his treatment of women, possibly through a female "villain" (ambiguous designation optional).

    He's a brilliant Bond director, but then he also directed Green Lantern. Though you're right, Goldeneye is brilliant. Every new Bond movie, good or bad, just serves to remind me how great that movie is and how well it holds up almost two decades later.