'Skyfall' Or Skyfail: What Worked & What Didn't In James Bond's Latest

Features
by The Playlist Staff
November 12, 2012 12:17 PM
23 Comments
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Over the weekend, it sounds like more than a few of you checked out "Skyfall" -- $80 million+ worth of you, in fact. And around the rest of the world, it's even more, with the film having taken over $500 million internationally since it started rolling out two weeks ago. And for the most part, it's been acclaimed as one of the best (if not the very best) entries in the long-running spy franchise to date.

But it hasn't been a unanimous success. There's plenty of naysayers out there, and, as ever, The Playlist team have been split, some loving the film, and some finding it hugely uneven. Now that the film's out and you've seen it, we decided we'd get into the details of what various team members thought worked and what didn't about "Skyfall." In the red corner, Oliver Lyttelton, who wrote our original review, lays out what he thinks makes the film a triumph (as well as a couple of cons), while in the blue are Rodrigo Perez and Kevin Jagernauth, discussing several elements of the film that just didn't work for them. Got your own views on the film? Let us know them in the comments section below. Obviously, spoilers ahead.

What Worked

Roger Deakins' Visuals

From his debut with "American Beauty," featuring Oscar-winning cinematography from the late Conrad Hall, Sam Mendes' films have always looked glorious even when they haven't worked as a whole. And that's doesn't change here. Even 007-weary cinephiles were a little excited when they heard that Mendes' "Jarhead" and "Revolutionary Road" DoP, the great Roger Deakins, was going to be shooting "Skyfall." And the regular Coen Brothers cinematographer did not disappoint. His last film "In Time" might have suggested he was still finding his feet with digital, but he certainly seems to have gotten the hang of things now. From the great, immediately iconic opening shot, it's the best-looking Bond film in history. There are particular highlights: the stunning "Blade Runner"-ish vision of Shanghai (which blows away almost every "Blade Runner"-esque looking film out of the water), particularly the neon-lit confrontation with Ola Rapace's assassin, and the fire-tinged sky glimpsed through the icy lake during the underwater fight. We spent much of the film wishing that we could print out the frames and hang them on our walls, and we're sure we're not alone.

More Character-Driven Approach

If there's something we learned in writing about the best and worst of the franchise all last week, it's that often, the superior entries in the series are the ones that have an emotional backbone, such as "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and "Casino Royale." And that's the smart move the writers and Mendes have made here. It's in many ways the smallest and most intimate Bond in some time; there's no real threat to the world, just one well-funded bonkers man's vendetta against his former employer. But because that former employer is M, Bond's mentor and maternal figure, it gives the proceedings a real heft. By placing Judi Dench front-and-center, and by making Bond himself out of shape, out of practice, and unsure of his place in a shifting MI6, it gives Daniel Craig much better material than he had to work with in the last film. So while the action is toned down from the first two Craig pictures, the film's far more engaging because the stakes are real and you care about the characters and their survival.

Javier Bardem

One thing that the Bond movies of late have been missing are truly classic villains. There have been some decent ones (Sean Bean in "Goldeneye," Mads Mikkelsen in "Casino Royale"), but none that really stand alongside the iconic likes of Goldfinger or Blofeld. But there's now very much a new addition to the classic rogue's gallery, thanks to Javier Bardem's Silva. He doesn't turn up until an hour into the film, but makes an entrance that's an instant classic; that long, unbroken shot of his monologue as he walks towards the captive Bond. And Bardem's performance is thrilling, funny, camp, unpredictable and yet genuinely terrifying. Perhaps more successful than the rest of the film in general, he feels like a return to the franchise's roots, right down to that gruesome and show-stealing surprise disfigurement, and yet with a contemporary, Julian Assange-ish twist. Sure, his scheme might be almost impossible in its conception, and his death a little disappointing (a knife in the back? really?), but he's still a Bond bad guy for the ages.

Strong Supporting Cast

And it's not just the leads -- Craig, Dench and Bardem -- who get the good material. John Logan's script includes a deep roster of compelling supporting characters that's almost unheard of from the franchise, and with theater veteran Mendes at the helm, the film was able to attract a cast of absolute pros who look to be central to the franchise going forward. Perhaps the pick of the pack is Ben Whishaw as the new Q. Desmond Llewellyn's boots were big ones to fill (the actor appeared in virtually every Bond film from "From Russia With Love" to "The World Is Not Enough"), but the "Bright Star" actor lends a new and definitive twist to the character as a youthful, arrogant, geek-chic quartermaster who brings texture to what could have been a rote hacker-type role we've seen a million times before. Also given more depth than you initially expect is Ralph Fiennes' Mallory, who seems like a stern, repressed bureaucrat, and not especially trustworthy, but turns out to be both a combat veteran, and unexpectedly heroic. M is in good hands going forward, and hopefully future installments will continue to give him good material. We have our issues with the Bond girls (see below), but both Eve and Severine have more depth than you might expect, and the actresses are both terrific (particularly Bérénice Marlohe, who's a real find). Even Rory Kinnear's Bill Tanner, introduced in "Quantum of Solace," gets plenty to do, and we hope he sticks around as well. While Bond's support team generally haven't been crucial to his character, that changes here, and Mendes has assembled a cast of supporting players who we genuinely look forward to seeing reunited next time around.

Sam Mendes

While the critical reevaluation of "American Beauty" continues its downward trajectory over the years, we've always liked Sam Mendes as a filmmaker (and further back as a theater director), but even so, he always seemed like a bold and risky choice to direct here. There wasn't much action or tentpole experience on his CV, and the film couldn't be further from his last film, indie comedy "Away We Go." But, while the film is imperfect, it turns out that he was an inspired choice. He melds the grittiness of the earlier Craig films with a sense of fun that suggests that Mendes is a real Bond fan (incidentally, he's the first British director in the series since Michael Apted in 1999), and walks the tonal line very carefully. The action doesn't always thrill, necessarily, but it's always beautifully framed, inventive and impressive. The performances (as you might imagine from someone who directed Judi Dench in the West End when he was only 24) are uniformly strong, and the director couldn't have assembled a better behind-the-scenes team (including Christopher Nolan's effects supervisor Chris Corbould). If Mendes was ever off the A-list, he's back on it in a big way now.

The Theme Song

If there's anything that reassured us that "Skyfall" was going to be a return to form, it was the opening credits, as Bond drifted off into the inky blackness, and Adele's theme tune kicked in (you can hear it here). If there's one thing in the series that's been severely lacking over the last few decades, it's a decent theme tune. We're not sure there's been a truly memorable one since "The Living Daylights," and it's even longer since one felt truly worthy of the Shirley Bassey classics of old. In fact, things have only gotten worse, with the sludgy dirges of the Chris Cornell and Jack White/Alicia Keys tunes of the Craig era so far (it makes us yearn for some of these Bond themes that never were). Chanteuse of the moment Adele was always the obvious choice to revive things (at least after the passing of Amy Winehouse), and with regular co-writer Paul Epworth, she delivered a cracker, reminiscent of the best '60s-era tracks, but thrillingly modern. Combined with the excellent animated credits, it's an extremely confident way to start the film.
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23 Comments

  • xavier | November 19, 2012 10:34 PMReply

    I actually would not like more of money penny in the field... I was okay with her at the start of the film, but eventually her dialogue didnt quite fit into the film, and I was releived to see her get the desk job at the end of the movie.

  • antho42 | November 18, 2012 6:11 PMReply

    "The movie's made zillions but some, like myself, have been hoodwinked into theatres, so if it's serious, complex action you're after don't believe the hype."
    Dude, it is a James Bond film. It is like looking for a hard science fiction in a Star Wars film.
    If you want a complex spy film, check out Tinker Taylor.

  • LB | November 17, 2012 9:23 AMReply

    I just spent money going to see Skyfall under the impression this was a superior type of action flick; wrong. This was an average action flick, with set pieces we've seen a thousand times. The characters were two dimensional even with the supposed character development which I guess gave Bond an additional dimension, taking him up to 2D. It made the same mistake as TDKR of alluding to current world threats in a Fox news stylie in tandem with a shoot them up, run them down poronography, which is actually kind of distasteful. I was bored, and dying for some complexity - see Homeland, an action espionage series dealing with current events in nail biting style. The movie's made zillions but some, like myself, have been hoodwinked into theatres, so if it's serious, complex action you're after don't believe the hype.

  • Pete | November 16, 2012 7:20 PMReply

    Everything about this film was terrible. Q is now a nerdy teenager? WTF?! There goes any sense of humor or potential with that character. Money Penny is now a flat chested boyish woman? There goes any real potential with that character. M is now a drab and monotone Ralph Feines? There goes any potential with that character. It's like they deliberately sucked out all the humor and irony from all the characters and what we're left with is a boring, dull, mopish Bond that no one can care about.

  • C. | June 4, 2013 6:57 PM

    The actor who plays Q is 32- hardly teenager material if you ask me.

  • IRuinMovies | November 15, 2012 9:38 AMReply

    The plot seemed illogical at a bunch of points to me. For example at the very beginning where Bond is picked up by Moneypenny the second he walks out of the office, and already the first car in front of them is the terrorists car. Its just too convenient. There were a ton of examples like that. Check out www.iruinmovies.com for more.

  • IRuinMovies | November 15, 2012 9:37 AMReply

    The plot seemed illogical at a bunch of points to me. For example at the very beginning where Bond is picked up by Moneypenny the second he walks out of the office, and already the first car in front of them is the terrorists car. Its just too convenient. There were a ton of examples like that. Check out www.iruinmovies.com for more.

  • SlyFox007 | November 14, 2012 12:35 AMReply

    I've never seen a D.P. praised as often as Roger Deakins. The cinematography was undeniably great, but it never made me think, "I can't wait to tell everyone what a great job the Director of Photography did!" Not to insult him, but I can't think of any other movie ever where very review made sure to mention the cinematographer by name. It's like he made some deal with the powers that be to become the first D.P. to become a household name.

  • GLASS | November 13, 2012 9:48 AMReply

    FUCK why did I skim this without seeing the movie yet? M DIES????

  • Michael Scully | November 13, 2012 2:01 PM

    Thanks for sharing your disappointment, knucklehead.

  • Jim | November 12, 2012 5:06 PMReply

    I love The Playlist, and browse it every day, but it has got be said, quite simply:

    are some articles really worth writing?

  • SH | November 12, 2012 4:09 PMReply

    You are quite obviously entitled to your opinion. In the same spirit, I disagree. As I see it, most of these criticisms are the same kind of "should have been" movie arguments people always seem to make -- and yet ultimately undermine themselves. If you were to add and subtract to the narrative and general flow/pace in the ways you advise, there is no guarantee the film would feel the same. In fact, it would likely feel less even. It's all about balance. It works so well because it picks its spots.

    The old vs. new angle worked great (both Bond and Scotland), and was pivotal to the feel. Otherwise you head back toward the mediocre Bonds. That is a huge part of what made it different. Also, what did you expect? Bond never to find his mojo again? He was knocked down in a huge, unprecedented way. (Again, what makes this film different and powerful in the Bond film context.) But just as the theme suggests (foreshadowed by the obituary, when M refers to him as an example of British resolve) Bond fights through it, even if likely for naught.

    Lastly, The Dark Knight was a great film, but Skyfall is a completely different animal. They are compared because there are so few well-done, dark takes on classic stories -- as well as truly interesting villains -- in big, mainstream movies. Yes, Sam Mendes mentioned it as an influence... in regards to the fact that a big budget, wide release film could remain artistic, dark, meaningful AND entertaining. This film wasn't perfect. It did, though, manage to bridge the gap between fans of the old Bonds and fans of the new, deeper/darker/more realistic style. That might have been the most difficult challenge of all.

  • sp | November 12, 2012 3:36 PMReply

    I enjoyed Skyfall, but their were aspects of this movie that bored me. This film's visuals were an extraordinary treat, but overall this movie cannot compare to Casino Royale . I was never bored watching Casino Royale.

  • MS | November 12, 2012 3:01 PMReply

    it should be noted that you list the script as being one of the things that "worked" about the film yet all of the things you listed that "didn't work" are issues that could have been resolved at the script level. I agree with all of your points but personally, I think the film's biggest flaw was it's weak script. it definitely seems like Logan improved upon Purvis & Wade's original script as best he could but my biggest question is why do they keep hiring those guys in the first place? P&W have been the writers on every shitty bond movie since The World Is Not Enough yet nobody ever seems to place any of the blame on them. thankfully it seems like the producers are letting Logan build the next one from the ground up.

  • Piotr | November 12, 2012 5:00 PM

    I concur. 24 hours later, I've been thinking about it, and I still don't really get what Silva's plan was. Or what he wanted. To get revenge because M cut him loose? Okay, fine, but then, what was with that whole "last two rats" speech? And why did Bond feel the need to go back to his childhood home? How was Skyfall (the place) connected to the narrative at all? It would be like Indiana Jones being like, "You know where we should fight the Nazis? My aunt's house, who took care of me and washed my feet when I was a boy." WTF?

  • DG | November 12, 2012 1:52 PMReply

    Thanks for this article. As I mentioned in another comment I found the similarities to The Dark Knight and Nolan in general to be both numerous and distracting. Also yeah, I was also pretty grossed out by them featuring a character who is a former child sex slave who Bond fucks on a boat then allows to be shot in the head despite having the spy and martial arts skills and prowess needed to prevent it (as we are shoewn immediately after). I'm all for a promiscuous, womanizing Bond but it's supposed to be fun

  • Dubl-o-seven | December 5, 2012 12:57 AM

    I loved the one-liner - found it to be perfect. Bond's favorite things are booze, women and guns, in no particular order. As a secret agent, his priority (and life for that matter) is to finish the job. To let a woman, that he may or may not truly care for, get in the way of his mission would be everything Bond isn't.

  • Cat | November 19, 2012 11:51 PM

    Yes! Thank you. It's Bond, I expect womanizing. But letting the girl that risked everything to help him be kill and then quips callously infront of her dead body... that was too much.

  • Piotr | November 12, 2012 4:58 PM

    Totally agree. And his "a waste of good scotch" line immediately after she'd been killed struck me as incredibly insensitive. I was like, "Why does James Bond HATE this woman?"

  • veronica | November 12, 2012 12:55 PMReply

    You made some very good points. I thought that you were some purist fan boy. But your points are valid. Thanks

  • Bob | November 17, 2012 5:10 AM

    Because its Macallan 50 yr old scotch!!!

  • yer | November 12, 2012 12:21 PMReply

    Should have been called Sky Dogs or Strawfall.

  • berk | November 20, 2012 12:09 PM

    Dear Playlist,

    "an adult Home Alone" is called Straw Dogs.

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