I have a distinction to make: Skyfall is a brilliant, beautiful, and breathtaking movie–but it’s not a James Bond film. I mean that as a compliment too. Of course, Skyfall is nominally a Bond movie, with all of the recognizable characters showing up: James, Q, M, Moneypenny, and there’s the mincing, off-kilter, European villain we’ve come to expect, this go round played magnificently by Javier Bardem. And, there’s even a handful of tongue in cheek references to the older films in the franchise, such as the reappearance of a vintage Bond car, in-jokes about exploding pens, and the hero’s martini preferences. Apart from those vestigial traits, Skyfall is brand new; we’re watching a very different franchise unfold here.
The change, in my opinion, is a welcomed one. I haven’t much enjoyed any 007 movie since 1995’s GoldenEye. The Casino Royale reboot wasn’t revelatory, and Quantum of Solace, while better than its predecessor, wasn’t spectacular. Skyfall though completely makes up for those missteps, and restarts the Bond franchise proper.
Right from the opening credits, there’s many additions to the formula. Daniel Craig as Bond is much more athletic than his predecessors for one thing, and has a knack for Parkour. The status quo of the series is no longer set in stone either, as right away the audience learns there’s to be some changes at MI6. The biggest change, an unprecedented one at that, is that with Skyfall, there’s suddenly an art-house director at the helm: Sam Mendes. He’s the last director I would’ve expected to do a James Bond movie (his career includes such artful dramas as American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, and the poignant comedy Away We Go). Then again, artsy directors are oftentimes manage to revivify stale franchises, just as Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) did with Harry Potter.
The plot of Skyfall is a highly entertaining example of simplicity masquerading as complexity. In the opening scenes of the film, we learn that James Bond (Daniel Craig) has been shot and is presumably dead, that MI6 is losing public support, and M (Judi Dench) is on the verge of being sacked. Then, on top of everything else, the highly encrypted computers at MI6 are hacked, with explosive consequences.
Once Silva, the villain, comes into play (Javier Bardem), we come to learn what the plot really is: a game of cat and mouse. Silva, a computer hacker on par with Julian Assange, manages to manipulate the computers at MI6 to such a degree that the long-established intelligence group have to suddenly pull up shop and go on the run. But how do you run from someone who is always one step ahead?
Before Skyfall is over, you’ll be scratching your head a few times. There’s definitely a handful of scenes that make little or no sense, and many of Bond’s choices are highly debatable. And, like any spy movie, there’s numerous scenes where the villain could have easily killed Bond, and likewise many perfect moments when Bond could have put a bullet in Silva, but didn’t due to some inscrutable spy-code of honor. It’s important to remember that Hitchcock thrillers were riddled with plot-holes too, but it’s the cumulative effect that matters… and, like North By Northwest or The Lady Vanishes, Skyfall manages to be both thrilling and beautiful (Mendes also pays a nice homage to the espionage classic The Third Man). It may not be Bond, but that’s not a bad thing at this point.