By 2009 MGM was in trouble. Carrying $3.7 billion of debt, the organisation was paying over $250 million per year in interest payments alone. The problem appeared to stem from an over-leveraging of its large library of legacy film and TV properties. At the peak of the home DVD market, sales were worth over $500 million per year. By now, however, this market was in decline. This was due, in part, to the changing habits of viewers, as streaming and torrenting were both being supported by ever faster broadband speeds. Another factor was the worldwide economic recession: with less in the way of disposable income, potential customers were spending less on such items. For well over a year, executives fought to avoid bankruptcy, finally bowing to the inevitable in November 2010. By December, the company emerged, after a sale, with Spyglass Entertainment executives Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum becoming co-Chairs and co-CEOs.
This issue, lasting most of 2009 and all of 2010, fell right in the middle of what would have been the normal development cycle for the 23rd Bond instalment. With development suspended during MGM’s financial difficulties, the film was not announced, officially, until January 2011, where it was given a release date of November 2012. Director of American Beauty, Sam Mendes, had been attached to the project since shortly after the release of Quantum of Solace, continuing to work in a consultancy role during the shutdown. His involvement with the film had been sparked by a conversation with a rather inebriated Daniel Craig, at a party, where the actor had been discussing plans for the next film, and asked Mendes whether he’d be interested. Quickly sobering, when he realised the director might be keen, Craig then placed a call to EON, both to apologise playfully for going ahead and making such an offer, and to report Mendes’ interest in taking the helm.
The launch press conference took place in November of 2011, 50 years to the day after the announcement of Sean Connery as the first cinematic James Bond. The title, Skyfall, had been coined by writers Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, during a scripting process that included John Logan, writer of Gladiator and The Aviator, and uncredited contributions by Jez Butterworth, writer of Edge of Tomorrow and Ford v Ferrari/Le Mans ’66. Details were scant at this stage, other than filming would be commencing that day, with Daniel Craig sporting a fair bit of stubble on his face. Javier Bardem, so memorable as the antagonist in No Country for Old Men, would be appearing as the antagonist, with Ralph Fiennes, Naomi Harris and Ben Whishaw joining the cast.
Skyfall commences in Istanbul, sans opening gunbarrel, with Bond, and a field agent we will come to know as Eve (Harris), on the trail of a mercenary, Patrice (Ola Rapace). Patrice has stolen an MI6 hard drive that we will come to learn contains the identities and covers of all undercover agents in the field. Giving chase by car, then bike, Bond and Patrice end up on the top of a train fighting over the drive. With M (Judi Dench) and Bill Tanner (Rory Kinnear) tracking the operation from London, Eve is instructed to take a shot at Patrice, from distance, before the train disappears into a tunnel. Hitting Bond, rather than her mark, James falls several hundred feet, seemingly to his death. The film then enters a title sequence, with the terrific visuals accompanied by Adele’s title track.
Picking up three months later, M is summoned to meet Gareth Mallory (Fiennes), the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. As a result of the loss of the drive, Mallory informs M that he is there to relieve M of duty, at the end of a two-month transition period he will oversee, at which time she will retire with full honours. On the way back to MI6, the computer system is hacked, and a huge explosion detonated in M’s office. Then we learn James Bond is alive, and spending his time with a lover in a beach shack, where he is drinking heavily, and taking medication for the pain caused by the gunshot wound. After a night in a local bar, Bond sees the CNN report of the MI6 attack on TV. Heading back to London, he arrives at M’s house looking dishevelled, and clearly bitter towards his boss for failing to let him complete, without interference, the mission in Turkey.
Heading into MI6 – now located underground in temporary accommodation – Bond is required to undertake a number of physical and psychological tests before being cleared for duty. Struggling with a lack of fitness, poor aim caused by his wounds, and failing to engage in the psych exercise, Bond is cleared for duty by M, reluctantly, and over the objections of Mallory. Removing the shrapnel from his wound, Bond has the shards analysed, linking the ammunition to Patrice. From there he is able to track the mercenary to Shanghai, where he confronts him, after Patrice has performed a hit on an unknown target. With Patrice dying during the fight, as a result of Bond’s damaged arm not being strong enough to prevent him falling from the skyscraper in which they meet, Bond finds a casino token, clearly intended as payment for the hit. Heading to the casino in Macau to cash the token, Bond is introduced to Severine (Bérénice Marlohe), a former child sex slave, now working for, and involved with Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Leading Bond to Silva, Severine is killed for the betrayal, while Bond learns Silva is a former MI6 agent who worked for M in Hong Kong in the run-up to the handover to transition, and that he is now acting as a cyber terrorist. Using a gadget from the new Q (Whishaw), Bond is able to alert his bosses to his location, and Silva is arrested for his attack on London.
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M informs Bond that she had given Bond up to the Chinese after he had begun to act over and above his jurisdiction, despite having been an outstanding agent. Using his arrest as a way to attack MI6 from the inside, Silva escapes, while M is giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry. Attacking that inquiry, Silva is prevented from killing M, as Bond arrives to get his boss out of the building. Swapping the company car for his personal Aston Martin DB5, Bond takes M to his childhood home – Skyfall – in Scotland, where they will lure Silva for one last encounter. Defeating Silva, Bond is unable to save M from a gunshot wound, and she dies. Returning to London, Bond learns Eve is in fact Eve Moneypenny; while he declares himself ready to get back to work for her replacement, the new M being Gareth Mallory.
Skyfall is a much misunderstood film. This misunderstanding has coloured perceptions of the Daniel Craig run, despite it being considered as one of his better entries. The common reaction to this film is that Bond was a rookie 00-agent in his first two entries, while he is presented as old and past it during this film. So, to be clear, Skyfall absolutely is not about James Bond being too old. During the pre-title sequence Bond is a peak agent. There is no way he would go from that to too old in the course of three months. The film is more about the readiness of Bond, and the relevance of him and his section in the modern world. Mallory does make reference to it being a young man’s game, but that is from the perspective of seeing the whole section as outdated, and having watched Bond struggle through his tests with all the verve of an ruined drunk. Once Bond attacks on Silva’s island, and then shows completely sure aim at the parliamentary inquiry, he is back, with full use of his skill-set. Bond isn’t too old: he’s simply lacking his mojo – exacerbated by three months of bad living – as the main plot begins.
That is Skyfall in a nutshell: for good or ill, it is a film that seems to exist to argue the continued relevance of the James Bond series. Can our blunt instrument still show relevance in a world of cyber terrorism and unknown enemies? As a consequence, both of this questioning and the casting of big names such as Ralph Fiennes, this does lead to expanded roles for the other MI6 crew. Whilst everyone is terrific, with the new Q having a fresh and different rapport with Bond, this does lead to a slight feeling that this film is slightly too much about MI6 than just Bond, a feeling that will carry into the next entry.
Otherwise, as a very singular Bond entry, Skyfall is entirely a matter of taste. Roger Deakins’ cinematography has a crisp sheen, slightly desaturated in places, though his establishing shots are a thing of beauty. Thomas Newman’s score is understated to the point of many finding it bland. This doesn’t look or sound like a typical Bond film. Bond himself is damaged and working, for much of the film, in the UK. This is not the confident globe-trotting agent turning up in one beautiful location after another. The antagonist is memorable, but has links to our established team that are common to films of this era. Again, although it is M rather than Bond that has these links this time, the tendency toward making it personal will carry into the next entry. This will date this era of films, as will its similarities – in the Trojan Horse plot of the villain – to The Dark Knight.
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Skyfall caught the zeitgeist in a way no Bond film had, at least in the UK, since the 1960s. In Olympic year – Bond playing an amusing part in the opening ceremony for the Games – with a take of $1.1 billion, it became both the highest grossing film ever at the UK Box Office, as well as the highest grossing James Bond film of all, even when inflation is taken into account. Critically lauded and commercially successful, Skyfall had brought the series back from the brink after a four year gap, studio bankruptcy, and the critical mauling of Quantum of Solace. Bond was relevant and popular again, and now able to attract Oscar winning talent, both at the helm and in front of the camera. Surely, repeating the formula by enticing Sam Mendes back – and hiring another Academy Award winner to play the antagonist for Bond 24 – couldn’t go wrong.
The Road to Bond 25 will return with Spectre (2015).