Life and death live on separate sides of the same coin. You’re either alive and kicking or resting in peace. But what happens when you’re somewhere in between—“when life clings to you like a disease?” That’s the question presented in Skyfall, the latest installment of the Bond series. Early in the film, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is shown plunging hundreds of feet into a river near Istanbul. The fall symbolizes Bond’s failure to nab his villain, but also foreshadows the arc of the movie itself. From the beginning, Skyfall delves into serious themes about the nature of identity, the role of espionage in a modern world, and the notion of moral infallibility. The movie captivates with its astounding special effects, but also with the idea that the greatest threat comes from within. We are invited—indeed, enticed—to ponder what happens when self-assurance becomes doubt, security becomes threat, and trust becomes liability.
Skyfall is Craig’s third portrayal of Bond, but it’s director Sam Mendes’s first crack at the franchise. Perhaps it took time to find the right combination, but the pairing of Craig and Mendes does more justice to the series than Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace combined. Some critics are already calling Skyfall the best Bond film in history. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it’s certainly a contender.
The movie packs a big punch as far as excitement goes, surpassing all films since The Dark Knight Rises. Audiences seeking red-meat action scenes won’t leave disappointed. The cinematography also impresses. Special effects, development, directing—the movie warrants top scores across the board.
That said, Skyfall does struggle in its plot. The story itself centers around one simple premise: Britain’s intelligence agency, MI6, finds itself under siege. The government openly questions the organization’s relevance, the headquarters are in jeopardy, and an old enemy threatens to bring everything down from within. So where does Bond come in? Precisely where one would expect—as the last resort for MI6. It’s a predictable story, of course, but one with enough twists that it doesn’t get boring.
Any weakness in Skyfall’s plot is made up for through the stellar acting of Craig, who this time brings a realness and depth to Bond that he lacked in his first two attempts. In both Casino and Quantum, Craig played his roles with abandon; he kicked ass while refusing to admit his own vulnerabilities. Neither attempt seemed genuine. This incarnation, however, is the most authentic yet, Mendes breaks down the barriers between character and audience by providing a glimpse into Bond’s rarely mentioned backstory. For a new generation of audiences unfamiliar with Bond, the movie will provide a satisfying explanation about the man behind the suit. This Bond is more than just a killing machine with impeccable style—he’s a man with a backstory who we’re not afraid to root for.
Skyfall’s great acting carries though to Judi Dench, who reprises her role as MI6’s fearless matriarch, “M.” Dench brings a deep sense of gravity: when her kingdom is threatened, she pulls out all the guns (in some scenes literally). Bond and M aside, one character that could use improvements is that of Bond’s co-star Ms. Monneypenny. Played by Naomie Harris. Ms. Monneypenny is gorgeous, talented, and ruthless. On paper, she’s a grade-A femme fatale sidekick. But nearly every time she and Bond are on screen together, there is a noticeable lack of rapport between the two. Cleverly crafted double-entendres meant to come across as seductive instead appear forced and awkward. In one of the cheesier scenes, Ms. Moneypenny shaves off Bond’s beard, only to later drop the line “we’ve had a few close shaves.”
Direction, production, and other acting aside, Skyfall’s undeniable high point is Javier Bardem’s remarkable performance as the villain Silva. A man gone crazy, Silva is devoid of empathy, yet remains rational enough to mastermind a plot against MI6. The depth of Silva’s character raises deep questions about human nature: is the most infallible among us truly infallible? As is the case with Bond, big ego may lead to big results, but it also poses a huge risk when things go wrong. Silva makes it a point to show Bond that the two are not that different. He does this so convincingly, in fact, that Bond at one point questions his own motives and confidence—his largest asset, his self-assurance, becomes his biggest liability. Silva’s character should represent the complete antithesis of Bond, yet audiences will struggle to see the differences between the two.
Many of the themes addressed in Skyfall are variations of those raised in 2008’s Dark Knight, including the nature of human macabre, insanity, and respectability. How far will someone go for revenge? Silva pushes this notion to its extremes. He is the Joker devoid of irrationality. Whereas Gotham’s villain observes no rules, Silva follows every rule, then twists it to his advantage. He’s playing with fire hoping to get burned, and his lack of fear is what’s truly terrifying.
Yes, Skyfall is an action film. But more than that, it’s a commentary on the social norms we take for granted—as a society, we have come to assume that hard work will be rewarded, that self-assurance will yield results. Mendes takes that notion and flips it on its head.