Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘Skyfall’
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
Very seldom does one character define a subgenre. But that is precisely what James Bond, 007 has done with spy/espionage fiction. Since making his film debut in 1962, Bond has appeared in over 20 movies. Moreover, the character has only been portrayed by a mere six actors (officially, anyway). Now that the 25th (official) Bond installment, No Time to Die, is finally in theaters, I think now is a better time than any to look back at 007’s dossier. I’ll be examining the James Bond franchise to see how these pictures evolved over the decades with each new leading actor. Today’s mission: Skyfall (2012)!
When I initially watched Skyfall upon its release in 2012, I loved it. But with the exception of Casino Royale (2006), I haven’t revisited the Daniel Craig era often since the movies first arrived in theaters. Therefore, when watching Craig’s installments for this column, most of them feel very fresh — almost to the point of watching them anew. It is a quality which I found to be especially true of Skyfall; which I frankly did not remember much about. In rewatching this film, one thing is obvious: Skyfall is an attempt to correct where its immediate predecessor, and first true sequel in the franchise, Quantum of Solace (2008) went wrong in my and many fans’ opinions.
Granted, Quantum of Solace has been re-evaluated positively by a faction of fans in the interceding years. If you read my review of the sequel, though, you know I’m not one of them. Nevertheless, the initial reception of Quantum led EON Productions to consider that the gritty, realistic tone chosen for this era of the films was perhaps a little too much in that instance. As a result, there was no doubt in the producers’ nor Craig’s mind that the 23rd official film in the franchise would need to be different.
Making those changes would not come quickly, though, as production on the movie in review was caught up in MGM’s financial issues and the studio’s eventual bankruptcy. Of course, the rumors this film would be Craig’s final go as Bond didn’t help matters either. Not that such a rumor is completely unfounded since the actor publicly stated his desire (at the time) to stop playing the character in an interview with Rolling Stone. Although, I feel Craig’s notions at the time were a result of how difficult Quantum was to make. In any event, the star’s feelings either changed on the matter or a multi-picture contract required him to stay.
Despite these difficulties, work on the 23rd Bond film persisted. Early in development, it was rumored that Craig’s third outing as Bond would take place primarily in The Big Apple and be an adaptation on the short story “007 in New York” (1963). While that definitely would have been a change of pace for this era, I’m glad that adaptation didn’t come to fruition. Frankly, having a Bond story set primarily in New York would result in another generic action flick set in the big city. In lieu of gritty take on that story, the decision was made to take this entry back in a more traditional direction and globe-trotting setting.
There was also a conscious decision to make Skyfall seemingly less interconnected and much more standalone than the previous two films. Series vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with new screenwriter John Logan (Alien: Covenant), crafted a story which delved further into Bond’s past than any entry before it. Skyfall finds James Bond (Craig) on a mission to retrieve an MI6 hard drive containing the real names of undercover agents across the globe. After Bond fails to recover the drive, the cyber-terrorist known as Silva (Javier Bardem) begins to leak a few names of undercover agents onto YouTube every week, which, of course, threatens their lives. Eventually, Silva puts M (Judi Dench) on the chopping block. Now, a newly reinstated 007 must protect her at all cost, even if it means confronting his past.
To bring this story (albeit a bit of a familiar one) to the screen, the producers wanted to make sure they had the right director for the job. Initially, British director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) was reportedly being considered to direct — to the point where it’s said that Boyle even had a take on the script that was much more tonally in line with a Roger Moore era adventure. If there’s any truth to that, I have no doubt that’s why that collaboration fell through. There’s no doubt that Skyfall is a concerted effort to make a more traditional and somewhat lighter Bond picture, but taking the film into the kitchy territory that was Moore’s era was not the goal.
Following Boyle’s exit, the directing gig went to a filmmaker once again recommended by Craig: Academy Award-winning British director Sam Mendes (American Beauty). Much like Marc Forster before him, Mendes had made his bones primarily with dramatic fare. Those skills would serve the director well since Skyfall, like Casino Royale, would have a dramatic core. Beyond that, though, Craig knew Mendes was the man for the job, having worked with him on Road to Perdition (2003); an underrated adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name. As with the directorial selection made on Quantum, Mendes surprised me when it was announced that he would be taking on Bond. At the same time, I also knew that he would be a brilliant choice due to his versatility in the medium. And, luckily, my confidence in the director proved correct.
As adept as he is at bringing this story to the screen, though, there’s no denying that the screenplay is far from perfect. Don’t get me wrong, there’s much more good than bad at play, but the script has a trifecta of significant issues. First and foremost, the mission itself is one of the most unoriginal ventures in series history — it features the same MacGuffin used in Mission: Impossible (1996)! Furthermore, some of the choices made regarding the leakage of the list lack any sense. I mean, why in the world would you dox the list via YouTube? Aside from the recycled MacGuffin, Skyfall, more so than most Bond pictures, wears its primary influence on its impeccably tailored sleeve. There’s no denying the film was influenced by The Dark Knight (2008); so much so, that I think the producers might have wanted Christopher Nolan to direct it. Then, of course, in-house parallels can be drawn between this film and The World is Not Enough (1999). In both, M drives the plot and finds herself in jeopardy outside the MI6 HQ. To an extent, Skyfall very much feels like the best version of The World is Not Enough that could possibly be made.
Outside of these qualms mentioned above, though, Skyfall truly does everything else right. By doing away from the kinetic style of the previous two films and easing up the tone, this installment corrects the factors that nearly bogged the franchise down in malaise with the last entry. In this way, Skyfall sets the path for the Craig era moving forward, which most definitely makes it a Franchise Expansion! Part of this tonal shift is achieved by introducing familiar franchise characters we would generally expect to see. First and foremost, there’s Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), who presents a new and exciting interpretation of the character. Not only is Eve arguably the primary Bond girl of this entry, but Harris also delivers a performance that lets you know this version of the character can give 007 a run for his money.
Then there’s Ben Whishaw, who brings us the youngest Q yet. His version of the character is rooted in technology and old-fashioned simplicity as the actor brings a breath of fresh air to this lovable supporting character. Of course, this theme of utilizing the old and new schools of spycraft runs throughout the film on many levels. Aside from these traditional characters, Skyfall also introduces the endlessly watchable Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, a higher-up in British Intelligence. The character also brings that old-school vibe with him as he gels perfectly with the rest of the cast.
In addition to the supporting cast, the main group of actors here truly knocks it out of the park; all of them weaving the sins of their respective characters’ past into their performances. The individual plagued by her past the most is not Bond, but M. The spycraft matriarch and her actions — and their subsequent consequences — are what makes this whole story unfold after all. As a result, Dench delivers the most layered and complex performance of her seven appearances in the series. In fact, I think it’s one of the most nuanced portrayals of her highly-lauded career. Considering she is a main character in this film, Dench’s screen time in Skyfall alone surpasses that of the late Desmond Llewelyn (1914-1999), who played Q in seventeen installments.
Much like Dench, Craig brings the toll of Bond’s past and career into his performance. By doing this, I believe Craig delivers his most conflicted take on the hero yet. The actor presents Bond as a man shattered by the life he’s chosen. Alas, there’s no other life he knows, so he must find a way to confront his past and resurrect his passion for the spy game and life in general. Many folks have argued that Craig seems checked out in his performance here. I maintain that the opposite is true. Despite the actor’s possible weariness at portraying the character, I believe he truly reaches the core of the complex human being that James Bond can be: simultaneously driven and humorous, but also profoundly tortured. Such intricate qualities were explored in Ian Flemming‘s novels, but the films usually don’t do so. There are legitimates reason to explore Bond’s multifaceted nature from a story standpoint, and I think Skyfall does just a pretty good job at this.
Of course, for every hero, there must be a villain. In the case of Skyfall, Silva is almost a broken funhouse mirror version of Bond. Much like Batman and The Joker in The Dark Knight, these two characters of opposing force represent what could have become of either one of them. As you might imagine, Bardem steals every scene he’s in as the eternally charismatic Silva. Even though his overly complex plan is motivated by an act of ultimately simple revenge, Bardem delivers a villain who is one of the most tragic, entertaining, and overall best in the franchise thus far (which says a lot as the character doesn’t show up until the 70-minute mark of the film’s runtime). Beyond that, the chemistry between Craig and Bardem, both subtly sexual and otherwise, is off the charts. Every scene the two actors share is a showcase.
Mendes and his impeccable cast and crew ultimately deliver one of the better films in this franchise overall, and the first to gross over a billion dollars worldwide. As with Casino Royale, Skyfall is the perfect mix of action and drama. Neither factor overshadows the other as the film is given time to breathe with its 143-minute runtime. Thankfully, though, it does not feel overly long at any point thanks to frequent Mendes collaborator, Academy Award Winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049), making each frame a beautiful thing to behold (even if Skyfall is the first film in the series’ history shot on a digital media instead of film).
The only thing I quite dislike about this film is its musical score, written by Mendes’ go-to composer Thomas Newman (The Little Things). For me, Newman’s score is not in a classic enough franchise-style for my liking. On the upside, though, Adele gives us the best theme song of the Craig era. And, indeed, Skyfall is the second-best film of this run thus far. So, it will be interesting to see how things go when they resume the tightly interconnected threads with the next installment.
Skyfall is Available on All Home Video Formats
James Bond Will Return For Another Installment of Franchise Expansion or Implosion with SPECTRE (2015)!
007’s Newest Mission, No Time to Die, Is (finally) In Theaters Now!
Read About Bond’s Past Missions:
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Casino Royale (1967)
Casino Royale (2006)