The new James Bond movie doesn't have any cars that turn into submarines, or people being thrown out of airplanes without a parachute and surviving. There's hardly any really huge widescreen action. No lasers or jetpacks at all.
The main special effect in this film? Judi Dench, giving her most indelible performance in the series. Spoilers ahead...
(Don't worry. I'm not going to reveal who dunnit or anything.)
I've seen people saying Skyfall is the best James Bond film since Goldfinger — and it's not. It's probably in the top 10 Bond movies of all time, but it might or might not make it into the top five. At two and a half hours, it's probably about 30 minutes too long, and it thinks it's a lot cleverer than it actually is. It's so intent on being a serious movie, it never manages to be as much fun as a lot of the best Bond movies. But as a movie that wants to be super serious, it's never as fascinating or as intense as, say, Looper. Or Drive.
That said, Skyfall is a pretty terrific ride, and a huge part of that is thanks to Judi Dench, completely rocking out in her seventh appearance as M. The new movie puts her squarely at the center, and examines her relationship with James Bond, as well as her past relationship with the movie's villain, Silva (Javier Bardem). Throughout the film, Dench radiates a sort of wounded dignity, refusing to apologize or even to explain herself except to the extent that she absolutely must. You absolutely believe that this is someone who's made terrible choices and kept secrets that would drive most of us mad.
And Judi Dench brings out the absolute best in Daniel Craig, who's playing the bitterest, most cynical shell of James Bond we've seen thus far. As much time as this film spends psychoanalyzing Bond and his relationship with M — and there's a lot of psychoanalyzing — Daniel Craig and Judi Dench manage to suggest that the real connection between them isn't maternal or whatever, but simply based on the fact that they've both crawled through shit and they're both deeply angry people who would fall apart in seconds if they stopped being pissed off.
In Skyfall, M is under siege in two completely different ways.
First, her past ruthlessness has come back to haunt her — at the start of the film, she basically orders an agent to shoot James Bond in the hopes of also killing the guy whom Bond is fighting. Bond is apparently killed in action, but then he comes back, feeling somewhat miffed that M ordered his death. (She just says that it was the right call, and let's move on.) And then over the course of the movie, we learn that this isn't by any means the first time M has burned one of her own agents. And in fact, she's lied to James Bond about some other stuff.
And second, M is being viewed as something of a dinosaur by the British government — as is James Bond himself. All of this secret agent stuff is so 20th century, when nowadays everything is all about hackers and surveillance and computers and internets. The government types want M to step aside and let the new generation take over — and the pressure on M only increases after James Bond fails to stop a list of NATO agents from being leaked, causing some undercover agents to be executed by extremists.
But like I said, it's M's relationship with Bond that propels the film, as he comes to grips with the fact that she had him shot and has yanked his chain on a few occasions. Bond travels back to his own past, even as he explores the root of his relationship with his boss. And meanwhile, the movie's villain, Silva, is intentionally set up as a counterpart to James Bond, whose relationship with M faces similar issues but has ended up in a much more twisted place.
And like I said, the movie makes a stab at psychoanalyzing Bond — he's an orphan who lost his parents young, and that's the reason that he made such a good recruit for the Secret Service. M is a surrogate mother whose approval Bond secretly wants. Or something. The "M as mother figure" thing is driven home pretty hard, as Javier Bardem smacks his lips and says things like, "Mother was very bad." And once again, the acting by Judi Dench and Daniel Craig is what makes all of this work — there is just a hint of tenderness and compassion between the two of them, towards the end of the film, and a weird sort of camaraderie. When the two of them are in Bond's Aston Martin, and he threatens to use the ejector seat on her, it's actually an oddly sweet moment.
Meanwhile, this movie chooses to venture into the "getting too old for this shit" territory, previously explored by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Knight Rises and countless other great sequels. Bond, we're told, is past his prime — he can't shoot straight, he's hooked on pills and booze, he barely deserves a license to drive, much less a license to kill. Etc. etc. (At least he still has cartilage in his knees. That's something.) Not much is done with this notion, except that Craig gets to show that his version of James Bond is basically a tuxedo-clad cockroach, who comes crawling back no matter how hard or how often you smush him.
And the idea that Bond is too old for this shit ties in with the theme that the film painstakingly lays out, that M and James Bond are too old-school for our world of hackers and (probably) Twitter espionage. (Twespionage?) This theme is laid out over and over, but not much is done with it — there are maybe twenty scenes where somebody lectures either Bond or M about how the world has changed, and they're relics of a bygone age. (Until finally M is forced to bust out with some Tennyson, which settles pretty much any argument.) Later in the film, you'll be pretty sloshed if you drink every time somebody says "The old ways are best" or "let's go back to the past." That's what I mean when I say this film isn't as clever as it thinks it is — ideas like "Bond is too old school" or "M is Bond's mother figure" are hammered home repeatedly, but never developed.
A lot of the burden of developing this "brave new world of hackers" stuff rests on Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas), who plays the new Q. He's the one who we see most often looking at a wall of giant computer screens, tracking people on closed-circuit television cameras or trying to trace insidious hackers who are counter-counter-hacking MI6's counter-hacking. (He also lectures Bond about how he can do more damage with his laptop in his PJs than Bond can do with his gun.) The closest this movie comes to science fiction is when Q is lecturing us about super-hacker exploits, which can blow up buildings and subvert entire governments.
And meanwhile, the movie's villain, Silva, is supposed to be some sort of super-hacker, as well as helping to shed light on M's past mistakes. Javier Bardem is one of the campiest Bond villains of all time — at one point tying Bond to a chair and caressing Bond's adam's apple and legs while purring about how Bond's training never prepared him for this. As the evil mastermind who's always one step ahead, Silva is a perfectly sturdy villain, but I came away with the impression that the film wanted him to be up there with Goldfinger or Blofeld in the villain hall of fame. And I'm not sure why.
As a straight-up action movie, meanwhile, Skyfall is absolutely stunning. Director Sam Mendes and his cinematographer Roger Deakins have an amazing visual sense — rarely has suspense been so filled with overwhelming visuals. From the opening sequence in Turkey to a neon-tinged Blade Runner-y confrontation in Shanghai, the movie holds your fascination. Towards the end of the film, there are some huge shots of Scotland, in which it looks like a bleak, forbidding wasteland where people go to die. And meanwhile, every action scene is shot with a lovely relentless brutality, in which every bullet seems real and Bond is never granted superhuman reflexes. You always know where Bond and his adversaries are at any moment in every fight or chase, which is a rare virtue indeed nowadays.
All in all, Skyfall is a triumph of both acting and direction — it more than fulfills the gritty promise that Casino Royale made for Daniel Craig's version of the character. It's a highly satisfying action movie, which puts Bond into a world of pervasive surveillance and nearly all-powerful computers, and shows us how Bond can still kick a lot of ass. And most of all, it's Judi Dench showing us just what an incredible star she really is.