It is sometimes easy to get lost in a film in the moment and forget about anything else around it — the context, the history — and think that, just in that instance, this is a perfect film and stronger than the rest around it. This is sometimes the pitfall of watching new films year to year, going through awards season, and standing in a pool of hyperbole when describing each and every motion picture that crosses the cinema.
But sometimes they are different. Sometimes that film can be special and does something truly substantial, standing the time whether long or small, and showing that the impact is still there when more films of the same skin come out following it.
This isn’t to say that 2012’s Skyfall is a standing achievement or that we will be hoisting it into the annals of film lore as we toast its great tidings. No, but it is something of a fantastic action movie that is able to stray from this beaten path of grittiness that Hollywood blockbusters have taken us, steer away from the post-plot cinema, and forge a world that is utterly familiar and nostalgia but also new and different. Sam Mendes, with the help of Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Thomas Newman, and Roger Deakins, crafted a film that epitomizes the storytelling blockbuster in a sleek, classic way that two years later still is greater than most other products being churned out.It Begins With The Action
Probably the greatest blockbuster of all-time (or at least what I think is) Raiders of the Lost Ark begins with a bang. The credits show as we move across the jungle in search of something. It isn’t important what it is or why we are here, it only matters that something is going to happen very soon. A man cuts through the trees to reveal a ancient ritualistic statue, he screams and runs. Another man follows him up to the statue and looks at it and progresses on.
“South America 1936,” it reads. A man pulls a map out and pieces it together while the rest of the group looks on. Suddenly, a close-up. Spielberg zooms in on one man and then his pistol being lifted up. The crack of a whip and more close-ups as to keep the action condense follow as the man cowers under the might of Indiana Jones, our hero.
What follows goes down into cinema history as Indiana Jones heads into the cave, replaces the totem with a sack of sand, and runs away from the rolling boulder. But what it best illustrated from the beginning was the immediate thrust into action that not only set the tone for the rest of the film, but also placed the audience on their toes right from the start.
Skyfall follows similarly. It doesn’t thrust from the very beginning into action, but uses a stationary camera and specifically placed lighting to showcase our hero, James Bond, as he enters the frame with gun in hand. Afterwards, he is thrust into an action scene reminiscent of later scenes in Raiders as Bond chases a man carrying the item he seeks through the streets of Istanbul, in the light of Hagia Sophia, with the same condensely shot action that Spielberg used to start his own movie.
It seems like too many action movies ditch this motive. They look for disposition or origin stories to open up with and forget that people came to see the action. Story will come. Disposition will come. But in the beginning, they need the action. There is so much you can learn from a hero just by that first scene.
Take Bond. He reminds me of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, or at least Daniel Craig does. Both actors seem capable to perform the actions that are presented to them, but both do it with a performance that looks almost professionally amateur. Bond chases the man to a bridge where he leaps onto a train and progresses forward. Bond tries to follow suit, but does it by ramming his motorcycle on the side and flying onto the train, hitting it hard, rolling down the side, and grabbing on by his fingers.
It is similar to Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, or more recently Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy, but the main hero needs to have this professional amateur quality to almost become relatable. I know I can’t perform the stunts that Ford or Chris Pine or Chris Pratt do, but the way they do them and with the effort they exert, it almost seems like the normal movie viewer could of pulled of that stunt with a little work at the gym.
But the action also has to carry. What Raiders does so well is consistently throw some sort of obstacle in the way of Indiana Jones that he has to perform something to get himself out of it. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it has to be something that moves the pacing along and keeps the audience engaged. Skyfall does just this by putting Bond, or sometimes the people around him, in some sort of peril even if it is miniscule to the main plot.Music and Cinematography Are Important In Blockbusters Also
It may seem below them, or at least Deakins, to be working on a Hollywood blockbuster but the difference matters. The way he crafts the shots are different than a usual blockbuster. Each one has a purpose and the master positions them to set a tone. Sometimes it is a classic tone like Bond overlooking London with the flag waving, sometimes it perpetuates the action like the battle with the sniper in front of the silhouetted blue light, and sometimes it just sets the mood like the lights of Shanghai as Bond rides in.
But the same could be said for the music. Newman crafts the score to set a mood. Sometimes it is blatantly obvious like when he plays the Bond theme when the Aston Martin is uncovered but sometimes it is subtle like when he pulls away during the aforementioned silhouetted fight scene. The music matters. I know I like to harp on Marvel movies and their lack of original or unique music but it is true.
The movies lack a musical identity, which takes away from the identity of the characters. Bond has his theme, Indiana Jones has his, Darth Vader has one, and even Jack Sparrow, but what is Thor’s or Iron Man or Captain America. Sure, Tony Stark blasts AC/DC and the Guardians of the Galaxy have a sex-fueled 70s playlist, but overall the identity is lost.
Newman infuses Skyfall with its own identity that feels more like watching a classic Spielberg movie using John Williams music than the bland action pieces that dominate the modern box office. Shanghai has its noise, Silva has his own noise, London exerts its own emotion, as does Scotland.
There is a rhythm and cadence that follows the film that isn’t seen in blockbusters nowadays. It seems like they are not interested in giving locations or moments a theme rather than creating the next great character theme or overarching tune that people will identify with the movie. Skyfall doesn’t believe in that, partly because Bond has his own tune already, but also because it knows that making the film synonymous with a great score, and Adele song, is more important than popping out one iconic theme (even though ironically it did that too, thanks Adele).If You’re Going To Do It, Then Pull The Trigger
It isn’t easy to just go out and kill off an important character. Going back to Marvel, they love to tease the death of an important figure only to come back and pull the rug out from under you. Phil Coulson, Loki (twice), and Bucky Barnes are a few characters who made their way back for Marvel after meeting their demise. While Mendes talked about drawing many comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, it is heavily apparent in the finale when M (Judi Dench) dies without any regalia.
It doesn’t happen in some overblown scene of pure ecstasy of sadness, it happens subtly, or at least the bullet hits that way, and she falls into the arms of her “adoptive” son, Bond. Much like Rachel in The Dark Knight, Mendes doesn’t act afraid to put away one of the series’ most iconic faces in a way that both works to subtly but also in a perfect fashion for a face that has defined the Bond movies.
Too many times, a studio may be too afraid to let a character go or walk and they create this perfect scenario for them to fall, only to bring them back over fear that they won’t find someone better. Lucky for Bond, Ralph Fiennes was waiting to take over, but that also is attributed to a well-written character.
It is so easy to kill off someone, and almost easier to bring them back, which is weird because sometimes it doesn’t make sense. This Hollywood world we live in wants so badly to be taken seriously in a gritty, reality-striken world but doesn’t always want to take the steps to do that and Skyfall does.
The actions are justified and the little things building up to the moments add up and pay off as they are intended to. No take backs. No returns.Sometimes It Is The Little Things That Make The Biggest Difference
It is easy to see Skyfall as the best Bond movie. Or maybe it is easier to look at one of Craig’s earlier works, Casino Royale, as a better product. The villain is strong, the love interest is strong, but maybe smaller things put Skyfall over its predecessor.
The villain is good, and Mads Mikkelson plays him expertly, but is he feared off-screen? We don’t meet Silva until almost half of the movie has played and without knowing his name or seeing his face, he is a presence felt on the screen. He strikes fear into the heart of M, Bond, and the rest of MI6 and they have no idea who is doing any of this to them.
Eva Green plays the love interest well, but Skyfall doesn’t need a Bond girl in the traditional sense to progress. Sure, one shows up. But she isn’t incredibly important. It may sound weird but the Bond girl in this movie is Judi Dench. It is sad to lose a lover and that part of Casino Royale is heartbreaking, but in Skyfall, he loses a mother and the one person who through everything still believed in him. They may act smug to each other, but the look in his eyes when the light leaves hers is devastating.
It wasn’t until this last time that I watched Skyfall that I realized the love I had for it. I miss the story-telling in Hollywood like this. A chain of events that follow an action happening on screen and how one little thing like hooking up a computer to see what they have on you can lead to a prison escape and more tension. But Skyfall is smart, and Mendes crafts the movie with the help of others to fit within the blockbuster bill, but also fit outside of it.
It isn’t ground-breaking in the sense that films will follow suit, but it is more of a staple that can be looked on as what is right with Hollywood blockbusters and show that there is still life in the properties that don’t have to have innovation to make money. Skyfall isn’t just a throwback to classic Bond, it is a throwback to classic storytelling. A throwback that hopefully will find its way into more Hollywood blockbusters as the years move along.