Bond movies revisited: Skyfall (2012)

The 25th James Bond movie No Time To Die arrives in Cineworld in September, and we're counting down the days by revisiting all the 007 movies in chronological order of release.

In honour of Daniel Craig's swansong as 007, we're taking a nostalgic trip back through time. Next up: Daniel Craig's third Bond movie, Skyfall.

What is the story of Skyfall?

James Bond is accidentally shot and presumed dead while on active duty in Istanbul. He had been in pursuit of a lone assassin in possession of data discs, which contain the top-secret identities of embedded MI6 agents worldwide. At the same time, Bond's superior M (Judi Dench) starts to experience cyberattacks, which eventually result in a deadly bombing at MI6 headquarters.

Bond, who has been living off-grid, comes to suspect that the espionage trail and the terrorist incident are connected. Called back into the service, he's tasked with hunting down the original man Patrice (Ola Rapace). But the trail becomes even more knotty when it leads to the deadly Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent gone rogue who has made it his mission to sabotage M and everything she stands for. Silva's motivations are deeply personal, rooted in a past betrayal, and he appears to be a shadowy reflection of Bond himself. The very institution of MI6, plus notions of duty and loyalty, are called into question as 007 vows to protect his superior from this insurgent and diabolically devious new threat.

How did Skyfall get made?

Daniel Craig stunned the world with his debut as James Bond in 2006's Casino Royale. Like Timothy Dalton before him, Craig succeeded in humanizing the extreme, archetypal notions of the Bond character, reworking him as a flawed, fallible human being capable of love and perceptible emotion. This was all the more refreshing in the wake of 2002's Die Another Day, the final Pierce Brosnan vehicle that had unleashed the invisible Aston Martin and other gimmicks more appropriate to Austin Powers.

Casino Royale was a critical and commercial success, immediately cementing Craig's portrayal as a valid and urgent one. Somewhat regrettably his follow-up movie, Quantum of Solace (2008), fell short of the mark. Hampered by insurmountable script problems, which were themselves accentuated by the 2007/2008 Writers Strike, the film was an ambitious misfire, mistaking breakneck momentum for nuance, and frenetic editing for excitement. Despite Craig's typically excellent performance as a haunted, wounded Bond dealing with palpable emotional fallout, the movie was seen as a missed opportunity.


Craig's third Bond movie, eventually titled Skyfall, was the chance to set things right, and regain the mojo that had powered the actor's gripping 2006 debut. To that end, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli made the bold choice of hiring an artistically prestigious director to helm the movie: Sam Mendes. The filmmaker had scored Oscar-winning glory with his 1999 movie debut American Beauty, and several of his other films had been noted for their artistic prestige and strong performances, including 2002's Road to Perdition, starring Tom Hanks.

It was an audacious and somewhat unusual move for the Bond franchise to enlist someone of such repute. With the odd exception, most Bond helmers have been jobbing, workmanlike filmmakers (the likes of Lewis Gilbert aside), so Mendes promised to bring something new to the table. In fact, he was, and still remains, the only Oscar-winning filmmaker to helm a Bond blockbuster. It was Craig who approached Mendes, having worked with him on Road to Perdition; initially hesitant, Mendes eventually took up the mantle.


The early stages of the film's development were troubled, owing to distributor MGM's financial issues (there were, perhaps, echoes of the problems that forced Timothy Dalton out of the role in the 1990s). However, with this resolved in 2010, production began apace on the movie, which was rumoured to be called 'Carte Blanche' (subsequently denied by the filmmakers). The delays hastened the departure of original screenwriter Peter Morgan (creator of The Crown); the duties were later taken up by Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who collaborated with the Oscar-winning writer of Gladiator (2000) and Hugo (2011), John Logan.

When a domain name called was registered under MGM in 2011, rumours started to abound that this was the title of the 24th Bond movie. The news was confirmed at a subsequent press conference on 3rd November 2011, attended by Craig, Mendes and assorted production members. Recognising the prestige of the franchise, which was about to enter its 50th year, producer Wilson hired a documentary crew to capture every facet of the production. (Similar expectations had greeted Die Another Day, which had coincided with the series' 40th birthday.) It was at this stage that Craig formally declared his return as James Bond, and principal photography began just a few days later on 7th November.


The movie's budget was set at a whopping $200 million, making it one of the most expensive in the series up to that point. In-keeping with the franchise, the globe-trotting sense of scale was truly impressive, encompassing numerous locations in London and Surrey (the latter standing in for the Skyfall mansion);  and, in Turkey, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar and the Varda Viaduct (from which Bond plunges in the pre-credits sequences).

Although much of Skyfall's early narrative takes place in and around Shanghai and Macau, substitute locations in the UK were often used (aerial shots of Shanghai were captured by the second unit team). These included the Virgin Active pool in Canary Wharf for Bond's swimming session, Ascot racecourse (standing in for Shanghai airport) and London's Broadgate Tower (used in the scene where Bond trails Patrice). The glowing, atmospheric interiors of Macau's Golden Dragon casino were captured on sets at Pinewood Studios, the traditional home of the Bond franchise. 


Several intelligent decisions galvanised Skyfall and elevated it above and beyond Quantum of Solace. The first was the foregrounding of Judi Dench's M, who had first appeared opposite Pierce Brosnan in 1995's GoldenEye, and was now to make her last appearance in the Bond universe. Skyfall recognised that amidst the franchise's bevy of beautiful (and often disposable) women characters, it was the grounding presence of M that had served to draw the greatest nuance out of the Bond character.

Not just Bond's superior, she had stepped into more of a maternal and caring role on more than one occasion, and Skyfall pursued this notion to the nth degree, attaining a level of emotional impact not often seen in the series. In fact, this is one of the few Bond movies to cut deep and suggest humanity beneath the franchise ingredients, joining the likes of Licence to Kill (1989) and On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).


Via the medium of M, it felt like we were getting to understand James Bond anew. Her past, and that of her greatest agent, are intrinsically connected, propelling an audacious finale that ditches exotic locations for the altogether chillier climes of Scotland, allowing the script's themes of personal demons to bear greater fruit. It was very rare for a Bond film to so explicitly point towards the character's background; in Skyfall, it's accentuated just enough with spoiling James Bond's overall mystique (something that would trip up Craig's next movie, Spectre, released in 2015).

Next up: the villain. It's often said that a Bond movie is only as good as its antagonist (although that hardly explains the disaster of 1974's The Man with the Golden Gun). And certainly, whenever Bond has faced a foe who's his physical or psychological equal, or, preferably both, it tends to turbo-charge the narrative. One need only think of Robert Shaw's calculating, chilling Red Grant in 1963's From Russia With Love who went toe to toe with Sean Connery's 007 on the Orient Express.


Skyfall lands a slam dunk with the casting of Javier Bardem as Silva, not just another disposable antagonist but a character whose madness conceals justifiable rage. Betrayed by M and left to rot in an Asian prison, Silva, formerly Tiago Rodriguez, reshaped himself as a technological nemesis with one goal in mind: to bring down MI6. Bardem's flair with cold-blood villainy had already been demonstrated to magnificent, Oscar-winning effect in the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men (2007), and he resurrects grace notes of that terrifying persona here, albeit laced with much-needed overtones of campy self-awareness. (The hair alone is an entertaining signifier of how deranged Silva is.)

Even more chilling is the suggestion that Silva represents the dark side of 007, almost like the Joker to Batman. (The influence of Christopher Nolan's 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight is very evident in Silva's convoluted, borderline impossible scheming.) At the beginning of Skyfall, Bond is disillusioned and disheartened over M treating him as a disposable object, one of the myriad secret agents suffered to live life in the crosshairs. When Bond learns of M's betrayal of Silva, we can perhaps sense that Bond is just a few clicks away from such a transformation himself; it calls into question the very institution of Queen and country.

The final ingredient in the secret sauce is cinematographer Roger Deakins. He had collaborated with Mendes twice before, on Road to Perdition and Iraq war drama Jarhead (2005), and was enlisted to bring handsome, striking polish to the new 007 adventure. Deakins was, and still is, one of the finest lensers in the business, capable of forming extraordinary patterns of light and shade to inform one's emotional understanding of a scene; his collaborations with the Coen brothers, including the aforementioned, eerily stark No Country for Old Men, remain a testament to this. Deakins would eventually win an Oscar for his astonishing depiction of a futuristic dystopia in Blade Runner 2049 (2017).

Certainly, Skyfall is the most aesthetically beautiful of all the Bond films, particularly the scenes set in Shanghai and Macau where Bond tracks down Patrice and picks up the lead to Silva. From a silhouetted fight scene filmed in profile against a neon octopus to an arresting, lantern-lit floating casino, it's the rare 007 movie that's a feast for the eyes. Crucially, however, the formal nature of the composition is never allowed to compromise the forward thrust of the narrative, nor does it undermine the inherent outlandishness that's baked into the very James Bond formula.

Indeed, it's Skyfall's ability to neatly skip between plausibility and silliness that secures it as one of the greatest-ever Bond movies. It's a movie where all of the ingredients sit inside the joke and outside the joke at the same time, particularly Silva. He's deeply threatening, all the more so because, unlike most previous Bond movies, he knows how to personally strike M, and therefore psychologically impact Bond in the process. Yet there's also a pantomime quality to the character, akin to the scene-chewing nature of Christopher Walken's Max Zorin in A View to a Kill (1985). Skyfall shows just enough awareness of the franchise conventions, upgrading them and tweaking them while also staying true to them on a fundamental level.

We open with a film where Bond is blasted off a bridge by fledgling agent Moneypenny (Naomie Harris, making her series debut). Yet this relative grittiness sits alongside the relatively fantastical depiction of Silva's gargantuan ocean-based lair (in reality, the Japanese island of Hashima, once used for coal-mining and slave labour). In a moment of supremely well-timed audience nostalgia, Goldfinger's Aston Martin DB-5 is revealed as a getaway vehicle, while later on the movie culminates in a genuinely moving note of death and isolation, striking right to the heart of Bond's orphanage past.


There are welcome new faces, including Harris as a far-more tenacious Moneypenny who possesses greater agency and wit in deflecting Bond's allure, and Ralph Fiennes' Mallory; the latter is introduced as a bureaucratic wonk who, on first viewing, would appear to be set up as a classic insurgent villain, a possible mole with MI6. It's a testament to the power of the writing that this doesn't happen; actually, it's quite the reverse with Mallory proving his skills in protecting M and securing Bond's trust, establishing the character as the new M in the future films.

Ben Whishaw's youthful Q, whose memorable first appearance in London's National Gallery is one of the film's funniest, is perhaps a sop to millennial trends, but an effective one and anchored by the actor's inherent skills. During the climax, veteran actor Albert Finney steals many of the film's best lines as former Skyfall groundskeeper Kincade, a role that was once linked to Sean Connery; Finney's dry presence during the closing battle provides much-needed comic relief during the action onslaught.

Character development meshes with just enough flashes of escapist fantasy to honour both Craig's gritty approach and that of his more cartoonish predecessors. That Skyfall threads it together smoothly (although not without the usual head-smacking plot developments) secures it as a far superior film to Quantum of Solace, and perhaps just a notch below Casino Royale.


What music is on the Skyfall soundtrack?

Every great Bond movie needs a ballad, and Skyfall again aced it with the choice of Adele. After the discordant jumble of Quantum of Solace's 'Another Way To Die', performed as a duet by Jack White and Alicia Keyes, it was time to get back to basics and honour the spirit of Bond masters like Shirley Bassey. 'Skyfall' was critically acclaimed and won an Oscar for Best Original Song, the first and, to date, only Bond song to receive such an accolade.

Certainly, Adele's richly melancholic tones mesh brilliantly with foreboding lyrics by Paul Epstein; for once, there is a sense of a Bond song anticipating the story to come, alluding to the imminent themes of death, betrayal and grief that will arise out of the conflict with Silva. Skyfall also sagely restored Danny Kleinman in the role of credits designer; his sombre use of skulls, gravestones and mirrors during the opening credits sequence again helps fashion a greater degree of emotional resonance before the main storyline begins.


Skyfall broke with recent Bond tradition by appointing Thomas Newman as the composer. David Arnold had been with the series since 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, delivering career high-points with that score and Casino Royale. Reportedly, it was a condition of Sam Mendes' hiring that he was able to select Skyfall's composer; he and Newman had worked together since 1999's American Beauty, which featured a groundbreaking and much-imitated mixture of marimba, percussion and detuned mandolin.


For those accustomed to Arnold's punchy, often techno-laden sounds, which had succeeded in upgrading the traditional John Barry approach, Newman's Skyfall score was a bit of a shock. The composer is famous for his somewhat introverted, melancholy scores (including the already cited Road to Perdition for Skyfall), and it's impressive how much he manages to imprint his own musical idioms on this longstanding franchise.

That said, Skyfall is, ultimately, a Bond movie, and a composer has to kowtow to certain expectations. The Skyfall score is therefore a fascinating bridging experiment between Newman's highly idiosyncratic style, often favouring eccentric little cells of strings, woodwind and percussion, with the full-bore brass assault of the action sequences.

Poignantly, this was the last Bond movie to showcase the abilities of veteran trumpet player Derek Watkins who passed away in 2013; his throaty, sensual playing had given voice to the character since the franchise started with 1962's Dr. No. One can feel the trumpet's resonant impact on the few occasions that Newman rolls out the Bond theme, like Arnold with Casino Royale, Newman reserves the iconic piece for the best moments, including Bond's leap from a crane into a train carriage, and the hugely satisfying reveal of the Aston Martin DB-5.

Much of the rest of the score is concerned with moodily ambient passages that suit a shadowy, espionage lifestyle. Although not as immediately gratifying as Arnold's work, Newman's layering of electronic and organic sounds is remarkably intricate and compelling on repeat viewings, often alternating with moments of portentous menace (the two-note theme for Silva, first heard as his island is reached, is particularly impressive). There's also a sombre brass theme for M, a patriotic ensemble drained of triumphalism to depict her threatened position within the narrative.

If the opening 'Skyfall' theme is disappointingly absent from the underscore (aside from the one statement as Bond approaches the casino), that's because Newman wasn't involved in the song's creation. This can leave the score feeling occasionally rudderless, a problem that had blighted Arnold's Quantum of Solace soundtrack. It's a peculiar quirk of the Bond franchise that composers are frequently denied their chance to assert their stamp on the opening theme – one of the great joys of John Barry's Bond scores was the interweaving of the song melodies into his rich orchestral arrangements. Those days would appear to be long gone, although Hans Zimmer has been involved on both a song and score level for No Time To Die.

Newman really pushes himself with the action sequences. Although several of the composer's previous scores had flirted with violent material, including 1999's The Green Mile and 2003's Finding Nemo, the orchestral power on display in Skyfall is truly impressive. However, one is never at a loss to identify Newman's unique voice amidst the mayhem, with the pulsating brass and strings alternating with witty nuances like bass flute during the London tube chase, and the incredibly exciting enquiry shootout.

Skyfall was, and still is, a controversial Bond soundtrack, one that demands attention but rewards it amply. Newman was Oscar-nominated for his efforts, making him the first and, to date, only composer to be nominated in the series.

How was Skyfall received?

Anticipation for Skyfall was stoked by the terrifically entertaining 2012 London Olympics teaser. The project was spearheaded by Danny Boyle (originally set to direct No Time To Die, before eventually walking), and secured the involvement of no less than Queen Elizabeth II. Craig's Bond walks into Buckingham Palace, sidesteps the corgis and receives an assignment from an unseen figure, finally revealed to be the monarch herself. This pre-filmed footage then led to a rapturously received stunt in which a double for the Queen parachuted into the Olympic stadium (a la The Spy Who Loved Me) to thunderous applause: a tongue in cheek yet stirring celebration of British spirit.

Skyfall premiered at London's Royal Albert Hall on 23rd October 2012, before going on wide release in the UK on 26th October. It received critical and commercial acclaim, banishing the sour taste of Quantum of Solace and restoring the integrity of Daniel Craig's 007 portrayal. The movie currently stands at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, a clear sign of how critics took the movie to their hearts.

Ann Hornaday, writing for The Washington Post, praised the movie for being "sleek, crisp, classy ... exhibiting just the right proportion of respect for legacy and embrace of novelty". In his four-star review, Roger Ebert praised the movie as "a full-blooded, joyous, intelligent celebration of a beloved cultural icon". He also praised the presence of Judi Dench: "She is all but the co-star of the film, with a lot of screen time, poignant dialogue, and a character who is far more complex and sympathetic than we expect in this series."

UK critics were no less effusive. The Sunday Times' Edward Porter considered that "Craig has developed an authoritative Bond persona, dry and intelligent". And Empire's Kim Newman raved: "Skyfall is pretty much all you could want from a 21st Century Bond: cool but not camp, respectful of tradition but up to the moment, serious in its thrills and relatively complex in its characters but with the sense of fun that hasn't always been evident lately."

Not only the first Bond movie to debut in IMAX cinemas, Skyfall was also the first film in the series to crack the $1 billion mark (that is, if one doesn't adjust for inflation). As mentioned, it was the first Bond movie to win an Oscar for its title song, and it snagged another Academy Award for Best Sound Editing. It was the first Bond movie to win any sort of Oscar since 1965's Thunderball, which landed the prize for Special Visual Effects. Roger Deakins' cinematography was nominated, as was Thomas Newman's score and the Sound Mixing team. Of the eight BAFTA nominations that greeted the movie, only Newman was able to convert it into a win.

James Bond was back, and on top form.


What was the next movie in the James Bond series?

Both Daniel Craig and director Sam Mendes returned for Spectre, released in 2015.

When is No Time To Die released in the UK?

Click here to book your tickets for No Time To Die, which is released on 30th September. Don't forget to tweet us your favourite James Bond movies @Cineworld.