If Hollywood’s rut du jour is the origin story as bid for franchise immortality, you can’t say that Skyfall—the 23rd “official” James Bond film in 50 years—isn’t on trend. Six years ago in Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first outing as Bond, we learned that 007 owes his perpetual bachelor status to the loss of true love Eva Green. Skyfall, Craig’s third Bond film, again aims to flesh out the backstory of the spy, with the globe-trotting terrorist hunt this time literally revisiting the site of the childhood trauma that apparently pushed Bond to seek out that license to kill through which he has funneled a love of country bordering on psychosis. Also unearthed: the deep-seated parental issues that have caused him to cling to MI6 adviser M (Judi Dench).
This time around, the signature, spectacular pre-credits chase sequence atop a moving train ends with Bond in the crosshairs of a fellow agent played by Naomie Harris. (Despite the euphemism-heavy workplace seduction that develops with Bond, her character’s throwback-punchline name isn’t revealed until the final scenes.) She shoots and misses; the bad guy she aimed to kill escapes carrying a digital drive holding the names of dozens of undercover NATO agents, while Bond falls off a bridge and goes missing. Back in London, M works on Bond’s obituary while the spy himself takes advantage of his presumed death to cash in some R&R on a tropical island, catching up on his drinking and anonymous-woman-fucking. Then MI6 headquarters is bombed, a simultaneous cyber attack reveals that the stolen drive has fallen into the worst hands possible, and Bond reports for duty, toting a piece of shrapnel/evidence in his pec that gives MI6 a head start on smoking out the enemy.
Bopping from Shanghai to Macao, Bond gets up to the usual daring escapes and zipless nightcaps, but the peak of the movie is his tête-à-tête confrontation with Silva (Javier Bardem), a former disciple of M turned killer hacker who, we learn, went rogue after bad shit went down during the Hong Kong handover. A catty dandy whose own evil owes to grievous PTSD, Silva taunts Bond about the “unresolved childhood trauma” that turned him into 007 material. In Skyfall, even the Bond villain is obsessively determinist.
The greatest gift director Sam Mendes—working with cinematographer Roger Deakins—brings to the material is staging and imagery that artfully amplify the film’s ideas about the world in which all of this is happening. And there are ideas, despite the fetishism and improbability native to the franchise. Bond’s world is undeniably modeled after a real one engaged in debates about transparency and obfuscation, in which established institutions find themselves crippled (and, perhaps worse, rendered foolish) by stateless entities who show their power through violent interruptions of both the physical and virtual worlds. A bureaucrat played by Ralph Fiennes, trying to drag MI6 kicking and screaming into the age of Anonymous, contends that the agency “can’t keep working in the shadows—there are no shadows.” It’s a POV contested by the film’s most visually stunning action scene, a relatively simple duel in a darkened Shanghai skyscraper, with Bond and the bad guy silhouetted against the neon lights and building-enveloping video billboards outside. The shadows might have changed shape, location, and method of generation, but the conflicts seem to be as binary as they’ve ever been.
Skyfall‘s most pressing project is to prove that Bond, a thoroughly 20th-century invention, can function in the new media landscape, on-screen and off. From the undisguised camp of the Silva/Bond confrontation to the nods to past 007 films and rhetoric endorsing “the old methods,” the freshest thing about Skyfall is its embrace of its own old-fashioned values. It’s a movie in which the villain’s secret weapon is a server farm, in which the high-tech gizmos proffered by the new, hipster Q (Ben Whishaw) are quickly discarded for old-school tools. In the body of 43-year-old, visibly graying Craig, Bond’s advancing age is played as both an obstacle to surmount and a virtue. Between the action sequences, the pleasure lies in observing impeccably dressed Brits exchanging barbed witticisms—making it, basically, Downton Abbey with cyber crime and shower sex.
But as much as it’s open about its paranoia of the new, Skyfall‘s fatal misstep is its slavish hewing to event-movie trends. Like this summer’s Spider-Man, Batman, and Avengers movies, Skyfall seems to exist primarily to set up the events of subsequent films. At nearly two and a half hours long, it’s the September issue of Bond movies, bloated with story to fill out the spaces between product placements, with much of that story lardy psychological exposition—even the enigmatic title turns out to be key to Bond’s formative sads. Skyfall pays lip service to embracing 007’s unique tradition while actively attempting to reposition Bond as a kind of cousin to caped crusaders: another loner, orphaned man-child who kills the few to protect the many, all because he misses his mommy.