The narrow genre of “ageing franchise hero faces death but instead finds rejuvenation” includes such masterpieces as Unforgiven (1992) and Zatoichi (2003)… and, erm The Last Jedi (2017) bringing up the rear. Skyfall lands somewhere around the middle.
Daniel Craig’s Bond tenure has thus far exactly mirrored the pattern set by Pierce Brosnan: a stunning first outing directed by Martin Campbell followed by two middling entries, culminating in a catastrophically misjudged fourth film of such disastrous proportions that it nearly derails the entire franchise.
Of course, Quantum of Solace (2008) and Skyfall are still far superior to the dreck of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and The World Is Not Enough (1999), but the drop-off in quality (from Casino Royale (2006) and Goldeneye (1995), respectively) is just as steep. Spectre (2015) and Die Another Day (2002) are both irredeemably dreadful.
On the other hand, there’s just something about Skyfall. It was certainly good, but also almost magnificent. Skyfall frequently teeters on the brink of greatness, but always frustratingly tips back into mediocrity.
And yet… with a few tweaks here and there — and a completely reworked (and truncated) third act — I think this film could’ve been a series high watermark. With a better set-up, it might’ve perhaps even delivered one of the most rousing moments in the history of the franchise, up there with Union Jack parachute. I’ll lay out five changes (well, four tweaks and one big rewrite) that I’m convinced would’ve made for a far stronger movie.
Nitpicks first then the biggie.
The usage – or lack thereof – of Adele’s superlative theme song. If I were to rank the James Bond theme songs, Skyfall would occupy the number one slot. I absolutely love Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die, John Barry’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service instrumental and Nancy Sinatra’s beautiful You Only Live Twice, but even these lack the emotional punch of Skyfall. It’s a masterpiece, and in a different class to Thomas Newman’s dirge of a score, from which the Skyfall melody is – disgracefully – almost entirely absent.
Classic Bond movies wove the theme-song’s melody into the film’s score, thereby imbuing each film with a unique musical flavour. This also had the delicious side-effect of each riff building on and further enhancing the original tune. John Barry was a master at this, and David Arnold is his natural successor. He just gets it (for any doubters out there, just listen to the Casino Royale track “Aston Montenegro”). One can only dream of what Arnold could’ve done with it.
The laws-of-physics-bending “server farm” on Silva’s island lair. The film tells us that — like He-Man’s sword (or Chandler’s nubbin) — computer-hackery and information gathering is the source of all his power. Now, if computers aren’t your thing then you probably didn’t pay any attention to this, but in the real world, servers generate a lot of heat. For this reason server farms are typically kept in artificially cooled sterile rooms, where the ambient temperature is carefully monitored. In terms of realism, Silva’s computer setup is just a little less believable than, say, an invisible Aston Martin.
If you want me to buy that Silva’s operation is anything more than a bunch of boxes with blinking lights, the room should’ve been sealed, spotlessly clean and cold. I want to see Bond shiver. (Or maybe it was all just for show after all… I’ll come back to that later.)
Silva’s plan is more convenient than a 7-Eleven. Silva’s meticulous, years-in-the-making masterplan is apparently to have Q and Bond (Bond, really?) crack his computer’s ‘encryption’, and for it to release a virus which could instantly infect all MI6’s systems — and unlock the doors to his cell — at precisely the same moment M (Judi Dench) is due to give evidence to the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. He also had the foresight to plant a bomb in the London Underground – right above where Bond’s head would eventually be, no less – to be detonated at the exact moment a train is passing. Uh huh, sure. [Stay with me, we’re not finished with the plan yet!]
You see… while Silva could apparently hack into the SIS building from his armchair in Macau, he seemingly could only breach MI6’s relocated network if his hard drive was physically brought on site and plugged into it by Q. And that’s why he allowed himself to be captured. (I think.)
Except… why would Silva go to all that convoluted effort, when ultimately all he was going to do was just disguise himself as a police officer and shoot his way into M’s hearing?
Was that really as coherent as seasoned writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan could make it?
Spectre retconned everything in Skyfall to be a part of Blofeld’s master plan anyway, so why not lean into that? After all, connections to Blofeld/the Spectre organisation are right in the franchises’s wheelhous: in the original go-round, Blofeld glimpses were teased as far back as From Russia With Love (1963), then in Thunderball (1965), and right up to his big reveal at the end of You Only Live Twice (1967).
So, how about…
After MI6 capture Silva (for real this time: I’m going to pretend Silva never saw The Dark Knight and therefore never intended to be caught), Bond notices a small tattoo of a black octopus on his inner forearm.
After the interrogation scene in Silva’s cell, M reveals to Mallory that she gave him up to the enemy not because he was “operating beyond his brief, hacking the Chinese” (which makes M seem too harsh and unsympathetic) but because she’d suspected he’d been turned. She says she must’ve made a mistake because the Chinese threw away the key and let him rot. She wryly remarks that she must have been wrong about a lot of things because he never struck her as very computer literate either: “more of a blunt instrument, like Bond”.
Later, Bond asks Q to run a comparison of the octopus against other known marks and symbols on file. He follows Q to MI6’s server room and comments on how different it is to Silva’s setup. When Bond describes what he saw, Q scoffs in disbelief. Then Q notices an alert flashing on one of the terminals: some errant process is chewing through its CPU.
At that moment, much to Silva’s – and the prison guards’ – surprise, his cell door unlocks and swings open.
“James Bond And Chums: An MI6 Adventure” will surely be the title of Bond 26, judging by the way the series is headed. The ‘living-on-his-wits-and-cunning lone-agent’ James Bond of Dr No is a distant memory, and Craig’s Bond can’t even seem to use the toilet without someone giving him instructions in his ear.
These days, whenever the shit hits the fan Bond invariably calls on his faithful friends Q, Moneypenny and M for help. Spectre is the worst offender in this regard, but the rot started in Skyfall. If EON Productions are uncomfortable making movies about a lone male hero saving the world, then they should get out of the Bond business and start producing Mission: Impossible knock-offs (but I’ll warn them: that franchise does it a hell of a lot better).
Personally, all I want from a Bond movie is a few minutes of verbal jousting with Moneypenny, the handing-over of a dossier from M, and Q’s thirty second advertisement spot of the latest Aston Martin. After that I really don’t need to see any of them again until the next movie.
Lose the earpiece 007.
The whole third act hits a Connery-sized pothole and goes off the rails. I don’t know (but I’d love to know) if the title “Skyfall” came first, and then followed the idea for it to be the name of JB’s childhood home – or vice versa – but either way I think this train-of-thought led the whole production into a cul-de-sac.
Clearly the 50th anniversary of Bond was also clouding the writers minds. The idea of reuniting all the Bonds (or at least the most famous ones) for a final shootout in a “Home for Retired Spies” — as the Skyfall Lodge was clearly originally conceived — was too tempting a prospect to pass up. Who needs realism or logic when you can have double-o-Craig teaming up with double-o-Connery and/or Lazenby and Dalton to fight the villain? Sadly, it all fell apart.
Whether something like a ‘Battle of the Bonds’ was ever a serious prospect isn’t clear, but we do know that Connery at least was signed to play an unnamed retired agent. However, when the film lost Sean to illness (and perhaps antipathy), they were stuck with having to awkwardly recast his role. Albert Finney gamely stepped in to fill his oversized Scottish brogues, in a part that was transmuted into “Kincade” the boisterous gamekeeper of Skyfall Lodge. In the movie, the last minute appearance of this never-before-mentioned character from Bond’s past is, at best, a curiosity.
But what choice did they have? “Skyfall” was the title of the movie after all; they had to go to Skyfall Lodge, despite the fact that it no longer even made sentimental sense.
And the problems don’t stop there. In order to fit in with the Bond anniversary, Bond is written and portrayed as old, tired, jaded and washed up. Well, he has been on active duty for half a century after all. Except he hasn’t. In the Daniel Craig reboot timeline, Skyfall is technically only his second on-screen mission – following the Vesper Lynd affair and subsequent fallout. Strictly speaking, Craig’s Bond should still be a fresh-faced rookie.
Which is probably why he botches everything in Skyfall. Indeed, it’s an odd thought that for this 50th anniversary mega-budget celebration of the worlds greatest superspy, James Bond fails at everything. He fails to recover the stolen hard drive. He fails to stop the mercenary Patrice in Istanbul. He then fails to prevent Patrice assassinating an art collector in Shanghai. He watches Sévérine die in front of him. Most egregious of all, he even fails to stop Silva carrying out his plan: killing M.
Let me say that again: Silva’s plan in Skyfall is to murder M and then die himself – and he succeeds. Not exactly 007’s finest hour. In fact, while the movie ends on a triumphant note, one wonders whether 007 should’ve really been clearing his desk.
And then there’s that scene.
Bond Saves M (the ‘Tennyson’ scene):
Father, Mother and Bond-girl
James Bond’s relationship to M is perhaps the most interesting one he has in both the books and films. Since his literary inception Bond has idolised M, seeing him as the embodiment of virtue, gentlemanliness and honour. He clearly represents the father figure Bond never had. Take this line from Fleming’s novel Diamonds Are Forever (1946):
“There was a creak from M’s chair and Bond looked across the table at the man who held a great deal of his affection and all his loyalty and obedience.”
In the movies, while Bond never hesitates to risk his life to protect the various women he loves (especially Vesper and Tracy), it’s unthinkable that he wouldn’t do the same for any of the Ms. Indeed, this scene of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond rescuing Judi Dench’s M in The World Is Not Enough is uncannily Skyfall-like:
Moreover, Daniel Craig’s current incarnation has developed the relationship between Bond and M even further. It is more intimate, right from their first interactions in Casino Royale, with Dench’s M treating him more like an adopted son than an employee.
Indeed, the theme of a capricious mother at first nurturing, then coldly discarding sons permeates Skyfall: it equally motivates Silva and Bond — only in opposite directions.
So, let me get this straight: when this M is threatened by a deranged assassin, this Bond (who, lets not forget, has been known to run through dry-wall in pursuit of a villain) takes cover and… hides?
What? If Silva is prepared to die in order to kill M, then Bond must be prepared to die to save her.
The first time I watched Skyfall I felt the weight of the franchise’s fifty years building to this one moment, only for the film to fluff its lines.
So, could a better ending be crafted to fix this, as well as ticking all the boxes below?:
- Jettisoning the Skyfall Lodge siege entirely while preserving – or improving upon – the significance of the title.
- Showing Bond at his burned-out weakest, before giving us a resurgent, rejuvenated hero.
- Allowing Bond to do something right, i.e. foil Silva’s plan and save M’s life, while still giving the film a suitably emotional climax.
- Having our hero act more ‘Bond-like’ in the ‘Tennyson’ scene.
- Make proper use of Adele’s superlative theme-song.
- Having a scene of Bond doing something cool and exciting on his own, that reminds us we’re watching a James Bond movie, not an “MI6” movie.
- Having the villain’s plan make a modicum of sense.
- All the above while delivering a moment stirring enough to make the audience punch the air.
- Not once in all the books or films has M properly seen 007 in action. He/she is invariably withering in his/her disdain of Bond and his propensity for violence, yet is never present at the sharp end, witnessing the danger he faces for Queen and country. That would be nice to see.
To properly set up our revised ending we first need to drop a few breadcrumbs earlier in the movie…
Immediately after the opening credits would be a scene of Q handing M and a Chief of Staff an envelope addressed to: “M’s Office, Floor 17, 85 Albert Embankment, Vauxhall”. Q is perplexed:
Q: “Whoever sent it somehow discovered which floor your office was on Ma’am.”
Chief of Staff: “Or they’d been to it before.”
Q: “Ma’am, the envelope and it’s contents have been passed by the lab: no toxins, poisons, finger-prints or anything else. It’s clean.”
M removes the letter and opens it. A single word is printed on it: “Skyfall”. M, Q, and the Chief of Staff exchange meaningful looks. Q is ordered to immediately have M’s personal security doubled.
Later, during Mallory’s meeting with M and Bond at MI6, where Bond is passed fit for duty, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tells M he’s heard there’s been a serious threat made on her life.
Mallory: “This won’t do M, you know. We can’t have the head of MI6 murdered by some megalomaniac or two-bit terrorist. The damage to the reputation of British Intelligence would be catastrophic.”
M: “There’s no need to concern yourself Mallory. I have a contingency plan to prevent any such threat.”
Mallory: “Which is?”
M: “For MI6 eyes only”
[The Revised Third Act]
Silva escapes from MI6’s emergency underground headquarters, and, with Bond in pursuit, disappears into the labyrinth of London Underground service tunnels. Except, the foot chase is longer and more Third Man-esque, with Bond eventually falling behind.
Finally, Bond catches up with Silva as he approaches the long ladder in the dimly lit subterranean chamber.
Bond: “Enough. End of the line.”
Out of the shadows steps a dozen heavily-armed henchmen.
Silva: “Make your final wry remarks or whatever – but do it quickly because I’ve been looking forward to this for so many years, and now I’m late.”
Bond opens his mouth to speak but Silva cuts him off.
Silva: “You know what, I actually don’t have time.”
Silva is handed a gun by one of his henchmen and turns and shoots just as Bond dives behind some pipes. Silva peers into the darkness for a moment, then shrugs and starts climbing the ladder, followed by his men. Bond gingerly touches his side and grimaces in pain.
The top of the ladder leads directly into the foundations of the Houses of Parliament. Silva’s men use cutting equipment to make an opening in a wall through to Parliament’s lower basement.
In the committee chamber a message flashes up on Tanner’s laptop that Silva has escaped and that M should be immediately evacuated. M dismisses the notion.
Then another message appears: “Silva believed to be moving toward your location, threat level critical.”
M nods gravely, pauses, then seems to come to a decision. She turns back to the panel and starts reading from a prepared statement.
M: “The failure of this operation, which led to the loss of highly classified information – as well as, tragically – two agents, must be accounted for. I, of course take full responsibility and hereby tender my resignation, effective immediately.”
There are gasps around the room.
M: “Furthermore, while I accept the judgement and sanctions of this panel, I would like to take the opportunity at this juncture to wholeheartedly endorse Leftenant Colonel Gareth Mallory as my natural successor.”
M exchanges a glance with Mallory, a look of dawning comprehension on his face.
Meanwhile, Bond — bleeding, bruised and exhausted — slowly climbs the ladder. At the top, he clambers through the opening made by Silva’s men and staggers along the adjoining passage.
Silva, now dressed in a police uniform, shoots his way into the committee chamber, flanked by his henchmen.
Bond lurches forward, just trying to keep upright, leaving a trail of blood. As he reaches the final corridor he hears the gunfire, but cannot go on and finally succumbs to his injuries, collapsing to the floor.
Back in MI6, an alarmed Q watches the events unfolding in Parliament via a CCTV feed on his laptop.
Silva closes in on M, exchanging gunfire with Tanner, who is making a last stand.
Still watching the screen, Q pulls forward a microphone. His hand twitches as he reaches for a switch marked “Line on”. On another monitor the locations of all the Double-O agents in London are visible. Q clears his throat nervously, leans forward and whispers into the microphone a single word:
He clears his throat and repeats, more forcefully:
~Let the sky fall; When it crumbles~
Cut to: a close-up of the unconscious figure of Bond, with the sound of “Skyfall” being urgently repeated in his earpiece.
~Where you go I go; What you see I see~
Cut to: 008 [dreamcast: Idris Elba] driving an Aston Martin as he hears the codeword in his earpiece. A console pops up on his dashboard displaying M’s location. He handbrake-turns the car across traffic, mashes the throttle and presses a button causing a gun-tray to slide out of the glove-box.
~I know I’d never be me~
Cut to: 003 [dreamcast: Gillian Anderson] bursting out of a building, looking around and then running towards Parliament.
~Without the security~
Cut to: 009 [dreamcast: Tessa Thompson] swerving a superbike through traffic, a sub-machine gun slung over her back.
~Of your loving arms~
Cut to: 005 [dreamcast: Dev Patel] sprinting desperately along Embankment toward Parliament, reaching one of the perimeter gates. But too late…
~Keeping me from harm~
Cut to: M looking up at Silva as he raises his gun.
~Put your hand in my hand~
Cut to: 007’s blood-smeared earpiece abandoned on the floor as we pan up and follow a trail of bloodily hand prints along the wall which leads us to a classic silhouette of JAMES BOND standing behind the last door, silenced Walther PPK in hand.
~And we’ll stand…~
Bond kicks open the door, then – in a single tracking shot – we follow him as he shoots the henchmen blocking the entrance to the committee room. As others turn to fire back he slips into a side-room where ministers are cowering under desks.
He strides past them and shoots out the lock of the next door, bursting through it. Henchmen fire on him from all sides but he ignores them and aims straight at the phalanx of mercenaries led by Silva.
He reloads mid-stride, kicking benches aside as frightened government officials stare up at him. Silva’s henchmen spray bullets around the room in panic, but Bond’s hand isn’t shaking anymore: the blood is once more running cold in his veins. He spins and shoots (gun-barrel-opening-style) dispatching gunmen with single, precise shots. He reloads and empties a full magazine into Silva’s chest.
Silva squirms under his bullet-proof vest as he is dragged away by a few of his surviving henchmen. An eery silence falls over the room, as if everyone is holding their breath: all eyes are on the unknown secret agent. Bond gets to M, and stands protectively over her.
003, 005, 008 and 009 all arrive, weapons drawn, and cover the small huddle of Bond, M, Moneypenny and the wounded figure of Tanner. Bond crouches down beside M.
Bond: “So, what now?”
M: “Ask Mallory, he’s in charge now. I’m finished.”
Bond: “I’m asking you”
For the first time M notices Bond’s blood soaked shirt. She suddenly looks old and weak.
M: “Fine. As my final order… James, please look after yourself. And go to a hospital.”
Bond (harshly): “No it isn’t.”
Bond: “Your final order is to tell me to go kill that son of a bitch.”
M (taken aback): “Bond…”
Then the glint of steel returns to her eye.
M: “Go kill that son of a bitch.”
Bond stands and strides purposefully after Silva, nodding at Mallory as he reloads his pistol with a flourish. The four other Double-O’s immediately follow, cocking their weapons.
While the Home Alone showdown at Skyfall Lodge is nice, I’d happily swap it for a shorter Die Hard-(or The Thirty-Nine Steps)-inspired denouement inside the iconic, hallowed halls of the Houses of Parliament. It was good enough for Hitchcock.
In this revised version, after the (spin-off friendly) secondary Double-O’s take care of the remaining henchmen, Bond dispatches Silva – preferably not with huge explosions and pyrotechnics, but a simple, cold execution:
Silva: “Alright Mister Bond, you got me. I’ll come quietly.”
Bond (shakes head): “Can’t do it. As you said: ‘last rat standing’. And this one is still licenced to kill.”
Live And Let Connery
I’m as sentimental as the next guy – I have no problem with a classic Bond making a crowd-pleasing cameo – so long as it isn’t distracting, doesn’t interfere with the plot, and preferably happens at the end of the movie. This is how I would’ve brought back Bond-Prime…
Bond escorts M out of Parliament, past a swarm of security forces and police. In the distance she spots a familiar 1960’s silver Aston Martin DB5 passing through the security gates.
M: “Oh no”
Bond (alert): “What?”
M: “My husband. And he’s brought that dreadful old car of his.”
The Aston pulls up alongside and out steps Sean Connery.
Mr M: “Are you alright?”
M: “Yes of course, don’t fuss.”
M’s husband looks at Bond, bloody and bruised, and nods slowly.
Mr M: “Just another day at the office?”
Mr M: “And what’s your name son?”
~to hell with it, let’s just play the James Bond theme here~
M: “This is agent 007 – ”
Bond: “The name’s Bond, James Bond.”
Mr M grasps his outstretched hand.
Mr M: “Thank you, Mr Bond.”