Yes, the cinematography was beautiful. Just watch the trailer, which is packed with great shot after great shot.
But that’s not why.
Also: cinematography is just a fancy word for “hiring the right dude to actually work the camera and stage amazing shots, because the director is really the Big Boss of the film and not the guy behind the camera, though papers of news will confuse you about this by talking about the man behind the camera when they talk about directors.”
Also-also: the dialogue and writing was much, much better than your typical Bond film. But that’s not what made SKYFALL so excellent that it may be the first Bond film in the history of modern civilization to get nominated for Oscars.
So what truly made SKYFALL so good?
Story is the reason that Michael Bay can waste $250 million apiece on movie after movie about robots that change into cars or whatever, movies that only 12-year-old boys really enjoy watching.
Story is the reason THE KING’S SPEECH — made for about $20 million — crushes any Michael Bay explosion-fest known to man.
As a big fan of cheesy action movies, I appreciate ones that embrace their cheesiness. They make it more fun. When you start taking a movie about robots from outer space too seriously, it shows on the screen and stops being fun.
SKYFALL rocks so hard because it takes something else seriously: story.
Just for comparison, I watched a typical 007 movie from the Roger Moore era: THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.
Here’s the trailer for that piece of cinematic trash:
SKYFALL and this Roger Moore thing have the same ingredients: (a) suave spy for the British Secret Service who (b) can’t walk down the street without tripping over 27 beautiful women, half of whom are (c) trying to kill him because they work for (e) some insane villain with pet sharks and a secret lair inside a volcano. There will be (f) glorious gadgets and (g) amazing chase scenes and (h) witty one-liners.
That formula means nothing if you — the audience and the director and the actors — don’t care about the characters.
Bond has typically been made of cardboard. Oh, he’s got the tuxedo and the charm and the gadgets. He gets the girls. But what makes him tick? Does he ever suffer and sacrifice and change?
Roger Moore never really suffered or sacrificed or changed.
Daniel the Craig definitely suffered and sacrificed in CASINO ROYALE. And he bumped that way, way up in SKYFALL.
Sidenote: A big reason that A QUANTUM OF SOLACE stank up the joint was the Hollywood writer’s strike meant the writing and story was thrown together by the director and Craig, on set. Not a recipe for success.
The more brilliant move by Sam Mendes and his writers was to give serious character arcs not just to Bond, but to the traditional supporting cast at MI-6, the characters who are usually just pieces of scenery.
In the old Bond movies, M was just a boss behind the desk and Moneypenny was a pretty secretary that flirted with Bond as he hung up his coat and went in for his next assignment.
In SKYFALL, Moneypenny is an amazing driver who shoots somebody you don’t expect. She’s actually important to the plot.
Even a minor character played by Ralph Fiennes goes from bureaucrat and enemy to courageous ally. He gets a story arc.
And this time, M is absolutely crucial to the plot.
Crucial to Bond, who suffers quite a lot because of a decision she made: “Take the bloody shot.” Crucial to the villain, Silva, who suffered just as much, if not more, because of M.
Finally, M is crucial to the film’s story itself. You could argue that it’s her film.
Sam Mendes gives us a movie that’s not just chase scenes and gadgets and Bond girls — he makes us care about the characters. He takes us on a journey with them, with each of them forever changed.
And that’s the power of story.