As we close in on No Time to Die, and the final Daniel Craig-era James Bond movie, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months at Sam Mendes’ 2012 Bond mega hit, Skyfall…
What’s your favourite James Bond credits sequence? If your answer is Skyfall, it would be nothing to be ashamed over.
Personally, I’m quite partial to the uncharacteristic titles from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the only film which saves the signature ‘Bond theme’ (Louis Armstrong’s We Have All the Time in the World aka the first dance at my wedding – true story) until the end, making do with John Barry’s pulse pounding action theme instead. Most Bond credits sequences have, for over fifty years, maintained a formula established by legendary artist Maurice Binder until his death in 1991 (aside from From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, which were Robert Brownjohn), and subsequently Daniel Kleinman since 1995 (with the exception of Quantum of Solace, which was MK12).
The formula was clear – silhouetted women, often naked, in a conflagration with guns, sometimes Union Jack’s, suggestive poses and a general reinforcement of Bond’s Establishment rigour and sexual prowess, always set to a ballad, rocking tune or even electronic missive (here’s looking at you, Duran Duran). That was certainly the Binder template, one which Kleinman adapted post-GoldenEye to suit an evolving Bondian landscape.
Kleinman’s modus operandi with his credit sequences has often involved adding a level of thematic or narrative contextualisation, to a greater degree than Binder who, despite crafting some terrific visual sequences, focused more on evoking the style and mood of cinematic James Bond. Kleinman has a deeper appreciation of how these opening sequences, which it’s worth noting remain an iconoclastic aberration in modern cinema and a distinctly unique Bond movie tradition, factor into the overarching sweep of the tale being told. Take the hammer and sickle, post-Soviet motifs in GoldenEye, or the slick, oily globe of The World is Not Enough, and in the Daniel Craig-era the array of cards and gambling visuals across Casino Royale – which itself was the first sequence to start a Craig-era, modern trend of featuring Daniel Craig himself within the sequence, as opposed to a ‘Bondian’ silhouette or evocation.
The result is that Skyfall could be Kleinman’s best work on Bond to date, and seamlessly gels with the action before the credits, and the drama to come.
It’s pretty much always the case that I have to start working on the ideas for the titles way before I hear the music. The first time I get involved, I read the script, and that’s quite early on, sometimes before they’ve even started filming — even who the artist is going to be singing the main song is not tied down. It’s quite a laborious process — which I’m not involved in at all — choosing that artist, getting the song written, demo’d, approved, mastered, mixed, and edited to the special arrangement it needs to be for the movie, rather than the single that’s released.
The Bond theme, always wrapped around the credit sequence in every film, was in this case, of course, performed by British singer Adele.
It’s probably no exaggeration to suggest that Skyfall, as a Bond theme, is the most successful since at least Tina Turner’s Bassey-esque GoldenEye in 1995, which helped relaunch the Bond franchise for the post-Cold War, Pierce Brosnan-era. The success could even trickle further back. Adele’s rich chords delivering the song she co-wrote with songwriter Paul Epworth evokes Shirley Bassey’s powerful, epic 1960’s and 1970’s efforts, echoing across the sequence and resonating with the film around it.
It’s a marked change from the rocking pieces from the late Chris Cornell and the duo of Alicia Keys & Jack White from the previous two pictures (the latter of which’s Another Way to Die is sorely underrated), but it levels up the very nature of the Bond theme to cultural artefact. Adele’s Skyfall stormed the charts. It won her and Epworth an Academy Award. And arguably it would have aided the film’s gargantuan box office and revived pop culture resonance. If Skyfall has the scale of a classic Bond movie, Adele’s entry is easily a song to match.
When analysing the song, in tandem with Kleinman’s visuals, one wonders as to how Adele and Epworth approach the musical impact of the tale in their tune. Epworth claims that the song was written with the intention of mirroring the overarching thematic ideas of the story:
The song is so much about death and rebirth. It’s like, when the world ends and everything comes down around your ears, if you’ve got each other’s back, you can conquer anything. From death to triumph, that was definitely something we set out to try and capture.
The song appears to be from the perspective of someone close to Bond, theoretically a love interest, but this doesn’t precisely calibrate to anyone in Skyfall in a conventional way, given Sam Mendes’ film eschews the traditional ‘Bond girl’ role in favour of M’s key part in the story.
Could the song be considered from the point of view of M? It’s debatable, and doesn’t appear to have been the intent, but the lyrics seem to welcome the idea of Bond’s ‘fall’ from life into death, through the lyrical and visual underworld Kleinman has him traverse in the sequence. “Let the sky fall, When it crumbles, We will stand tall, Face it all together”. ‘Sky fall’, as we later find out, references a key place in Bond’s childhood but it also, metaphorically, evokes a deep sense of mood and ominous revelation in its very nature.
Adele’s song suggests the falling sky to be Bond’s internal wall against the open secret of his ancestral home, and by collapsing the barrier in his own memory and mind will he break free and become someone new – but he cannot do it alone. The figure singing the song for Bond is his support, the person to help get him through this catharsis, and that makes me think of M. She fulfils that role for 007 in this picture in many ways.
The more interesting and challenging Bond films often reflect a love interest who serves to explore or prop up Bond’s psychology. Contessa Tracy (played by the now late Diana Rigg, who sadly died recently) in OHMSS, Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale – even to some degree Natalya Simonova in GoldenEye, they all contribute in some sense to a change in Bond, even if temporarily. Most of them help him face a fear, or overcome a psychological obstacle, to a degree the more casual Bond girls—there only to be charmed, slept with and then discarded—never do, and Skyfall’s lyrics firmly suggest the film will dig deeper into Bond’s personal psychology than ever before. Yet there is also the suggest of a mutual need: “Where you go I go, What you see I see, I know I’d never be me, Without the security, Of your loving arms, Keeping me from harm, Put your hand in my hand, And we’ll stand”. Bear with me on this… but this could definitely be M.
If we take away the loving arms in a sexual context and more in line of that of a son, everything in these lyrics tracks with what M might feel. She does often see what Bond does, going where he goes via satellite feeds or intel. He provides a security that protects her, Britain and the service, keeping us from harm – indeed this is precisely what she argues to the Joint Intelligence Committee much later in the film. Kleinman backs this up with his use of shadows Bond faces on the visual side, a motif representing M’s description of the 00 section being forced to operate in the shadows where the villains of today (or certainly 2012) live.
Adele’s song therefore works as a call to arms to Bond, a call to link arms and face the threats to their section, their service, and their country—all of which come in Skyfall—together. Mendes’ film very much suggests that Bond’s days as the lone saviour of the world are numbered, and these titles bear this out. Only by trusting someone, trusting a woman indeed, might Bond resolve the shadows of his past.
To get there, to reach this point of transformation, Bond’s journey essentially begins through this sequence. “Skyfall is where we start, A thousand miles and poles apart, Where worlds collide and days are dark” Adele’s lyrics threaten, and while Skyfall the house might be where the film ends, the netherworld for Bond that it represents is clear in Kleinman’s sequence here, as he describes:
I knew from the beginning, from the script, that it starts with Bond being shot and falling into the water. That was my kick-off point to come up with the ideas for the sequence. It felt kind of appropriate that a lot of it seemed to be a sequence where you feel he’s in some sort of underworld, or perhaps his life is flashing in front of his eyes as he thinks he’s going to die.
It’s a fascinating and beautiful sequence. Bond falls, indeed is gently pulled into an abyss after the end of the PTS segues nicely into the underworld ‘dream’ of sorts, as Kleinman describes; a pre-death fugue of images which both correspond to imminent death but also provide deep clues and hints as to the journey to come. We traverse an old graveyard as guns and knives (the same kind of knife the villain Silva later uses) before we see Judi Dench’s credit appear as we race toward a towering grave. In hindsight, the symbolism is clear. Bond’s eyes appear inside the slashed visage of the Skyfall house, before we enter one of them and a maze-like, dark, Gothic construction where he battles tentacled versions of his own shadow – one being Silva. It’s a place he’s never been able to escape.
While Kleinman certainly doesn’t abandon the beautiful girls and guns, a la credit sequences of old, he provides strange and bizarre imagery such as a swarm of Komodo dragons, winking at the Macau sequence, but these provide added colour and increase the feeling that Bond is experiencing some kind of tortured, nightmarish visage, suffused with the ghosts of his past and, indeed, future. On that level, this sequence works better than, say, Die Another Day, which works to use the sequence—admittedly fairly inventively—as a means of showing Bond’s North Korean torture as a device to time jump. Our torture, in the case of that sequence, was the Madonna theme draped over it!
The sequence ends, as the song does, with Skyfall lodge under fire from an apocalyptic rain storm under a blood red sky, which neatly underscores the ominous nature of Kleinman’s impressive titles. The stakes already feel higher in Skyfall, even in these credits, than they have done for a long time. Bond’s journey through this strange, and personal, netherworld is only just beginning…
Don’t miss out on the other parts of this series:
III – Retirement Planning
IV – Enjoying Death
V – New Digs
VI – A Bloody Big Ship
VII – Old Dog, New Tricks
VIII – I Like You Better, Without Your Beretta
IX – First Time for Everything
X – Look Upon Your Work, Mother
XI – …And Not to Yield
XII – Jumped Up Little Shit
XIII – Last Rat Standing
XIV – With Pleasure
Or other Scene by Scene movie breakdowns:
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