Warning: this review contains minor spoilers
Skyfall is an outstanding achievement. It is both a fitting celebration of 50 years of the James Bond films, and a forward-facing film relevant for our times. That the film has pulled off this trick is testament to the remarkable work of the screenwriters, director, production crew, actors, and above all Daniel Craig in bruising and arresting form. Skyfall is not just a Bond film; it is an intelligent piece of story-telling that stands on its own terms outside Bondworld.
From the start, the narrative plunges the viewer into the heart of the action and takes a grip that does not weaken for its entire two-hour running time. A hard drive containing the identities of agents embedded with terrorist organisations has been stolen. Bond's initial attempts at recovering the disk fail, and he, M and others at MI6 find themselves one step behind the instigator of the theft, whose motivation is very personal and very deadly.
Superficially, Skyfall takes very little from Ian Fleming's novels, but dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that Fleming has not been forgotten. The ultimate inspiration for Daniel Craig's Bond still derives from the literary hero. The screenwriters, John Logan and regular scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade appear to have turned to two books in particular. James Bond's obituary, which M writes after a bungled attempt to shoot an enemy agent, takes elements, reproduced almost verbatim, from the obituary in You Only Live Twice. Bond's childhood alluded to in Skyfall is also based on details revealed in the novel's obituary.
Bond's subsequent 'resurrection', as an out-of-shape and wrecked agent, mirrors events in the beginning of the book that follows, The Man with the Golden Gun. Though not named in the film, the psychologist in Skyfall is surely inspired by the psychologist of that and other novels, Sir James Molony (I understand the character is called Dr Hall; a missed opportunity, surely, for a clearer nod to the books). But in a twist, Bond's role in the dramatic episode in M's office in The Man with the Golden Gun is in Skyfall effectively given to the villain, Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva, and this consequently shapes the film's plot.
There is a clever nod to Ian Fleming when we approach the ancestral Scottish home of James Bond. The stag sitting on the gateway recalls the beast in Fleming's family crest. And as Skyfall's narrative comes to a shocking end, I cannot help but think of the shoot-out in the Dreamy Pines motor court in The Spy Who Loved Me, and the denouement of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. James Bond only lives twice, but in return he must endure the emotional pain that accumulates with the deaths of those closest to him not permitted such a luxury.
Inevitably, Skyfall acknowledges the history of Bond film series. Javier Bardem captures the spirit of villains past, delivering a gruesome and deeply frightening amalgam of Jaws and Hugo Drax or Blofeld; in addition, Silva's island base takes us right back to Dr No's Crab Key. Sévérine, played by Bérénice Marlohe, recalls Maud Adams' tragic Andrea from The Man with the Golden Gun film. A particularly Bondian scene in a komodo dragon pit provides a nod to Bond's alligator-hopping in Live and Let Die (which is rather appropriate, given director Sam Mendes' fondness for the film). References to Goldfinger abound. The reappearance of Goldfinger's Aston Martin DB5, which brought a cheer from the audience, was accompanied by an extended musical reference to the 1964 film. And as promised, Daniel Craig delivers the sort of measured one-liners that rival the best of the witticisms of the Sean Connery era.
The titles sequence references the best of Maurice Binder, and Adele's title song has more than a hint of Shirley Bassey. There are doubtless many more nods to the films, but it will take repeated viewings to extract them all.
Is Skyfall the best Bond film? The question is redundant. The cultural environment is always evolving, and we get the Bond for our times. Goldfinger or From Russia with Love were the best of the 1960s' Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me was perfect for the 1970s, The Living Daylights reflected society's changing mores, while GoldenEye successfully introduced Bond to a post-Cold War world. Skyfall is certainly very good, and deservedly takes its place in the pantheon of Bond greats.