This is the 23rd essay in a 23-part series about the James Bond cinemas. I encourage everyone to read the other essays, comment and join in on the conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.
Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #23: Skyfall and the Deconstruction of James Bond
Charles Darwin once said, “It’s not the strongest or the most intelligent who survive but those who can best manage change.” Malleability permits longevity. In order to survive, a species… or character must adapt.
00Darwin, Licence to Theorize
I’ve discussed James Bond, Batman and Sherlock Holmes at some length as legendary protagonists that have endured multiple iterations over the course of generations. Born of literary roots, all would go on to experience sustained success in print, film and/or television. Bond, Batman and Sherlock share a tremendous amount of DNA but nothing more strongly perhaps than their persistent pop-culture relevance.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle blessed his Sherlock character with rich character flaws such as serial pomposity, drug addiction and a latent distrust of women. These are timeless traits that have allowed Sherlock Holmes to be a pompous but typically affable wiseass. These flaws make him human and relatable. Though he will always be the smartest man in the room, stoic and calculating, he succumbs to fear and insecurity like anyone else. Perhaps as a result, Sherlock Holmes’ feats of mental dexterity connect with broad audiences whether smugly played by Basil Rathbone or smugly played by Johnny Lee Miller.
The character of Batman, however, is built of symbols and a backstory. The Batman logo, the batsuit, the bat signal, the Batmobile. The actor playing Batman is often obscured behind costumes and custom vehicles. In Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Michael Keaton spends 22% of the entire film (not just Bruce Wayne/Batman screentime) inside the batsuit/Batmobile/Batwing. The average for all subsequent Batman films hovers just shy of 20%. The question of character for Batman then revolves around his much rehashed origin story of childhood trauma and recovery. Bruce Wayne is Batman because he witnessed the murder of his parents. Batman longs to rid Gotham of the criminal elements that orphaned him at the age of eight.
Bond, like Batman, also boasts a collection of iconic, albeit inconsistent, suits and gadgetry at his disposal, the Aston Martin, the Walther PPK and general Q Branch gizmos. None prove nearly as identifiable as the assorted bat menagerie. Bond’s style and weaponry changes with the times… and with guaranteed promotional dollars. That EON has financed Bond independently made the franchise more reliant upon branding and promotion to pay the bills. Tomorrow Never Dies, in fact, became the first film in history to be completely financed through sponsored product placement and promotion. (more…)
Skyfall: The Significance of 50, The Power of 3
By Tim Romines (@TimRomines76)
When Skyfall was released last year, there were a couple of numbers that received a lot of publicity. One of those was 23, as in the twenty-third film in the EON produced James Bond series, an impressive achievement that is unlikely to ever be duplicated, especially considering the sometimes radical changes in tone that each lead actor, writers & directors brought through the various eras. Of course, the other much ballyhooed number was 50, marking the Golden Anniversary of Ian Fleming’s secret agent on the silver screen and, thus, cementing 007’s status as an enduring pop culture icon that will likely exist in some form forever.
As important and historic as those numerals are, the number that will stay with me whenever I think of Skyfall is 3. That figure represents the generations who sat in a packed, state-of-the-art auditorium in Knoxville, Tennessee anxiously awaiting the further adventures of Agent 007. As I sat there between my dad, Doug & my son, Drake, I was struck by the sentiment that this was the way it was always meant to be; sharing the action & thrills of a Bond film with people you relish spending time with and having a superb time doing it. I became acquainted with James Bond by watching with my dad, my son picked it up from me and now here we were, together among other folks with a communal love for this character, wondering where his latest excursion would take us. As the lights were lowered, I felt like we might be in for something special and I’m delighted to say I was right.
Let’s Do The Time Warp Again
From the excellent introductory shot of an out of focus Bond, accompanied by the familiar musical cue, to Adele’s lush & gorgeously haunting theme, (which, considering my mood on any given day, is constantly battling Paul McCartney’s Live And Let Die for the number two spot, since Dame Shirley & Goldfinger sits firmly on top of my favorites list), all the way up to the magnificent, goose bump raising denouement, (more on that in a bit), Skyfall succeeds by paying just the right amount of respect & homage to all that came before, while continuing to move the franchise in the only logical direction it can go. Yeah, yeah, I know that some of the tributes in this movie made no sense continuity wise, (I’m looking in particular at the Aston Martin DB5, in spite of its unveiling being a highlight moment for me personally), but let’s be blunt, EON has never made tight continuity a high priority in this franchise anyhow. That being said, I chose to just go with it & enjoy the ride, timeline glitches and all; I feel that was a wise decision. The classic elements are all there; a menacingly memorable villain, the ill-fated love interest, the mind-blowing stunts, top-notch scoring and the gorgeous scenery that are Bond hallmarks. We are finally reintroduced to beloved characters, albeit revamped & reimagined, such as Miss Moneypenny & Q, along with a new take on the classic M. However, this story takes the narrative into uncharted waters that I absolutely adore. We get intimate portraits of Bond, deeply delving into his troubled, unfortunate past for the first time in five decades, and we get distinct, plausible looks into what make M & Silva tick, making their actions all the more relatable. Silva, (Javier Bardem, chewing scenery & clearly having a ball), isn’t trying to take over the world akin to assorted SPECTRE, SMERSH or Quantum schemes. He simply wants revenge on the one person whom he feels betrayed him, (she did), and will rack up as much collateral damage as it takes to get said vengeance, (he does). The exploration of his failed professional relationship with M, (played to the bitter end by the legendary Judi Dench), especially when compared with the total trust, respect &, (dare I say it?), love she ultimately shares with Bond, is heartbreaking, compelling and eventually leads to a tragic culmination to their story. In fact, how they both failed to receive Oscar gold based solely on their face to face confrontation scene at MI6 will forevermore remain a mystery to me. Silva’s gut-wrenching revelation of his emotional, mental & physical scarring, (as well as M’s & Bond’s reactions to it), is chilling, disturbing and played to perfection on every hand. With Silva, we view the twisted reflection of whom Bond could have easily became in the right circumstances, were he a man of lesser convictions, and that is simply brilliant. It makes him one of the most complex and convincing rogues in Bond history.
And What of Bond Himself?
Yes, this film has been criticized for being pitch dark at times but there are also moments of levity that are organic and genuine and it serves the story well. Case in point, the museum exchange between Bond & Q is funny, clever and oddly poignant but never induces the eye rolls that some Bondian humor has in the past; I could recite examples all day but I will spare you from such unpleasantness. Daniel Craig is still brooding and cynical, (the same recollection of Fleming’s literary Bond that Timothy Dalton was so unfairly criticized for in the 80’s), but here he finally looks utterly comfortable in 007’s skin and I feel that this is the film that silenced most doubters for good. I’ll say it boldly, Daniel Craig is not a place holder, he IS James Bond, (as much so as Sean Connery), and he has redefined an icon for a new millennium. His portrayal has, thankfully, reestablished Bond as a relevant, contemporary action hero, whilst restoring credibility to a character that has been oft abused in the past. Candidly, I feel for whoever is tasked with stepping into his shoes when he departs the role and that’s the supreme compliment I can possibly grant him. Oh, having said all of that, let us please discuss that final scene. When we get the splendid shot of James looking over London, his city, with flags flying and stirring music in the background, we are reminded that true patriotism isn’t about pushing various political agendas, whatever they may be, but is rather the unwavering belief that you live in the greatest country on the planet, wherever that may be, and aren’t afraid to admit it or embrace it. In a nutshell, this encapsulates what I sincerely love about Commander James Bond; Girls, gadgets & catchphrases aside, 007 loves his country and will defend it, and its citizens, with his last breath and that, my friends, is the definition of a hero. Finally, in my humble opinion, anyone who wasn’t thoroughly geeked at the concluding image of M sending Her Majesty’s Secret Service Agent 007, (licensed to kill), off to his next exploit should probably turn in their Bond fan cards. Straightaway.
When the film was over, amid the elation and applause, I looked to either side of me and was exceedingly grateful to have shared this experience with two of my favorite people on Earth, (I’m getting a wee bit choked up as I write this now). We were thrilled by what we had seen and proceeded to critique the film on the ride home, pointing out our favorite bits. We all agreed that it was time well spent and, in the end, isn’t that the entire point? Looking back, I can’t help but ruminate that moments…memories…just like that will be exactly what keep James Bond valid for 50 years more and well beyond. Thanks Mr. Fleming, we are forever in your debt.
Tim Romines (@TimRomines76) is a husband, father, chef & infrequent blogger, (in that order,) living in the shadows of Rocky Top in East Tennessee. His interests are so varied, they border on absurdity, but food, superheroes, Sci-Fi, horror &, of course, James Bond are but a few. You can read his semi-coherent ramblings at rominesrants.tumblr.com
First Bond Film: Moonraker. I came back in spite of that.
Favorite Bond: With immense respect to all actors involved, Connery & Craig are tops for me.
Favorite Bond Girl: Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di’Vicenzo Bond (Diana Rigg) & Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). So much more than helpless victims, they were smart, clever & brave. They won Bond’s heart and that makes them special.
How I discovered #Bond_age_: When I first joined Twitter, I was searching for Bond content & @007hertzrumble was among the first things to pop up. I thought it all sounded extremely fun & here we are.
Skyfall: James Bond, 50 Years Young
by James Tracey (@JamesEditsFilms)
“I like to do some things the old-fashioned way.”
“Sometimes the old ways are the best.”
After 50 years, you would think we’d eventually tire of James Bond. But something about the way the films have evolved and grown over the decades, and still fundamentally remained the same, has left us coming back. We may not love every film of the series, but we have remained loyal through and through. But I’m sure a lot of us have felt the growing age of the series at one point or another.
Skyfall tackles that age head-on. Unlike the tail ends of the Connery or Moore films, Sam Mendes entry into the Canon makes no attempt to hide the age of the series or its star, Daniel Craig, who was (and still is) 45 at the time of the film’s premiere. Most of the film centers on a battered and bruised 007, whose alcoholism and age is proving to be limiting. He’s not as strong anymore, he’s not as fast as he once was, and he can’t even shoot straight. Like the grand, old warship being hauled off for scrap, Bond is feeling the inevitability of time. The only question that remains is whether Bond can endure in the post-cold war environment.
For most of us here at #Bond_age_, we can answer that question with a big fat “DUH”. We love Bond so much that we’ve dedicated a day a week to watch and celebrate a Bond movie. We will probably keep doing for years to come. We celebrate this series because the films offer glimpses into the eras they inhabit. But Skyfall is a film that joins that celebration while still fearlessly leaping forward into the future. Gone are the exploding pens of yesteryear, which are replaced with DNA encoded guns and radios. But the essence of the series remains intact.
Skyfall is ever faithful to its roots. Take, for instance, the film’s antagonist; Javier Bardem’s Silva embodies the spirit of a classic Bond villain. His plans are big, epic and even a tad nonsensical. He has a terrifying back-story that has left him with a disfigured face in a return to the same spirit as Blofeld. His reveal shot and monologue is the kind of moment made only for a Bond villain. For chrissakes, his lair is a giant, abandoned island! Yet he inhabits the type of crypto-warfare that is all too popular within our modern Hollywood films. He’s a hacker who works out of sight, and can effectively be anywhere at once. He represents the threat of cyber terrorism; a threat that is all too common post-9/11. He is the modern and classic villain. He’s the best of both worlds
Bond, on the other hand, is struggling with his sense of self. Still shaving with a straight razor and MI6 is feeling the pressure from higher ups. In a world with no shadows, what use is there for a man like Bond when they have agents that can do all their work from a laptop in nothing but pajamas? Evolving with the times has always been a challenge for the Bond series. There was something so self-assured in the 1960s films that could arguably never be fully recaptured. By the 70s, the formula established by Goldfinger was already feeling a tad stale. Anyone remotely familiar knew the usual Bond trappings: Bond wraps up a previous mission, gets briefed by M for next mission, he investigates, sleeps with women, Bond gets captured, escapes, sleeps with more women, then beats the bad guy, and gets the girl. Wash, rinse, repeat. There was always some wiggle room and the series still produced gems from time to time, but for the most part, it was starting to get old.
When Bond got the reboot, it was long overdue and it felt fresh and reinvigorating. But to some, it wasn’t the James Bond we once knew. The series had been suffering from an identity crisis for a long time, but long-time fans really took note after the paltry reception of Quantum of Solace. But Skyfall eased their conscience. The film plays the familiar beats that series has been known for, but it somehow made them feel fresh and shiny again. James Bond and MI6 both embrace their former glory and how it has come to define them. “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will; to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. Bond and M of course hop into the legendary 1963 Aston Martin and drive to the crumbling estate where Bond was orphaned. A tragic past that has come to define the character we know.
The film also takes substantial opportunity to explore the working and personal relationship between Bond and his well-known superior M. by casting Judi Dench in a more motherly role this time around, Skyfall finds its heart in the relationship between the pair. As the two look over the beautiful scenery of Scotland, their conversation isn’t one of business. The subject is Bond and his life before the agency. M’s remarks are hollow on the surface, but it is Dench’s delivery where she finds something truly personal between the two characters. This dynamic helps build up one of the series most heartbreaking finales. And the series has had its fair share thus far.
One of the hallmarks of the 23rd entry is the breathtaking cinematography provided by the legendary Roger Deakins. The use of lighting and color is so crucial to this film’s success, that it is even used as a plot point: Bond keeps his presence unknown from an assassin by hiding behind the shimmering glass that is reflecting the light of Hong Kong. The single take of the fighting silhouettes that follow shortly afterwards is technically flawless. And as Bond enters the casino in Macao, it is nothing but sheer visual bliss. Even the simplest scenes look beautiful, like M’s office. Skillfully winking towards the stylized 60s office and giving it a modern feel through by its framing and lighting.
It’s within this final scene of the film where everything comes full circle. Once Bond has dealt with the terrorist threat once and for all, and has proven his worth to the British Intelligence, he walks into the room all too familiar to Bond alumni. A scene the casual Bond fan would find rather unremarkable, but to us, it is punctuation of the film’s thesis statement. To see the scene unfold on opening weekend stunned me to my core. I walked out of the theater with the biggest grin on my face. If James Bond was brought back from the brink in 2006, then it was with Skyfall that his resurrection was complete.
I’m always at a loss for words when someone asks me the dreaded question: “What’s your favorite James Bond film?” I mean there’s so many I can make a case for. I wish I could say all of them. Skyfall is the Bond film that lets me celebrate the series as a whole, and allows me to look forward to a future where James Bond continues to dominate the popular culture landscape like no other hero before. For 143 minutes, I find myself in utter Bond heaven, and I smile with glee when the credits role and those familiar words grace the screen:
James Bond Will Return.
First and foremost, James Tracey (@James_at_movies) is a movie lover. Not the oldest of Bond fans, he is of vocal one. He studies film in his native city of Windsor, Ontario, writes periodically for www.zombiesquirrel.com (@ZombieSqwrl ) and edits films like this one (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tGcdODpmkI). Also, he LOVES cats.
OTHER Favorite Bond Films: *Takes a deep breath* “Dr. No”, “From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger”, “Thunderball”, “You Only Live Twice”, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, “The Spy Who Loved Me”, “Goldeneye” AND “Casino Royale”
First Bond Film: Tomorrow Never Dies
Favorite Bond: Changes daily. Today it’s Timothy Dalton
Favorite Bond Girl: Diana Rigg. Hands Down.
How I discovered #Bond_age_: Don’t remember how it happened, but Scott Weinberg (@ScottEWeinberg) definitely had a supporting role