Monday, November 12, 2012

Skyfall: Why James Bond Needs Aliens

I saw "Skyfall" and I don't really see any reason to do a proper review of it. I liked it, didn't love it, but pretty much anything I could say has been said elsewhere and probably better.

But I do have one major concern, and that's with the future of the Bond franchise.

You see, while I don't intend to spoil anything about "Skyfall" in this post, I will say that the film's major theme is in regards to whether or not James Bond still has a place in the modern world, and honestly, I'm not sure the film has a satisfying answer.

Classic Bond

If you've ever seen the older Bond films, you'd know that the majority of the films are... kind of silly. Despite the fact that Bond is constantly in life-or-death situations, he never acts it. He's unflappable, charismatic, and entirely cavalier.

This is, of course, a product of the times.

For the most part, people really didn't know anything about secret agents and spies other than what they learned from Bond stories. Though Ian Fleming himself had a great deal of firsthand experience in the military and the secret service, he obviously embellished a great deal for dramatic effect and definitely romanticized the experience a great deal.

However, as time went on, the patience for such things grew thin. The world was changing, our perception of the military was changing, action films were becoming more grounded and realistic, and the older style of the Bond films was starting to show its age.

I personally think the turning point was "Austin Powers", a series that more or less crystallized the Bond formula in loving parody. At that point, as a society, we finally understood how silly the Bond films were.

Then, in the early twenty-first century, the Bond franchise had a quadruple-whammy. In the same year, we got the last "Austin Powers" film, the first "Bourne" film, and the last Pierce Brosnan Bond film, "Die Another Day". And, of course, in 2001, setting the stage for all this, was 9/11. Suddenly terrorists, spies, and the secret service weren't so romantic and silly.

"Austin Powers" had not only driven a stake through the heart of the classic Bond formula, it had driven a stake through the heart of its OWN formula of parodying the Bond formula. Meanwhile, the sleeper hit, "The Bourne Identity", single-handedly changed the face of spy films in a way no one saw coming, resonating with a post-9/11 perception of war. Finally, in the middle of it all, "Die Another Day" showed an aging Brosnan perpetuating an aging concept with an unbelievably outdated formula that just no longer worked.


It was not surprising that when James Bond returned to the big screen in 2006, they decided to do away with the classic formula. Instead, they embraced the grim and gritty tone found in most modern spy films (most commonly compared to the "Bourne" movies).

I really liked "Casino Royale", mostly because it felt like an evolution of the character. A new beginning. He could go anywhere from there.

Then we got "A Quantum of Solace" and the pendulum swung way too far in the Bourne direction. There was essentially nothing recognizable left, and that was the biggest problem.

While pretty much everyone is in agreement that the Bond formula just does not work in a modern setting, by simply adopting the Bourne formula, there's nothing about "Quantum of Solace" that helps it stand out from the competition.

Then with "Skyfall", it felt like they found the balance. They kept the Bourne-style character-focused story, but they brought in a great villain, some of the more familiar elements of the franchise, and an attitude of "out with the old, in with the new". On top of that, the direction and style of the film stands on its own in a way that few Bond films have dared.

However, there's a problem.

Nowhere To Go But Down

"Skyfall" may have been aptly named because I don't think the series has ever been quite this ambitious, and yet, it has seemingly set the series up for an enormous fall. Maybe it's just me, but from my perspective, (again, not spoiling anything) this probably could have served as the LAST Bond film. Of all time. I'm serious. Yes, I know they full-well intend to keep going from here, but I can't imagine why (other than money and tradition of course).

The biggest reason (without mentioning spoilers) is that this film tries to reconcile the Bond of the old age with the Bond of the new age, and it definitely manages it convincingly within the context of the story.

There's one very cute scene that pretty adequately illustrates what I'm talking about.

Up until now, the Daniel Craig Bond films haven't had a new Q, mostly out of respect for the late Desmond Llewelyn, but also because the role of Q didn't really fit in with the new aesthetic. This new Bond was much more believable and ridiculous gadgets with disturbingly specific purposes didn't really fit.

However, in "Skyfall", we finally get a new Q, and he is played very well by Ben Wishaw.

In his first scene where he gives Bond his equipment, the equipment consists of a gun that with only work for Bond thanks to a palm print scanner and a remote tracking device. After presented with this, Bond says something to the effect of, "A gun and a radio. Not exactly Christmas, is it?" To which Q responds, "What did you expect, an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that sort of thing anymore."

Q's response is meant to be funny, but it also speaks to the film's larger theme of how the world has changed in regards to espionage, but more specifically (and subtextually) how the world has changed in regards to spy films.

This scene between Bond and Q perfectly encapsulates the tone of "Skyfall". We have a long-missing element of the Bond franchise coming back, but he's been transformed to fit into the new aesthetic. Then, as a nod to their roots, they make a joke about how simple these tools are when compared to some of the things used in earlier films. The exploding pen isn't even that old. It was in "GoldenEye". But the idea is that it would be ridiculous and that old stuff just doesn't fit into the way the world is perceived these days.

And no, I'm not saying that this perception is wrong. The fact is, we have these new Bond movies because "Die Another Day" was basically a testament to how the Bond formula just doesn't work in a modern setting. So they changed it to something that does work.

But the big problem is... now what?

So we've established that this new James Bond won't have crazy gadgets, ridiculous plot-focused stories, or lighthearted fun. OK, fine. But those aspects are basically what allowed the classic films to have such longevity. Viewers didn't go to each Bond film to see a progression in character, they went to see the new gadgets, the new cars, the new villains, the new setup, the new girls, etc. What this new series has done is effectively marginalized all of those elements. They might still be there, but they are either used specifically as nods or references or subverted entirely in service to a greater theme or story.

The thing is, there's nothing wrong with doing that. As I mentioned, that formula stopped working, so incorporating it without actually adhering to it is clever if you want to make an updated Bond film. However, in doing so, you are making a film that is entirely about Bond the character, not about Bond the self-insert audience-fulfillment adventure machine, and at this point, we've basically exhausted all of his angles as character.

Sure, at this point they've basically got all of the pieces in place to return to the familiar Bond formula, but the Bond formula simply would not work with the tone set for these new films. Anything that would fit this more realistic world would have to be something believable, and sadly, that can't make Bond stand out from the crowd of other Bourne knock-offs. And we can't just swing back to the old ways because "Skyfall" has been lovingly embraced by fans and mainstream moviegoers alike. If you hit the reset button again in order to return to the classic formula, it will be seen a disappointment.

So these are the options.

1) Continue the same way and end up with a movie that will inevitably be seen as inferior to "Skyfall" and make people question whether or not the series should proceed any further since the new Bond has too many limitations to stay fresh and interesting.

2) Revert back to the old ways to maintain the old formula but piss off all of the people who loved "Skyfall" and were completely on board with the new status quo.

3) Bring something unexpected into the mix. I'm not saying it's aliens, but...

It's Aliens

OK, maybe not aliens per se, but bear with me here. The fact is, now that "Skyfall" has basically firmly planted the Daniel Craig Bond aesthetic and made it commercially and critically successful, they can't change it. All of these serious people have to keep being serious and they have to keep using believable-ish tools for their missions. It has been established that the new Bond takes place in (essentially) the world we live in with no real variances, and any deviation from that would feel inconsistent.

But not if you throw in something completely unexpected and unprecedented that challenges the suspension of disbelief of the characters themselves.

The fact is, whenever we get a movie about government agents and aliens, it usually ends up being something that is quickly established in the movie and explained away. This would be your "Independence Day", your "Men In Black", or even your "District 9".

But if you had a traditional James Bond opening, but just before the credits, a fucking flying saucer lands and the VERY SERIOUS Daniel Craig and his VERY SERIOUS MI6 colleagues all stand completely flabbergasted, then you have something different.

Yes, it's ridiculous, but that's the point. We get to keep the Daniel Craig Bond-verse by having it act as the straight man to something else that is just plain ludicrous. The characters in this world are just as perplexed by this alien presence as we are and any wacky territory they enter into may feel out-of-place, but understandable. It will basically force Bond to lighten up a little. His trauma will seem much smaller when he's staring down the barrel of a plasma rifle.

To help make my point, let's examine the "Iron Man" franchise.

OK, obviously the Iron Man suit is science fiction, but the first two "Iron Man" films were very much steeped in a world that felt real. Still, they had basically reached about as far as they could without jumping straight into weird/wacky/campy territory. Thankfully, then we had "Avengers", and suddenly Tony Stark's world became much stranger. Now "Iron Man 3" can delve into pretty much whatever crazy shit it wants and we can explain it away by remembering that Tony Stark fought aliens in New York just a few months earlier.

So it doesn't HAVE to be aliens. It could be magic. Or time travel. Or parallel worlds. One friend of mine thought that the Cthulhu mythos could be a good fit.

We just need something completely out there so that Bond no longer feels limited by the tone of his world.

Otherwise, he's doomed to just muddle around the same familiar territory that had already been explored by many other action films rather than staking out his own new territory like the franchise used to do.

Also it would be the perfect opportunity to reveal that he is, in fact, a Time Lord, but I digress.

"Skyfall" is good, but as good as it is, they can't make every new movie a throwback to the old ways while justifying the new ways. That bit has now officially been played out. If you look at the story content alone, "Skyfall" was basically a really well-executed mash-up of "Mission Impossible", "Live Free or Die Hard", "The Dark Knight", and "Home Alone". Nothing about it feels particularly unique in style or substance, and that's a serious problem if they want this franchise to survive long into the future. Not every movie can be about Bond getting over his physical and psychological issues while lamp-shading how silly Bond films used to be, and if that's the only way these movies know how to bring Bond into a modern setting, then this bubble is set to burst.

1 comment:

  1. Daniel Craig never looks like he's having any fun.

    Also, we already have photographic evidence that James Bond is a timelord: