Light Bondage: “Skyfall”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

Wait wait wait! The intro might be over, but I have something else to say. You see, Light Bondage was something I did as a lark in December of 2011, starting it over the Christmas break and tearing through the movies (often two a day) throughout January as I prepped this series. I haven’t watched a Bond movie since February when I finally finished, and this is the first and only time I’m going to stop and reflect on the experience.

Mostly, I want to say thank you. This has consistently been one of my most popular features, and people will hopefully continue to come to these and read them for years to come, as the feature continues onward as long as James Bond does. This has been a big learning experience, and taught me what I could do with a bigger focused project, something I’m going to carry into 2013 (and beyond) with projects of equal size and scope. I wouldn’t still be doing this without your feedback and your encouragement, and I hope that you enjoy this and all my other pieces that have gone up this year or will go up in the future. I started this because I love movies, but I keep doing it because of all the readers who tell me that they appreciate it.

Okay, enough sappy stuff. Let’s get to the Bond, shall we?

Skyfall (2012)

skyfall posterSo I’ve already talked about Skyfall at length on two separate podcasts (the focused and the insane), so I feel like I’ve covered all of my basic impressions about the movie at complete and utter length. I highly recommend you listen to one or both of those, and I really don’t want to repeat myself in terms of what I have to say about the movie, so this section might actually be pretty brief compared to some of the other movies we’ve covered. If you want the tl;dr version of that, let me sum up exactly how I feel, for the record.

Skyfall is pretty good. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s great. An expanded focus on Bond as a distinct personality, a great supporting cast, and a reliance on character building over action set pieces make this one of the best Bond movies not just of Craig’s tenure, but of all time. To say nothing of the amazing villain, the reverent goofiness when it comes to homages to the legacy of the series, and a sense that the series has truly embraced sequels as opposed to isolated episodic filmmaking—all of which constructs a greater relevancy than Bond has had in years, Casino Royale included.

And let’s not even get started on how the movie looks. This is clearly the best looking movie of the year, and Roger Deakins is a shoe-in for all the cinematography awards unless there truly is no justice in the world at all. I’m probably going to load this post with way more images than usual if I can find high-res ones, because this movie is quite literally eye candy from front to back, minus some shitty CG in the first opening action sequence. In fact, to touch briefly on my few complaints with the movie, they boil down to this: the first half hour is totally unnecessary, and serves to do little but complicate a plot that doesn’t need to be so twisty. It’s a minor quibble, but I am so so tired of a spy identity list as the ultimate McGuffin in movies like this.

Most gorgeous Bond? Maybe! Lots of pretty pictures follow!

Most gorgeous Bond? Maybe! Lots of pretty pictures follow!

And that’s really the broad strokes. More specifically, I wanted to talk about the interesting tone that Skyfall ends up adopting, because I feel like the thing that has become incredibly evident to me is that Bond is a series that often struggled due to its own success. The early hits of Goldfinger and the like constructed a formula that became so set in stone that they’re still following it, and (more importantly) that formula has drifted into wider movies as well. Say what you will about modern action movies, but they’ve taken a lot from Bond. Bourne might have been revolutionary, but it wouldn’t exist outside of a response to its more ridiculous ancestor.

So now that other movies have taken that formula and run with it, I’ve felt that modern Bond has always been a little lost in trying to define itself. The lone wolf secret agent man with a gun doesn’t make much sense in a world that is so defined by computers and technology, something that Skyfall is quick to point out. Bond’s usefulness isn’t as an all-encompassing save the world type guy, but he’s basically a thug operating under the sanction of the British government. This is something Casino Royale tried to hint at, before getting distracted in the trappings of the book it was based off of, but ultimately Skyfall quickly realizes and comes to embrace the truth of this newly defined premise: Bond isn’t a hero, he’s the fascist g-man heavy who struggles to even understand what good or evil is while being used by his country.

The best scene in the movie just in terms of pure visual porn.

The best scene in the movie just in terms of pure visual porn.

And that’s what I think Skyfall does so wonderfully. The Bond they present wanted out, was done with the killing, and came back because he was trained from a young age to devote himself to the ideal of the home land and the idealized mother to the point where M and MI6 are loved unconditionally, no matter the personal cost to him. And so when they’re in need, he comes. When his life is in shambles, he ignores it. There is a single mindedness to Bond that’s somewhere between sociopath and abuse victim that defines his compulsion to be ruthless and efficient, even when he’s not particularly good at both deep down (Bond fails way more than he succeeds, both in just missions and as a person trying to navigate the world he finds himself in).

So what does that mean? It means that Skyfall operates in a post-morality universe where Bond is barely a good guy, only really existing in any sort of sense of ‘rightness’ because a government supports his actions. That amorality, and the nebulousness of his justification that the movie leans into, is the final realization of Bond’s relevance in the modern world: Bond is the vision of a security state glamorized, fascism in a suit and a smile, cold eyed and always packing a gun. And we’re asked to root for that because it’s necessary, and we’re left to make up that decision on our own, without any sort of actual moralizing by the film. The genius of Skyfall is that its subtext only becomes text long enough to ask the question, not to point towards the answer. Not because it’s being coy, but because it’s asking about its own relevancy in the modern era, and wrestling with things we still don’t have figured out as a culture. Bond has, in many ways, never been so relevant.

Going to amazing places only counts when you make them look good.

Going to amazing places only counts when you make them look good.

That all of that is wrapped in a pretty awesome, character-driven action movie with a ton of great jokes and nods towards the series that came before? Pretty amazing. The movie ends by giving us a weird recursive vision of the future, a Bond that seems radically different than his past returning to where he was when he first started out fifty long years ago. Will they continue down this path, or will we fold back around to the original, isolated action fluff of movies past? I’d like to see a new vision, where Bond can be a bit silly and a bit weird but embraces the deep questions that level of meta awareness implies. Mostly, I’d like to see more movies as good as Skyfall.

For queen and country.

For queen and country.

The Theme Song/Opening Title:

Adele, surprisingly chosen after already being everyone’s odds-on favorite for the role, gives a pretty typical ballad in the style of Shirley Bassey et all. It’s a solid track, one that’s gotten a lot of play by me in the lead up to the movie, and is pretty restrained for the often-overbelting British songstress. She’s a genuinely great fit, in the classic way that this series really needed at this point, and is a perfect compliment to the tone of the film itself.

More importantly, the opening sequence itself is again one of those heavily-stylized CG jobs much like the amazing Casino Royale opening. This one is full of graves and mausoleums, then guns and knives, and death’s head imagery that suits the complexities of this movie. Hell, even the giant paper dragon/lion things get a sequence. It’s kaleidoscopic in the best way, and like these later openings contain many images that just seem cool before the movie but gain relevance over the course of the film. Not relevant, exactly, but a nice touch. And meticulous care in openings is kind of what we want out of Bond, y’know?

Either way, it’s not something there are good high quality videos of at this point, so enjoy this obvious bootleg until youtube or whoever pulls it down.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:

The most ridiculous gadget … is love. No, I just wanted to write that the whole year of doing these, and this is really my last chance. In fact, this movie has almost no gadgets, something the new Q goes out of his way to point out and drive home. I mean, he gives Bond and gun and a radio transmitter, but that’s really it. And yes, I know there’s THE car, but so what? That’s not a ‘this movie’ gadget. And honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about the possibility of gadgets returning. I mean, they undoubtedly will at some point, but won’t it just feel like the weird ipad product placement in Ghost Protocol? Technology isn’t as charming as it used to be.

Q? Pretty adorable.

Q? Pretty adorable.

As for what’s actually in the movie, do those handprint gun scanners actually exist? I feel like every movie ever uses them now, and I don’t know if they’re real or not. Did everyone just watch Fifth Element and decide that was cool? It’s probably older than that, that’s just the first movie I remember that talked about coded guns.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:

I’m giving this one to Naomi Harris, who plays the MI6 agent Eve who shoots Bond, maybe sleeps with him, gives him no amount of flack, and is revealed at the end to be Miss Moneypenny, the infamous romantic foil to the womanizing Bond. This is great in some ways, because A) Moneypenny is cool as hell and B) Naomi Harris is also cool as hell. But it almost means that she’s going to be stuck behind a desk for future sequels when she was busy shooting people, driving cars, and being in knockout dresses for all of this movie.

Naomi Harris would have made a great Bond. She kicks ass in this movie regardless.

Naomi Harris would have made a great Bond. She kicks ass in this movie regardless.

This is especially true since, when I drew up my short list of British actresses who could play a female Bond, she was at the top of the list. She’s the perfect age, the perfect demeanor, and you could see her both wasting bad guys and bedding hot dudes without blinking an eye. Alas, it’s not really to be, unless they greatly expand what Moneypenny is in these movies (which I’d be totally okay with), so she’s instead relegated to the home front while all I have is Skyfall in which to dream about what might have been.

Best Bondickery:

On the other side, the most controversial part of the movie with the more traditional Bond Girl takes the spot for this award. Sévérine, played by Bérénice Lim Marlohe, shows up as a plot device for Bond to interact with, bed, and then watch as she gets killed for helping him by Silva. Bond is forced to engage in a shootout to hit a shotglass full of scotch on her head, and he misses only for Silva to shoot her outright and claim the ‘victory’. Bond, asked what he thinks, says that it’s a “Waste of good scotch.”

The ending, soft lit like a painting, is particularly impressive in terms of just straight screen beauty.

The ending, soft lit like a painting, is particularly impressive in terms of just straight screen beauty.

I’ve seen a lot of arguments that this is one of those grossly misogynistic moments that the series tends to dip into from time to time. I don’t really care to have that argument in this subsection, though I’d engage anyone who wanted further thoughts. My gut reaction, though, is: what did you expect him to say? Bond being flip about death has always been his way, especially as the CraigBond has developed a thick skin post-Vesper’s death where he offered a much more petulant response to how he was feeling about her death. But this Bond isn’t a good guy, he’s emotionally damaged to the point of being totally cut off, and tries (and often succeeds) in treating death as just a part of the job. So while it’s totally a dick move? I don’t know what people want. Bond isn’t that kind of hero. Being a dick comes with the tux and Walther.

JAMES BOND will return.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Light Bondage: “Skyfall”

  1. Most ridiculous gadget? Sure bond didn’t use any, but remember that CRAZY TRANSFORMING HACK LONDON MAP UNDERGROUND TRACKER COMPUTER FUTURE THING. Catchy name, but that laptop with the map that could track people in the underground, and also was solved by a password system that made absolutely no coding sense in real life, and it’s very code was a scrunched up map that must be untangled. Not encrypted, literally scrunched up. Inside a computer.

    That the preceding paragraph makes no sense shows just how ridiculous that gadget was.

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