Friday, November 16, 2012

Skyfall, a photographer's Bond, and the theme of obsolescence

There are times during Skyfall when I felt like Sam Mendes was scoffing at Marc Forster, his predecessor in the lineage of James Bond directors. By my reading, the film was thoroughly aware of the recent history of the franchise, not least because it linked the new Bonds to the very old ones in some trivial homages. But also, the film's didactic content -- its message of old and reliable methodology versus whiz-bang novelty and gimmicks -- is also a comment on the way the series has been going so far. Lucky for us, part of Sam Mendes's message required him to prove himself, and he did that by making a damn fine Bond film, on par with the excellent Casino Royale... kind of a rebuke to Quantum of Solace, which is fine by me.

An argument in the background of the film, the ground to the figure of chase scenes and assassinations, was the confrontation between M (Judy Densch) and the Board of Inquiry that was investigating her conduct in running MI6. Given that espionage and terrorism is largely conducted online in our modern age, the board asks M a practical question: does MI6 even need human agents at this point? In response, M argues for the continued human engagement and expertise that her agents (like Bond) can provide. This explicit argument is just a few token lines of dialogue in the film, but its implications resonate through the whole narrative, affecting its characters, its themes, and its progression and resolution.

This whole debate is, of course, underwritten by the strong presence of Q and Silva in the film. Q is Bond's new Quartermaster, is a young, precocious computer hacker who seems to feel that he can solve most problems from his control room. He regards agents as clumsy but necessary appendages: "Occasionally, a trigger must be pulled." Silva, the arch-villain of the film, is a vengeful ex-agent who turns out to rival Q in the realm of digital espionage. He uses YouTube as a medium to broadcast the identities of the MI6 agents around the world; he masks his own digital signature by hopping around remote servers; and he transforms his laptop into a sort of reconnaissance bomb that, upon being connected to the MI6 computers, takes them over and breaks open the compound's security systems.

Bond villains always have to seem superhuman; in this case, Silva is a dangerous combination of Q's high-level computer skills and Bond's unbelievable physical and social prowess. He is a strong parallel to Q, in that both of them seem to think they can rule the world by dominating it through their computer terminals. Q is fortunate in that for him, as opposed to Silva, being proven wrong by Bond doesn't mean getting killed.

These themes of Old-Busted-versus-New-Hotness are infused into a categorically excellent action movie, which is what a James Bond film really needs to be. What made Casino Royale so brilliant was its ferocious attitude and its groundbreaking action sequences; for Skyfall, the action is smart and serviceable, but not necessarily brilliant. We've all seen fights on top of trains; we've all seen arenas with unlikely creatures in them. We've all seen the Home Alone sequence where a house is rigged with traps. What's fucking fantastic about Skyfall is its visionary cinematography, its insistence that every scene look like a painting, with mesmerizing relationships between light and color and shadow, ballets of figures and silhouettes and backgrounds playing off one another. It's a photographer's Bond film. Were any of the old ones like that? I don't remember them well enough to say.

But how gorgeous was the empty office in Shanghai, surrounded by glass, with the pulsating monitor visible across the gulf outside?

And how perfectly composed was Silva, staggering over layered crests of pasture, barely illuminated by the flames of a burning mansion off in the distance?

How chilling were those shots of Bond suspended in a frozen lake, fighting to get to the surface as a henchman sank into the abyss below him?

Mendes brought his stylistic strengths fully to bear in this Bond film, and that turned out to interface neatly with the film's larger thematic issues. Quantum of Solace, the previous Bond film, was embodied in Skyfall by Silva and Q, who thought that high-tech, high-fidelity solutions were the way of the future. In case you don't remember (or didn't see it), Quantum of Solace was fatally sabotaged by its action sequences, which were totally incoherent, shot in a queasy shaky-cam style, with debris and flames flying by the camera and no respect for space or continuity. This is what you get when you invest a lot of your resources in equipment and post-production... quick effects, crane shots, tons of coverage, but no economy, continuity, or coherence. Marc Forster must have seen the Borne films and thought that style was a great fit for Bond. It turned out to make the film intolerable.

Bond represents Skyfall, the film itself, as a refutation of the Quantum aesthetic. Bond is a human element, running on cunning and judgment and loyalty, whose skill as an agent allows him to defeat Silva's vast resources and technical capabilities. Skyfall is the low-fi rejoinder to Quantum of Solace, showing fans that the way to make an excellent Bond film is through the traditional techniques of writing, pacing, and cinematography. Both Bond and Skyfall go back to fundamentals, and in being so goddamn good, they prove that the new Hotness can't replace the old standard... at best, it can build on top of it.