Sunday, 2 December 2012

Think On Your Sins

[Warning: this blogpost contains spoilers for the new James Bond film, Skyfall (2012).]

In Skyfall, a computer screen with the message THINK ON YOUR SINS

I'm no Bond scholar. I've seen a bunch of Bond films from the different eras, but beyond Craig or Brosnan I couldn't tell you which is which. I saw Casino Royale in 2006 when I was eighteen and loved it as a solid action flick with some novel sequences, a decent story and an awesome soundtrack. The sequel, a film as barren as the meaning of its title, barely registered. I'd hardly even thought about Skyfall until the reviews started coming in.

Then I saw it, and I really, really liked it.

I may be no Bond scholar, but I thought Skyfall was, in a lot of ways, the best a Bond film could be, and, as a statement of intent for the Bond franchise, the best move it could have made at this stage in its life. Skyfall is so strong because pretty much every classical Bond element is turned into a mirror and used to reflect back on itself—on the Bond character and the status of the franchise as a whole—including M, the 'Bond girls', the villain, even something as specific as the Bond villain's traditional physical deformity.

The main theme is age and obsolescence, with the characters of Bond and M, also our representatives for the franchise, out to prove that they're not only capable but still relevant. Branching off from that, the film explores just about every other aspect of Bond that might now be considered somewhat archaic or unsavoury. The film's directive is, as Silva's message to M goes, 'Think on your sins.'

The resulting film is one that confronts the problematic tropes of the franchise, but it neither seeks to explain them away nor to destroy Bond. It uses this exploration to reorganise the constitution of what a Bond film is—creating some distance between Bond's womanising behaviour and the outlook of the film itself with Eve; being carefully ambivalent about the implied nationalism of MI6, etc—taking progressive steps, without trying to change what Bond is at his core. And for all the introspection, the film is ultimately self-affirming.

Bond looking out over London rooftops

It has to be said, they fucked up royally with Sévérine, where they could have really explored the vulnerability of women in the traditionally misogynistic world of Bond, but instead the film found itself totally implicated in that creepy shower scene and in the callous quip that Bond makes following her death (the camera couldn't even affect a last glance before the film rides off on a triumphant, congratulatory note and everyone promptly forgets about her completely). It's a shame this particular strand has to sour the film's other achievements.*

On the whole, though, if we close one eye and pretend Sévérine never happened, the film is self-affirming in the way that it rises above all of this, to suggest that the Bond franchise can be progressive and yet, in some essential way, still be the same as it ever was—with life in it yet. While this self-affirmation is a little overdone, with grandiose quotes from the poetry of Lord Tennyson and one too many sledgehammer one-liners about how 'traditional is always best', the film knows, for instance, that whatever the reality of modern espionage, we're always going to find the thrills of an action spy more captivating than the technological world of hackers and data gatherers (though if the new MI6 had been a bunch of petulant rollerblading kids, that would have been cool—and would've explained their curiously retro UI).

Skyfall is impressive because it manages to be self-aware, and self-reflexive, without letting this become a downward spiral of self-negating irony (as in Die Another Day) or pummelling Bond into grit in a bid to have him taken seriously (arguably, the last two films). Bond doesn't bear too much of the reality or psychological baggage of what it would actually be like to be him (and I think by now we've got to expect that they're never going to deconstruct the kill-machine action hero aspect to the point of franchise self-destruction)—instead, there's the implicit understanding that we're indulging in a bit of a heightened reality, while at the same time there's enough gravity instilled to keep Bond's feet on the ground with relatable and meaningful human experience.

It all demonstrates an understanding of what James Bond is in essence. The fact is, like so many iconic cinematic characters, Bond is larger than life. He's constructed from certain imperatives to do with genre, fantasy and wish fulfilment. We can still relate to his trials and tribulations, but the fact that he is so good at killing people, or getting laid, or simply being an action hero (or anti-hero), is more relevant to his character than whatever trumped up backstory attempts to explain it or explain it away.

Bond's face filtered through holographic jellyfish tendrils

This is why Skyfall is so interesting—because the very title would seem to put his origin story at the forefront, and yet the film's revelation is that Bond doesn't need all that detailed history and cause and effect. That he requires so little backstory to be himself is kind of the point. In Skyfall, the history of the Bond franchise, and its shifting relevance, represents a truer backstory than whatever young Bond went through at Skyfall, or whatever happened with Vesper Lynd in the preceding films. I kind of feel that Skyfall knows this, which is why Bond's whole backstory essentially boils down to one thing: being an orphan. It really doesn't go much beyond that. Even a character of his past like Kincade has no bearing on who he really is, instead existing only to reinforce the whole 'old but still got it' thing.

It'll be interesting to see where Bond is taken next. The sequels would have to be a reframing of what Skyfall has already done, maybe doing an even better job with those Bond girls. They've addressed what Bond is so well in this film, mostly, that I hope they don't consider this now over and done with, the Bond engine reignited and given leave to keep trundling on just as he's always done. The disappointing Sévérine strand shows us that they're perfectly capable of doing this even within the same film, so the likelihood this'll happen between now and a whole new film is pretty great.

Beyond the script, the purpose of Skyfall is to keep the franchise going. Bond is by now the very spirit of a franchise, largely static so he can keep on running forever, or for as long as people still want what he has to offer. What I liked most about Skyfall wasn't that it turned Bond and the franchise into something more meaningful than it really is, but that it knew what it was and how to make us see it.

* I also reserve a raised eyebrow for the odd note in Eve's fate as secretary, and a little mite of suspicion for how the film handles Silva's 'homosexuality', real or put-on—an interesting scene when you think about what they might have been trying to do with it (and with Bond), but I still can't quite shake the feeling that, whatever the writers say in interviews, the film itself falls just short of providing enough context to pull this totally clear of being a problematic representation (i.e. the predatory gay).

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At 2 December 2012 at 07:20 , Anonymous amelia chesley said...

you were only eighteen back then? doesn't seem so long ago.... or maybe it seems longer ago....

anyway: woah, I guess.

(that's as far as I read. maybe I'll read the rest later.)

At 2 December 2012 at 13:14 , Anonymous Chris said...

I also meant to say something about komodo dragons. Do I get to point that out as a pitch-perfect moment? I think so.