You know something’s a little off in the movie world when Steven Spielberg’s awards season release has united cinephiles and critics alike by being described as “transfixing,” “introspective,” and “incendiary.” Now, the last major movies expected to hit multiplexes are directed by former enfant terribles David O. Russell, Kathryn Bigelow, and Quentin Tarantino, an indie film Brit Tom Hooper, and a spiritual creator with a film about a boy, a boat, and a digitally-designed tiger. If nothing else, 2012 has indeed been a curious and polarizing year for big American movies.
Maybe we should have expected something was in the air when the first two highly-anticipated blockbusters, The Avengers and Prometheus, hit theaters to drastically differing responses. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers experienced audience ecstasy that crowned it an Oscar contender and the best superhero movie ever. Samuel L. Jackson even Twitter-swiped A.O. Scott for daring to have an opinion that strayed from the masses. However, the buzz for that picture has dissolved a bit since it hit. On the contrary, Prometheus opened to disappointment that divided critics, frustrated theory-buffs, and perplexed audiences. Now that the grime of “How is this not Alien?” has worn away, a fantastic Blu-ray release and time to ponder has been good to Prometheus.
This past Friday, Skyfall bowed to reviews reminiscent of The Dark Knight, causing many enthusiasts who have stood by Nolan’s franchise to cry foul by condescendingly dismissing Skyfall as a fraud. In some respects, it looks like you can divide American film lovers into two camps: those on the side of The Avengers and TDKR and those championing Skyfall and Prometheus. I rest firmly in the second group. This is my rant on why.
After watching Skyfall, I came upon this rather pointless list of similarities between Dark Knight and the latest Bond, that acts, at least for some viewers, as an open-and-shut case on why Nolan’s movies are clearly superior. I beg to differ. Firstly, had they been working from precisely the same treatment, Skyfall is still a coherently directed piece that prioritizes atmospherically-considered themes of loyalty and honesty over pontificating about revenge and honor.
Of course, the inherent flaw in an argument referring to all iterations of Dark Knight being ripped off by Skyfall is that Skyfall was obviously written before anybody could have seen, and therefore stolen, anything from The Dark Knight Rises. But that aside, the point is flawed for numerous, less “literal,” reasons. None of the “thematic beats” that Nolan’s films pronounce (loudly and often, I might add) are even remotely invented by Nolan. In some respects, my biggest issue with the fandom that has formed in spades around the director stems from the notion that he has concocted any of his lofty concepts from scratch. The only thing Nolan did was put somewhat big ideas about philosophy and society into multi-billion dollar products. He, in effect, caught lightning in a bottle and did the impossible by getting the world to buy into heady, intellectual movies. Nolan deserves to be applauded for inspiring these kinds of major leaps in conventional viewership. His effect on the blockbuster movie landscape cannot be overlooked.
Where Christopher Nolan experienced four years of essential carte blanche from fanboys (an honor now bestowed on Joss Whedon), a filmmaker like Sam Mendes can’t seem to escape consistent scrutiny. Most often, Mendes gets reduced to being “derivative” or “forgettable.” The problem is that Mendes’ work blends complicated exploration with an authentic aesthetic that spends more time probing the psychology of his characters than punching his audience in the gut with epic fireworks. This is why he seemed a curious choice for James Bond. Yet, like Ridley Scott (another tragically underrated filmmaker lately) he elevated his blockbuster by identifying its B-Movie charm and its ability to package compelling themes between the typical action tropes (in Scott’s case sci-fi tropes).
Additionally, Mendes directed a film with clarity and patience. Nolan shoots like he’s selling something “cool” for two hours, with a chronic case of slow push-ins and wall-to-wall pulse-chasing musical thumps. Jim Emerson wonderfully broke down how a lack of clarity in some of Nolan’s direction disguises momentary incompetency and weakens the experience. The three biggest complaints from those gleefully pegging Skyfall as a “rip-off” is the portrayal of a comical villain, Bond’s orphaned past, and the hero coming back from presumed death to save the day. Contrary to what many have concluded, each of these concepts have been instilled in narratives since as far back as Greek mythology (or further).
Most egregious is that somehow Javier Bardem’s Silva is a carbon copy of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Besides this being an incomprehensibly superficial observation, it misses the point that frightening villains and dark comedy have run hand in hand throughout classic movies. Lang’s Dr. Mabuse and DeMille’s Hishuru Tori in The Cheat come to mind as early incarnations of cartoonish film villains whose insatiable desire to achieve their goals provides them also with an indefinable charisma. What makes striking brutes powerful to watch is how they possess magnetizing qualities lacked by our heroes. Often that void comes in the form of a charming persona, allowing a villain’s “badness” to infiltrate complex institutions. A playful villain can be believably relatable as they brainwash willing characters in ways we can truthfully invest in. Far and away, one of the most popular characters in the Star Wars series is Darth Vader because he inflicts fear in an over-the-top style that draws us, like those he controls, into his web. As we know from the obnoxiously oppressive boss we’ve all had, with terror and charisma comes comedy. Bardem himself had his own foray into the world of creepy, comical villains in the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, a year before The Dark Knight even hit screens. The Joker didn’t invent any of this, but Ledger did it better than just about any actor (including Bardem) in modern movies.
The notion of the orphaned hero has been employed by classic works by Dickens, Fielding, Twain, Shakespeare, and a slew of other decent writers you may have heard of. Unfortunately, Nolan fans have gone blind to what’s come before, including those works that Nolan himself is likely referencing. Truth be told, I found the backstory for Bond to be cliché and underwhelming. Like Batman’s story, this idea has been done so many times that it makes it difficult to engage with the hero’s need to overcome it. That said, for Bond, the past informs an icy demeanor and pragmatic approach, however, it’s not the single moment in his life that he sets out to avenge. Where Nolan needs to proclaim his themes and reduce his characters to basic motivations, Mendes’ Bond naturally grows from his scars, but he doesn’t dwell on them. So, yes, Batman and Bond share similar backstories. However, Nolan did not invent this kind of backstory and, frankly, Mendes’ Bond paints a far more interesting portrait of someone who’s risen from these dark places.
Finally, the most silly claim by skeptics is that Skyfall stole The Dark Knight Rises’ concept of having its hero come back from presumed death to save his city. Besides this again being far from a novel idea by Nolan and company, Batman’s long battle to come back to save Gotham was handled as though an inevitable point given Batman’s unceasing commitment to stopping mayhem. Without Batman, Gotham burns. That’s what Nolan’s films teach us. Throughout the Bond franchise, James keeps one foot out the door. He’s a bad boy brat who consistently defies the organization he works for and considers escaping from their oppressive ways. What keeps Bond coming back? The loyalty he has to MI6 and his thirst to be at the center of the action. Hence why seeing MI6 explode on TV is a fairly believable trigger for his return. Unlike Batman, the Bond films never convince us that without our hero the problems of the world will get much worse (why else would M risk sacrificing Bond?), instead emphasizing Bond is an agent amongst others like him. If anything, the contemporary Batman films stole a thread from Bond by giving their lead a need to be hidden after saving the city. Except instead of it being the kind of casual retirement that makes Bond relatable, Batman stays hidden because he “has to be the villain.”
As of this rambling, Skyfall and Prometheus stand as two of the most dynamic films I’ve seen in 2012. They are each strong contenders for my top ten. What so many film lovers forget is how difficult these types of projects are to create. From technical challenges to marketing obligations, blockbusters are increasingly built to target the lowest common denominator. It’s already a miracle for even one genuine thought to sneak into these pieces. Therefore, for all the intriguing themes in more lauded artistic films like Amour and The Master, Mendes and Scott managed to spin insightful ideas of their own into less conspicuous packages. What’s more, Skyfall and Prometheus use the basic concepts of their respective genres to elevate the kinds of material we would expect only from the best niche writers. Neither film provides easy answers, but neither sets out make a groundbreaking points about life either. Both simply have smart ideas on their minds and know that it’s crucial to make the journey as entertaining as possible.
A Bond Newbie’s Thoughts on 007: Skyfall