The immediate reaction in the Bond-o-sphere when the Skyfall teaser trailer was released was one of unrepentant fanboy squee. The servers at 007.com went down and the world was atwitter with excitement at the beauty of the new trailer for the latest, as-yet unfinished film by director Sam Mendes.
Everyone was happy. Well, as it turns out, not everyone was happy and a few days later a sense of unease regarding the trailer began creeping in. The new trailer, detractors worried, didn’t show a “Bond film” but another dour, generic action movie with the 007 brand stamped on it with precious little else intact from the prestigious 50 year cinematic legacy.
Obviously, we can’t possibly judge an entire film from an 85 second trailer but we do get a sense of what the film makers want us to believe about the film.
Prior to the trailer, the producers were touting Skyfall as a “return to form”, with more humor and more in keeping with Goldfinger in terms of tone. The first teaser trailer is anything but light and only features the slightest hint of humor. Instead we see Bond looking haggard. He is being psychologically evaluated. The film looks cold and grim. We see Bond running all out down the streets of London. We see M in a large room filled with coffins draped with the Union Jack. Something has hurt Bond profoundly and something might destroy M. By the end of the 85 seconds, one is left with a great sense of foreboding, which is indeed unfamiliar territory for a James Bond teaser trailer.
Reviewing teasers for the Bond films going back to Roger Moore’s last film From a View to a Kill, several things remain consistent. Each trailer starts out surprising the audience by setting up the new film as something unexpected and provocative but by the end of the clip, we are treated to a series of action highlights with the familiar 007 theme loudly underscoring the violence with a kind of jaunty reassurance that the ride will be the same as before: fun, stylish and not too exciting for the little ones. In essence: Nostalgia. Or “Sadism for the whole family” as producer Cubby Broccoli famously described them.
The Skyfall trailer does indeed feel different. Not only is the 007 theme missing but the clips are edited together with quick fades to black between them in a way that interrupts the flow and conveys a sense of impending doom not unlike Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. This feeling is only reinforced by a shot of Javier Bardem as the villain of the piece shown only in silhouette, walking away from a burning mansion, looking every bit like a back-lit reincarnation of Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight. It’s easy to see why fans, still feeling disappointed by the well intentioned but poorly executed Quantum of Solace, might be uneasy.
Why I think it’s going to be brilliant:
First, I didn’t think Quantum of Solace was all that bad. The pre-title sequence was badly shot and, honestly, damaged the flow of the film from the start. There was, in my opinion, too much action for too little story and the gun barrel sequence at the end made it feel less like a film in it’s own rite and more like an epilogue for Casino Royale. That said, I’d rather watch Quantum of Solace ten times in a row than suffer through Die Another Day even one more time. Which brings me to:
Playing his golden harp
Ever since the phenomenal success of Goldfinger, the producers have been trying to recreate the particular mix of ingredients that proved so successful. So much so that they’ve repeated the basic formula in nearly every film since, going so far as to actually remake the film in both Octopussy and A View to a Kill. Even Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace feature nods to Goldfinger. I would opine that it is high time to let Goldfinger play his golden harp in peace. I’d rather see a good movie than another safe rehashing of the same elements we’ve seen for most of the previous 22 films.
A novel idea
Arguably, the strongest of the Bond films are those that return to the source material. Most of the Fleming plots have been exhausted but what hasn’t is Bond. James Bond, as written, is described as being saturnine (Moonraker), not only in his dark good looks (which Daniel Craig can’t offer, not that it’s his fault) but in his character; which is to say Ian Fleming’s James Bond is a, dark and broody man. There is a “coldness and hint of anger in his grey-blue eyes.”(Live and Let Die). Bond is a fiercely patriotic soldier with what M calls “the Nelson Touch” enabling him to “escape more or less unscathed from the many adventurous paths down which his duties led him”(You Only Live Twice) but he is also a man subject to depression, self doubt and a sense of malaise throughout the novels but the films rarely touch upon this aspect of Bond’s persona. Timothy Dalton attempted to bring this Bond to the screen but the result was like watching Ian Fleming’s creation wander around in a world created by and for Roger Moore.
In rebooting the series in a way that is more realistic, the film makers give Daniel Craig a chance not only to imbue his characterization with a great deal of Fleming’s Bond but they give him a world that fits him.
That Skyfall is about circumstances that test 007’s loyalty to M (and by association, England) is very much in keeping with the world Fleming created. And the fact that Bond is shown as vulnerable (to a point) is a welcome sign that we may get more than an avatar on which to hang our own desires but an actual character to care about. What Bond does for Queen and Country is often horrible. He shouldn’t survive entirely unscathed by his adventures, he should have psychological evaluations and he should have doubts about what he does.
A barrel of laughs?
While Skyfall does not look to the be the light fare that the producers probably hoped it might be when they approved the script, they have taken a few steps to assure the fan base that several key elements will return. The first teaser poster shows 007 walking down a gun barrel that looks more like the classic gun barrel logo that opened the first 20 films than anything we’ve seen since. Given how much backlash the producers received from the fan base about changing the gun barrel logo and moving it around, it seems likely the new film will feature the classic imagery at the beginning of the film.
Additionally there are hints that the film will introduce a version of Moneypenny and we are assured that the film will feature at least some incarnation of Q (read: not Q Branch or Major Boothroyd) both of whom brought some degree of comic relief to the films.
Once when you are born and once when you look death in the face
One of the curses that all franchises successful enough to become iconic suffer is that, over time, they lose the sense of danger critical to the thrill of the ride. No matter how much we might be entertained, if there is nothing really at stake, there’s no need for us to invest ourselves in the outcome. Prior to Casino Royale in 2006, the last time we saw Bond in actual peril was when Goldfinger had him strapped to a block of gold with a high powered laser promising to cut him, very slowly, in half. By the time Pierce Brosnan’s Bond meets with torture in the beginning of Die Another Day, we not only don’t have to watch it happen in real time (although we do have to listen to Madonna pitch shift her way through the theme song without ear muffs), we know with absolute certainty that however bad it may look now, James Bond will not only emerge victorious, he and his entire world will return whole and unchanged. By Die Another Day, James Bond, the character as well as the franchise was dying, if not actually dead. After Bond is captured in the pre-title sequence, the film loses momentum and becomes a kind of greatest hits flashback of iconic imagery from past adventures. The entire subtext is that of a man who, in the moments of death, is seeing his life flash before his eyes. By rehashing old imagery (the Union Jack on a parachute, Halley Berry doing her best Ursula Andress and so forth) and plot devices (Diamonds are Forever), the producers were signaling to the world that the best Bond had to offer had come and gone. James Bond no longer mattered. not to the world and not to the filmmakers.
By rebooting the franchise, Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli were attempting to free themselves from forty years of legacy. Unlike Star Trek or Doctor Who, the world of James Bond has no built-in reset switch. A reinterpretation was necessary. In Casino Royale, Eon created a James Bond that can be hurt, both emotionally and physically. They showed us that while death might not be on the table, unbearable suffering of both a physical and emotional very well could be. For the first time since Goldfinger, the stakes were high for again for James Bond. As in the novels, it was no longer a certainty that Bond or those he loved would survive the current adventure intact.
We may want an easy, nostalgic ride that won’t terrify our children but we need a James Bond that might not make it whole into another adventure or we can’t root for him. And, at a deeper level, we look to James Bond not only to live life richly in a way most of us cannot but to take the risks we can’t and still find a way through the confusion of the modern political landscape to a resolution that feels right; not just restoring the status quo. What justifies the way James Bond lives is the belief that it could all end in a moment and the sacrifices he makes in the service of the greater good.
We need James Bond to prevail but we don’t necessarily need or want it to come to him without a cost.
James Bond can easily entertain us. EON has produced many polished but ultimately shallow entries to the series that still commanded huge box office returns. But what made James Bond relevant in the first place was that somehow the novels and early films synthesized, quite possibly by accident, lightning in a bottle in the form of a new heroic archetype. James Bond taps into our anxieties, our appetites and our need to find through illustrations of great adversity a path to our own heroic story but he also taps into our greed, our shame and our guilt. James Bond in the novels often fancies himself a modern St. George slaying the dragon (rather literally in Dr. No) but 007 is no saint (not even when portrayed by Roger Moore); he is as corrupt if not more so than those he protects and it is only by putting himself in harms way that he redeems himself and the audience by virtue of our emotional investment in his cause. This world is mad and Bond doesn’t shy away from it, he embraces it; showing us how we might do the same.
So, I suppose, the real question is: In Skyfall, are we hoping for the James Bond we want or the one we really need?
Despite the foreboding tone of the first teaser trailer, I’m certain it will be a ride. There is, frankly, too much money riding on this film for it not to exciting and fun. But it is my hope that in choosing Sam Mendes to helm the film that the producers of Skyfall will also tell a story that feels true to the human being that Ian Fleming created when he put ribbon to paper nearly sixty years ago. I hope they have the courage of their convictions to take some risks, to challenge and surprise us.
No small order. But if the trailer is any indication, after half a century, Eon is finally up to the task.
Legendre Thirst is a self professed geek for researching, recreating, field testing and writing about classic libations and the spirits that haunt them. He is a huge 007 fan and devotee of the good life. He serves as cocktail correspondent providing cocktail recipes and history for the radio show Happy Hour on KWMR which features mid-century jazz and lounge music. He is currently blogging at http://drink007.com.