26 November 2012

First Impressions: Skyfall, Part I: The Craig Trilogy and Bond's Cultural Appropriations

So, a new James Bond film has been out for a while and it's about time we talk about it here. It's already the highest-grossing film in the 50-year old franchise to date (by a tremendous margin) and it's also one of the better reviewed in the series. There is so much to talk about when discussing Mr. Bond, from the series classicisms and iconography, its high and low points, cultural appropriations, and cultural ramifications. Let's start chatting directly about Skyfall (2012), SPOILERS to come, love.

Context in The Craig Trilogy

In many ways, Skyfall serves as a conclusion to a Daniel Craig Bond Trilogy that began with Casino Royale (2006). That film was part of an attempt by many dormant or disastrous franchises to re-boot themselves into grittier, more realistic incarnations (the films most closely follow Chris Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy through its whole run, more on that later). Casino Royale threw away much of the garbage that had accumulated in the Bond franchise to that date, mostly from the Pierce Brosnan films that grew more ridiculous, campy, and poorly executed in each subsequent installment. While both Brosnan and Timothy Dalton played some of the best Bonds, the shitty films they found themselves in will always limit their cultural impact.

Daniel Craig has brought unparalleled complexity to the character of James Bond. It's actually even difficult to say this because many people have different ideas of what James Bond should be, dating back for the past sixty years. Purist fans of the original novels and short stories will even still hold Sean Connery's portrayals in low esteem, so it's difficult to judge whether or not Craig is the best Bond or not, because it just becomes a meaningless debate. What we can say, though, is that Craig mostly displays a tragic, hopeless Bond, who often finds himself simultaneously labeled a renegade hothead and a hopeless loyalist to Country.

The contemporary Craig Bond films have always played with who Bond is and what his role should be in a global political environment drastically different from that of his inception. The Brosnan films played with this in GoldenEye (1995) (and indeed there a few similarities with the basic set-up then and now, with the Rogue Agent Villain who serves as a Doppelganger or counter to Bond of sorts), but without much more idea of where to go after that, those films grew increasingly silly in their ideas of what Bond should be doing (and no, neither Die Another Day [2002] nor this weekend's Red Dawn [2012] should convince anyone that North Korea is a believable global threat).

Casino Royale visually sexualized Bond like many previous films had done with its women (Skyfall also spins this tradition, also more on that later). It tried to provide an origin story, but mostly it was a "first adventure" sort of story. It told less of how Bond became a spy than of how Bond became Bond. Casino Royale elevates James to a highpoint with his leading lady, and while a Roger Moore film would have ended there, Craig's film keeps going, killing his love and providing the foundation for the remainder of the trilogy that surrounds Bond with Death and leads him less and less capable of dealing with it with any kind of human emotion. The Craig films are more a tale of how Bond became the caricature in culture he was during the first forty years of the franchise's existence.

Quantum of Solace (2008) in many ways was disappointing in continuing this concept. While both Casino Royale and Skyfall bravely played with Bond tropes while honouring them, the conceit of Quantum promised a unique Bond revenge-centric adventure, but instead ended up as a very typical, and at times incomprehensible installment within the franchise. It ends up being one of the worst Bond Films out there and the full circle of Craig's Bond may be better elucidated through Casino Royale and Skyfall alone.

Skyfall continues to de-humanize Bond. Everything he loves or touches dies and he cares less and less, or at least expresses it less. He fails to protect the innocent (note as he watches security guards murdered, quips at the Sévérine's death [though in doing so, she at least avoids become a Fridge Girl], and is fazed less by violence and terror around him than he is by boredom and actually saving people). By the film's end he's completed his transition from human to an agent. He no longer has any ties to a past life or the comforting matriarchal relationship that Judi Dench's M offered. He becomes a pure tool for his government, without an actual personality, backstory, or relationships. In essence, Skyfall tells how and why Bond becomes the greatest secret agent of all time, because these fleeting personal effects are detrimental to his career.

Cultural Appropriation

One of the more interesting aspects of the Bond films is its cultural appropriation. Bond hasn't really created his own cultural waves since the Connery films ended. Actually, it hasn't really put forward anything very original iconic since You Only Live Twice (1967) besides the ski chase in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Other Bond films since the 1970s have eerily just simply mirrored whatever else was going on in culture at the time. In a sense, this has allowed the Bond character to just exist in a wide variety of other settings, genres, and even entire films.

Live and Let Die (1973) capitalized on Blaxploitation films, and even seems to somehow predict a few characters from Smokey and the Bandit (1977). The Spy Who Loved Me introduced Jaws, an obvious callback to the indestructible, silent, and fearsome shark from JAWS (1975). Moonraker (1979) tried to be Star Wars (1977). If we flashforward to today, we've already talked about Casino Royale's desire to reboot a grittier, realistic Bond, akin to the success of Batman Begins (2005). What's more disturbing, though, is how much Quantum of Solace attempted to be a Bourne Film, both in its shakycam cinematography, and media technology-driven storyline. While this may seem the norm in spy films these days, we can note how the last third of Skyfall could easily have taken place in 1962 - and that's the point.

Skyfall seems to want to bump Bond back right up to Dr. No (1962). It ends as all those classic Bonds always began - with Bond hanging his hat, chatting up a flirtatious Moneypenny, and then discussing the next mission with a male M. Ralph Fiennes embodies this M with so much a classic British aristocratic zeal to make this transition all the more seamless. These sudden concluding reveals at the end felt exactly like the ending to The Dark Knight Rises (2012) which after three ground-breaking films seemed to put everything in place within a larger established history rather than continue creating one of its own. In this way, the Craig Trilogy is less innovative on its own and more derivative of Nolan's Batman.

Tomorrow we'll discuss the ways that Skyfall both honours the many Bond Classicisms while is still iconoclastic, which is really what cements this film's legacy as one of the greatest Bond Films of all time.

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