Saturday, November 17, 2012
Watching the final episodes of Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977) Season Two, the intrepid viewer will experience the distinct sense that markers are being laid down; sign-posts that point towards a possible direction for Season Three.
This was evident especially in “The Musician,” a story about Chaka’s evolution and mental acceleration.
And it’s also evident in this week’s story, “Split Personality,” which finds the Land of the Lost interfacing – albeit uncomfortably – with an anti-matter version of itself.
When the two universes “grind” against one another, earthquakes result, and the anti-matter Holly makes contact with her matter universe doppelganger. The anti-matter version speaks through “our” Holly and comments, cryptically, about a fearsome “Black Sleestak.”
Yet no black Sleestak is seen in this episode…or in any episode of Land of the Lost, for that matter. So who, or what, is she talking about?
It’s another one of those wonderful, ambiguous, almost throwaway lines that suggests something that could be, if a clever writer only follows up on it. The inclusion of a line like that also suggests a much larger universe, and larger mythology around Altrusia. I’ve always been kind of bummed that Season Three didn’t pick up on many of these hints and mysteries.
Reviewing “Split Personality,” I’m also impressed with the series’ sense of continuity. Here, Will mentions events from “Album,” the first season story in which the Sleestak created a false image of his mother in hopes of snaring the family. Such touches are expected today, of course, but in the mid-1970s such references seemed almost revolutionary.
“Split Personality” also continues the series through-line that indicates Holly is more sensitive or “open” to experiences in the Land of the Lost then her family members. Here, she is contacted by her other self, and able to communicate with that self. This season has been an especially strong one for Holly, Land of the Lost’s revealing her maturity in the face of some pretty tough, scary situations. Alas, Will seems developmentally-arrested at his hyper, obnoxious older-brother stage. When I was growing up, Will was always my favorite character, but this time around, I can see how much care has been given to develop Holly.
In terms of set design, “Split Personality” is also ingenious. Rick and Will come upon their anti-matter counterparts in a strange, glowing cave. Because the two “worlds” came in contact at odd angles, everything is askew. A matrix table is seen standing not on the floor as we expect, but jutting horizontally out of a wall. Land of the Lost is a low budget kid’s series, but the production designers really worked over time and came up with imaginative visuals that seemed indicative of a consistent -- if bizarre -- universe.
Next week, the second season ends with “Blackout.”
Friday, November 16, 2012
Every teenager believes that the world revolves around him or her, and if you consider it, there’s some truth in this belief.
After all, as human beings, we see and understand the world through the prism of our own eyes, and when we die, the world we have created, seen, and experienced also dies with us. The end of the world is, literally, an individual death.
Given this fact, the world ends for millions of people every single day. Every moment, every instant, another apocalypse occurs, and a whole universe dies out, going down in flames of annihilation.
The 2001 cult film Donnie Darko remembers this basic human truth regarding teenagers and makes it hauntingly literal.
The film’s ambivalent hero, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaall) reckons with the impending end of the world in twenty-eight days due to the unexpected creation of a dangerous “Tangent Universe.” It’s a catastrophic ending of the cosmos itself that only Donnie can prevent because he’s at the center of the paradox that created that universe in the first place. He can escape his teenage “tunnel vision” and save the world, or he can die -- along with everyone else -- a prisoner of anger and fear.
Donnie Darko also concerns the universal loneliness of adolescence, and Donnie’s fear that, in death, that loneliness will persist and linger for eternity. He doesn’t want to be alone, and at the same time he doesn’t fully understand how to connect with others.
The universe itself, or in the film’s lingo, “God’s Channel,” must help Donnie understand the paradox if it is to continue to exist at all. The Richard Kelly film thus takes an anti-social kid on a strange journey of self-discovery and, in the end, transforms him into a superhero of sorts (as witnessed by his alliterative name…); one who eventually embraces life and connection…right before it all ends, at least for him.
In seeing his world end, however, Donnie experiences an epiphany. He comes to finally recognize that “destruction is a form of creation,” to quote the film. His ending -- his death -- creates a new beginning for his family, his girlfriend, and the whole of the human race. He laughs madly immediately preceding his death, because only at the end does he recognize God’s plan for him.
Byzantine, mysterious, and hypnotic, Donnie Darko is a masterpiece in so many ways. It is unnervingly creepy, especially in the seemingly sinister presence of Doomsday’s Herald, a giant robot bunny-thing called Frank.
The film is also unfailingly funny in its observations about human life especially in the countenancing of the fact that many people, like Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) thrive not by understanding life in all its glorious complexity, but by reducing it to easy-to-digest platitudes, like a lifeline with “fear” on one end of the spectrum and “love” on the other. All shades of gray apparently fall on distinct points between.
But I submit that Donnie Darko deserves serious consideration as a great work of art because the film dwells in that expressive world of the Tangent Universe, a world where the “manipulated living” and the “manipulated dead” -- and even the foundations of reality itself -- conspire to lead Donnie towards his heroic apotheosis. This universe of influences and messages is presented in the film through representative symbols that viewers must translate and interpret. This task fosters engagement in the story, and sympathy for Donnie.
These visual representations, from movie marquees to allusions to great literature, conform to my highest aesthetic criteria in terms of film criticism. Their presence means that the form’s visual content reflects its narrative content, and augments that content, enhancing meaning.
Donnie Darko is about what it means to grow up and to leave childish things behind, in the truest sense of that phrase. And primary among those childish things is the tunnel vision of ego, the desire to always put one’s self first. Overcoming this tunnel-vision is not easy, as I noted above, because we all see the world through our own individual prism.
Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?
In October of 1988 as the Presidential race between George Bush and Michael Dukakis nears its end, a troubled Virginia teenager, Donnie Darko (Gyllenhaal) narrowly escapes a strange death when a jet engine falls from the sky and destroys his bedroom. Fortunately, Donnie was sleep-walking at the time of the accident, and survives unscathed.
The jet engine, however, is a mystery. It seems to have no origin, and has actually created a time paradox, a new “Tangent Universe” that if not repaired, will consume the prime universe in twenty-eight days. Only Donnie’s death -- which should have occurred to begin with -- will set the universe right, a fact he increasingly becomes aware of, in part through a strange book written by a neighbor, “Grandma Death,” called The Philosophy of Time Travel.
In the twenty-eight days until the end of the world, Donnie encounters a self-help guru and charlatan, Jim Cunningham (Swayze), learns from a pair of kindly teachers (Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle), and falls in love with a beautiful girl who has just relocated to Virginia, named Gretchen (Jena Malone). He is also visited periodically by a creepy cyborg bunny man, Frank (James Duval), who seems to have knowledge of the future, and Donnie’s fate.
Working with a psychologist, Donnie must determine who is he, and what kind of future he wants for the world.
Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?
At one point in Donnie Darko, Donnie and his teacher (Wyle) debate the basics of fate, free will and God’s plan. Donnie has rejected religion and God because of his fear that “every living creature on Earth dies alone.” Given this fact, he says the search for God is nothing less than “absurd.”
However, Donnie also makes the observation that man may possess free will to a degree within“God’s Channel,” and the movie implies that God’s channel actually involves this tangent, apparently accidental universe.
In other words, Donnie is bestowed a grace period of 28 days to fall in love, reconcile his “emotional problems” with his family, and overcome his fear of isolation and death. He was meant by design and predestination to die when the jet engine crashed in his room. That death still occurs, only later. But Donnie is able to finally, in the end, face it with a sense of grace and purpose because of this interval and what he learns during it.. God (or the universe, perhaps), grants Donnie a chance to settle the outstanding issues of his life before he leaves the mortal coil.
The forces of nature (or God) surrounding Donnie -- which desire to continue existing -- thus spend 28 days sending Donnie the signals and messages he needs to accept and embrace his fate.
Grandma Death’s time travel book calls this messaging “the “ensurance [sic] trap,” but it isn’t exactly a trap. The manipulated living and the manipulated dead want to survive, and want Donnie to sacrifice himself so that the universe continues to exist, but it isn’t a malevolent or diabolical kind of trap.
Instead, in Donnie’s case, the messages must reverse and heal his paranoid schizophrenia, his “increased detachment” from the world, and replace it with a psyche that sees and recognizes the beauty in human life and connection, and is willing to sacrifice itself for the species, indeed for all creation, everywhere.
Donnie’s journey is expressed through a number of symbols throughout the film. These symbols represent messages.
In one of these, Frank writes and presents a poem to his English class in which he envisions himself as the savior of children everywhere during an approaching storm. In one sense, this is an allusion to Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s 1951 novel in which another teen protagonist, Holden Caulfield, imagined himself a savior of innocence. In a much more literal sense, the poem represents Donnie’s subconscious understanding of his role in preserving life on Earth.
The film also deliberately positions Donnie, intriguingly, as a Christ figure. A theater marquee pictured on-screen at one point shows a unique double bill: The Evil Dead (1983) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
Those films seem very different, indeed, yet they represent the totality of Donnie’s journey. That odyssey begins with all kinds of fear. There is fear of the returning dead -- embodied by the herald, Frank -- and fear of death. But the journey ascends to an apex in which Donnie willingly lays down his life for all of mankind, even though it is sinful life (as clearly embodied by Cunningham, Frank, and others).
Christ’s temptation by Satan in the Scorsese film involved the Devil showing him the mortal life and pleasures he would miss by selecting death on the cross. That mortal life included love, lust, and other earthbound wonders. What remains so interesting about Donnie Darko is that Donnie, like Christ, actually increases his connection to humanity by experiencing in a kind of vision all those things he will later miss.
What I’m saying is that a personal epiphany of vision of love, brotherhood, human connection, and sex doesn’t force either Christ or Donnie to make the wrong choice. Rather, it emboldens each to see the beauty in all life, and wish to preserve it for others. Again, this realization comes back to the idea that Donnie exists within, not outside, God’s channel. God gives him twenty-eight days to see the beauty of life, and therefore the desire to preserve it, even if he can’t share in its beauty beyond that span.
But the theater marquee represents a visual book-ending of the journey. Life can be like The Evil Dead, where friends and lovers become enemies, and there is only ugliness and death. Or it can be like The Last Temptation of Christ, where the beauty of life leads one to make a sacrifice for others.
Donnie Darko explicitly discusses this concept when Barrymore’s English teacher describes the God Machine, the Deus Ex Machina. This discussion raises our awareness that God has set this plan for Donnie into motion. Everything is pre-determined, though as Donnie debates, there is some room for free-will within that channel of pre-determination.
I admire films that adopt a standpoint about humanity and our existence, and Donnie Darko offers a fairly complex, if spiritual reading of it. There is such a thing as free will, states the filmmaker, but it involves movement only within a tunnel of certain possibilities. Donnie’s understanding of this, ironically, comes from Cunningham’s ridiculous self-help life line, which simplifies the world to two axes, “fear” and “love.” Donnie responds angrily to the life-line that “life isn’t that simple,” and yet in a way…it is. Donnie explicitly moves from fear to love in the 28 days of the Tangent Universe, but the important thing is that he does so under the auspices of his own intellect. He learns how to maneuver, individually, through that “channel.”
Some might assert that’s the key to leading a good life.
Donnie Darko also seems absolutely obsessed with the Bush/Dukakis electoral battle of 1988. We see the two candidates debate on television screens, and there is also mention of Dukakis on the radio. Donnie’s sister, Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) declares that she is voting for Dukakis, over her parents’ objections, at the family dinner table, and the legend “vote Dukakis” appears on the Darko refrigerator in the Tangent Universe. These moments amount to more than establishing the film’s time period or setting (October 1988). All the allusions to the presidential election seem more important than that.
An election, in essence, is a choice between possible futures, between possible universes. When an election ends, one of those universes -- a tangent universe? -- collapses while the other universe continues, unabated. If Donnie Darko doesn’t comment overtly on the specific candidates and their attributes, it certainly comments on the nature of choice and free will.
For every affirmative choice we make, a whole universe is destroyed. When we pick Bush, the Dukakis universe dies. Again, this goes back to the film’s paradigm that even in destruction, there is creation.
In the film, Donnie’s parents ask Elizabeth something along the lines of: “do you really think that Dukakis can keep this country safe?” It’s a question that might very well be asked of Donnie at this juncture too. Can a horny, self-obsessed teenage boy save the world?
The point is that people will never know if Dukakis would have been a good president and kept the country safe, just as, following the fall of the Tangent Universe, nobody knows of Donnie’s sacrifice for humanity.
Again, I’m not suggesting a pro-Dukakis slant on the part of the filmmakers, only the idea that universes are born and die every day, and we never know where the path not taken might lead. The doorway to tangent universes closes, and moves outside God’s (narrow?) channel of options.
I wrote recently, in regards to the Lance Henriksen, Joseph Maddrey, Tom Mandrake comic-book To Hell You Ride, about the idea of messages and messengers. They arrive in our reality, it seems, and we either decide to note them and heed them, or we choose not to. Given all I’ve described above, Donnie Darko is a film filled with messages, often conveyed in writing and broadcast notably within the confines of the frame.
These messages include “Vote Dukakis,” which I interpret as a message about saving the universe that people don’t see, and having faith that even untested, disliked people will do the right thing (like Donnie does the right thing when given the chance).
The messages include the theater marquee, advertising “Evil Dead,” and “Last Temptation of Christ,” a duality which explains Donnie’s journey from psychological torture and fear to self-sacrifice and redemption.
Another message is “cellar door,” a legend which appears on the blackboard in Donnie’s English class, and paves the way for Donnie to understand how to proceed at a critical juncture.
Jim Cunningham’s life-line, showing the “fear”/ “love” continuum is another on-screen message, literally spelled-out. The recognition of "Poetry Day," when Donnie reads his story about saving children from the story might be considered another. There's even the signage "His Name is Frank" which validates Donnie's belief in his phantasm of the Bunny.
All these words -- these messages -- appear on screen in the film, and we are asked to consider them and interpret their meanings, at the same time Donnie must do the same. The film thus allows us to learn with Donnie at the same time he learns, and therefore to sympathize with his journey.
At the end of the film, Donnie must decide if a world that creates weird kiddie entertainment like Sparkle Motion should continue to exist.
Or if a world that allows men like sexual predator Jim Cunningham to become successful and admired should be allowed to continue.
Or if a world that bans quality books in favor of self-help pabulum deserves a second chance.
Or if a world that bans quality books in favor of self-help pabulum deserves a second chance.
The answer, of course, is that despite all the confusion and ugliness, this is the same (mad…) world that offers unconventional beauty, as we see in Cherita’s talent show dance.
It’s the same world that allows Donnie to connect with the wounded Gretchen.
It’s the same world that can make a superhero -- or savior -- out of a confused teenager who likes to masturbate a lot.
In it all, there is a plan…and beauty too,
Donnie’s journey – and the film’s view of life, is best expressed in the lyrics to the song, “Mad World,” which accompany the film’s final, elegiac montage. The lyrics assert: “And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad, that the dream in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had…”
Donnie’s last twenty eight days -- a waking dream from which he finally does not awake – represent the best part of his life; the span in which he stopped being an “anger prisoner” and instead began to see life in all its multi-faceted complexity, a complexity that involved both ugliness and beauty.
We sometimes miss just how beautiful life really is. We “run in circles” instead of paying attention to the things that matter. Donnie Darko is like a teacher explaining this “lesson.” The film is thus one part English Lit, one part spooky horror film, one part Quantum Physics, and one part spiritual passion play.
Personally speaking, all those qualities make Donnie Darko one of my all-time favorite films.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
A reader named David writes:
“I know you wrote abook about Sam Raimi. Given this fact, how do you feel about an Evil Dead (1983) remake?”
Good question, David.
I’ve written quite a bit here about remakes before, but long story short: I have practiced and worked hard not to respond with knee-jerk cynicism every time a new one is announced. I greet each film on an individual basis.
That established, I suspect an Evil Dead remake is probably a difficult artistic proposition, and here’s why:
The original film is all about delivery of the story, not the story itself.
Indeed, check out Equinox (1970) if you want to see a similar story-line vetted, but in an entirely different fashion.
What makes The Evil Dead such a classic, in my opinion, is Sam Raimi’s gonzo, hyper-kinetic, on-the-verge-of-madness direction. His inspired vetting of the material pounds the viewer to dust, almost literally. Execution is what matters in the 1983 film, not story, and not character, either. Ash didn’t emerge as an iconic hero, really, until the second film.
Ironically, Evil Dead 2 holds up for roughly the same reason. It’s a virtual remake of Evil Dead, but Raimi’s brilliant direction -- and accent on cartoonish (if violently extreme…) over-the-top humor -- renders it a new and fresh viewing experience.
So the question becomes: can a new Evil Dead somehow tell the same story a third time, and find the key to unlocking the material in a way that feels fresh and also relevant to 2012? This mission is even harder than it seems since Cabin in the Woods (2012) so thoroughly dissected and subverted the tenets of The Evil Dead narrative.
I’m not saying that it’s an impossible task, only that a truly inspired director is necessary. Aping Raimi isn’t going to be enough of a distinction, because we’ve gotten a lot of knock-off Raimi film-style since Evil Dead (in the oeuvre of Peter Jackson and the Coen Brothers, to name just a few examples.)
Instead, the extreme, hyper-kinetic nature of original The Evil Dead needs to be re-conceived and rebuilt for a modern audience. I suspect this re-invention involves pushing the material into even more extreme, uncomfortable territory. At least I hope so. The trailer (embedded below) indicates this might very well be the case.
I hope director Fede Alvarez and producers Raimi, Tapert and Campbell succeed here, and I’m absolutely rooting for them to do so. Already one interesting choice has been made: a reliance on practical rather than digital effects. This is a good sign, because a primary joy of The Evil Dead is how tactile the film feels. Every character gets doused in blood, goop, ooze, pus, and other varieties of slime, and as silly as it sounds, that sense of being splattered is critical to the movie's (admittedly excessive) creative equation. The movie overcomes you. It pounds you and gets you dirty. No one escapes unscathed.
Let’s hope that selection to go practical survives the editing process and proves a real boon to the film. It would be great for The Evil Dead to live again. More blood floods for everyone...
Don’t forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
During my freshman year at the University of Richmond in the fall of 1988, there wasn’t a whole lot to do, socially-speaking. I was a skinny kid in big glasses who didn’t go out for sports and liked Star Trek. I had no interest in fraternities or the school’s religious clubs (though, truth-be-told, I did have an ever-so-brief flirtation with a Baptist Bible Study group, which helps to account for my knowledge of Scripture…)
Anyway, I met my beautiful wife, Kathryn, at the beginning of my sophomore year and my life changed for the (infinitely) better.
But before that ever happened, I spent an inordinate (and probably unhealthy) amount of time in the Pier, the campus Student Building, playing a classic arcade game from Atari, called Gauntlet (1985).
As you may remember, Gauntlet was unique in that it was a four player arcade game. Intrepid gamers could play as the Warrior, the Valkyrie, the Wizard and the Elf, at least originally. The idea was to battle enemies such as ghosts and demons while traversing dungeon-like labyrinths and environs.
I looked Gauntlet up on Wikipedia out of curiosity and it is apparently part of a genre called “hack and slash,” a phrase that pretty well describes the game’s content as remember it.
Among other things, Gauntlet is also apparently famous because it had a kind of computerized narrator who would voice warnings (“Your life is running out”) and reminders (such as “shots do not hurt other players…yet.”) I can’t say as I remember much specifically about game play, only that we would play the bloody thing for hours, and lose a hell of a lot of quarters in the process. It’s a good memory from a year that, in some respects, I’d rather forget.
In terms of characters, I always played as the Valkyrie -- the female warrior in the foursome -- in honor of my enduring love of the same-named character from Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).
I can’t remember why we did so, but on one memorable night in 1988, my pals and I drove downtown instead of to the student building to play Gauntlet at a bustling city arcade in Richmond, one very close to the now-defunct Byrd Theater, if memory serves.
I should have been studying for an upcoming computer science exam, but instead, I think we were out at the arcade from midnight to 2:00 am, and I blew twenty-five dollars on the infernal machine.
Ah, to be eighteen and dumb as shit again…
Anyway, I harbor a dream that one of these days, I’m going to thoroughly clean out my garage and convert it into an arcade entertainment center/rec room for me and Joel. We already have a pool table and a foosball table (which Joel and I play a lot…), but I’m thinking I really need a restored Gauntlet arcade console to go with those stations.
That…and an air hockey table, but that’s the subject of a different post. I'll just close this one by saying I recently visited the University of Richmond campus for the first time in probably a decade, and was deeply disappointed, though not surprised, to see that Gauntlet was long gone.
In terms of sci-fi movies and collectible toys, 1979 was a banner year.
Movies such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Black Hole and Moonraker premiered that year, and every title on that list also saw memorable toys produced by Mego Corp.
I collected toys from all those sci-fi franchises, but never had the full line of Moonraker action-figures, alas.
Still, I vividly recall seeing these 12.5” -tall action figures on the shelves at Toys R Us and wishing for them.
Recommended for children three and over was this action-figure of Roger Moore as James Bond, described here as “The World’s Greatest Secret Agent…Legendary Commander 007.” On the box is emblazoned the legend: “Action-packed Spy Adventures in the Fabulous Realm of Space.”
The most amusing facet of the action-figure, however, is that Bond wears a (loose) bow tie over his space suit.
Other figures in the “fully articulated, fully poseable” line included Holly Goodhead, the menacing Jaws and Drax. I remember seeing all of the figures in stores many times, save for Drax, and to this day, Jaws fetches a pretty penny on E-Bay.
What makes this particular Bond toy special and memorable to me is that Moonraker represents the first occasion since the 1960s, I believe, that James Bond action-figures were mass produced and widely available. This is the first time, in other words, Bond was in toy stores in his 1970s Roger Moore persona.
I also had a Moonraker model kit in 1979, which, of course, was merely a space shuttle model with special decals.
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
It’s unofficial, of course, but if you scrape just beneath the surface of Skyfall (2012) -- the new James Bond thriller -- the designation “M” clearly stands for “Mother” or “Mom.”
Unconventionally, this twenty-third Bond film is a modern action movie concerning a mature woman (played by Judi Dench) who has -- perhaps not fully realizing it -- become the only parent to two grown and needy (or maladjusted…) sons.
One son, a man called Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), has rebelled against his mother for her sins, choosing to reject all of her lessons because he feels unloved and abandoned.
The other son, James Bond (Daniel Craig), realizes that this powerful mother figure is responsible for giving his life some sense of purpose, and thus goes to extreme, life-and-death measures to protect her from his enraged “brother.”
Also -- and please make no mistake about this fact – the new Bond Girl of Skyfall is clearly M, not Naomie Harris’s Eve, Severine (Berenice Marlohe), or anyone else, for that matter.
For the first time in Bond history then, the primary Bond/female relationship does not concern sex or romance, but the maternal, mother-son relationship.
On these relatively startling grounds alone, Skyfall distinguishes itself from the twenty-two previous cinematic installments in the James Bond series.
Delightfully, however, Skyfall also thoroughly re-invents Bond’s place in the world, lamenting the 21st century reliance on computers and unmanned drones over “human intelligence” in the dangerous game of espionage. The film thereby forges the (the Luddite?) argument that sometimes the old ways -- like a knife in the back -- still get the job done best.
Skyfall also celebrates fifty years of James Bond movie traditions and history. Therefore, one can readily gaze at this prominently-featured Luddite argument as a rationalization, as a self-justification, in some sense, for the continuation of the long-running franchise in the second decade of the 21st century.
Even today, in the age or push-button soldiers, we need 007.
This argument about the primacy of human values in the Remote Control Age is so exhilaratingly presented that Skyfall often feels like a grand revelation. Everything “old” is new again, and this Bond film brilliantly sends Agent 007 into a brave new world, even while re-establishing all the old characters (like Q and Moneypenny) and old genre gimmicks we’ve come to expect (like the Aston Martin’s ejector seat).
It’s quite a deft balancing act, and Skyfall is at once cheeky and legitimately sentimental in tone. It would be easy to term so exciting and revelatory a Bond film the best series installment in years, but Casino Royale -- just six years in the past -- must still earn high marks for resetting the series, grounding Bond, and introducing Craig. Without those accomplishments, the highs of Skyfall might not have been conceivable.
Instead, the arrival of Skyfall forces long-time Bond fans to concretely reckon with the once-impossible-seeming notion that the Sean Connery Era has, at long-last, been surpassed
Bond is back and -- no hyperbole -- he’s better than ever.
“Mommy was very bad.”
Skyfall opens in Turkey, as James Bond, 007 (Craig) and an operative named Eve (Harris) attempt to recover a stolen hard-drive that contains the files of every undercover NATO operative working in terrorist organizations.
Eve is ordered by M (Dench) to take a difficult shot against the possessor of the drive, the evil Patrice (Ola Rapace). But Eve hits Bond instead, thereby losing the drive and an agent.
Some months later, Bond -- who is believed dead -- resurfaces when the MI6 building in London is bombed. M escapes the attack, but feels political pressure from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) to explain the loss of the hard-drive, and now a terrorist attack on British soil.
Although he is not yet physically or psychologically ready to return to duty, M nonetheless sends Bond out to track Patrice. The trail leads Bond to Raoul Silva (Bardem) a vengeful former MI6 agent eager to make M “think on her sins.”
With Silva launching one terrorist attack after another -- all aimed at killing M -- Bond decides to take his superior off the grid, and back to his family’s long-abandoned country estate in Scotland, called Skyfall.
“Less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement.”
As I wrote above in my introduction, Skyfall primarily concerns a family dynamic. In this unusual family, M is the mother, Raoul is one son, and Bond -- believed dead but actually out carousing on the beach -- is the Prodigal Son.
Bond finally returns to save his mother’s life after Raoul enters the picture. Apparently, Raoul has interpreted M’s dedication to duty as a personal statement against him, a mirror of Bond’s situation. Silva, however, conveniently overlooks the fact that he was the one who first transgressed on a mission to Hong Kong some years earlier.
Given this family dynamic, Skyfall also concerns -- in a strange way -- the value of forgiveness. Bond is able to remember that M’s stewardship provided him a home and a purpose, and he forgives her for ordering Eve to take a shot that nearly results in his death.
M is similarly able to forgive Bond’s trespasses and welcome back the Prodigal Son, the boy who went out into the world with the inheritance of responsibility and purpose and squandered that inheritance on booze, sex, and scorpions.
By contrast, Raoul Silva -- who evidently still loves M (or Mom…) -- can’t see his path to forgiveness, and remains consumed by overwhelming hatred because of Mom’s abandonment.
This family dynamic plays out in Skyfall even in terms of setting and locations. Bond -- a boy forever in search of the parents he tragically lost in childhood -- brings M back to his family estate, Skyfall to play house, after a fashion. There, 007 also re-connects with an old friend and mentor Kincade (Albert Finney), a surrogate father figure.
The three characters -- working and living together at Skyfall -- are, briefly, a family, replete with a home and a hearth. Bond thus recreates the family home he never had in his youth. Raoul arrives and destroys that home, refusing to forgive Mom and rejoin the family.
In exploring this dynamic, Skyfall is perhaps the most human and personal of all the Bond films. It explores not only the elements of Bond’s tragic and lonely past, but excavates the nature of his (violent) life in terms of how he sees his connections to others. For Bond, M and Kincade are the only family he can count on when the chips are down, though there is the suggestion that Mallory may become a father figure as well.
Outside this dramatic through-line, Skyfall establishes a roiling tension and competition between 21st century espionage and Bondian-style espionage, which came of age during the Cold War of the 1960s.
This tension is expressed best in the quips back and forth between the mid-life Bond and his young, new Q (or Quartermaster), played by Billie Whishaw. Q tells Bond that “age is no guarantee of efficiency,” and Bond’s response is that “youth is no guarantee of innovation.”
In other words, a person with experience and expertise still has something to offer in the world of espionage.
Q also comments explicitly on a painting in an art gallery where he first meets 007. The painting depicts a warship’s decommissioning.
“It always makes me feel a bit melancholy,” Q opines. “Grand old war ship…being ignominiously haunted away to scrap... The inevitability of time, don't you think? What do you see?”
What Bond sees, of course, is that he is that old warship, and the one succumbing to the inevitability of time.
He isn’t as young as he once was, and he faces the possibility that he will soon be obsolete, outmoded in the Remote Control Age. But the events of Skyfall prove otherwise. There is still room in the world for Bond’s brand of “human” intelligence.
Even M gets into the act of discussing the present and the past by quoting Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses at a critical dramatic juncture:
“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
This is Bond’s gift to the world, and perhaps England’s as well. Bond and England no longer dictate the movement of Heaven and Earth, but their wills remain strong, and when threatened, they will not yield. They are, as they have been….heroic hearts.
The emotionally-delivered Tennyson quotation above thus permits Skyfall to proudly re-assert Bond’s importance in the cinema, and even Bond’s place in the world. Jason Bournes and Ethan Hunts of the world be damned, there’s still a place for Bond, James Bond in the 21st Century.
The battle between Silva and Bond is not merely one of brothers, but of belief-systems, the film cleverly reminds us. Silva is the high-tech terrorist hiding behind anonymous servers and diabolical hacks. Meanwhile, Bond is the old-world dinosaur who still enjoys his Aston Martin’s ejector seat, and takes M off the grid, to a brick-and-mortar home he hasn’t seen in years.
It’s digital vs. analog…and analog carries the day.
The amazing thing is that in our convenient and robust Web 2.0 Age, we root in Skyfall for analog to win.
We long for the romance and sheer individuality of a character like James Bond. He calls not upon gadgets, tools, or software to win the day, but some deep internal reservoir of individual will and discipline. We may be constantly perfecting our tools and gadgets, but Bond has perfected his human mechanism, and in reminding us of that, Skyfall has perfected the Bond formula.
It’s appropriate that the last act of Skyfall involves an all-out siege which is more Peckinpah and Straw Dogs (1971) than Ian Fleming, because the analog world does feel, at times, under siege, doesn’t it? The Old Guard seems to be crumbling, a brick at a time, and some people view this shift as the End of History, and not as the beginning of Something New, perhaps Something Great.
In an age of irrational exuberance about gadgets, apps, and computerized military capabilities, James Bond and Skyfall remind us that a reliance on humanity -- on our experience and wisdom -- can be the most potent weapon of all.
Here’s to another fifty years of James Bond and his heroic heart.