Die Another Day: “Skyfall” and the Nolanization of James Bond
My contempt for the Bond formula has been extensively chronicled, especially my blame against Goldfinger for starting it all. It was thrilling, therefore, to see Casino Royale go in another direction, a very “back to basics” version of the franchise that was reminiscent of even earlier entries in the series, Dr. No and From Russia with Love. In those films, action, plot, and character were balanced precariously, yet perfectly. And in Casino Royale, that balance was brought back; Bond was suave without being a superhero, the political context was intact without being a punchline, and the stakes were high enough without a muddled plot.
Skyfall went somewhere else. It is unlike any other Bond film in the rest of the franchise. It literally is something else. And James Bond is someone else. At its core, it resembles 1995’s GoldenEye and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but I’d hesitate to call such a comparison disingenuous because the former is one of the best Bond films, and certainly Pierce Brosnan’s best entry, and The Dark Knight is one of the strongest superhero films in recent memory. It’s that tone of morbidity of the latter, and its re-envisioning of its character, which seems to inform how many perceived what some might call The Nolanization of James Bond.
What does “Nolanization” mean? Though it was initially used in a disparaging way against Skyfall by my friend and incredibly intelligent colleague Kristen Sales, it could be defined as the approach made when presenting a character from an already existing universe, and one that employs self-seriousness, a tone of morbidity, real world context, and a kind of remixing of existing material so that the new version of the character is an amalgamation of older qualities and other iterations. Primarily it refers to how Nolan brought Batman to the screen in his The Dark Knight Trilogy, making the character edgier by grounding the story in a Gotham that reached for a kind of verisimilitude, and taking elements from various graphic novels (from The Long Halloween to The Dark Knight Returns) to present a more cynical (and allegorical) icon.
Maybe an even more apt comparison when talking about Skyfall specifically is John Le Carré, the prolific espionage writer responsible for such works as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. For, in both Le Carré‘s novels and the adaptations of his works, there’s a concrete understanding of how dramaturgy and espionage inherently have this relationship with one another. Thus, the thrill from those works is from a tension that’s sustained because of character stakes and long term effects of different actions.
Transpose that to the Bond series and you have Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, a film so drastically different from its brethren, it doesn’t feel like it’s related at all. At most, Skyfall is like a self-aware cousin, informed of the family history and itching to play a game. What one might confuse for Nolan-esque self-seriousness I would argue is actually self-awareness.
Nolan’s imprint is more overt, as aforementioned, in tone rather than plot necessarily. Its investigation into Bond’s past is in itself not actually new. Though previous iterations of Bond’s origins were more implicit than explicit, arcs were nonetheless implied in Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger, Bond’s origins were almost explicitly addressed in GoldenEye, in which a long lost partner in crime reemerged, and, certainly, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where Bond gets married. Even the attempt at a certain kind of tonal departure is itself not entirely new; Timothy Dalton’s Bond films were an unsuccessful exploration of a similar brand of edginess and dangerousness that Craig’s Bond films are now lauded for. But the problem with The Living Daylights, and the darker Licence to Kill is that the films are still hesitant to drop Bond’s formulaic conventions completely, thus hampering what are genuinely interesting tries at darkness (reminder: Robert Davi played a drug lord in Licence to Kill). For, in both Dalton films, there’s still the car, the ridiculous gadgets, and the Bond woman that is unable to function as anything but an object. (Though the Bond woman problem still exists in Casino Royale and Skyfall, it’s off set by two female roles which play a larger part of the narrative and suggest a kind of autonomy that’s absent from the other films.)
The solution to this issue of wanting to have Bond go in a different tonal direction is to basically drop the notion of a Bond film altogether. Casino Royale, though “back to basics”, still resembles a Bond movie, but it’s the first step in slipping into something else, possibly redefining what that even means. That first step meant that Bond had to be dropped into the real world, because prior iterations were a bit more of a caricature of the real world (seriously, in what world would Live and Let Die ever happen?). (Also, make Bond grittier, especially by filming the pre-titles sequence in high contrast black and white.) With references to 9/11 and the threat of international terrorism looming over Casino Royale, that part was taken care of. Now James Bond can return as a particular symbol, representing a very British kind of strength and competency. Though the risk of incompetency was never explicitly present for Bond, the cartoonishness of some of the films, from Roger Moore to Pierce Brosnan, seemed to stain that reputation. Judi Dench’s M put it succinctly (in GoldenEye) when she said, “[You’re] a relic of the Cold War.” Casino Royale made Bond relevant again. And it let us watch Bond as his heart gets broken.
Quantum of Solace, meanwhile, was oft compared to the Bourne franchise is its unrelenting grittiness, which was not a compliment at the time. Its plot involved finding the people responsible for the death of his loved one, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) from the previous film. But, as far as a desire to redefine Bond, it does make sense to take the character in different directions. Quantum was also the first (and, so far only) direct sequel to any other Bond film. And it seems that the general consensus regarding that film, besides its incoherency, was that it didn’t feel like a Bond film. It raises the question of why is that necessary in the first place. Was it because it put aside the serialized, non-connective nature of the series? Was it because this Bond was darker, less quippy? Technically speaking, Ian Fleming’s original character was indeed a cold hearted bastard. And if the Craig films follow any kind of trajectory in terms of illustrating this character, really fleshing him out step by step, then the evolution of this somewhat naïve field agent into cynical, formerly heartbroken and now world weary killing machine makes sense. If there’s one thing that the Bond franchise never really set out to do in its fifty year history, with the exception of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it’s make James Bond human. And, ironically making him as inhuman as he is in Quantum is completely logical.
The casting in this continual evolution of James Bond, therefore, is key. You need an actor who can tap into these various facets of Bond which are, frankly, being newly mined and discovered. To some degree, they existed in the incarnation Fleming created for the books, but as screenwriters like Paul Haggis and John Logan are understanding, there’s more to this character than meets the number. Though Craig’s body is most certainly attractive, the fact that his face is, of all the Bonds, probably the least conventionally so is to the advantage of what they’re doing with the character. On it are lines of worry, anxiety, shock, and pain. In Skyfall, particularly, he looks gruff and roughly hewn, with greying scruff and sunken eyes. Those ice cold blue eyes are soulful when they need to be, but frigid and impenetrable as well. And though Craig’s bond is the most realistic by being the most human, that they’re beating the humanity out of the character makes the character even more interesting. You’re seeing this character develop and evolve, instead of being given to you in a finished state.
The ultimate goal appears to be to eschew those conventions, and it is Skyfall that not only does so with aplomb, but subverts them as well.
Perhaps one of the easiest things to point to is Bond’s masculinity and heterosexuality, or at least the perception of that. Though properties like Austin Powers and Archer have attempted lampooning that idea, it’s never been directly challenged. Austin Powers and Archer are just antitheses to Bond, not Bond as antithesis to “himself” as we see him. Certainly his masculinity has been challenged in the past, such as in Goldfinger where a laser threatens to slice his “manhood”, and Casino Royale, where his balls take a whacking to by Le Chiffre, but it’s in Skyfall where our perceptions of him become bent in a way. To be fair, the torture scene in Casino Royale is just as worth unpacking, as he uses the villain’s presumed homophobia as a weapon against him, suggesting a comfort, even this sense of normality, with homosociality (“Now the whole world is gonna know that you died scratching my balls!”). But the critical part of understanding Bond’s dynamic with Skyfall’s bad guy Silva (Javier Bardem) is not merely the challenging of masculinity, but by Bond’s parry. Silva has his knee between Bond’s legs, gliding his hands up Bond’s thighs and says, “There’s a first time for everything.” Bond retorts, “What makes you think this is my first time?” The iconography of James Bond is described on the back of the book Casino Royale by Ian Fleming as “Every man wants to be him and every woman wants to sleep with him.” This seems to firmly assert this idea of James Bond as this consistently heterosexual and hyper masculine creature, and while to question that is itself fine and interesting, it’s the concession that forces the audience to reevaluate how they’ve understood the character for over fifty years.
The film’s aesthetic might also contribute to this Nolanization. Skyfall is, without a doubt, the best looking Bond film of all time. The artfulness of its look is purposeful, with dancing silhouettes, cold blues, the warmth of fiery reds, oranges, and yellows. It is beautiful. While Nolan’s Dark Knight films weren’t the most gorgeous, they were nonetheless attempting to look good. (Though they didn’t have the expressionism of Burton’s films, they sought a mixture of real world dirtiness and beauty.) It’s aesthetic met with its tone almost compels one to call the film as Bond Going Art House. But, in all seriousness, the impressiveness of its cinematography, as well as its “theatrical” composition, forces the audience to take the character seriously in a way that the audience hasn’t for quite a while. It was certainly a request in Casino Royale, and the seriousness of that film’s drama definitely warranted that kind of respect, but, as they say, looks can be everything.
As mentioned earlier, Skyfall resembles The Dark Knight and GoldenEye in plot and tone, but the plot thing is kind of funny. With regard to the former film, it’s both the tone of that film as well as this idea that Bond is a symbol for something. The film continues Casino Royale’s journey to ground the newer Bond films in this real world context. He is relevant, he is still needed. There’s an explicit discourse in the film regarding the relevancy of field agents given the changing nature of terrorism, the abstract concept adapting to the digital age. M’s Tennyson monologue seems to sound fairly similar to the “[Batman is] the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” It’s actually antithetical to that speech, arguing that MI6, and by proxy Bond, is the hero England, and the rest of the world need. Its other similarities to Nolan’s film include a theme of resurrection and the fact that it uses a similar “villain who wants to be caught to escape” subplot, but that criticism against that has never made much sense to me given the fact that that is a relatively generic plot twist. (Other criticism against the film was its script, whose [alleged] stupidity is masked by Logan’s eloquent dialogue and the film’s general timbre. It is really no dumber than any other Bond film’s script.)
But as important as resurrection is with regard to the film and Bond’s character is (which, I would argue, I talked about via political relevancy), it’s more interesting in the context that the film is almost identical to GoldenEye. It’s a film about a Bond who must get used to new authority, where computers have the possibility to putting the world in danger, and where the villain is someone from Bond’s past. Hovering over both films’ heads is the idea of analog vs. digital, old vs. new, and, again, the constant fight to be relevant. (When Casino Royale was preparing for its release, Entertainment Weekly created a set of five custom covers of what the magazine would have looked like with each Bond actor on the front, its era dictating what the stories would have been. What was there for Brosnan? “But Do We Still Need 007 in a Post-Cold War World?”) In these films, both hero and villain come back from the dead. Alec Trevelyan, Agent 006, is a man from Bond’s past, but while it’s more obviously representative of this kind of Post-Cold War trauma that affects the UK, it’s also indicative that Brosnan’s Bond is as real as a person (in terms of character) as Craig’s is. You have Alec call him James, from their school days, and you have Skyfall being the homestead of Bond’s parents, with their names on their gravestones.
This childhood trauma is sort of manifested in a kind of Oedipus Complex between he and M, a kind of tension that came to light when Dench took the role in GoldenEye nearly two decades ago. M started to have bigger sway in the narrative and the relationship with Bond evolved even throughout the Brosnan films. But the concept of M as the creator of a monster, as it were, surfaced substantially in Casino Royale and its consequences (particularly the necessity of that maternal/parental figure from the created monster) in Skyfall. And though M literally stood for Miles Messervy when the role was inhabited by a man, it might as well stand for Mother when Dench is behind the desk.
And while GoldenEye works extremely well as a film, it never uses the information and themes it has to its advantage in the succeeding films, which is almost exemplary of this kind of serialized, self-contained method of storytelling that the series has been using. Serialized is perhaps the wrong word; anthological makes more sense. Skyfall uses these ideas to propel the character, give him depth, and, presumably, inform the next film(s). Therefore, to Nolanize Bond, you have to take ingredients from both films and make something new.
While Bond mythos has always been a murky topic, a thing that some don’t even acknowledge exists, Skyfall does have the upper hand in directly addressing the existence of a “canon”, a set narrative that exists within that world. Though it dispels the idea that “James Bond, Agent 007” is a codename, I think that that debunking is beside the point. Skyfall exists to acknowledge the past and then discard it in favor of the new, or at least reappropriate it for its own purposes. Take, for instance, Ben Whishaw’s Q, now a computer programming prodigy. He and 007 meet in front of a painting, and their interpretations of it (Q sees it as the new replacing the old, Bond sees it as a big ship) seem to outline how the franchise as a whole operates on a narrative and practical level. At once, the ushering in of new things and people, including Craig, Whishaw, and everyone else involved in the film, is sad but necessary. But at the same time, it’s one big franchise that’s going to keep going along and the details don’t really matter. (He also gives Bond a Walther PPK/S with a handprint sensor, a mix of the old and new.)The same is true of the Bond canon, if that exists. Skyfall’s throwbacks to earlier films are subtler, which should make them more throwaway. Ironically, though, it makes them more important in the context of what the film is doing. Juxtaposed against Die Another Day, where a reference was made every few moments, making them meaningless, Skyfall’s little homages are more pointed in their subtlety: that is to say, it matters that they are there so that they can be tossed aside.
Because Bond’s history only matters insofar as a cultural artifact, not as narrative fact. The fun of playing with Bond’s canon is that it doesn’t really need to exist. That’s the fun of playing with the audience’s expectations concerning Bond’s hetero-masculinity. That’s the fun of remixing these different elements of films and making something new. And that’s the fun of fleshing out James Bond as a character that’s human. Though Mendes and gang seem to be headed down a path where they are rewriting James Bond’s history as a whole. The Nolan-esque comparison comes in when one considers the idea that the Craig Bond films are remixing what already existed to create a new product: Bond is more postmodern than ever. Bond is back.
3 thoughts on “Die Another Day: “Skyfall” and the Nolanization of James Bond”
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