Sunday, November 18, 2012

SKYFALL: On Not Breaking One's Toys (a Nearly Spoiler-Free Review)

Anyone who follows pop culture with more than a passing-consumer interest knows the problems inherent in dealing with a fictional character whose persistence in culture outlasts the era in which he or she was created. Whether it's Tarzan, born when the British Empire was in full imperial flower, or Batman and Superman, children of the Prohibition and Depression fueled upheaval between the world wars, or the Marvel heroes and their origin in Sputnik-era bad science, creators tasked with producing a new work featuring an old hero must take care with their creative choices. Handled with skill, deconstruction of pop-culture heroes -- taking them apart, finding the source of their appeal, and finding the elements that can be expanded or explored for a deeper resonance with modern audiences -- is a delicate procedure. Characters created for entertainment may be more fragile than they appear. If you press and probe your toys too much, looking for hidden recesses that don't exist, you can break them.

Which brings us to James Bond. The Bond film series is unprecedented and unparalleled. Consider a 50-year film series (born from a book series of even earlier vintage), produced almost entirely by a single studio, that features a secret agent who is equal parts professional assassin, and, as Dr. No put it, "a policeman." A character who has real-life counterparts (there have been intelligence agents for most of the history of civilization) but who is so multitalented, so indefatigable, so unkillable that he is ultimately a fantasy character. One whose popularity has waxed and waned, but has spanned the many twists and turns in society over the last five decades. A series that ranges in tone from grim horror to slapstick comedy.

How do you handle James Bond in 2012? Do you make it a period piece, set in the late fifties, with a Bond who was born in the early 20th century and who battled fifth columnists in World War II era New York? Do you divorce it entirely from reality, so that it inhabits its own little universe of absurdity untouched by the modern world? Or do you make Bond entirely a creature of our time -- the era of spy satellites and Internet espionage?

SKYFALL succeeds because it walks a middle path between those choices. The Bond of SKYFALL is recognizable as the Bond of the earlier movies and the Fleming novels -- perhaps a little less dashing, not quite as smirking or cheeky, but definitely Bond. It explores the emotional landscape of Bond without sinking into the depths of darkness and muddle of, say, the previous Bond movie, QUANTUM OF SOLACE. It takes on the questions posed above, and does so within the context of its own narrative: Bond and his organization must answer the question of what place human field agents have in an era of electronic intelligence that even the genius villains of the early movies could hardly have foreseen. And rather than allowing that question to sink the narrative, it deftly mixes it with that indispensable ingredient of the best Bond movies: Fun. As in insane villains who pose a genuine threat not only to Bond but to the general populace; incredible chases; great vehicles (including a wonderfully familiar one); eye-popping action sequences; and scenes that celebrate the variety of vistas the world offers, from the glass-and-neon highrises of Shanghai to the misty subdued colors of the Scottish Highlands.

In other words, SKYFALL has tremendous fun bending, posing, and stretching its toy -- without ever breaking it.

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