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Increasingly, the damage wrought on cinema by Christopher Nolan is becoming apparent. Evident long before his grandiose, if not quite definitive take on the Man Who Would Be Bat, Nolan’s stock in trade – the grim treatment of unconventional subject matter, a meditative camera, Kubrickian framing, and muted, expressionistic colour palette – is seemingly everywhere. In pursuit of a billion-dollar box office, studios have latched onto the superficial trappings of his success, but consistently failed to capture the specific quality that makes Nolan’s work so unique. What we have instead are carbon copies, similar in execution but lacking in heart and soul. James Bond is the latest property to receive the Nolan treatment, and like those before him, lacks that vital singular quality: uniqueness.
In his 23rd adventure, the eponymous agent (Daniel Craig) is hot on the trail of a stolen hard-drive encoded with the identities of deep-cover NATO agents. Shot from a moving train by new recruit, Eve (Naomi Harris), the drive is lost to the terrorists, and Bond presumed dead. When MI6 is attacked – and M (Judi Dench) personally targeted – Bond resurrects himself in aid of Queen and country, going head-to-head with Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a madman with a score to settle…
Since assuming the mantle in 2006, Daniel Craig’s Bond has been the victim of an identity crisis. After being Bourne-again in Casino Royale (complete with parkour sequences) and given the fast-and-furious treatment in Quantum of Solace (a misjudged continuation of Royale’s narrative), Craig’s third attempt to rise, this time in the Nolan mould, is a mixed bag of encouraging originality and stylistic disappointment.
Along with Martin Campbell, Sam Mendes is easily one of the best directors the series has experienced, benefiting from his intelligent sense of visual storytelling, considered eye for composition, and wonderfully lucid editing. His vision of Skyfall is classy, cold, and spectacular, and while some sequences are striking in their staging (the opening gambit and a fistfight against a neon sky-line are standouts), others are frustratingly emulative of Nolan’s house style (an attempt on M’s life is particularly derivative, as is the fiery climax). The Dark Knight was a deliberate point of reference for Mendes, and the film tries too hard to capture the stylistic beats that make Nolan’s films such rewarding visual puzzles.
The same can be said of the film’s narrative fulcrum. While the focus on Bond and M’s fraught, distressingly paternal relationship is refreshing, it’s ultimately an empty contrivance, used to provide the illusion of depth and profundity in what is, essentially, an action film. Yes, Craig’s Bond is a damaged train-wreck of a man, but he has been since before Casino Royale. Acknowledging his fragility, and M’s complicity in making him so, is made redundant by a conclusion that neither provides any revelatory moment of insight into these two characters, nor shows any sense of emotional growth. M feels particularly short-changed by the film’s climax, effectively reducing her to the role of damsel in distress and robbing her of the agency that made her so powerful (by virtue of her gender) in earlier films.
While Craig’s Bond is consistently great, he’s been laboured with a stable of less than impressive villains since his reinvention. Truly, Bond is only as good as his rogues’ gallery, and while the film tries hard to make Bardem’s Silva the closest he’s had to an “iconic” villain in the Goldfinger or Blofeld mould, he really isn’t. While certainly evil, Silva’s actions are sadly clownish in their treatment and confusing in their execution (coming off as a Joker knock-off), and his motives sit too awkwardly with the film’s insistent theme of bad mothers and dutiful sons. His taunt to M, “Think on your sins”, is an ironic truism the film does a good job of ignoring.
For every genuine innovation – the relocation of MI6 headquarters; the reintroduction of Q (Ben Whishaw) – the film essentially cobbles together elements from previous Bond films, GoldenEye (the former-agent-gone-rogue) and The World Is Not Enough (a vendetta plot against M), and presents them as brand new. While certainly shiny, they’re given no more serious examination than the pontificating peachiness so beloved by Alfred Pennyworth (sans Burma anecdote to back it all up).
In fact, a ‘serious’ Bond seems almost a contradiction in terms. Bond always worked best when skirting the edge of incredulity, acting first and foremost as a cinematic barometer of tastes and trends. From Cold War crusader to victim of 80s excess, thwarter of techno-terrorists and mad media moguls, Bond has always saved us (with considerable style) from the things we all secretly fear. Hopefully his current introspective identity is a sign of the times: a lamentable product of our own Nolan-inspired navel-gazing, and a phase we can all soon grow out of.