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Danny Boyle is one of Britain’s hottest directors right now, with the double whammy of winning an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire and the small matter of directing the Olympics opening ceremony. Whereas other high profile Brits often make the jump to Hollywood (yes, Christopher Nolan, I mean you), Boyle has continued to make home-grown films, shooting on location in London and at such venues as 3 Mills Studios. Furthermore, Boyle has maintained his distinctive approach to filmmaking, despite the grandeur of the Oscars and the Olympics. His most recent film, Trance, is a psychological thriller which focuses upon three characters, and looks to have the same visceral, gritty approach that he established in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.
Boyle is a particular advocate of digital film, used to great effect in his Boyle’s foray into horror with 28 Days Later…. Shot on DV, 28 Days Later… tells the story of a Britain devastated by a virus that turns people into savage beasts, presented in a grainy image with an immediate, snatched quality. In the early scenes as Jim (Cillian Murphy) searches the eerie, deserted streets of London, the image has a tactile quality, drawing us further into Jim’s situation, feeling as well as seeing and hearing what he encounters. The processing of the image also feels underdone (though it almost certainly is not), which adds to the sense of immediacy.
The immediacy of the digital image expresses the down-to-earth level of the film as a whole. Although the film does not technically feature zombies, because the “Infected” are not dead, the post-apocalyptic tone of survivors holding onto existence owes much to the zombie film tradition, best demonstrated in the films of George A. Romero. Like Romero, Boyle’s non-zombie zombie film has political undertones, beginning with the opening shots that consist of news footage of violent acts: riots, police brutality, war. Presented on a series of screens before a laboratory chimpanzee, these initial images express humanity’s inhumanity, in contrast to the passive ape that is unaffected by the violence. This conceit runs through the whole film, as we are repeatedly shown the savagery and inhumanity of humans in a variety of forms.
The most obvious form of this inhumanity is, of course, the Infected, transformed by the Rage virus into rampaging beasts. Another form is the survivors, especially Selena (Naomie Harris), who has abandoned sympathy and compassion in favour of a ruthless survival wish, which she describes as willing to kill anyone infected “in a heartbeat”. Although initially dazed and confused, Jim eventually morphs into a savage creature himself, brutally killing an opponent (who is not Infected) by driving his thumbs into the other man’s eyes. Savagery is intrinsic in humans, the film suggests, all it takes is a little push.
Most interesting are the soldiers that Jim, Selena, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) travel north to reach. Commanded by Major Henry West (Christopher Ecclestone), the soldiers imprison Selena and Hannah as concubines to repopulate the human race, believing that they are the last survivors. Just as the Infected are reduced to basic animal ferocity, so have the soldiers reverted to reproductive desire. Major West describes their situation in clinical terms, saying that his men feared they would simply die and that would be the end of humanity, so he “promised them women”. What is more revealing, though, is what West says about all the killing:
This is what I’ve seen in the four weeks since infection. People killing people. Which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection, and the four weeks before that, and before that, and as far back as I care to remember. People killing people. Which to my mind, puts us in a state of normality right now.
In other words, the Rage has not made any major difference. His perspective indicates that whether Infected or not, people kill people. The film plays out this belief, as almost everyone kills at least once. The exception is the teenage Hannah, the innocent child, who Selena will do anything to protect, even drugging Hannah so that she is oblivious to the impending rape. 28 Days Later… is post-apocalyptic in the sense of being post-civilisation – as the Joker said: “When the chips are down, these ‘civilised’ people, they’ll eat each other”.
The first time I saw 28 Days Later…, I thought the depravity of the soldiers was the first appearance of humanity’s inhumanity beyond the Infected, but on a second viewing I realised that the theme is there from the beginning (I missed the very opening first time around). The activists who break into the laboratory in the first scene see themselves as humanitarian by ending animal research that they view as torture. Equally, the scientists performing the experiments see their research as humanitarian. Nonetheless, the scientists have still harmed the chimps by infecting them with Rage, and the activists cause harm by ignoring the warnings the chimps. The scientist (David Schneider) urges the activists to kill the woman who is infected and then tries himself, demonstrating the swiftness with which “civilisation” is dropped. It is hardly surprising that civilisation becomes anarchy in just four weeks, if human savagery is awakened so easily. All that is left are random acts of kindness, such as Selena and Mark (Noah Huntley) rescuing Jim, Frank protecting Jim and Selena, Jim returning to the military headquarters to save Selena and Hannah.
What is especially interesting about the humanity that is left after the spread of Infection is where it is not found – as indicated in the title of this post, salvation is searched for in the wrong places. I use the term salvation deliberately, because the broadcast put out by Major West emphasises salvation, and his base turns out to be anything but. During Jim’s initial search of London, he goes into a church, presumably in search of salvation. Instead he finds the building filled with people, who initially seem dead (indeed, I wondered if there had been a mass suicide). But when he calls to them, they reveal themselves to be Infected. A priest emerges from a doorway and staggers towards Jim, who backs away before knocking the priest to the floor and running away. A church and an army base promising salvation prove to be dangerous, and there are various scenes that feature choral music reminiscent of church choirs. During the survivors’ journey from London to Manchester, they stop to rest at an old monastery, in one of the film’s few peaceful moments. There is little in the way of peace or mercy in Boyle’s blood-stained Britain, but a spiritual element nonetheless runs throughout 28 Days Later…
What we see in 28 Days Later… is a loss of the soul, humanity’s soul consumed by the Rage, reducing most of the population to bloodthirsty animals. For those who survive, the soul is ignored in the battle for survival. Selena’s lack of sympathy and compassion suggests a containment of her soul, which is weakened over the course of the film. Not that a weakening of her soul’s containment means Selena herself weakens – she remains strong and assertive throughout, if anything gaining further strength in her desire to protect Hannah and save Jim after he is shot. Jim never becomes as cold as her, providing the film’s only comic relief with blackly humorous comments about their situation. His discovery of West’s plans for Selena and Hannah leads to complete rejection of the soldiers, and West orders his death as well as that of Sergeant Farrell (Stuart McQuarrie). Farrell clings to some form of faith which prompts West to ask why Farrell joined the army in the first place, which Farrell does not answer. What place does faith have when we are abandoned? Although Jim does maintain sympathy in his compassionate quest to rescue the women, he still resorts to complete savagery in order to do so. Does he lose his soul as well, or is the soul somehow compatible with savagery? This is one of several spiritual questions the film poses.
Horror cinema is often used to express political, social and moral issues, such as consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, male fear of pregnancy in Alien, infection in Nosferatu. 28 Days Later… explores spiritual questions relating to the durability of the soul and where to find salvation. Institutions like the church and the army prove to be as savage as the world around them, salvation found only in individual compassion and sympathy. It is perhaps fitting that the message our heroes stretch over the grass at the end of the film says “HELLO” rather than “HELP” – Jim, Selena and Hannah are connected to each other, and reach out to make further connections with others.
My last posts discussed 3D in general and the lack of need for it in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My falling out of love with 3D has become more firmly established with another auteur’s experiment with the format. Since James Cameron started using the new technology, other auteurs have been getting in on the act. Martin Scorsese used 3D to dramatise early cinema in Hugo; Steven Spielberg brought Tintin to the big screen with performance capture in 3D; Werner Herzog used 3D in his documentary about proto-cinema, Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Ridley Scott went back into deep space with Prometheus while Jackson returned to Middle Earth. 2013 will see Baz Luhrmann’s 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and Ang Lee used 3D for his adaptation of Yann Martel’s “unfilmable” novel, Life of Pi.
Life of Pi is a surreal fable about faith, survival, one’s place in the universe and the nature of storytelling. I was impressed with its dramatic story and compelling central character, superbly played by first-time actor Suraj Sharma. Pi’s relationships with his family, his girlfriend Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath) and, most importantly, Richard Parker the Bengal tiger are engaging and moving, and the film delivers an interesting discussion of faith. The young Pi’s (Ayush Tandon and Gautam Belur) embrace of the Hindu, Christian and Muslim religions, set against his father’s (Adil Hussain) insistence on science and rationality, is presented sympathetically but not didactically. As a theoretical agnostic and practical atheist, I had no problem with Pi’s faith nor his belief that his story would make the listener believe in God. It didn’t, but I could sympathise with his beliefs. Perhaps that is itself a form of faith.
Visual effects are frequently accused of being empty spectacle, but they can also be an integral part of the filmic experience. Life of Pi uses its effects as part of its narrative and thematic meanings. An early scene of Pi (Sharma) and Richard Parker the tiger on the lifeboat recalls the fantastical landscapes of the afterlife in The Lovely Bones, the boat adrift in a flat sea that reflects the sun and sky perfectly. Other images include a raging typhoon, ship corridors filling with water, a sea exploding with flying fish, the ocean by night coming alive with bioluminescent lifeforms, an island rippling with meerkats. The images are simultaneously beautiful and threatening, such as a humpback whale bursting out of the sea, mouth agape, in a dazzling cascade of glittering water; yet as the whale crashed back into the sea, the raft of our hero Pi is capsized. Simultaneously, we are awed by what we see and never allowed to forget how dangerous this situation is.
Paramount among these effects is the character of Richard Parker. Just as Gollum in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey demonstrated the advances in performance capture, so does Richard Parker demonstrate an incredible combination of CGI, animatronics and green-screened animal footage. Digital animals still look digital, and the menagerie in Life of Pi is a combination of real creatures and CGI creations. At times, they do look fake, including Richard Parker, but at other times it is genuinely difficult to tell whether you are seeing a flesh and blood animal or a beautifully animated set of pixels. Not that it matters, as Richard Parker is extremely engaging whether physical or not. At no point did I not believe Pi was in danger from the huge cat, and the film maintains this conceit. It is always tempting to sentimentalise animals in fiction, make them more human and sympathetic, but Life of Pi keeps Richard Parker ferocious and Pi’s relationship with him cautious at best. The one moment in which they share physical contact is contextualised so as to avoid unnecessary sentimentality (although a little is alright), and therefore succeeds as a touching engagement between human and animal. Equally, Richard Parker’s exit from the film maintains the animal’s indifference, which adds to Pi’s distress even at the moment of his rescue.
The visual effects of Life of Pi serve as part of the film’s themes and narrative, rather than distracting from them, because they are part of Lee’s visual style. Life of Pi combines a straightforward shot pattern during the wraparound story with a more fluid approach for Pi’s story. This approach begins with the opening credits, words and names appearing like the animals in the zoo, with the final credit, “Directed by Ang Lee”, forming as if floating on a pool of water. This level of visual invention permeates Pi’s narrated story. Dissolves that ripple like reflections, superimpositions and multiple planes of action, as well as digital enhancements and backgrounds, create an almost ethereal visual palette. This obviously makes Pi’s story more fantastic, but it also demonstrates the construction of storytelling. Storytelling is not just a process of simple relation, but of imagination and construction, the film suggests, and beautiful shots of the lifeboat floating on a mirror-like ocean at night, as if it were floating in the void of space itself, indicate the way Pi’s narration is working. When Pi and Richard Parker gaze over the side of the boat into the watery abyss, we see the imagined wreck of the freighter, the other animals that died in the sinking, and the myriad of creatures that inhabit the deep. By presenting these as part of Pi’s imagination, the viewer is drawn further into his/the film’s imaginative/creative process. The mind, and the stories told by it, work in free form, surreal processes, and the abstraction allowed by digital effects is utilised to great effect in Life of Pi.
Intriguingly, despite Pi being in constant danger, my overall impression of Life of Pi was one of serenity, which I argue to be a prevalent theme throughout Lee’s work. Sense and Sensibility shows women trying to achieve balance between their emotional and practical well-being when their options are very limited. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon uses its balletic fight sequences to express the warrior’s serene discipline, but this discipline is in tension with their personal relationships. Brokeback Mountain portrays two characters that want nothing more than the peace they bring each other, but are thwarted by societal mores. Taking Woodstock portrays serenity and beauty amidst what should be chaos (and a lot of mud). I have long been an advocate of Hulk, which I consider a very interesting meditation on superheroics: despite its central character being fuelled by rage, Hulk includes moments of serenity, which is what Bruce Banner needs but only finds, ironically, in the form of Hulk (when left alone). Pi, for all the ghastly danger he encounters, also possesses an inner serenity, facilitated by his faith. That is why the religious element of the film is effective, because it demonstrates that Pi is grounded by faith, but guided by hope.
From a strictly narrative perspective, I initially thought the film would have benefitted from more ambiguity as to what happened to Pi. The framing narrative, in which the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) narrates his story to the writer (Rafe Spall), is presented as the truth, and the alternative version the young Pi presents to Japanese insurance investigators is simply something official. By including this alternative at the very end, the narrative of Life of Pi does not explore the pliability of truth, just the need for non-fantastical stories. At first, I found the exploration of storytelling in Life of Pi to be underwhelming, because of the alternative story’s inclusion at the very end (which I assume is how it appears in the novel), but on reflection, I realise that the film as a whole is exploring this point, but through visual, cinematic storytelling rather than straightforward narration. This interest in the construction of visual narrative gives Life of Pi significant depth, even in two dimensions.
It is perhaps notable that the auteurs who have made 3D films have subsequently returned to 2D: Spielberg followed The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn with War Horse; Scorsese’s next film, The Wolf of Wall Street is in 2D as is Scott’s The Counselor. Robert Zemeckis has made several 3D motion capture animations including The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol and Beowulf, but up next from him is the more typical Flight. Other directors such as Christopher Nolan are opposed to the format, and others are committed to 3D, most obviously James Cameron, who spoke very highly of Life of Pi. Life of Pi has much in common with Avatar: while one is an action epic and the other a tale of (almost) lone survival, both use visual effects to create their environments, jungle in one case, ocean in the other (which is slightly ironic, as Cameron has a fascination with water as demonstrated in The Abyss and Titanic, while reports of Avatar 2 indicate it will feature Pandora’s oceans). Through their use of visual effects as key to cinematic expression, both films explore issues of cinema and visual understanding. 3D does enhance this experience, but it is not integral to it. The digital landscapes and characters, rendered through crisp, digital cinematography, are rich, vibrant and alive in two dimensions, without a 30% light loss. Maybe in 3D I would have been swept up in Life of Pi more than I was, and realised the meta-storytelling immediately rather than afterwards, but I don’t mind the wait. Rich aesthetic experiences need not come in a rush, time taken to reflect is time taken to savour. And besides, Lee’s choice to place the camera at sea level and have it rocking with the swell might have induced greater nausea in 3D.
Two late releases of 2012 were both touted as making great use of 3D. The first was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the last hugely anticipated and hyped film of the year. Not only would this be a 3D release, Peter Jackson had filmed his return to Middle Earth in 48 frames per second, which would (apparently) create a more vivid, living image. In an interview, Jackson explained that 48 FPS turned the cinema screen into a window, through which one could look into the other world of the film, feeling oneself there in the vividness of the image. By contrast, one review of An Unexpected Journey described it as like looking at an HD television, which rather diminished the cinema experience.
To save money, I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2D, at 24 FPS. My simple response: we’re back! I loved it – the level of detail applied to every aspect of Middle Earth was superb. The Hobbit is a more homely tale than The Lord of the Rings, and more time is spent in Bag End, with the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) bustling about with his crockery and preparing supper. Once Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves arrive, the party is a prolonged affair that feels hectic yet comfortable and homely. This was a group of people I’d be happy to sit down to dinner with.
Despite the length of the scene, and the film as a whole, Jackson paces the action well, moving smoothly from set piece to set piece. An Unexpected Journey could be criticised for having a plot that consists entirely of set pieces, but when that it is the plot of the novel it is hard to see the film being different. And what set pieces, from the prologue featuring the coming of Smaug and the exodus of the Dwarves, to a dangerous walk along narrow mountains paths as living mountains batter each other to pieces; from the desperate dash and spell-casting of Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) in Mirkwood to the helter-skelter running battle through the halls of the Goblin King; and the climatic battle with the Orcs of Azog the Defiler (Man Bennett) aboard their Wargs at the edge of a precipice, on a toppling tree, which is on fire. The one scene I could have done without featured the three trolls, but since they are referenced and even appear in The Fellowship of the Ring, I understand why it had to be included.
Perhaps the most effective set piece, however, is a battle of wits rather than swords, in the form of Bilbo’s game of riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis). Gollum’s first appearance acknowledges the viewer’s familiarity with what has previously been seen in The Lord of the Rings, as he is heard before he appears, muttering and hacking, and it takes time before he is revealed in his entirety. The game of riddles is a smooth, engaging sequence, allowing both performers space to express their situations – in Bilbo’s case fear and increasing desperation; for Gollum, eagerness and increasing frustration. The scene segues perfectly into a chase, and despite the relative unimportance of the Ring to the overall plot of The Hobbit, it still receives emphasis befitting the viewer’s familiarity with the magical object, as well as Bilbo’s important choice when he has Gollum at his mercy.
The best element of An Unexpected Journey is its eponymous character, as Martin Freeman delivers one of the most engaging performances of the year. More varied than Gandalf, less doom-laden than Frodo, Bilbo stands out from the other characters of the Tolkien-verse by the possession of a sense of humour. The Lord of the Rings can be criticised for being rather dour, but The Hobbit had several moments that were laugh out loud funny (personal favourite: comedy faint). Similarly, whereas the Fellowship was quickly assembled and the drama focused upon it falling apart, much of the drama in An Unexpected Journey is concerned with Bilbo proving himself to his travelling companions, especially Thorin (Richard Armitage). Described as an amalgamation of Aragorn and Boromir, Thorin is the grim-faced and troubled hero, and the antagonistic development of his relationship with Bilbo gives the film real heart. The moment at which the reluctant hobbit and the obsessed dwarf reconcile is moving and heart-warming, and helps to set up what is to come. For The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we can expect a united company encountering further dangers.
Everything that worked about An Unexpected Journey worked because of an intelligent script by Jackson and his co-writers Phyllida Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo Del Toro, Weta’s superb production design, bravura performances from all concerned, and Jackson’s fluid direction that easily slips between different plot points and gives attention to different characters, drawing the viewer into this magical world. There were a couple of points when I wondered how it would look in 3D, and whether 48 FPS would add anything to the experience. Perhaps it would, but that enhancement would not be integral to what was on screen. The high definition digital filming does make a different, as that itself creates a more detailed image than film can provide. Digital film has been growing ever more prevalent, especially since Michael Mann gave LA a digital noir look in Collateral. Mann’s own Miami Vice and Public Enemies made further use of HD digital film, and more recently Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography was one of the most striking elements of Sam Mendes’ Skyfall. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looks gorgeous in HD, as we see the fine lines of the actors’ features, the individual blades of grass in the Shire, the leaves of Mirkwood and the intricate details of Elvish architecture in Rivendell. Digital film adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the cinema image, which we can have at home as well thanks to Blu-Ray and HD TV, so I am all for this particular development in the cinematic art form. 3D would be fine if it didn’t cost extra, but without it, I don’t think I’m missing much.
The penultimate hugely anticipated film of 2012 was the 23rd instalment in the world’s longest running film series, reaching a triumphant 50th year of James Bond, 007. Skyfall carried not only the expectations of being a major blockbuster, and a franchise instalment, but it was also a landmark film which had to both honour what had come before and show the old dog had enough life for another 50 years.
There are several ways in which Skyfall met this challenge. One of the most celebrated aspects of the film was its director, Sam Mendes. The first Oscar winner to direct a James Bond film, Mendes brought a particular set of baggage with him. Most successful with intimate personal dramas such as American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go, Mendes’ forays into larger scale stories, such as Road to Perdition and Jarhead, were mediocre at best. Skyfall would be his first franchise film and his first action film. Despite Mendes’ prestige, the pedigree for a director like him was not promising, as Marc Foster is a director also known for more sedate fair than Bond, such as Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland. Quantum of Solace was generally regarded as a failure, and the pressure was on for the 23rd film to return to the quality established in Casino Royale.
This quality brought with it further expectations, as Daniel Craig was being spoken of as the best Bond, even before the release of Skyfall. After his lean, intense yet vulnerable turn gave Martin Campbell’s 2006 reboot something different, fresh and exciting, the failure of Quantum of Solace seemed something of an aberration. Surely something had gone wrong and a Bond film featuring Craig should somehow be better. I think Craig makes a very fine Bond, and the problems with Quantum of Solace mostly relate to the director. Foster fails to give the film any suspense, as scenes go from a standstill to a breakneck pace, not allowing for build-up. Foster’s skills are ill-suited to directing action sequences which, as I have written before, require tension that needs to be built up. To have everyone suddenly burst out of their chairs and running like mad is too sudden a transition to allow any tension.
As an example, the first post-title sequence of Casino Royale is efficiently built up as Bond and his fellow agent Carter (Joseph Millson) watch their target in Madagascar, then move in towards him which increases the tension. Then the scene accelerates into a chase with Bond heading after Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) through all manner of obstacles, the famous free-running through a construction site, fighting on top of a very high crane and culminating in a running gun battle through an embassy. This scene increases the stakes and in doing so raises the tension, whereas Bond chasing after Mitchell (Glenn Foster) in Quantum of Solace comes out of nowhere and, after the initial shock, the viewer is left disorientated and disengaged.
Mendes said in interviews that he was especially concerned about making the opening sequence memorable, as Bond has a distinguished history of opening sequences that grab the viewer’s attention. Skyfall pulls this off impressively, as we begin in Istanbul with Bond slowly pursuing a stolen hard drive, then missing a shadowy figure in the corridor. He meets with his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and there is a brief car chase culminating in a marketplace, which is followed by a motorcycle chase over the city rooftops. From there the chase progresses onto a train, with Bond making use of a convenient earthmover and gets wounded, then the chase moves through the train itself and eventually on top of it, before Eve is ordered to “take the bloody shot!” This line is significant, as it is the culmination of this sequence that is intercut with a parallel scene in London in which M (Judi Dench) barks instructions. The intercutting between the chase and the supervision heightens the tension by raising the stakes, and the finale of the chase creates further anticipation for the rest of the film.
Even at this early stage, Skyfall is playing to the audience’s expectations, and throughout displays an acknowledgement of what the viewer wants to and also expects to see. No viewer would believe that Bond is actually killed at the start of the film, and Skyfall understands the audience’s position as Bond’s re-appearance is hardly a revelation. Rather, we get to enjoy Bond’s hedonistic retirement in a tropical paradise, and his shadowy re-introduction at M’s home. Skyfall acknowledges the viewer’s expectations – this is a Bond film so he will come back at his own instigation – but also exceeds the expectation through the inclusion of Bond “enjoying death”, as well as the continued lively relationship he shares with M.
This is but one of many expectations that are rewarded, exceeded, and acknowledged. Many moments in the film refer to Bond’s history, much as The World is Not Enough did with lines such as “I never joke about my work, 007” and the reappearance of gadgets from previous films. Similar gags appear in Skyfall, such as Bond receiving his new gun, a Walther PPK, just as he was issued with in Dr No. Similarly, in a moment that might as well have featured a wink direct to camera, Bond reveals his Aston Martin DB5, made famous in Goldfinger. No explanation is given for him having this remarkable vehicle, which possesses a few modifications, and this is part of the fun – the film and the viewer share a smirk at the inclusion of this piece of nostalgia. Even Bond’s early “death” echoes You Only Live Twice, the viewer well aware that Bond cannot be killed at the start of the film, if indeed at all.
However, Skyfall retreats from excessive technology, at least as relates to Bond himself. When issued with his gun, another smirk is shared between viewer and film as Q (Ben Wishaw) admonishes: “What did you expect? An exploding pen?” This is both contemporary and nostalgic, as over the years, Bond’s gadgets became increasingly outlandish, culminating in the invisible car of Die Another Day. Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 serves as a watershed in the franchise’s history, with the reboot Casino Royale acting as a return to a more gritty, “realistic” spy thriller. Quantum of Solace continued the emphasis on physicality, and Skyfall develops this conceit further, continuing the trend for physicality and reliance upon one’s own wits and abilities. Computer hacking gives way to machine guns and helicopters, then to jerry-rigged mines and pistols, and eventually to knives and unarmed combat. A disdain for sophisticated technology is demonstrated in a repeated gag about the “latest in communications technology: a radio transmitter”. At key moments, both Bond and his nemesis Silva (Javier Bardem) make reference to radio transmission, as if slapping the face of the computer boffin Q and his ilk. When Q inadvertently plays into Silva’s hands through his expert hacking, Silva admonishes the younger man with the message “Not such a clever boy”, before all hell breaks loose.
Not that Silva is above using technology: his nefarious schemes necessitate a global reach that is facilitated through him being an expert hacker as well, allowing him to destabilise governments and attack MI6 headquarters. But whereas previous Bond villains established their bases in volcano craters (You Only Live Twice, Goldeneye), undersea complexes (The Spy Who Loved Me) and even space stations (Moonraker), Silva’s lair is eerily simple: an abandoned city on an isolated island in the South China Sea, a ghost town that reinforces the almost supernatural influence that Silva enacts over the world. The scene that introduces Silva is a master-class in minimalism, as the mise-en-scene is a crumbling building reminiscent of a church, filled with computer base units and a few screens. This serves as a contrast to the steel and glass MI6 headquarters, a symbol of power that Silva easily infiltrates through his technological skills. Visually, Silva’s introduction is stunning, as he emerges at the end of the long hall and steadily walks towards the camera in a continuous shot. This long take further exacerbates the viewer’s anticipation for Silva to reach the foreground, while his silken tones echo through the cavernous space, emphasising our awareness as well as Bond’s that this is Silva’s domain.
Silva himself is a remarkable and impressive feature of Skyfall. The most effective Bond villains have been those that serve as a dark reflection of Bond himself, such as Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia With Love and Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) in Goldeneye. With Silva the reflection is multi-faceted, as he is not only a (former) successful MI6 agent, who like Bond has officially “died”, his relationship with M is a twisted version of the one she has with Bond. As in No Country For Old Men, Bardem delivers a thoroughly chilling performance of a genuine psychopath (despite a bizarre haircut): quiet, poised but with an evident relish, like a cobra that will smile as it strikes. Also, he demonstrates a remarkable ability to get under Bond’s skin, as evidenced in the homoerotic encounter between the two as Silva unbuttons Bond’s shirt in a seductive manner.
Craig’s films have downplayed Bond’s seductive powers, which became tedious and even painful during the Moore years. None of the last three films have ended with Bond in the arms of a lady lovely, and in Skyfall there are only a couple of such scenes. This emphasises a different relationship that is central to the film, between Bond and M, as well as Silva. Serving as the dark reflection of Bond, Silva is also coded as the bad son to Bond’s good son. Bond’s bristly but ultimately devoted relationship with M provides the emotional core to Skyfall, personal dramas adding to the plot developments.
As mentioned earlier, MI6 contrasts with Silva’s dilapidated headquarters, but there are different locations used by MI6. After the grand offices on the Thames are attacked, they move underground into a back-up HQ built out of Churchill’s WWII bunker. Thus begins the film’s concern with “Britishness”. Curiously for the British Mendes, Skyfall was his first foray into presenting something British, and nationality remains prominent throughout Skyfall. A key trope of the Bond franchise is exotic locations, which do appear including Istanbul, Bond’s “retirement” in the tropics and part of his mission that takes him to Shanghai and Macau, and from there to Silva’s island. But afterwards, the film takes place entirely within Britain, and uses its locations to interesting effect. Churchill’s bunker brings with it connotations of Britain under fire, and a chase takes place through the London Underground and into Westminster, with Silva disguised as a British copper. The film’s final act involves going “back in time”, travelling into the highlands of Scotland to a stately home. Both for Bond and for the film as a whole, the final act is a return to the past and to homeground, defending Britain against invasion.
Other tropes of “Britishness” appear: M has a china bulldog, decorated with a Union Jack, that becomes a talisman for Bond despite his dislike of it; Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), initially presented as an interfering Whitehall bureaucrat, is revealed to have a military history serving in Northern Ireland; Bond’s mission to Macau carries postcolonial connotations, the British agent exploring a former colony. The past haunts Skyfall, both in its narrative and our understanding of it. The past of the franchise itself explicitly returns when Bond enters M’s office, which is identical to the office of years gone by, visited by Sean Connery since 1962. I always remembered the door with leather padding, and seeing it behind Daniel Craig was an interesting blend of the old and the new. Clearly the blend of elements in Skyfall worked, as it has now become the highest grossing film ever at the British box office.
The history of Bond was not the only reference I found in Skyfall. In my last post on Looper, I commented on the inter-textual connections found in Rian Johnson’s film, as a central element in science fiction. For all its elaborate technology, the Bond franchise is not science fiction, but it also reminded me of other films. The Jason Bourne trilogy is an apparent influence on the reboot of James Bond, with a grittier approach and Daniel Craig constituting a more realistic and vulnerable spy protagonist in the mould of Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin. Specifically, Skyfall’s opening chase through Istanbul is reminiscent of The Bourne Ultimatum’s frantic dash through Tangiers, including our hero riding a motorcycle up a flight of stairs. Bourne is not the only secret agent inspired by Bond and echoed in Skyfall, as a scene in which Bond moves through the London Underground, in constant communication with Q in a high-tech hub, is reminiscent of 24. When Silva is brought into custody, he taunts Bond and M much like the Joker does Commissioner Gordon and Batman in The Dark Knight, and like the Joker, Silva is both psychotic and physically deformed, as revealed when he extracts a prosthetic mouthpiece to reveal his true features in Skyfall’s most gruesome moment. Silva’s taunting of M also echoes The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps very deliberately. As in The Dark Knight and also The Avengers, Silva’s imprisonment is a ruse and all part of his master plan, a narrative trope that may well continue. John McClane has been described as a blue collar James Bond, and the final attack on Bond’s family home, Skyfall, features a highly organised assault team against a resourceful individual who uses his surroundings to his advantage, much like in Die Hard. To take it even further, Bond defends his home using homemade devices, not unlike Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone – not a comparison I ever thought I’d make!
One aspect of Skyfall troubles me: the reassertion of classic Bond tropes brings with it some disturbing gender politics. Since Goldeneye, the Bond franchise has taken some steps to distance itself from Bond being “a sexist misogynist dinosaur”, as M argued in Brosnan’s first outing. Tougher Bond girls have made appearances, such as Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies, Jinx (Halle Berry) in Die Another Day and Camille (Olga Kurylenko) in Quantum of Solace. Skyfall features Eve, who is Bond’s fellow agent in Istanbul and Macau, and with whom he appears to have a romantic liaison (though we’re spared the details). Eve is a competent field agent, but come the final scene, she is relegated to a secretary and revealed to be M’s eternal assistant, Moneypenny. This is another wink to the Bond fan, but also implies that secretary is the correct role for a woman. M’s fate implies this further, and the final occupant of the office seems a reassertion of patriarchy, as though the franchise has returned to where it belongs with men in the positions of power and agency. This is a disturbing element in a film aware of its legacy, especially in light of the potentially progressive amendments taken since 1995. Skyfall’s conclusion appears to suggest that the Bond franchise is not a place for women except in traditional roles.
Despite this disconcerting reassertion of patriarchy, I enjoyed Skyfall immensely. It was gripping and thrilling, well-plotted with detailed characters, exercised a knowing acknowledgement with the viewer to just the right extent, therefore avoiding being too clever-clever, and looked stunning. Some have described Skyfall as the best Bond ever, and while I think it is too early to say, it is certainly the most beautiful, as Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography looked deep and rich enough to swim in. Digital filming has been growing steadily in recent years, and Skyfall is a film that makes full use of its possibilities. There were points during the film when I wanted shots to linger on the myriad of colours captured in the frame, especially during a sequence in Shanghai. This sequence features one of the strangest fight scenes I have seen in a film, as Bond and his opponent move with a fluid grace within the shimmering beauty of the digital image. Alternately silhouetted and illuminated by shifting light patterns, the hand-to-hand combat becomes an almost dream-like dance, perhaps a microcosm of the dance of light and shadow that is cinema itself. This level of visual invention permeates the film, especially apparent in the climax, when the Scottish moors are illuminated by a deep red, casting an almost hellish yet still beautiful hue over the film’s finale.
Silva sends M a message that reads “Think on your sins”, and the themes of atonement and redemption reach fullest expression during the final sequence on the moors. Not only is the scene bathed in hellish red light, it also features Bond struggling with an opponent beneath the ice of a frozen loch, sinking deeper out of sight. Bond’s emergence from the water adds to the sense of a lone warrior battling the legions of hell, while in a church M awaits her fate. Her fate genuinely surprised and moved me, and I was left wondering whether M achieved redemption or damnation in the end. Much like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Skyfall does not end triumphantly for our hero. It does conclude with Bond ready to get back to work, but it also possesses a profound ambiguity and sober ambivalence. For a Bond film to offer such ambiguity is genuinely surprising and impressive, enabling Skyfall to excel not only as a Bond film, but as a film in general, one of the most satisfying of 2012. I have previously written about expectations and how they influence our responses: with Skyfall I expected a good Bond film, but not a film that worked on so many levels and exceeded my expectations narratively, aesthetically and thematically. The blend of familiarity and innovation in Skyfall surpassed the (expected) pleasures of The Avengers, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and Looper, providing one of the most satisfying cinema experiences I had in the past twelve months.
Argo accomplishes the remarkable feat of striking a balance between drama, thrills, laughs and politics. It could have been an outright comedy, sending up Hollywood in a merciless satire, and it could have been a thoroughly tense and gripping espionage thriller. To be both of these and more is testament to the craftsmanship of Chris Terrio’s screenplay and Ben Affleck’s superb direction, which handles the different styles necessary for the contrasting sections and maintains an appropriate tone across the disparate elements. Equally, Argo avoids the pitfalls of being either a tedious and offensive piece of anti-Iranian propaganda, or a ponderous piece of finger-wagging at the US.
Where The Iron Lady spectacularly failed to be political, Argo accomplishes a remarkable piece of political balance. In the current climate, propaganda and political correctness are in constant tension, and Argo manages this tension by not offering judgement. Affleck does not apportion blame for the hostage crisis, but also does not shy away from historical evidence. The opening storyboards that relate the history of Iran feature a nationalised oil industry that made the people prosperous, and the replacement of that government, with foreign aid, by one that would serve the oil interests of the USA and the UK. Consequently, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 seems a reasonable response to almost thirty years of foreign-backed government that disrespected traditional Islamic beliefs. Politically, this is a bold stance for Affleck to take, presenting an Islamic uprising as a political revolution rather than religious fanaticism. Terrorism does not come up, and while the Iranian Revolutionary Army is certainly intimidating and aggressive, the members are not presented as psychotic, but justifiably angry and indignant.
Nor does the film perform a laboured critique of US foreign policy. Plenty of films do this and many quite well, such as Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007), Fair Game (Doug Liman, 2010) and Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010). But Argo contents itself with simply presenting the historical evidence and allowing the viewer to form their own opinion. By focusing on the human element, the film allows us to see the impact upon ordinary people of both revolutionary anger and capitalist greed. There may be some who bemoan any presentation of the CIA and US foreign policy as anything other than the epitome of evil – even a humanitarian mission like that undertaken by Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) can be seen as an act of American imperialism and the Embassy fugitives should have been caught. I find this attitude unduly cynical and quite offensive – if we can feel empathy for the Iranian people then we can for the Americans who are equally victimised, ultimately by the same culprit. Or to quote Lester Siegel (Alan Alda), “Argo fuck yourself!”
Satires about Hollywood range from the unnerving Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) to the outrageous For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006). Argo accomplishes much that these films do and does so with neatness and economy, plus it has the bonus of being based on actual events. Lester Siegel and John Chambers (John Goodman) were a real producer and make-up artist in the 1970s, and Argo’s presentation of the lies, bluster and outright absurdity in movie-making is presented as both plausible and completely normal. This is crucial – rather than making Hollywood appear silly through caricature or stylisation, Argo plays it straight with simple presentation, again allowing the viewer to make up their own mind. I laughed out loud at several points during the Hollywood section of the narrative, such as Siegel’s anecdote about “knowing” Warren Beatty. Alda’s performance is larger than life which suits his character, and in a town known for frauds, fame and fantasy, he fits perfectly. The stages of film production are traced in all their showbiz glory, including the acquisition of a script, a cast reading complete with sci-fi costumes, and the more mundane office and (essential) advertisement in Variety. The cumulative effect of these scenes give the viewer reason to care that this film is produced – an interesting what-if would be for Argo to be entirely about the production of such a film; would the viewer’s investment been as high? I believe that it would – the passion and conviction of Siegel is infectious, and there is much to be enjoyed in the depiction of success, especially in such a weird and wonderful setting as Hollywood.
While the Hollywood section of Argo is highly amusing, the bulk of the film follows thriller conventions, from the storming of the US Embassy and the escape of the six fugitives, to the final act when Mendez joins them and must lead them through Tehran. Argo delivers several highly tense set pieces – there were at least three points at which I let out a breath I had been holding. The casting helps: while Affleck is the biggest name in the film, the other recognisable faces – Goodman, Alda, Cranston – are all either in Washington or Hollywood. The fugitives in Tehran are all played by relative unknowns, so there is no star baggage to indicate who is more likely to live or die. Furthermore, the opening scenes establish these characters very well, thrust into a perilous situation. The sense of fear is conveyed through the combination of the performances and Affleck’s close, intimate cinematography, and also the ambient soundtrack. Shifting from hushed tones to eruptions of shouting, the atmosphere of omnipresent danger is almost palpable. I was struck by the sound of footsteps – hurried, on-the-verge-of-panic steps as they run from the embassy, and also voices – bustle in the market, discussions among the Revolutionaries at the embassy, and most of all in the breathlessly tense climax at the airport, when the fugitives are in most jeopardy.
Perhaps ironically, tension is exacerbated through the absence of violence. Not a single American agent fires a weapon in Argo, and despite the constant threat the film has few moments of actual violence. This places emphasis upon the actors and their fearful reactions, as well as those playing Iranians, especially Farshad Farahat as a checkpoint guard at Tehran Airport who is frightening when shouting in Persian, but terrifying when whispering in English. Similarly, the danger to the fugitives is increased through the (literal) piecing together of shredded documents, rather than men with guns chasing them. When armed men finally do chase the fugitives, it is all the more nerve-shredding for being the culmination of all the tension that has been built up previously.
Argo is also interesting as a period piece. I was struck by the moments in which Mendez or his CIA superior Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) communicate via landlines, diplomatic telephones and radios, as these contrast with the modern day equivalent where computers and cell phones are always within easy reach. It is surprising how much tension can be generated by the simple inability to contact the crucial person who will give the essential authorisation, and if the person is not beside the telephone, lives will be lost. The CIA desperately trying to find somebody without the advantages of surveillance cameras and electronic tracking could seem quaint and dated, but it actually increases the drama as it appears strange and alien in contrast to the high tech of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer (clearly, secret agents always have the initials JB). How do you get hold of the crucial person when they have no mobile and are not in the office to answer the phone? The resource used time and time again in Argo is creativity, a crucial element of intelligence that (at least on screen) can be lost in the jungle of technology. This resonates with the production of a movie, where creativity is needed at every stage, from script to publicity, creating another meta-cinematic link between the fiction spun by Mendez and the narrative spun by Affleck, and links Argo with a recent spate of nostalgic spy thrillers.
Like the contemporary-set Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) and the period features Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005) and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011), Argo displays a nostalgia for old-style espionage, more dependent on individual resourcefulness and ingenuity than high-powered technology. Mendez’s mission is entirely dependent on subterfuge and his wits; despite the urgency of some situations, patience is also needed as an instant response may not come. Much as Skyfall features a steady stripping away of 21st century benefits, so Argo demonstrates a time, not so long ago, when high speed internet connections (which always seem so much more reliable for movie characters than for us mere mortals) were not the saving grace.
The nostalgia is established from the opening credits, which are presented with the Warner Bros. logo from the 1970s. There also appeared to be scratches on the print, which was impossible because I watching a digital projection. For there to be “scratches” means that the appearance of scratches had been added to the film data digitally, and this indicates a remarkable (and possibly excessive) commitment to the presentation of period. Historical context is not confined to what is represented but extends to the manner of presentation, creating an air of nostalgia that extends beyond the screen and into the auditorium itself.
Personally, I did not need digital scratches or an old style logo to draw me into the past. I was born in the same year as the Iranian Revolution so I remember scratches on celluloid prints and often found them irritating. Some lament the passing of projectionists and the rise of digital projection, but the presentation of a pristine image aids the illusion of looking through a window into another world, place or time. Scratches could interfere with engagement in the narrative, if one pays too close attention to the presentation. That said, after the opening minutes I was sufficiently drawn into the film that I didn’t notice any further scratches.
The nostalgia demonstrated in Argo, as well as the other films identified above, suggests a perspective on espionage and foreign relations that links back to the film’s political balance. By immersing the viewer within the context of the story, providing a potted history lesson and allowing the Iranian perspective as well as the American, not to mention emphasising the importance of Canadian assistance to the mission, Argo offers a perspective that is not only politically balanced but historically astute and remarkably multi-cultural. It is a tale of globalisation set in a time before globalisation was a buzzword. Rather than being a story of espionage for nefarious purposes, here the CIA saves lives and the casting of blame or identification of villains serves no purpose. All over the world, now as then, people are in danger and in terrible situations, often as a result of political decisions made by those who never have to experience the consequences. Argo draws attention to consequence and interconnections, and dares to suggest that international cooperation is a way forward, rather than individual nations and agendas.