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Every now and then a movie comes along that captures the zeitgeist with wit and intelligence. Skyfall, the latest James Bond flick, has done that in spades. To say that I’m surprised is what you’d call an understatement.
You see, I’ve never watched a Bond film in its entirety until this one. (I pause here momentarily to allow for your disdainful gasps.) Yes, I’ve caught parts of the Connery and Moore films on broadcast TV over the years, and I even Netflixed Casino Royale when it first came out on DVD (though I hit “stop” after 20 minutes). Being a sentient, pop-culture consumer, I know the franchise basics and its associated mythology, and I understand why it is so popular, but it just never held much appeal for me.
Skyfall, however, is a different animal. An action movie with gravitas. A ripping good adventure that actually has something meaningful to say about this particular moment in time. Without giving anything away, it’s a movie about aging, vulnerability, and the need to retain our humanity in the face of the machine. The phrase “sometimes, the old ways are best” is uttered more than once, and ingenuity trumps gadgetry. Smarts over smartphones. It’s no accident that the final conflagration unfolds in the Scottish Highlands, against a backdrop that’s as old-school as they come—.007’s ancestral home, a structure made of stone and wood set in the most primordial of landscapes.
Though his famous Aston Martin makes an appearance, and technology remains a part of Bond’s toolbox, this iteration of Her Majesty’s top secret agent is a fragile one, a man who’s grappling with what is most essential—the things that remain after everything else has been stripped away. It’s this skeletal intimacy that resonates today.
We love our computers and the ability to connect in an instant, but many folks I know feel a powerful ambivalence about certain aspects of contemporary life: the expectation that we must be “on” and available at all times; our shortened attention spans and the altered ways we now process information (and how these changes have modified the way we interact with the creative arts); the amount of time it takes us to unwind (assuming we are even able to).
I am not placing myself above any of this—technology has me just as tethered as the next person—and I’d be the first to admit that it’s not all bad. Google, email, and my iPhone have made it infinitely easier to do my job and saved me hours of research on matters large and small. (Where is the closest Chinese restaurant? Which airline has the cheapest fare to Paris? What was the name of that black-and-white movie starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson?) I’m grateful for the doors that Facebook and Twitter have opened (and re-opened). Hell, I’m posting this article on my blog and promoting it via social media, so I’d have to be the world’s biggest hypocrite to say that these tools are not useful—and here to stay.
But I also miss vacations as they used to be—a true break from daily life, without the ability (or need) to read the correspondence that would’ve kept just fine until my return. I hate that I process New York Times articles differently on the computer than on paper (skimming versus actually reading). And I’m not crazy about my habit of checking email when I am already in the middle of doing something else (cooking, watching a sporting event, or simply waiting at a restaurant table while my friend has gone to the bathroom), as if whatever is happening “out there” cannot wait and is somehow more deserving of my attention than that which is directly in front of me. It’s become too easy to forget that there’s value in just “being.”
The questions at the heart of Skyfall could not be more timely. Here in the Northeast, Hurricane Sandy was a visceral reminder of how dependent we are on the grid. As the tools at our disposal become more fantastical by the minute, our daily existence is more tenuous than ever. It’s lovely that we can video-Skype with folks halfway around the world, but when a storm knocks out power, forces the evacuation of a hospital, prevents us from flushing the toilet, and blocks the delivery of fuel, we’re forced to look inside and see what it is that we are made of. Who will you be when the last drop of juice evaporates from your cellphone?
The coming attractions that ran before the film only reinforced its central point. Sequels to superhero sequels. Dark reinterpretations of fairy tales. Apocalyptic visions of the future. It’s possible that some of these movies will end up being enjoyable, but when Skyfall‘s closing credits rolled, I could not have told you the name of any them if my life depended on it.
A good tale, told well, trumps special effects and explosions every single time. Those bells and whistles are nice add-ons in the right context, and this film certainly offers them, but they are empty without an engrossing story and compelling characters. Give me performances by Javier Bardem, Dame Judi Dench, and Albert Finney over a screening of The Transformers any day.
Is Skyfall a perfect movie? No. For one thing it has too many endings and could’ve benefitted from a tougher edit. But is it the perfect Bond for right now? Yes. Because Sam Mendes and his team understood that in order to reinvent a 50-year-old franchise, they had to look back to move forward. Sometimes, to quote Bond himself, the old ways are best.