Saturday, November 07, 2015
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Chapter 6: Planet of the Lost" (October 14, 1978)
In “Planet of the Lost,” Chapter 6 of the first season of Jason of Star Command (1978-1980), Jason and Allegra find themselves trapped on another strange planetoid. This one, alas, is inhabited by a fearsome alien (rendered with stop-motion photography).
Jason (Craig Littler), Nicole (Susan Pratt) and Allegra (Roseanne Katon) bicker over what to do, with Allegra resenting Jason’s orders, and Jason angry at the princess’s imperious nature.
They reconcile, however, when Allegra is threatened by the monster, and Jason proves himself in a forgiving mood. “We all make dumb moves from time to time…even little princesses,” he says.
Meanwhile, in space, Wiki is trapped by a drone interceptor tractor beam, but Star Command intervenes and saves the droid.
Unfortunately, as Commander Canarvin (James Doohan) realizes, the base is too weak to take on Dragos (Sid Haig) directly. Instead, Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) uses a new experiment to simulate an ion storm, and this tricks Dragos into withdrawing from the field of battle.
Left with some time to breather, Parsafoot heads to the planetoid to save Jason and Allegra. But on the return voyage, Dragos returns and casts the star fire into the limbo of the lost,” a universe of lost souls, in some ways like a cosmic Bermuda Triangle.
Perhaps more than any other story so far, “Planet of the Lost” is brimming with action. In particular, Jason and Allegra encounter a strange alien, and must battle it. The creature looks great, in terms of stop-motion animation, and it is always amazing to me that a series created so quickly and so cheaply could feature such effects. It is amusing, however, that this monster has an electrically-charged tongue!
What seems bafflig, perhaps, about this episode, is that Jason and Allegra -- who have worked side-by-side together seamlessly in previous episodes -- suddenly start bickering and sniping at one another.
One gets the feeling that the writers were aiming for a Han Solo/Princess Leia vibe or rivalry here, but it absolutely doesn’t work. Jason is far more earnest than Solo, for one thing.
For another, Allegra has spent her last several months as a “monster,” transformed by Dragos, and doesn’t really demonstrate many outbreaks of attitude or haughtiness. She's not a spoiled brat princess, for sure.
As a result, both Jason and Allegra seem woefully out of character in this installment. And Jason’s response (excerpted above) to her bad behavior is paternalistic at best, and patronizing at worst.
Next week: “Marooned in Time.”
This episode of the 1970s Saturday morning Filmation program finds the Space Academy in orbit of a giant planet – a new visual effects -- but two comets are fast approaching on a collision course.
Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris) sends Blue Team in a Seeker to activate explosive charges and destroy the comets before they can strike the Academy.
But on the comet's surface, Laura (Pamelyn Ferdin) and Chris (Ric Carrott) and the others (including Peepo) find veins and arteries in the ground.
And when one of the cadets attempts to hack off a sample, the rocks bleed.
It turns out the whole comet is alive. In fact, he’s a sick fellow by the name of Ergo. Peepo communicates with him and Ergo (in perfect English) tells the cadets "I forgive you...for chopping off pieces of me."
But Ergo is the least of the Academy's problems.
The second comet is named "Targ." And Targ is a criminal who wants to destroy everything, including the Academy and the seeker.
Ergo would be able to stop him from attacking if he were at full strength, but unfortunately he used the last of his free energy to enter the galaxy, and then the cadets started cutting into him.
Thinking of others first, the cadets are able to strengthen Ergo by feeding him "magnetic flux," and at the end of the day, Targ is defeated and Ergo is taken back to the Academy to be fully healed.
Probably just about every outer space show of the late 1960s and 1970s (and even some in the 1980s too...) featured dramas revolving around the silicon-based life-form; or rather "the living rock."
On Star Trek (1966-1969), of course, "Devil in the Dark" set the pace as probably the best of all these programs. That’s the story of Mommy Horta, and her silicon nodule eggs. This is one of Joel’s favorite episodes of the series so far.
But Space: 1999 (1975-1977) also vetted a version of the silicon-life form story in Year Two called "All That Glisters," and it isn’t tremendously well-regarded. I happen to enjoy the episode because of its fidelity to horror tropes. In this story, living rocks turn Alphans into zombies, and much of the narrative takes place in a dark (though splendidly lit…) Eagle interior, adding a level of claustrophobia to the adventure. I admire the eeriness of the presentation, if not always the details of the narrative.
As late as Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Home Soil" in 1988, the story of a silicon life-form discovered by space-going carbon-based folks (humans...us) has been a serviceable one for the genre.
"The Rocks of Janus" is Space Academy's sturdy and enjoyable contribution to this time-worn but trusty genre convention. If you recall, "Janus" was also the name of the Horta's planet in "Devil in the Dark," so you have to wonder if Space Academy scribe Samuel Peeples was paying homage where homage was due.
"The Rocks of Janus" doesn't add a whole lot to the "silicon life-form" sci-fi TV convention. Like "Home Soil" (which came much later), the life form isn't detected until after humans have injured it. Like "All that Glisters," the good guys (in this case, from the Academy) seek to help out and do right after committing (an accidental) wrong. Otherwise, it's a familiar tale.
And yet, it’s a tale I don’t tire of.
At its core, “The Rocks of Janus” is about beings of different nature learning to recognize, and then appreciate each other. Although some people hate the word “diversity” with a passion and feel it’s all kumbayas and puppies, I appreciate diversity on a practical level.
For example, if you attempt to solve a key problem, you want as many different answers to a problem as possible so you pick the best one. That’s the value of diversity. Different experiences bring different skill sets and different perceptual sets to the table. Why wouldn’t you want the widest number of solutions are your fingertips?
In this story, Ergo forgives the cadets their trespass, and he helps them after they heal him. It’s a nice story of the cadets making an unusual friend, and learning that not all life-forms have to be the same, or believe in the same thing. The story also isn't pollyana-ish because we meet not just a friendly, innocent alien, but a monstrous, sinister one as well. That's life too. Not everyone is your friend, but that doesn't mean you can't meet others -- people with different ideas -- with friendship first.
What else happens in this episode of Space Academy?
Well, we find out exactly what the Academy slang "Oraco!" means. "Order Received And Carried Out!"
Also, for the first time in the series, we see what appears to be a classroom, and a gathering of students. As the episode starts, Commander Gampu lectures about the rocks of Janus.
Next Week: "Monkee Business"
Friday, November 06, 2015
Well, 007 Week is now at an end!
I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have. As you read these words, I’ll be screening SPECTRE (2015) with my wife, and experiencing the next chapter in the Craig Era.
Hopefully, it’s a worthwhile entry. Look for my review next Tuesday, right here.
Now, to end the week, I’m including my extremely individual and biased ranking of the Bond films from best-to-worst.
This is a snapshot of my evolving ideas on the movie franchise, and in three years -- in time for the next film -- I may rank some entries differently.
But for right now, here’s how I tally ‘em up, and a few thumbnail reasons for my choices.
007 Films, Ranked Best to Worst (and categorized by quality):
1. From Russia with Love (1963): Greatest fight in the series (Train Car); greatest soldier villain (Red Grant), and Sean Connery at his most charming/fit.
2. Goldfinger (1964): Greatest villain (Auric Goldfinger), greatest car (Aston Martin), great pre-title sequence prototype, great car, great sacrificial lambs (Jill and Tilly Masterson), and greatest overall leitmotif (gold).
3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): The most human Bond film. The first “re-grounding” effort in the saga, and one that considers Bond as a person. Greatest Bond Girl Ever: Diana Rigg’s Tracy Bond.
4. Casino Royale (2006): Another great “re-grounding” effort, after the ludicrous Die Another Day (2002) Gives us the most physically-fit, believable Bond in Daniel Craig, and offers a solid villain (Mads Mikkelsen) and great Bond Girl, to rival Tracy: Eva Green’s Vesper. In a way, a great “origin story,” and in 20 something other films, we’ve never really had that.
5. Licence to Kill (1989): Timothy Dalton’s final film was only twenty-five years ahead of its time, giving us a bloody, serious, tortured Bond on a mission of vengeance. Features one of the franchise’s all-time great villains, the quasi-Shakespearean Sanchez (Robert Davi).
6. For Your Eyes Only (1981): The Bond re-grounding film, after the excesses of Moonraker (1979) that proved Roger Moore can be a great James Bond. The film eschews fantasy, and shows how resourceful Bond can be. The car chase with the junky old Citroen proves it’s not the car that matters, it’s the man behind the wheel. The film also features the most suspenseful scene in all the canon, with Moore’s 007 scaling a sheer mountainside as villains attempt to send him plummeting to his doom.
7. Skyfall (2012): Who knew Bond had a Mommy Complex? This film, in keeping with the Craig Era, gives us more insight into the creation of Bond’s world, adding flesh to the bones of Moneypenny, Q, and even the new M.
8. Dr. No (1962): The first Bond film, and the one to set the tone/style for the series. Features a great villain, an amazing Bond girl, and made Sean Connery a star.
9. The Living Daylights (1987): Another re-grounding film (this time after A View to a Kill), giving us a younger, more vigorous Bond in Timothy Dalton. The film speaks meaningfully to then current events (the Reagan Administrations’ shadowy arms deal with the Iranians), and gives the audience the most human, flawed 007 since Lazenby’s in 1969.
10. Never Say Never Again (1983): Overall, this one gets high marks from me because the film acknowledges that Bond (Sean Connery) has aged, and must now rely on his wits and cunning. The film’s villains are of the 1980s “push button” age, playing video games and remotely detonating bombs, but Bond is a moving human target, relying on instincts. Great antagonists here, too.
11. Live and Let Die (1973): This Bond, the first starring Roger Moore, apes the Blaxploitation movie trend of the time period, but holds together well. Features the best title song of the franchise, and one of the finest Bond girls, Jane Seymour’s Solitaire. The presence of Baron Samedi – Death Himself – also adds a layer of visual and thematic artistry to the affair.
12. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): A veritable remake of You Only Live Twice (1967), only with nuclear submarines instead of rockets. But this movie features a great Bond car (the Lotus Esprit) and the finest pre-title sequence of the saga, with Moore’s Bond skiing off a mountainside and deploying a parachute.
13. Quantum of Solace (2008): Craig’s sophomore outing in the 007 role is best enjoyed as the second half of Casino Royale (2006). On that basis – as well as its pastiche-style recycling of classic Bond images (girl in oil; girl in gold; Quantum = SPECTRE) -- the film worth revisiting.
14. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Brosnan’s best Bond; a rip-roaring social critique of the 24-hour news cycle, and the rise of cable news. Michelle Yeoh is a fantastic ally for Bond, and Brosnan seems especially committed to the proceedings, especially in his scenes with Teri Hatcher.
15. Goldeneye (1995): After the ahead-of-its-time Licence to Kill, Pierce Brosnan’s first outing is a perfectly entertaining -- and perfectly bland -- re-establishment of the series’ spectacular side. Unlike other re-grounding Bond films, this one is all about re-establishing the series’ “big,” outrageous moments. One downside is the funeral dirge-like soundtrack, which casts a pall over what should be a fun, buoyant, Bond film.
16. Thunderball (1965): This Bond film is over-long, edited poorly, and features one of the dullest villains ever: Largo. By this time, it’s also clear that Sean Connery is also getting bored in the role of 007. This is the “tipping” Bond in his era, the film that starts the descent towards crap (see: Diamonds are Forever.)
17. You Only Live Twice (1967): Features a great villain (Donald Pleasence), a great gadget (Little Nellie), and a great headquarters (inside a volcano), but also feels bloated, and is weighted down by Connery’s apparent disinterest in the whole enterprise. Also, there’s his terrible Japanese make-up…
18. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974): Roger Moore’s second film is fun but pretty unmemorable, overall. A low point in the film is the return of Live and Let Die’s bigoted Southern sheriff. A high point is Maude Adams
19. Octopussy (1983): Another disposable entry in the Moore Era. Not bad, but nothing special either (except for the pre-title sequence with the AcroStar mini-jet). Roger Moore looks old and disinterested, and the last thing the series needed at this juncture was to feature his 007 dressed as a circus clown.
20. The World is Not Enough (1999): Sophie Marceau is fantastic in this film as Bond’s lover/nemesis, but Denise Richards isn’t exactly cut out to be a nuclear physicist. More than Brosnan’s first two Bond films, this one feels like little more than re-shuffled elements (another boat chase, another ski chase, another submarine set-piece…).
21. Moonraker (1979): Pardon my schizophrenia. As a Star Wars kid I love this film without reservation. As a Bond fan, this film is low-points of source, made so by the campy, tongue-in-cheek approach and every single scene featuring Jaws. That said, I could watch this any day and be thoroughly entertained. I could do without the pigeon doing a double-take, and the gondola-turned hover-craft.
22. A View to a Kill (1985): I should look as good as Roger Moore does in this film, when I’m his age. That said, he’s still way too old to be a convincing James Bond at this point. The film is bloated and slow, and Tanya Robert’s Stacy Sutton is the most annoying Bond Girl of the series. Christopher Walken, Grace Jones, and Duran Duran are all “fresh” ingredients in the franchise that utterly fail to enliven this beached-whale of an epic.
23. Diamonds are Forever (1971): Terrible, awful, no-good effort that sees Connery’s retirement from the role until 1983. The film’s steadfast refusal to connect itself to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is insulting, as is Blofeld’s death scene. Overlong and with a confusing plot.
24. Die Another Day (2002): The first twenty or so minutes of this Bond film -- which see 007 (Pierce Brosnan) captured, tortured and humiliated in North Korea -- are great; a fresh launching point for the saga. But then – after a serious first act – the film devolves into excess: ice palaces, invisible cars, power gloves, and Bond surfing CGI tsunamis. Excessive, stupid, and a sad end for Brosnan’s era.
It’s unofficial, of course, but if you scrape just beneath the surface of Skyfall (2012) -- the new James Bond thriller -- the designation “M” clearly stands for “Mother” or “Mom.”
Unconventionally, this twenty-third Bond film is a modern action movie concerning a mature woman (played by Judi Dench) who has -- perhaps not fully realizing it -- become the only parent to two grown and needy (or maladjusted…) sons.
One son, a man called Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), has rebelled against his mother for her sins, choosing to reject all of her lessons because he feels unloved and abandoned.
The other son, James Bond (Daniel Craig), realizes that this powerful mother figure is responsible for giving his life some sense of purpose, and thus goes to extreme, life-and-death measures to protect her from his enraged “brother.”
Also -- and please make no mistake about this fact – the new Bond Girl of Skyfall is clearly M, not Naomie Harris’s Eve, Severine (Berenice Marlohe), or anyone else, for that matter.
For the first time in Bond history then, the primary Bond/female relationship does not concern sex or romance, but the maternal, mother-son relationship.
On these relatively startling grounds alone, Skyfall distinguishes itself from the twenty-two previous cinematic installments in the James Bond series.
Delightfully, however, Skyfall also thoroughly re-invents Bond’s place in the world, lamenting the 21st century reliance on computers and unmanned drones over “human intelligence” in the dangerous game of espionage. The film thereby forges the (the Luddite?) argument that sometimes the old ways -- like a knife in the back -- still get the job done best.
Skyfall also celebrates fifty years of James Bond movie traditions and history. Therefore, one can readily gaze at this prominently-featured Luddite argument as a rationalization, as a self-justification, in some sense, for the continuation of the long-running franchise in the second decade of the 21st century.
Even today, in the age or push-button soldiers, we need 007.
This argument about the primacy of human values in the Remote Control Age is so exhilaratingly presented that Skyfall often feels like a grand revelation. Everything “old” is new again, and this Bond film brilliantly sends Agent 007 into a brave new world, even while re-establishing all the old characters (like Q and Moneypenny) and old genre gimmicks we’ve come to expect (like the Aston Martin’s ejector seat).
It’s quite a deft balancing act, and Skyfall is at once cheeky and legitimately sentimental in tone. It would be easy to term so exciting and revelatory a Bond film the best series installment in years, but Casino Royale -- just six years in the past -- must still earn high marks for resetting the series, grounding Bond, and introducing Craig. Without those accomplishments, the highs of Skyfall might not have been conceivable.
Instead, the arrival of Skyfall forces long-time Bond fans to concretely reckon with the once-impossible-seeming notion that the Sean Connery Era has, at long-last, been surpassed
Bond is back and -- no hyperbole -- he’s better than ever.
“Mommy was very bad.”
Skyfall opens in Turkey, as James Bond, 007 (Craig) and an operative named Eve (Harris) attempt to recover a stolen hard-drive that contains the files of every undercover NATO operative working in terrorist organizations.
Eve is ordered by M (Dench) to take a difficult shot against the possessor of the drive, the evil Patrice (Ola Rapace). But Eve hits Bond instead, thereby losing the drive and an agent.
Some months later, Bond -- who is believed dead -- resurfaces when the MI6 building in London is bombed. M escapes the attack, but feels political pressure from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) to explain the loss of the hard-drive, and now a terrorist attack on British soil.
Although he is not yet physically or psychologically ready to return to duty, M nonetheless sends Bond out to track Patrice. The trail leads Bond to Raoul Silva (Bardem) a vengeful former MI6 agent eager to make M “think on her sins.”
With Silva launching one terrorist attack after another -- all aimed at killing M -- Bond decides to take his superior off the grid, and back to his family’s long-abandoned country estate in Scotland, called Skyfall.
“Less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement.”
As I wrote above in my introduction, Skyfall primarily concerns a family dynamic. In this unusual family, M is the mother, Raoul is one son, and Bond -- believed dead but actually out carousing on the beach -- is the Prodigal Son.
Bond finally returns to save his mother’s life after Raoul enters the picture. Apparently, Raoul has interpreted M’s dedication to duty as a personal statement against him, a mirror of Bond’s situation. Silva, however, conveniently overlooks the fact that he was the one who first transgressed on a mission to Hong Kong some years earlier.
Given this family dynamic, Skyfall also concerns -- in a strange way -- the value of forgiveness. Bond is able to remember that M’s stewardship provided him a home and a purpose, and he forgives her for ordering Eve to take a shot that nearly results in his death.
M is similarly able to forgive Bond’s trespasses and welcome back the Prodigal Son, the boy who went out into the world with the inheritance of responsibility and purpose and squandered that inheritance on booze, sex, and scorpions.
By contrast, Raoul Silva -- who evidently still loves M (or Mom…) -- can’t see his path to forgiveness, and remains consumed by overwhelming hatred because of Mom’s abandonment.
This family dynamic plays out in Skyfall even in terms of setting and locations. Bond -- a boy forever in search of the parents he tragically lost in childhood -- brings M back to his family estate, Skyfall to play house, after a fashion. There, 007 also re-connects with an old friend and mentor Kincade (Albert Finney), a surrogate father figure.
The three characters -- working and living together at Skyfall -- are, briefly, a family, replete with a home and a hearth. Bond thus recreates the family home he never had in his youth. Raoul arrives and destroys that home, refusing to forgive Mom and rejoin the family.
In exploring this dynamic, Skyfall is perhaps the most human and personal of all the Bond films. It explores not only the elements of Bond’s tragic and lonely past, but excavates the nature of his (violent) life in terms of how he sees his connections to others. For Bond, M and Kincade are the only family he can count on when the chips are down, though there is the suggestion that Mallory may become a father figure as well.
Outside this dramatic through-line, Skyfall establishes a roiling tension and competition between 21st century espionage and Bondian-style espionage, which came of age during the Cold War of the 1960s.
This tension is expressed best in the quips back and forth between the mid-life Bond and his young, new Q (or Quartermaster), played by Billie Whishaw. Q tells Bond that “age is no guarantee of efficiency,” and Bond’s response is that “youth is no guarantee of innovation.”
In other words, a person with experience and expertise still has something to offer in the world of espionage.
Q also comments explicitly on a painting in an art gallery where he first meets 007. The painting depicts a warship’s decommissioning.
“It always makes me feel a bit melancholy,” Q opines. “Grand old war ship…being ignominiously haunted away to scrap... The inevitability of time, don't you think? What do you see?”
What Bond sees, of course, is that he is that old warship, and the one succumbing to the inevitability of time.
He isn’t as young as he once was, and he faces the possibility that he will soon be obsolete, outmoded in the Remote Control Age. But the events of Skyfall prove otherwise. There is still room in the world for Bond’s brand of “human” intelligence.
Even M gets into the act of discussing the present and the past by quoting Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses at a critical dramatic juncture:
“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
This is Bond’s gift to the world, and perhaps England’s as well. Bond and England no longer dictate the movement of Heaven and Earth, but their wills remain strong, and when threatened, they will not yield. They are, as they have been….heroic hearts.
The emotionally-delivered Tennyson quotation above thus permits Skyfall to proudly re-assert Bond’s importance in the cinema, and even Bond’s place in the world. Jason Bournes and Ethan Hunts of the world be damned, there’s still a place for Bond, James Bond in the 21st Century.
The battle between Silva and Bond is not merely one of brothers, but of belief-systems, the film cleverly reminds us. Silva is the high-tech terrorist hiding behind anonymous servers and diabolical hacks. Meanwhile, Bond is the old-world dinosaur who still enjoys his Aston Martin’s ejector seat, and takes M off the grid, to a brick-and-mortar home he hasn’t seen in years.
It’s digital vs. analog…and analog carries the day.
The amazing thing is that in our convenient and robust Web 2.0 Age, we root in Skyfall for analog to win.
We long for the romance and sheer individuality of a character like James Bond. He calls not upon gadgets, tools, or software to win the day, but some deep internal reservoir of individual will and discipline. We may be constantly perfecting our tools and gadgets, but Bond has perfected his human mechanism, and in reminding us of that, Skyfall has perfected the Bond formula.
It’s appropriate that the last act of Skyfall involves an all-out siege which is more Peckinpah and Straw Dogs (1971) than Ian Fleming, because the analog world does feel, at times, under siege, doesn’t it? The Old Guard seems to be crumbling, a brick at a time, and some people view this shift as the End of History, and not as the beginning of Something New, perhaps Something Great.
In an age of irrational exuberance about gadgets, apps, and computerized military capabilities, James Bond and Skyfall remind us that a reliance on humanity -- on our experience and wisdom -- can be the most potent weapon of all.
Here’s to another fifty years of James Bond and his heroic heart.
So...this is the new normal.
By that I mean that Quantum of Solace (2008) -- the 22nd big screen adventure of James Bond, 007 -- cements the aesthetic direction of the Daniel Craig Era.
It's a cinematic epoch which follows, in sequence, The Sean Connery Era (1962-1968; 1970), The George Lazenby Moment (1969), The Roger Moore Era (1971 - 1985), The Timothy Dalton Era (1987 - 1989) and The Pierce Brosnan Era (1995 - 2002).
Described in a different way, we've had -- more or less -- a signature Bond for each of the previous four decades; for the mod/swinging Sixties, the malaise/disco days of the Seventies, the conservative Eighties, and the roaring Nineties.
Contemplated in a larger context, Daniel Craig's still-unfolding span plainly represents The New Millennium 007, a James Bond who straddles the confusing, contradictory world as it exists today.
This post-millennium world is one in which international alliances are strained; in which the ends justify the means; in which the West is facing a crisis of principles; and in which dwindling natural resources (whether oil, water or food...) represent the ultimate prize. Trust in government is at an all-time low, and fear (of terrorism, of environmental apocalypse, and of economic meltdown...) is at an...all-time high (with apologies to Rita Coolidge).
The narrative and stylistic direction for the Daniel Craig Era was established brilliantly in Casino Royale (2006) , a ground-up re-boot of the sturdy action-film franchise. And it is embellished upon succinctly here, in this all-business, no-time-for-love book-end. For Quantum of Solace is a direct successor that resumes the story of Bond scarcely minutes after the last film ended. It begins at top speed, and never lets up.
My most significant complaint about Casino Royale was that it seemed to end with so much of the story-line still up in the air, without a real or satisfying (or even particularly spectacular...) climax. By contrast, Quantum of Solace plays virtually as continual climax, a description James Bond would no doubt appreciate.
The best way to experience the Craig Era Paradigm?
Watch these two films back-to-back, because they are connected in intricate, complementary fashion. These two films fit hand in glove. They are dramatically of a piece. They strengthen one another.
Thus far, and given this background as context, the Craig Era seems to consist of equal part tradition and innovation; continuing the things that have always worked beautifully about James Bond's universe, and adjusting or discarding those elements that don't play so well today.
So yes, this is the new normal.
I must admit -- as much as I enjoy this new approach -- the post 9/11 Bond aesthetic takes some adjusting to; especially for old-timers like me who grew up in the daffy Roger Moore era.
Yet in some very important senses, Daniel Craig's spell as Agent 007 is plainly emerging as a new golden age for the legendary, long-lived character, especially if these two installments are an indication of the series' continued energy level, commitment to consistency, and quality of imagination. Not since Sean Connery's apex (in my opinion, Dr. No through Goldfiger..) have we had two such engrossing, involving, consistent Bond films in a row.
Some specifics: Quantum of Solace concerns a dogged James Bond (Craig), who -- following the tragic death of his lover, Vesper (Eva Green) -- relentlessly pursues the agents of Quantum, a shadowy international organization boasting clandestine operatives literally everywhere (as one explosive sequence aptly demonstrates).
Bond's investigation takes him to Haiti, Italy, Bolivia and ultimately Russia to track down elements of the secretive, multi-headed hydra known as Quantum. James is committed to destroying the organization, perhaps over-committed to it.
But whether his dedication arises purely from personal reasons or rather for professional ones is a source of the film's ongoing (but underlying...) tension.
After years now of watching needlessly broody, vengeful heroes on the big screen, we're inclined to ascribe to this Bond some deep internal emotional strife (read: EMO), when what he actually displays in Quantum of Solace is something different entirely; a mask.
A suppression of his emotions and pain with drink and violence.
This is very, very near to the Ian Fleming Bond of classic literature: Bond as (in the words of Fleming to Sean Connery): "a simple, straightforward, blunt instrument of the police force who would carry out his job rather doggedly."
Bond's primary nemesis in Quantum of Solace is the aptly named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) of Greene Planet, a would-be dedicated environmentalist who is actually a dedicated corporate raider. Greene topples governments of Third World countries at the drop of a hat in order to procure their natural resources and thereby secure a profit. His latest bid for global domination is "Project Tiara," a Bush Doctrine-style pre-emptive first strike in the future global "water wars."
Greene successfully cons everyone, from the CIA to the British Prime Minister, in order to secure the water supply of Bolivia, but he hasn't factored in the "dogged" Bond breathing down his neck.
Interestingly, Greene is a diminutive little twerp -- like a self-satisfied CEO -- and as such, the perfect villain for our time..even if he doesn't possess any trademark Bond villain deformity (like Dr. No's metal hand, or Renard's bullet in the brain.)
Along the way, Bond teams up with beautiful Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), a woman on a personal quest of her own. She seeks revenge against the Bolivian General Medrano, whom Greene plans to install as the new President after the current government is toppled. Since their priorities align, Bond and Camille lay siege to a remote Bolivian headquarters/hotel -- which runs not too safely on eco-friendly fuel cells -- as Greene conducts his nefarious business with the would-be-tyrant.
While all this is occurring, M (Judi Dench) has a very tough decision to make about her most headstrong agent: Is Bond worthy of her trust? Is he a simple, straightforward blunt instrument, or a reckless loose cannon?
It's "good to have you back," she tells Bond at one point, after the dust has settled. "I never left," he replies, deadpan.
As viewers, we are thus asked to judge for ourselves the honesty and validity of Bond's response. But impressively the film doesn't push one answer or another. If Bond suffers inner turmoil, emotional distress and grief, he does so in solitude; and only inside. This is the last step of his "training" process, the final prelude to truly becoming "007."
Which is why, no doubt, the famous gun barrel opening has been shifted to the film's coda for Quantum of Solace. Because Bond's indoctrination to this shadowy world -- a world where loyalties can never really be known - is finally complete. The end of Quantum of Solace represents the beginning of Bond as a professional.
Quantum of Solace proves an engaging, exciting and rather serious entry in the James Bond film canon. I'm old enough to remember a time when Time Magazine complained bitterly about the Bond films being too light-hearted and even suggested that Bond had become such a self-parody -- so innocuous, androgynous and anonymous (by the time of Octopussy ) -- that he could be played by Michael Jackson. Basically, serious Bond fans spent years, even decades deriding the silliness of the Roger Moore era (Moonraker, anybody?), wishing -- hoping -- for a return to the relative seriousness of the Fleming books and early Connery efforts.
That dream was half-achieved in the age of Timothy Dalton (a Bond I deeply admire). He approached the role seriously and smartly, but the scripts weren't really consistent enough to achieve the goal. The Pierce Brosnan era was even more helter-skelter, opening strong with GoldenEye (1995), but descending by Die Another Day (2002) into a campy, outlandish world of ice castles, invisible cars, laser gloves and a CGI Bond ludicrously wind-surfing tidal waves.
It's only now, with the one-two punch of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace -- in the age of Craig -- that the long-hoped for vision of Bond as a real, flawed human being is fully realized.
Given that fact, I'm experiencing a bit of whiplash from all the criticism that Quantum of Solace is somehow too serious. One critic even quipped, "Lighten up, James."
My answer: the books were pretty damn serious; and one of my favorite Bond films, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is pretty damn serious too.
Quantum of Solace doesn't seem out of line, at least to me. Craig is indeed serious -- and believable physically (which Moore wasn't; and which Brosnan wasn't) -- but it's not like he's mopey, down-in-the-mouth or navel gazing. At least not when there's a martini around, or someone to be killed.
Marc Forster can direct action, and he directs the action well in Quantum of Solace. His error, I believe is that he occasionally aims too high when he should have more wisely and conservatively settled just for capturing the essentials. In a few of the big action moments (in two instances, to be specific), Forster apes Coppola-style Apocalypse Now or Godfather cross-cutting.
In one scene, for instance, Forster cuts a violent exterior chase between Bond and an assassin with the goings-on at a Sienna horse race. In another action sequence, Forster inter-cuts a fast-paced gunfight with a performance of Puccini's Tosca.
Now, on the one hand, I always laud ambition and the calculated selection not to go for a lowest-common denominator approach.
As a critic, I dig this kind of thing.
But on the other hand, in a Bond film this just feels rather pretentious. By the inclusion of the cross-cutting montages (and the use of Tosca) Marc Forster seems to be indicating none too subtly that for him the James Bond world is not enough; that Bond must exist on some rarefied, art-house level.
Still, I'll take this intellectual approach over close-ups of pigeons doing double-takes any day, if you get my meaning.
Some critics have also claimed that the action scenes of Quantum of Solace are incoherent. I disagree. There are a few bad choices (two very similar-looking black cars are featured in the opening chase scene, which makes identification difficult...), but for the most part the action is absolutely thrilling.
The violence level is ratcheted up; the pace is extreme, and some of the shots literally assault the audience. There's one amazing moment in which a ledge topples and Bond falls into the camera. Another virtuoso shot follows Bond and a nemesis tumbling downward through a glass ceiling onto a scaffold, and the camera rides with the combatants the whole way. The approach is immersive, and the action is better directed than in any Nolan Batman film.
I don't think it's exactly fair to state that the "quick cutting" action-style used in Quantum of Solace is ripping off Bourne, either. This is simply the vernacular for action movies in our times.
In the old days, Bond fights were made to look more fierce and pacey by literally speeding up the film; by fast-motion photography. Go back and look at the final battle aboard the Disco Volante in Thunderball (1965) and you'll see what I mean. We're experienced enough viewers today that our eyes recognize that trick; we see the film is sped up to appear more thrilling.
Quick cutting is simply the twenty-first century equivalent of speeding up the film-- a technique to enhance our sense of excitement. In forty years, we might laugh at it, see through it, or consider it quaint.
But for today, this is simply how action movies are forged and to complain about its prominence in Quantum of Solace is the equivalent of complaining that the Bond films are sexist.
And remember that Bond films have always adopted the latest popular film trends anyway, from blaxploitation [Live and Let Die] to Star Wars [Moonraker] to parkour [Casino Royale]).
As far as Quantum of Solace's plot being inconsequential, I'll simply say this: in a galaxy far, far away, the Clone Wars began with a trade route dispute in some out-of-the-way solar system, didn't they?
The point here isn't so much that Bolivia is imperiled; rather that Bond discovers an international organization de-stabilizing governments so as to control resources in an upcoming environmental end-game.
Frankly, this is a highly consequential plot; and one of great, timely importance. Unfortunately, the First World is going to be battling over the Third World for the next several decades (just look at the Two Gulf Wars...), and this is the terrain the Bond Universe has settled on, which is both smart and realistic.
Another way to look at this: is this Bolivian gambit by Greene any less consequential a plot than a mad-man trying to sink Silicon Valley so he can sell more microchips (A View to a Kill?). Or an assassin selling a solar agitator (Man with the Golden Gun) to the Chinese? Or bringing down a drug lord (Licence to Kill?)
Quantum of Solace is still about controlling the world; but it's about a covert operation to do so; a "phantom" piece of a much larger, more sinister puzzle.
I also enjoyed Quantum of Solace because it is a movie firmly rooted in Bond tradition, even as it gazes forward rather than back. If you think about it, in Quantum of Solace we have a possibly rogue Bond (in the spirit of Licence to Kill) teaming up with a revenge-hungry woman (For Your Eyes Only), to stop a criminal organization (like SPECTRE) from taking over the world, a piece at a time.
But let's be honest, didn't the earlier films bungle the whole SPECTRE story?
Blofeld was played by a variety of actors (Donald Pleasence, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray), and each film about SPECTRE ultimately played as a sort of alternate-universe stand-alone because of it .
Bond's wife was killed by Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but Bond never even mentioned his wife, Tracy, in the follow-up film, Diamonds Are Forever. The human essence of that story -- of Bond's love and Bond's loss -- was sacrificed in the Lazenby-Connery shift, in the Savalas-Gray shift, in the narrative refusal to countenance that Bond's life had changed dramatically; and in the commercial necessity to conform to "business as usual," with Bond happily seducing Tiffany Case and then comedically smashing Blofeld into an oil rig.
Contrast that debacle with the rigorous continuity between Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace and you begin to understand why the new approach is promising.
Here, a mourning Bond doesn't just miraculously forget everything that happened to him in the last movie. There's a real and noble attempt at continuity instead. Furthermore, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace appears to be building-up to a big confrontation with Quantum, step-by-step.
That's precisely the sort of thing we never got with the early SPECTRE Bond films, after From Russia with Love.
Again, it seems to me that this approach is legitimately a Bond film lover's dream because it takes Bond and his world seriously, the way that Fleming did. It's a world where action have consequences; where memory is long; and in which Bond discovers -- a bit at a time -- who his enemies really are.
The cost of his line of work, as he learns, are pieces of his soul.
I have to admit, there was a moment near the conclusion of Quantum of Solace in which I experienced a strange and welcome sense of deja vu. Bond (in sleek black) was creeping stealthily through an enemy headquarters, one that was designed by Dennis Gassner to specifically resemble the designs of the brilliant Ken Adam. For a fleeting instant, I had the distinct impression was watching a Bond film of the 1960s; of the Connery era. Here was an actor with an equal level of gravitas (and physical believability); countenancing a story I cared about (like From Russia with Love, Dr. No, Goldfinger or On Her Majesty's Secret Service), battling against a powerful organization of supreme evil (like You Only Live Twice).
When I recognized that feeling, I realized with sudden optimism and excitement that the Craig Era represents a new Golden Age for 007.
We've had standalone visions for decades. We've had the downs of Moonraker followed up by the ups of For Your Eyes Only, followed by the mediocrity of Octopussy followed by the downs of a View to a Kill...and what did we learn about Bond as a character, as a man -- as a human being -- through all that?
I could make this complaint about the Brosnan era too. Tomorrow Never Dies was good, but each succeeding film grew progressively and irrevocably worse until the series nadir of Die Another Day.
Now -- at long last -- we have the makers of Bond films taking the heroic character and his legacy seriously, attempting to fashion a more consistent, more intelligent, more human, serial vision of this beloved hero. And in Daniel Craig we have an actor who perfectly embodies the three critical "S" factors of any Jams Bond: Sex, Sadism and Snobbery.
I know the purists wince at such proclamations, but the new normal is damn good. Two films into the Daniel Craig Age...and nobody's done it better.