Saturday, November 10, 2012

On Skyfall and the importance of stakes in movies

Hey. This is my first post but instead of spending the whole thing introducing what my jam is, I figured I would rather just give you content and let you learn about me through my brilliant insight and cynical worldview. Brevity is the soul of wit so I'll try to keep it short but I also like rambling. It's quite the Catch 22. I'm planning on using this to just write down my thoughts on everything so every post won't just be a movie discussion but I just saw Skyfall so I think I'm going to talk about it and my thoughts on movies in general.

I'm going to preface this by saying that I'm not a movie critic, but I love movies in all shapes and sizes and I think understanding them gives us an insight into the human condition that is more comprehensive that nearly all other art forms. Now I understand at first glance this all sounds like pretentious gobbledy-gook but just think about it. Think about all of the John Williams scores that have given you chills. Or the movie quotes that invoke memories of a rainy day past.  The shots of sweeping landscapes that instill us with an implacable feeling of wanderlust or the love stories that reflect a part of us we're not entirely comfortable with. It's hard for human beings to contextualize life because we only see it from one perspective. Movies put life into a new perspective, and sometimes that suspension of disbelief is what we need to articulate the complexities of the way we live. Whoa that got deep fast. I'm sure I'll get into it more later on but lets get back to Skyfall.

Now I'm not the world's biggest James Bond fan but I absolutely acknowledge the scale of his phenomenon across the world. Though I'm not entirely convinced that he's Britain's golden child, (as you'll inevitably find out, I'm a pretty big Doctor Who fan) there's no denying how iconic Bond is to the cultural landscape. Skyfall is the 23rd installment of the franchise and Daniel Craig's 3rd Bond movie. Casino Royale is my personal favorite Bond movie and Quantum of Solace is probably my least favorite. So I went into Skyfall with pretty confused expectations. Then again I go into most things in my life with confused expectation so I was actually quite in my element here. Thankfully Skyfall was much, much better than QoS. However, despite being a great Bond film, Skyfall falls short from being a great film overall.

At this point, be warned as there will be some plot spoilers so ideally you're reading this after you've seen the movie. Skyfall begins in classic Bond fashion as we see Daniel Craig chasing some vaguely eastern European bad guy through the streets of Istanbul; a tried and true element that's always fun to watch. Here we're introduced to the MacGuffin that drives the plot and a scene that begins the inevitable downfall (or Skyfall hurr durr) of the movie in general.

Before I get to the movie's faults, I want to point out what I thought the movie did exceptionally well. There were some goddamn pretty shots. This movie is like if Jason Bourne made a baby with Planet Earth and I would have been perfectly fine with watching Daniel Craig standing in front of foreign landscapes for 2 hours. Sam Mendes' pacing was also on point. Almost to the level of Christopher Nolan, and that is what really keeps this movie afloat the whole time. This frenetic style of action balanced with tense emotional scenes distracts the audience from the plot holes that would otherwise be quite apparent. There were no major stumbles performance-wise but Javier Bardem undoubtedly steals the show once he gets on board. Now here's where the movie kind of falls flat for me.

What a movie needs in order to stay compelling is a set of stakes that are high enough that we want the protagonist to succeed, or rather we don't want them to fail. Something like Luke and the Death Star or Frodo with the Ring. Those two things aren't just a means to an end or something to drive the plot. They provide avenues for the audience to relate to those characters and gives them something to lose. I never once had a feeling that Bond had something to lose in this movie. The main villain, played by Bardem, has one of the most interesting and compelling intro scenes to a villain in recent memory but ultimately ends up feeling generic, mostly to the fault of the writer. The story arc of the "Bond Girl" showed promise but never got a chance to flesh itself out before she was unceremoniously ripped from the screen. And when the movie tries to delve deeper into Bond's past, it does so with only a passing glance and never really adds more to the character.

This is all because the stakes are not high enough. You can spend $300 million on Lord of the Rings but it's Sam carrying Frodo that really takes. I don't care enough about the characters to worry about if Bond succeeds or not. I know he's not going to die, and M is not likable enough a character for me to be concerned over. So what does that leave? Skyfall is still an intensely fun and suspenseful (for the most part) movie, but without any real emotional resonance in scenes that are supposed to strike a chord with the audience, all we're left with is an action film that rests on its (very well-established) laurels.

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