Movie Inspiration #3: Skyfall, Mission Derivative
by Todd Secord. Follow me on Twitter @ToddSecord
2012 was a really odd year for movies for me. Potentially, it should have been a bumper crop of never ending cinematic organisms but luckily I’ve trained myself not to get my expectations up tooooo high. For instance, Dark Knight Rises. Though flawed, it is still very entertaining, and could be forgiven since it was following arguably the best comic book movie thus far in its predecessor, Batman: Let’s remind Burton and Schumacher how much they can suck 2. I also loved the Avengers.
Unfortunately, after those two, Hollywood started to make it real easy to be cynical…
Prometheus…beautiful, stylish and an absolute mess. Not a great year for Ridley so I’ll stop there. Then there was the Hobbit…wanted to love it, hoped to love it, but got really annoyed with it…and expectedly so. And lastly, and just as frustratingly, there was Skyfall.
This film, like Batman, was entertaining for the most part, but it did have some serious, serious plot holes. Huge, gaping, sucking chest wound plot holes, and yet, I found myself recommending it… not because I thought it was good, but entertaining, which I said I thought it already was. However, unlike the other epics where the reviews are deservedly mixed, Skyfall is garnering an unusual level of praise…in fact, words like “masterpiece” are being used, or more commonly, “Best Bond Movie Ever.” This is annoying to me, because it’s clearly lacking and even more so, certainly not the best Bond movie…yes, I feel that it is my duty as a geek to go there…
For many, many years the Bond films dominated the genre of spy movies, the same as what The Lord of the Rings is to the fantasy genre, or what Bob Marley is to Reggae. Each era of Bond film was simply competing against the last. Then, the Bourne films arrived and re-defined what modern age espionage should be. Not only that, other offerings like Ronin, Spy Game, and Mission Impossible were starting to steal Bond’s thunder. Given the unfortunately poor reception to Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig was viewed as a re-boot, and an answer to Damon’s Bourne. I love the Bourne films so completely that for me to say that Casino Royal matches wits and style with Bourne is a personal win as a fan. From the very believable, yet over the top Parkour chase at the beginning to the bizarre torture scene at the end, with an honest to god dénouement involving a romance/betrayal, Casino Royal strove to be original in its presentation. Its climax involves a card game, not the usual Cowboys and Indians style shoot out one has come to expect. I mean, Bond is not even responsible for his own rescue. All this culminates into a lot of movie, that is shockingly only 2 hours and 24 minutes long, but you wouldn’t know it given how intriguing the subject matter is handled. All in all, Casino Royal is a very unique movie that if it were to suffer any kind of criticism, it would have been how hard it tried NOT to be the usual Bond fair.
Skyfall on the other hand appears to be a collection of other movies stitched together so abundantly that one begins to wonder if it’s actually a dedicatioin to all of the director’s favourite films - a derivative homage that is cautiously subliminal in the wake of so many great movies before it?
It’s well documented already that the director, Sam Mendes, has admitted that The Dark Knight was a big influence on Skyfall; “That did help give me the confidence to take this movie in directions that, without The Dark Knight, might not have been possible.” I believe what Mendes was getting at is that if Christopher Nolan can do it, so can I. What I don’t think he was necessarily admitting to was, in order to get there, he’s just going to copy his movie. For me, a self-described movie guru, watching Skyfall was like listening to a P-Diddy record; I spent less time listening to the “music”, and more time pin-pointing all the movies Mendes was sampling from.
Some obvious derivatives:
- Jarvier Bardem’s “Silva” IS Heath Ledger’s Joker. This is not even up for discussion.
- When the baddies are gathering just outside the Skyfall estate, readying their weaponry from the trunks of their cars, this is totally a reference to the Peter Weir movie Witness. There’s even the long shot of the evil henchmen walking down the country road towards the lonely house…
- Now, as crazy as this sounds, I don’t think it would be fair to pick on Skyfall for what is described as the “Home Alone” ending. There are far too many movies that end in this kind of stand-off, and to be frank, it’s a tense filled situation that’s fun to see resolved. What I was hoping for was just how clever Skyfall was going to get in playing it out. Just for the record, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is likely the real inspiration here given Bond’s use of a shot gun, the similiarity of the house and all the MacGyver style booby traps. However, the above movie Witness basically uses the same conventions as well, albeit on a smaller scale. It even ends with a standoff similar to Skyfall’s church scene, but with much happier results.
- While we’re on the subject of the church scene, these kinds of moments are repeated all the time, but for me, there was a heavy sense of Wrath of Khan. M/Spock didn’t die defending Bond/Kirk directly, but rather made a choice to face their respective deaths heroically. I almost wished M was going to say something to the effect of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs – you get the picture.
- Did it HAVE to be Albert Finney at the end? You would think that Bond producers would do everything they could to distance themselves from the Bourne franchise – be their own cool – but they turn around and cast the guy who plays the villain from Bourne’s past to be the friend of Bond’s past. Why? Why would you do that? And yes, although the use of a double barreled shotgun was mentioned from Straw Dogs, don’t forget that Bourne adopted one for the final confrontation on the farm at the end of Bourne Identity, which ALSO had a similar cat-and-mouse vibe. And the whole practice shooting (let’s waste ammo for some reason) with the shotgun in the third act of Skyfall was just a little too The Unforgiven for me. Why would a professional killer like Bond need to practice with a shotgun anyway?
- More Bourne. Why they would allow for so much proximity to the Bourne films is just silly to me, however, the idea of Bond falling off a bridge, hitting the water only to let people assume he is dead is exactly how Bourne Supremacy starts. In fact, Bourne hitting water is something that happens in all the Bourne movies, so why bother for Bond? Having Bond laying low in a tropical paradise isn’t exactly a Bourne dissociation either.
- More The Dark Knight. We find out that Bond is an orphan, left with a large estate and mansion, and a butler. By the way, the mansion has caves underneath it.
- Silva’s whole “I’m going to get captured purposely, pull a switcheroo and then activate my plan while I’m on the inside” is wholly and completely The Dark Knight. But, to be fair, a variance of this ploy can be found in several films including Silence of the Lambs and even Octopussy, but seems to be the device au jour amongst screen writers of late – Loki in The Avengers, etc.
- It’s the right of any franchise to re-hash and reference its own movies, but Skyfall does it more than you think. The return of the Aston Martin shouldn’t be that big of a deal to any Bond fan seeing as they’ve been doing this for a while a now. Most recently, the car appears in Casino Royal, but don’t forget it shows up in Goldeneye too. Goldeneye also features a “00” agent gone sour in Sean Bean (just like Silva).
- And then there’s all the old tropes and cliché that the movie is riddled with. Fights on top of moving vehicles (trains), “old” fogies being shown up by young upstarts, freakishly complicated master plans being executed flawlessly, impregnable government computer networks being hacked with predictable ease…all of this has been done countless times before, and Skyfall is a monument to it. In spite of this, there is no need to hold it against the movie. After all, getting mad at a spy movie for containing all of the above is like getting mad at a cop movie for having its protagonists stripped of their badges after being set up for committing the crime that they were in the process of investigating in the first place. It’s par the course…
Really though, all stories are derivative of one another, it’s how they handle this “coincidence” of ideas that make the plot unique or not. This, as well as who’s watching. I’m not the best candidate to debate on what the “average” movie lover might like or expect, especially now-a-days. BUT, what is peculiar is professional film critics labeling this “the best Bond ever” because as you can see, if originality is a mark of great art, and I would like to think that it totally and completely is, than Skyfall drops from that mark. I wouldn’t expect most viewers to grab the Straw Dogs or MacGyver references, but I could see Home Alone being used as a comparison, which I would imagine is even more deflating. Regardless, when you factor in the connections of Nolan’s Batman films and Bourne, two recent franchises that would most certainly intimidate any franchise to come after, the need to associate almost becomes motive.
This isn’t about Casino Royal being the best Bond movie (which it is) or Skyfall being about as good as The Spy Who Loved Me, but more likely, since Skyfall the Bourne franchise is still the last word in present day spy films. Even with The Bourne Legacy now on the docket. However, for what it’s worth, Legacy could be Bourne‘s Quantum of Solace. Just sayin’.
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