Monday, November 17, 2008

Quantum of Solace/ The Day the Earth Stood Still

So, the new movie. As I saw it, it was a pretty good action flick. Chase sequences, fights, things going boom! A couple of girls. The tuxedo and martinis and Walther PPK all, but, well ...

Instead, however, of Daniel Craig saying, "Bond. James Bond." he might ought to say "Bourne. Jason Bourne ..."

Yeah, you have to see it if you are Bond fan, but my feeling was that the heart of the plot was left on the cutting room floor. There's no there there.

The movie picks up immediately after the end of Casino Royale, mere minutes after, and concerns for the most part Bond's desire to achieve revenge upon those people who offed his girlfriend Vesper.

There is a nefarious plot, a secret organization, and a villain, none of which are particularly compelling, nor memorable. There is a female agent with a scarred back and a history, and a perky station MI-6 paper-pusher in South America that Bond seduces and sleeps with -- something that occupies maybe twelve PG-seconds onscreen, and, of course, she winds up dead. (In an homage to Goldfinger, by the way, you'll know it when you see it.)

It all moves right along. Dame Judy Dench as M steals every scene she is in. Craig is a good actor and he does his part, but it doesn't feel like a Bond film. His one toy is a phone-cam. There are some neat computers at MI-6. Yawn.

At the opening of most of the Bond movies, there is usually a pre-credit sequence involving some spectacular action, at the end of which, you get The Sting. The Bond theme, with horns, that lets you know where you are for sure. Not this time. Bond's Astin Martin gets mangled and cars fly off cliffs and smash into heavy machinery and all, but where is The Sting?

Not there. They play something after the boat sequence, but I dunno what it was supposed to be.

The villain is ho-hum. His henchmen are snorers. The goal is a So what? There is some artsy cross-cutting between fight scenes and horse races, and the director or the editor needs to learn what a master shot is, and get a SteadiCam.

As an action movie, give it a B. As a Bond film, C-minus.

In the coming attractions, I did see the first trailer for the remake of the 1951 classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, with Keanu Reeves starring as, one assumes, Klaatu.

The new Gort is twice as tall as the old model and evil-looking, but that was a perfect 1950's science fiction paranoia movie and they should no doubt have left it alone.

After fifty-odd years of fantasy and science fiction movies, Klaatu's ship and the way it operated is still the most advanced-looking and -working vessel of its kind to hit the silver screen.

For those of you who haven't seen it, TDTESS , in glorious black-and-white, is Edmund North's script, based on Harry Bates' 1940 short story, "Farewell to the Master." It's a classic study in xenophobia. The humanoid alien, Klaatu, lands his saucer on the mall in Washington D.C. Coming in peace to let us know where we stand in the galactic scheme of things, Klaatu is -- naturally -- shot by a nervous soldier within a couple minutes of landing. This was not a smart thing to do when the guy you plink hangs out with Gort, a big honkin' silver robot whose death ray gaze can vaporize guns and tanks with ease, and who proceeds to do just that. Had not the wounded Klaatu stopped him, Gort would have no doubt disintegrated Washington, and in Klaatu's place, I would have let him.

Klaatu survives and escapes, but continues to have a real bad vacation. As part of his demonstration of power, the alien brings virtually all electrical activity on the planet to a halt for an hour -- therein the title -- and that gets everybody's attention in a hurry. Along the way, Klaatu deals with politicians, the military, scientists (who are actually portrayed here as good guys) a jealous boyfriend, and a dippy kid who even Mr. Wizard probably couldn't stand. And from the way he takes it in stride, you know Klaatu's seen it all before.

But we humans stupidly persist in our paranoia, and eventually, Klaatu takes another bullet, ending up more or less dead. As the alien visitor fades, he directs the widow Benson, (who has come to know Klaatu as a boarder who fascinates her son,) to fetch Gort. The giant robot snatches the body, returns to the ship, and is able to heal Klaatu.

When the mortally-wounded Klaatu miraculously recovers enough to stand up in front of his saucer and finally lay it out for us, you could have heard a piece of stale popcorn hit the sticky theater floor: "It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet," he says, "But if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burnt-out cinder."

A burnt-out cinder. Now there is an image.

It was obvious this was no idle threat. Gort could kick ass and take names, and to make things worse, there were others like him out there. We wouldn't have a prayer if we didn't toe the line. By this point, I was rooting for the aliens and feeling like scum for being human anyhow.

The movie was a metaphor for our turbulent times, complete with Christ-figure undertones. Gort was not a robot to be screwed with, no sir, thank you very much, not even if you did know the secret phrase, "Gort -- Klaatu barada nikto . . ."

They don't make 'em like this any more. Too bad.

And no matter what they do, they won't be able to touch Bernard Herrmann's musical score: The deep throb of bass, with piano and harp arpeggios, and that spooky, really spooky, therumin. That baby sent goosebumps crawling all over me in shuddery waves when I first heard it, and the score holds up well after almost sixty years. We are talking serious monster music here, copied ad infinitum in subsequent movies and on the tube.

Maybe they can pull the remake off. I'm not betting on it.


nancy said...

My father and I had two special movies, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and FORBIDDEN PLANET. Both had theramin music, btw. I read a lot about TDTESS and originally Gort was going to restore Klaatu to life, um, permanently, but the censorship board objected and so there was an insertion about his restoration being temporary and that only "the one who created us all" could do an effective job of raising the dead.

Just a tidbit.

Belle and I met a lot of the cast and one of the comosers of FORBIDDEN PLANET at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. We have a signed DVD and a signed hermit crab shell, too (don't ask.)

Steve Perry said...

Oh, yeah, I saw the movie back in the day, probably first with my parents in the back of their '49 Chevy at the drive-in, and later at the Dalton Theater, on a Sci Fi Saturday with my buddy Bobby Harrison, I'd probably been about eight or nine then.

This was in the days when a couple of nine-year-old boys could ride their bikes a couple miles from home to a theater and spend all day watching movies without much worry about getting there and back alive.

I read the original short story years later, and as I recall, Klaatu's resurrection was only temporary there, too -- likened to a tape recording -- not quite perfect as the original.

I seriously considered building a therumin just so I could play that score. Of course, you need the harp and piano and soprano singers and horns and all ...

Worg said...

I can't say I disagree with your assessment of Quantum of Solace, or even the grade you gave it-- I'd guess I'd give it a B-.

You have to admit that Craig and the new production team have pulled the franchise out of a slough of despond that it's fallen into even since Moonraker. I did not buy Connery as a triggerman, but he was certainly a great actor to play the very fictionalized Bond character of the 1960s.

I think Craig sells the "grey man" role much, much better, and there's a real undercurrent of the sociopath there.

The rich, classy, dissipated playboy is gone. Craig's Bond is an alcoholic, sex-addicted sociopath who lives in hotel rooms and kills efficiently, for money, with no remorse or affect.

The scene that really drives this home is early on in Casino Royale, where Bond is being flirted with, as I remember, by a woman who thinks he's absolutely glamorous. And the scene is cut up with another scene where Craig is involved in a brutal fight in a bathroom and ends up drowning his victim in a toilet.

It wasn't until Casino Royale that I realized how terribly disappointed I'd been with the franchise since the early 1980s, and in fact that I cared about it at all. I agree that this one wasn't so great, but I think Royale was an absolutely amazing film. Mats Mikkelsen was a much better villain than whoever the toady guy was in this one though.

Steve Perry said...

The first three or four, with Connery, still resonate the most for me. Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger. After that, some worked okay, some didn't, and they got silly for a long time.

I thought Brosnan was the best in the role since Connery, and Craig has the potential as as actor, but this recent one was too far from the canon, I think.

We'll see what they do next time out.

Dave Chesser said...

I've heard that if you look at Quantum as the second half of Casino instead of a stand-alone movie it holds up much better. One reviewer even suggested watching Casino right before you go see Quantum.

Steve Perry said...

Same with Lord of the Rings, but a lot of folks knew the story going into the movies. Probably nobody knew this story.

The jeopardy wasn't very high, the mission kind of like the trade agreement in Star Wars, there wasn't any real impact on the world or danger outside of Bolivia.

Bolivia. Who cares?

There is some great potential with the SMERSH, Galaxy-like secret brotherhood, but again, that crosscutting between the opera on stage -- Tosca? -- and the spies darting hither and thither on the vomitcam screamed "Art!" loud and not-so-clearly.

See how clever I am?

Well, actually ... no. I'd have been happy if they had just given us more beef and cooked it simply.

What you mostly get from Craig this outing is how sturdy he is, cause he is getting the crap beat out of him a lot, crashing through walls and windows and bouncing back like Gumby.

It's easy to screw a good script up, but hard to make a bad one into a first-rate movie. Either it wasn't on the page here or it got chopped out.

It won't kill the franchise, but it didn't do it any service, either.

nancy said...

I liked Brosnan a lot but for my money, Timothy Dalton was the better Bond...until Craig came along. He had that same sense of brutality and I found him mesmerizing.

Worg said...

I think the new villain group is interesting because they're a netwar/cyberwar group. This is very convincing to me, because that's the kind of group that intelligence organizations are going to be fighting for the next 20 years or longer.

I've known some very rich crooks in Miami and elsewhere, and the portrayal of the villains is also very convincing to me because of their banality. That was one thing I liked about the villains in Solace, they seemed like very boring people, like mildly unpleasant carpet salesmen.

It's interesting that you liked Brosnan the most since Connery. I liked him the least, but really I suppose it would be a tossup between him and Moore, and then the others were just complete non-entities who I don't even remember at all. At least I remember Brosnan enough to dislike him.

Part of the problem was the over-the-topness of the plots, and the extreme lack of realism to the whole thing. The Connery plots were that way too, but they were from a somewhat earlier era.

I could buy Connery, but I can't buy Brosnan as a triggerman or fighter. Way too much of a prettyboy

Agreed about drifting from canon. They have to find a way to continue to update the franchise without losing what made it unique and distinct from eg. the Bourne movies.

It would be interesting to see Bond using cyberwar gadgets like taggants, blinders and infowar drones.

Steve Perry said...

I think that the Bond you like the most probably tends to be the one you first saw. Like the music that moves you the most tends to be the stuff that you heard when you were coming of age, I think one can apply that to Bond -- at least to a degree.

My age, most folks I talk to like Connery. Little younger, they get into Moore or Dalton. My son likes Brosnan. I think Craig has great promise, but it's too soon to tell.
(Brosnan, by the way, has an edge that he lets out now and then. Just a glint, very subtle, that brings up the sociopath; leastways, for me.)

Never met anybody who thought Lazenby was the best Bond, and a lot of folks who consider him the worst.

Ximena Cearley said...

I'm looking forward to seeing Bond in Bolivia. I thought that was a promising start to breaking out of the mold.

Besides, my granddaddy was a leading light of the '52 revolution. ;)

Also, I didn't think Lazenby was bad at all. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of my favorite movies.

Steve Perry said...

James Bond doesn't cry. Nor wring his hands.

Nor is he touchy-feely.

Yeah, I loved Diana Rigg, but that was the worst Bond movie ever -- they completely lost Bond's sociopathic mysogynistic character. Completely.

Ximena Cearley said...

Well, I think OHMSS suffers in comparison from the fact that it was the first post-Connery Bond. Especially for a gentleman of your years. I'm aware my opinion isn't a common one--in fact, I'd read universal pans of it before viewing it and was pleasantly surprised.

One reason I like OHMSS so much is that it adheres closely to the book. (Yeah, I read the book first. I had it handy.) As does Casino Royale, which made this reboot truly stellar for me. James Bond fell in love twice and got touchy-feely about it IN THE BOOKS: once to Vesper Lynd and once to Tracy di Vincenzo. That's canon. Several movies after OHMSS made specific reference to his widowerhood and the reason his vendetta with Blofeld is so personal. Point being, they didn't "lose" his character. That's part of his character; it's one of the things that makes him so mean. (One interesting tidbit I didn't notice the first time I read OHMSS, because I read them out of order, is that he meets Tracy in the first place because he's been visiting Vesper's grave. Now that's pretty touchy-feely.)

One thing I think bears mention is that there seem to be two "canons"--one the books and one the films. Most people know the films best, but if you read the books, you find that the Bond stories are often more nuanced than the misogynistic sociopathy you rightly mention. Fleming wasn't a nuanced *writer*, but the *character* often has thoughts and reactions you don't expect, if you've grown up with the movie Bond. And the stories themselves are often not straightforward--take "Quantum of Solace", which is one of my personal favorites and bears no relation to the movie. I'm sure you've read it and my guess is you hate it. It contains no action whatever and Bond isn't even in the center. It's practically literary.

I could be wrong. About you hating the story, not about OHMSS. And I'm willing to say we're in "arguing with religious fanatics" territory here. Every new Bond brings up all the old arguments. Like pizza to acne.

Worg said...

A review that agrees with Mr. Perry.

The thing for me is, I think the franchise had deteriorated so badly that this Craig business is a breath of fresh air. The fight scenes had started to turn into Indiana Jones stuff, silliness and unreality which is fine for Indiana Jones yarns but not so much for something that's supposed to be somewhat grounded in realism.

After the last 30 years of James Bond flicks, I think Craig is a massive improvement. Hey, they've got us talking about it.

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, I read the books, including the first of the non-Fleming ones by Gardner. They were okay spy novels, but had I not seen the first movie, I probably wouldn't have picked up the Fleming books.

For me, the first couple of movies set the canon. To try and go back to the novels for continuity after Connery established Bond was a mistake.

Connery did five films between 1962-1967, and OHMSS with Lazenby came out only two years later, in '69, which was hardly enough time for a new generation of viewers to have forgotten the previous outings. Which was why it is -- with few exceptions -- not well-liked.

We knew who Bond was, how he acted, his wisecracking manner, and Lazenby's portrayal (and blame the script) went clunk! If he had started the role, done that movie first, then yes, you might make the case, but otherwise, it rings false. And we are talking about the movies ...