Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, once said a metaphor for cinema could be found in a scene from the 1974 film, “The Conversation”: Gene Hackman, playing a paranoid detective, flushes a hotel toilet experimentally and is horrified to see the clean water replaced with blood which overflows the bowl and spills all over the floor. Similarly, Zizek says, cinema is like a toilet out which we are expecting the excrement of the netherworld to flow.
I’m not sure if Slavoj has seen the latest James Bond film, the Quantum of Solace, but if he does, he may need to revise that thought: in this instance, the toilet is wired to a cannister of nitroglycerin and the viewer is greeted with a fiery explosion which takes out the entire hotel. Strike that, it would take out the entire town.
I had been looking forward to this film; the fact that it followed directly on, narratively speaking, from Casino Royale, hinted at a discipline that had been previously lacking in the Bond series. Each Bond film has been hitherto a set piece: the villains are different, the scenery is different, and no Bond girl manages to make it from one film to the next, even if she survives to the end of the film. It is this lack of continuity which perhaps has sustained the film series, as it makes it easier to adapt stories to a particular time and place. Furthermore, if I may indulge a Lacanian impulse, it may satisfy the need of the viewer that Bond is able to press the “reset button” constantly: Bond can change women, change vehicles, change locations and change clothes without any consequences. He has the ultimate “disposable” life, which includes being able to dispose of others.
A good symbol of this discontunity is not only found in the variety of actors who have played the lead: a more dramatic example is Bond’s CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter. Hitherto, Leiter has not only been played by a variety of actors, they have also come in different ages and even different races. Quantum is the first example of a Bond film in which Leiter was played by the same actor as in the preceding film. Quantum is the breaking of the habit. But is it successful?
From a storyline point of view, Quantum is an absolute disaster from its first moments. The director has chosen to eliminate the flow of motion for bursts of energy which are as staccatto as gunfire. We are not permitted to see how, say, Bond’s car swerves to avoid uncoming traffic: rather, we get a montage of the car and Bond driving in order to create the impression that somehow he is magically avoiding a crash through unseen manuevers. Most of the action sequences are done in this manner, which is entirely disorienting.
Bond has always been a rebellious character, but hitherto there was a humourous edge to his being an upstart: not so in this instance. Indeed, Bond is a moody, semi-psychotic loner in this film, who only associates with those whom he could find helpful.
This is not to say that touches of the original Bond series do not come through: for example, when Bond arrives in La Paz, Bolivia, he is greeted by a young woman from the British consulate wearing a short dress, who informs him that her duty is to put him back on a plane to London the following day. The idea that even the British government would put a young, attractive, unarmed woman in charge of handling a proven killer with a history of seducing and manipulating women is patently absurd from a narrative point of view, in any other film besides a classic Bond movie.
Even more absurd is a hotel which appears in later scenes: we are informed that its omnious gurgling noises have to do with the operation of its fuel cells. As the hotel is in the middle of a desert with an almost uninterrupted flow of sunlight, the idea that such an establishment would not be taking advantage of the solar energy potential is ridiculous. However, solar energy does not explode and the narrative needed hydrogen cannisters in every room for the purposes of using the studio’s arsenal of special effects.
To be fair, there are some delights to be found: there was a fleeting moment of narrative joy when it seemed as if MI6 and Bond were going to have to go up against the CIA as well as the standard supervillains of the piece; a long, prolonged war in which Britain’s intelligence services stood alone would have made for great suspense. However, the film backed away from this implication, and the CIA was presented as having been duped: they were more stupid than malevolent, which is probably closer to the mark.
Another delight was how the “board of directors” of the evil conspiracy met: rather than show the standard meeting room on a yacht or somewhere underground, it was done during a performance of Tosca using earpieces and small microphones. This led to the most satisfying moment in the film, in which Bond had stolen one of the earpieces and suggested that they should perhaps find a more secure place to discuss their plans.
The evil plot at the film’s centre also contains some elements of interest: the villains plan to steal water from the Bolivian people and store it in a vast reservoir beneath the desert. The reason why this is done is never resolved: one can only assume that this will be stated in the next film. However, highlighting the lack of potable water at the moment shows an awareness of environmental issues which is astonishingly better than any previous Bond film.
The finished product is a slurry of seriousness and silliness, half-finished ideas, some of which are good, others poor. It is slickly packaged, but has a great many defects. What it is definitely not is the Bond film of yore: a fantasy world of espionage that bears so little resemblance to our world it cannot possibly disturb us. The problem for the makers of the next film is if they want to continue onwards towards things which can affect the audience: do they want to use the context of illusions to inform us of the Real? If this is the intent, then far from finding any quantum of solace, this film could represent the next step in the series’ evolution to something more challenging.