A couple of weeks ago, a friend texted me a rumor that Danny Boyle was going to direct the next James Bond movie, and my reaction was one of vociferous denial. It couldn’t be true. The guy who made Steve Jobs and Slumdog Millionaire? I wrote it off, because the rumor was in a gossip rag, and because Boyle would be a very bad choice for the Bond brand. Then today, he all but confirmed he is probably going to do (contingent on the script!) the next Bond film.
Boyle is by all means a solid craftsman, but with little narrative, emotional or thematic urgency in his films (collectively or individually), he leaves me unmoved and uninterested in his perspective as a director. Trainspotting, his most iconic film, is somehow at once vicious, overly humanistic and dull, while Shallow Grave, his breakout, nihilistically revamps Hitchcock in a—ahem—shallow and superficial way. Millions, 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire all reek of a maudlin, overeager sentimentality, never mind the latter film’s racial and aesthetic politics.
Steve Jobs, to its detriment, unearths the obsession Hollywood has with asshole geniuses while trying to bait the audience into believing the film is a deconstruction of that archetype, which is more on Sorkin than on Boyle. Honestly, the flourishes Boyle incorporates—different aspect ratios, film stocks and random projection on the walls—read not as savvy and embedded within the text but rather as like an Apple product update: cute and fun and definitely obnoxious, but augmenting the final product so minutely, it’s as if it were never improved.
Rather than fulfill the basic criteria of auteurism with a fairly clear sensibility and/or ideology throughout his work, Boyle is more of a stylist, formally rambunctious without consistency or a lot of internal logic. But he’s also, like, not a journeyman director either, not in the way that previous James Bond helmers like John Glenn or Terrance Young were. For a majority of the Bond franchise, there was a house aesthetic, much in the way that Marvel and DC have developed (and deviated from) house styles: From shot sequence to composition to color grading, everything looks like it fits together cohesively (if without ambitiously), as if it were made on an assembly line. As Bond entered the ’90s, the franchise’s films began to deviate a little in tone and, by the time Daniel Craig took on the role, most dramatically in style. (Martin Campbell’s films, GoldenEye and Casino Royale , serve as interesting locus points for how the series’ style evolved. Arguably, he was one of the first directors to assert a specific aesthetic for both films that was not confined to Bond’s house style.)
The Craig era’s artiness, if you want to call it that, has employed directors with not only a specific visual style (that can morph, by all means), but a style that fits within the context of Bond’s trajectory as a character. Rebooting the series in 2006 meant that Bond would not only “act” differently, but the way we would see his world would be different as well. Following Campbell’s chic grit, Marc Forster had his oil-and-water-splashed Quantum of Solace and Sam Mendes added two distinct-looking and -feeling Bond films in the shadowy Skyfall and the hazy, haunting SPECTRE.
Beginning in 1995’s GoldenEye, James Bond’s evolution from action hero to proto-self-serious superhero (which predates Christopher Nolan’s stab at Batman) is indicative of a more complex understanding of what “James Bond” is on a cultural level, that the audience is aware of what the existence of this character means in different ways. The films have become more explicitly political and introspective, with Mendes’s entries going as far as to contextualize James Bond as a relic of British imperialism. Aestheticizing James Bond, and his politics, infers that there is, now, supposed to be a uniform understanding of how Bond the character is being defined by the history and circumstances around him, even if it means that the execution of style is different (Mendes is not Campbell is not Forster, etc).
The change in aesthetic and thematic direction isn’t just, in my opinion, for the weirdness and showiness of making a Bond movie look “good,” but a concerted effort to allow the aesthetics to be a part of how the franchise is deconstructing “James Bond,” especially in a post-9/11, surveillance state world. Politics have always shaped Bond, but now they’re shaping how Bond looks, and as the Bond franchise burrows deeper into 007’s psyche, excavating his trauma, what does Boyle have to add to this?
Bad or mediocre directors have handled bad and mediocre Bond films, from Roger Spottiswood’s Tomorrow Never Dies (who knew Bond and a Murdoch-esque villain could be so…boring?) to Marc Forster’s Craig addition, Quantum. Forster’s filmography is a little randomized, from his work on Monster’s Ball to his imperfect adaptation of The Kite Runner, and while he did make one of my favorite films of all time, Stranger Than Fiction, his work since the acclaimed Finding Neverland has been spotted at best. I fundamentally believe Forster’s film to be one of the worst of the franchise: narratively incoherent, edited without rhythm or thought, its existence as a direct sequel to Casino Royale an unwise choice. However, I will concede that it’s an important James Bond movie, at least with regard to Daniel Craig’s cycle. Logistically, it fell victim to the Writer’s Strike; but thematically, the ridiculous and erratic quality, a cruel edging towards a monstrously violent vision of Bond, makes sense because Quantum is, more than any other Bond film before it, a revenge film. Propelled by the previous film’s heartbreak, Quantum’s deep, nearly unforgivable flaws are nonetheless justified, belonging purposefully in the new Bond arc. Forster had something to say about Bond. The problem with Danny Boyle is that he doesn’t have much to say about anything.
Danny Boyle is a perfectly competent, very slick director. Sure, his films have dealt with trauma before, such as in the incoherent neo-noir Trance, and the effects, and origins, of trauma could arguably be the one theme consistently found throughout his work. The problem for me is that I never feel like he cares. As a director whose output is so versatile it feels almost workmanlike, his work with writer/director Alex Garland, like 28 Days Later , seems greater, weightier than the rest of his filmography because it eschews alienating apathy or cynicism or saccharinity. When he’s channeling maximalism or restraining himself, Boyle’s style almost never appears character-driven, and has an ostentatious air to it. Did you see Boyle’s Summer Olympics Ceremony? A mess. A mess without cohesive identity, for the work itself or for Danny Boyle as a director.
I suppose my ultimate issue with Danny Boyle, why I do not think he is the right person to direct a James Bond movie, is that his work is not very centered. There are plenty of directors whose films are wide-ranging, varying in tone and style, like those of Joe Dante or Mary Harron, but their films have an axis, stylistically or spiritually or ideologically. Danny Boyle has never struck me as a director who wanted his films or overall oeuvre to have that kind of solid core. For James Bond, as the films continue to pick at his scars and scabs, to give us insight into the different permutations of his (in)humanity, he needs an axis. The world is not enough.