Flamboyant and Political, Danny Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" Reinvents the Olympic Opening Ceremony

Flamboyant and Political, Danny Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" Reinvents the Olympic Opening Ceremony
Rings representing both the Olympics and the Industrial Revolution are lit and lifted during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on 27 July 2012.

Last night was a triumph for film director Danny Boyle. The London 2012 Opening Ceremony he masterminded was an astounding spectacle, which took the billion viewers watching worldwide from Britain's bucolic past to Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the Internet, via the fights of the Suffragettes, the UK's rich pop music heritage, and its threatened National Health Service. Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" was surreal, festive, and irreverent. Although it occasionally struggled to keep its momentum, the £27 m ($42.5 m) show stretched the opening ceremony model to its limits, proving that it could be more than a mere patriotic chest-beating exercise. For one evening, Londoners forgot the ticketing scandals and overcrowded transport network, and the world got a taste of what makes Britain such a special place.

Loosely inspired by Shakespeare's "The Tempest," "Isles of Wonder" showed Boyle's storytelling talent at its best. It opened to the sound of the largest tuned bell in Europe (tolled by Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins), on a pastoral vision of 18th century Britain, with suspiciously healthy peasants dancing among live cattle on rolling hills. But the show really kicked off with the arrival of legendary engineer Brunel, played by actor Kenneth Branagh, who watched with glee as the gray chimneys of the industrial revolution sprouted from the ground. "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises; Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not," he declared, reciting Caliban's celebrated lines from Shakespeare's play. Scores of factory workers appeared to pour molten metal to create a monumental gold ring — and one of the most enduring images of the ceremony. The ring slowly rose from the stadium to meet four others, interlocking mid-air.

In Beijing four years ago, film director Zhang Yimou — who had almost twice Boyle's budget to play with  — dazzled with his hundreds of performers in perfect sync. The Chinese opening ceremony projected the vision of a smoothly-run mega-nation. More in keeping with the British style, Boyle favored the aesthetics of organized chaos. The 10,000-plus volunteers often enacted scenes and stories in various parts of the stadium simultaneously — and each time things got a bit too earnest, the artistic director pricked it with a joke, or a dare. Immediately after the golden Olympic rings, a film interlude showed Daniel Craig as Agent 007, picking up Her Majesty in a helicopter, before apparently jumping out. Minutes after two parachutists landed in the middle of the set, the real Queen emerged and took her seat, unfrazzled.

Opening ceremonies aren't usually the place for political critique, but Boyle didn't shy away from dedicating a whole section to the NHS — as it faces some of the most dramatic reforms in its 64-year history. Health workers from Great Ormond Street Hospital jived away under the glassy stare of Prime Minister David Cameron. The nurses put kids to bed and the scene turned nightmarish, peopled with some of the most famous fictional British villains including Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts, and Harry Potter's Lord Voldemort. Only J.K. Rowling reading Peter Pan, and a flying squad of Mary Poppins, could lift the darkly ominous atmosphere.

The opening ceremony's second half focused on music and the digital revolution. Rowan Atkinson, or rather Mr. Bean, laboriously fooled his way through "Chariots of Fire" along with the London Symphony Orchestra. The narrative then turned love story between two teenagers who danced from David Bowie to Dizzee Rascal, "updating" their social media statuses for TV viewers as they went. Reaching the 1990s and rave, performers gathered to form the smiley symbol indelibly associated with ecstasy and club culture. When the lovers finally kissed, a midly daring film montage showed some of the great media smooches: a celebrated lesbian kiss from soap opera Brookside, Shrek and Princess Fiona, Charlton Heston and an ape, Prince William and Kate Middleton.

For all its cheek, the London 2012 Olympic Ceremony closed with a genuinely moving moment. The torch was brought to Stratford by a dapper David Beckham on a speedboat, and it entered the stadium carried by five time Olympic gold medalist Steve Redgrave. But the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron wasn't given to a sporting legend, as is customary. Instead, seven unknown budding athletes lit the metal petals of an extraordinary contraption designed by Thomas Heatherwick. One of Britain's great strengths is the unshakable trust it has in its youth. In a few weeks time, when the Olympic fairy dust has settled and the country wakes up to a double-dip recession hangover, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron will be a powerful image to remember.