Film Review – Spectre
Over the course of fifty-three years, the character of James Bond has created enough appeal to stretch out over what is now twenty-four movies, not including the non-official Bond flicks such as the first Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again. It’s impressive simply because few other characters have maintained that kind of mass appeal. Granted, the years haven’t always been kind to the globe-trotting spy, with plenty of ups and downs, but they always amount at least to a modicum of fun and entertainment. If the bottom line is all the franchise can manage to strive for then I suppose all we’ll get are outings like Spectre.
It’s not so much that Spectre is a bad Bond movie, or even bad movie in general, it’s more that Spectre just really isn’t that good. Director Sam Mendes returns after helming the almost instant classic Skyfall, but here the result is a direct contrast in approach and execution. With Skyfall there was very much a deliberate and carefully staged delivery of everything from character to cinematography to mise en scene that created a self-reflective meditation on the need for a modern day Bond, while delivering the certain Bond tropes that everyone expects. The movie attempts to walk a fine-line that works to the point of pretention, which turned some viewers off and impressed others. With this latest movie, all the care and pretense Mendes and company imbued on Skyfall appears to be reversed on itself, resulting in what feels like a movie made by people who didn’t want to make it.
Bond (Daniel Craig) starts the movie off on a mission in Mexico during the Day of the Dead festival. The mission results in some collateral damage that puts Bond on the hotspot, but don’t worry because Bond is always a step or two ahead. Going off information provided by a postmortem M (Judi Dench), Bond goes rogue from MI6 in search of someone who may be from his childhood. Bond enlists the help of an old adversary’s daughter, Medeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) who helps search for the titular secret global terrorist organization SPECTRE, headed by the mysterious Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Meanwhile, as all this is happening, the new M (Ralph Fiennes) has to deal with a bureaucratic attempt to shutdown the Double-O division of MI6 in favor of a global surveillance program.
All of this is pretty much described in the movie’s official plot synopsis as released by the studio. And it’s almost exactly all that happens. For as much grandeur and spectacle that appears on screen, there’s very little real excitement behind it. There are moments when Craig looks just as tired and bored of the character as he’s alluded to in recent interviews. For a movie that’s part of a long franchise that’s celebrating a recent legal battle over the use of the names SPECTRE and its leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the revelations in the movie of what are now “classic” aspects of James Bond are almost treated like asides. It seems expected by the filmmakers that the mere fact they exist is enough to make audiences happy, while providing fan service in the form of nods to pretty much every Bond film that’s come before.
Along its history, the Bond franchise has more often than not been a trend follower instead of a trend setter. The Roger Moore years saw Bond taking after popular films like Shaft, Star Wars and Bruce Lee flicks, and has continued up through the Craig films with Bourne and Mission: Impossible being major inspirations. Here we also can see the influence of the Marvel superhero movies, with their intricately and convoluted continuity interwoven into each installment, as all three previous Craig movies are recalled for the purpose of creating a full Bond continuity that implies SPECTRE has secretly orchestrated the motivations and means behind each villain. It’s convoluted and only causes the movie’s unnecessary plot to feel even more unnecessary. Where Bond’s mission is usually defined from the outset, we now have Bond going from place to place with no prior indication for motivation, only to half explain his reasons later. It’s more of a chaos cinema approach to storytelling where the movie bombards the audience with so much action and spectacle they have little time to question the reasoning for what is taking place.
If things weren’t dull enough already, the story employs the now standard post-9/11 spy-movie plot troupe of global surveillance being the ultimate villain that needs to be stopped. It’s as if nothing else occurs in the world to any similar degree of threat. With such a direct tie to its predecessors, it’s hard not to directly compare Spectre to Skyfall. Where Skyfall comes off as a movie eager to be something great inside a long lineage, Spectre feels like the obligatory response to a box-office culling. Again, even the worst Bond movie is entertaining in its own right, as is this, but they rarely feel out-of-breath and uninspired.
“So what’s going on James? They say you’re finished,” Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) says to Bond rather early in the film. If there’s even a fraction of the amount of subtext to be derived here as there was from Skyfall, then coupled with perhaps the most disappointing and un-Bond-like ending of the franchise maybe the people involved with this one were daring to ask the question, “What if we didn’t make another one of these?”, while simultaneously allowing room for more.