Film Analysis – Spectre of a Legacy
[SPOILERS, of course]
Spectre opens with an epigram that “the dead are with us.”
Few things ought to be more terrifying to James Bond. His license to kill has racked up a quite a body count (362, by at least two counts) about which 007 has often usually remained flippant. It’s the films’ producers that have more often been haunted by Bond’s past, with the burden of keeping fresh the “martinis, girls and guns” formula. The recent Daniel Craig-starring entries have explicitly reckoned with Bond’s place in the contemporary world, with Skyfall (2012) pushing the character in critically-acclaimed artistic directions, then ending with a return to the 1960s status quo as Bond flirts with Moneypenny on his way to visit M. Spectre has followed through on that promise, dividing critics over how safely it sticks to the formula, whether the fun outweighs the arguable lack of ambition.
As a huge Bond fan, I came away disappointed from my first Spectre viewing, but intrigued by how the film works through the series’ palpable meta-anxiety through 007’s own character arc. It portrays Bond, more than ever, as haunted by what he’s become. In doing so, Spectre disappoints as an action movie but offers Bond yet another potentially-fascinating second life, and suggests that the series’ constant anxiety may have been part of what’s kept it interesting for half a century.
When I mention “meta-anxiety”, I mean that James Bond has been experiencing a 40-year midlife crisis. It isn’t just the character’s constant pursuit of fast cars and younger women. Since the 1970s, the series has frequently fretted onscreen about its place in pop culture. This is discussed more extensively in James Chapman’s academic License to Thrill and Film Crit Hulk’s characteristically-unedited 72,000 word screed “STARING INTO THE ID OF A BONER INCARNATE.” As a 1960s pop culture phenomenon, the Bond films inspired scores of imitators, but after Sean Connery left the series absorbed pop culture trends like a sponge – Blaxploitation in Live and Let Die (1973), Star Wars (1977) in Moonraker (1979) all the way down to the Jason Bourne / Peak-Era Michael Bay-inspired fast-edit nonsense of Quantum of Solace (2008) and the mostly-brilliant Skyfall’’s multiple assertions that “the old ways are best”, croaked as if the series feared it might eventually become Dr. Evil insisting he’s “hip” and “with it”.
As a fan, I’ve got an uneasy relationship with all that. My favorite entries have tended to be actors’ first outings in role, when the series is most assertive and unapologetic about the character’s new incarnation: Timothy Dalton’s first outing in The Living Daylights (1987); Daniel Craig’s debut in Casino Roayle (2006); Pierce Brosnan’s GoldenEye (1995).
Spectre, however, suggests maybe that anxiety is part of what’s kept the series vital. Maybe – like a shark in villain’s secret lair – when the Bond series stops swimming to rest (on its laurels), it dies. Perhaps we really can’t go back to a simpler era, when a Bond movie didn’t have to second-guess his morality or relevance.
Which is all to say that as a Bond film Spectre is fun but shockingly rote, celebrating the return of the titular evil syndicate (last seen in the official series in 1971) by uninventively trotting out all the expected evil masterminds, their accounting reports, and their secret lairs, and In adding more layers to the Bond backstory, it assigns head-scratching motivations to his arch-nemesis Blofeld. In Skyfall, villanous ex-agent Silva and Bond are metaphoric brothers, raised by an adoptive mother-figure M. In Spectre, Bond’s arch-nemesis is mad that his literal father literally adopted Bond. I guess espionage is a small world?
Even potential motifs, the ghostly ‘spectre’ indulged in the movie’s title, epigram, and spectacular opening scene (set during the Day of the Dead in Mexico City) – are largely abandoned by the time of the main title sequence which has no ghosts there, but plenty of Hokusai woodcut –grade tentacle porn.
With director Sam Mendes unwilling to push the material structurally, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema emerges as the film’s most prominent authorial voice. This is most apparent in two early scenes: the impressively-detailed chaos of the pre-title sequence, and the shadowy Spectre meeting that follows shortly thereafter. The latter’s smoky, shadowy tableaus are visually atmospheric but dramatically unambitious, largely unchanged in concept from Thunderball (1964) (or as it was parodied in Austin Powers (1997)). The villains report on their evil dealings, then somebody dies – and as in Quantum of Solace’s version of the same scene, Bond interrupts. The staging in Spectre isn’t as ambitious as the latter-day film’s updated take on the concept, in which members of Quantum (now revealed as a Spectre-subsidiary) chatted via Bluetooth while watching an opera, all present in the same place but separate enough to maintain plausible deniability.
None of this is bad per say (except Blofeld’s backstory), but it does feel ho-hum. As a Bond film, it feels content to be a “Bond film.” Yet a Bond film has arguably never quite been so generic – and when the series has tried to explicitly paint by numbers, its results have been decidedly mixed. Take for example what screenwriter Roald Dahl told Playboy about how he wrote You Only Live Twice (1967):
“You can come up with anything you like so far as the story goes,” they told me, “but there are two things you mustn’t mess about with. The first is the character of Bond. That’s fixed. The second is the girl formula. That is also fixed.”
“What’s the girl formula?” I asked.
“There’s nothing to it. You use three different girls and Bond has them all.”