Film Analysis – Spectre of a Legacy
While in Dr. No (1962) Bond was swilling shaken martinis and “Bond…James Bond” out the gate, the series hadn’t even been so rigid as described by Dahl – his “girl formula” had been often but not exclusively adhered to in the series’ four prior films. Despite Dahl’s professed limitless creative freedom, he found (what I’d consider to be) Ian Fleming’s most ambitious novel a “travelogue” and ignored nearly every element within except the Japanese setting, including its motifs of death and rebirth, as well as a status quo-upsetting climax in which James Bond loses his memory and heads toward the USSR. In its place: car chases, air chases, a shark tank (the series’ third!), and a giant volcano lair. While the series had previously been steadily increasing in scope and detail, but the most dominant elements of Twice are re-hashes of earlier Bond films, grander in scale than nuance.
Spectre faces many of the same issues as Twice – the only other time the series faced a planned climax – there prompted by Sean Connery’s planned departure. Let it sink in: that was 48 years and 18 movies ago. Both films are over-stuffed and unabashedly derivative, but visually memorable. Twice also notably contributed to Bond iconography in its take on Blofeld. Bond’s arch-nemesis would be on screen for much longer in subsequent films – played by different actors – but it’s the dueling scar make-up on Donald Pleasance that has remained the most iconic look for the character, serving as (for examples) the most direct model for Christoph Waltz’ version of the character in Spectre.
So a Bond film need not necessarily be great to produce memorable iconography, and there’s plenty of Bond iconography to go around. Yet what is different in Spectre is Bond’s anxiety about the Bondian elements and his ‘007’ role as a professional assassin. Despite its shortcomings, Spectre could contain my favorite iteration of Bond as a character, with his iconic boozing and womanizing portrayed as the actions of a damaged man. As A.A. Dowd wrote in his review,
“Across [Craig’s three movies] a tortured wrecking ball of British intelligence loses his true love, his mentor, and his ability to feel. Each new movie inches him closer to Ian Fleming’s original conception of the ladykiller with a license to kill—which is to say, further away from the comparably compassionate superspy that Craig embodied in his first outing. The more he resembles the Bond of legend, the further gone he looks.”
At a meta-textual level, the series is (of course) striking a compromise with changing cultural attitudes toward Bond’s vices, as it has in the past. For example: GoldenEye in part granted Bond a license to be Bond by having M call him “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur [and] a relic of the Cold War.” In Spectre, however – arguably for the first time in the series – we see this happening within the character of Bond himself, who has grown uncomfortable as he’s grown into the more classically cinematic Bond – and in the end decides that’s not something he wants to be. Bond, of course, has parted ways with MI6 before – out of love (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)), desire for revenge (License to Kill (1989)), and – most recently – in Skyfall, he ‘stays dead’ for a period after being presumed as such. Spectre’s end displays continuity with its immediate predecessor in that both movies show Bond as willing to take an out when he sees it, though takes Bond’s motivation further. In Spectre, Bond doesn’t just want a different life more than espionage – he doesn’t necessarily want to be 007.
I’m intrigued to think that everything I’ve described has been spiteful performance art, that Mendes and Craig – questionably invested in the series mythos – purposely gave all the expected tropes a half-assed recitation and deliberately tacked on an ending that throws those elements into chaos. In support of that conspiracy theory, Craig’s been somewhere between exhausted and hostile toward the character in pre-release promotional interviews. Moreover, I think one of the subtler undercurrents of Skyfall was the suggestion that Judi Dench’s M may not be the most virtuous or competent leader, despite how much we may personally like her character. Note how – in arguing at a governmental hearing that MI6 should have the right to operate without public accountability, “in the shadows”, she decides to finish reading her poem and let the villain punctuate her point with gunfire, rather than warning the room to take cover.
One could even trace the old M’s line of thought to the surveillances program Edward Snowden revealed in 2013, how as Skyfall was playing in theaters the “Five Eyes” English-speaking intelligence services were actually gathering voluminous personal data without accountability. Even before the Snowden revelations, one member of European Parliament compared Big Data to a Spectre-esque “octopus”, with its tentacles in everything. Spectre clarifies the series’ position by asserting the 00-sector’s value in its direct, technologically-unmediated action, and castigates its villains (in Spectre and MI6) for an evil data-driven surveillance program.
The Spectre organization’s tentacle imagery further resembles that of Hydra, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s evil Nazi conspiracy unveiled in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – whose evil plan involved using a computerized algorithm to select and execute potentially problematic individuals. Arguably the organizations would be better off swapping their trademarks. The mythical Hydra has multiple heads and one body, while members of the villainous organization appear fairly united around direct organizational goals. Meanwhile, the octopus – of one mind but numerous tentacles – serves as the symbol for what appears to be the Galt’s Gulch of supervillainry, in which exceptional psychopaths are recruited to do their supervillain thing with relative autonomy. As with Ayn Rand’s capitalist utopia, there’s minimal attention paid to how conflicts of interest might develop among so many large personalities. While Mr. White rebelled, driven by a crisis of conscience, there’s little attention to, say, how Silva and Mr. Greene’s megalomanias might eventually have set them at odds with one another.
So back to the ending – Bond drives his Aston Martin off into the sunset. I don’t demand anything from the character other than that he be British and smoke like a chimney, and on that second part I’ve often been sorely disappointed. Everything else can be malleable. So – as bizarre as it may seem – I’m wondering what a non-violent (or at least, less violent) Bond would look like. What if the next film didn’t just recreate the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and condemn Bond back to his calling as 007? What if it didn’t send him on a roaring rampage of revenge? What if we saw a Bond who was on the defensive, trying not to use his license to kill?
A less violent Bond wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented. Ian Fleming’s original books wrote Bond into different genre: Moonraker is more like a mystery, Diamonds are Forever a gangster potboiler. As mentioned, his penultimate book, You Only Live Twice, was something of a literary travelogue suffused with themes of death and rebirth. The short stories “The Property of a Lady”, “Quantum of Solace” and “Octopussy” barely have any action at all.
Every Bond movie is faced with the task of making a Bond movie that both is and isn’t a Bond movie, that’s just the same and just different enough from what’s come before. Why not try a Bond that’s still Bond, still evolving, but trying hard not to be 007?