The Bond film is one of Hollywood’s most tried-and-true formulas, one so uniform in its rhythms that things like “Bond Girl” and “Bond Villain” bring up distinct and identifiable concepts. Oddly, that has been a strength of the franchise rather than a weakness, their instant identifiable function making the uniqueness of each character or moment stand out. One of these aspects is the opening scene—usually one of the film’s most prominent action set pieces. Think of Pierce Brosnan bungee jumping from a Russian dam or Timothy Dalton parachuting out the back of a jeep flying off a cliff. These are (often) the most outlandish, nonsensical moments–beholden not to the confines of plot structure or character development but to sheer adrenaline, technical ingenuity, and debonair charm. They exist purely to assure audiences that James Bond is one smooth operator. Here Spectre doesn’t disappoint; Sam Mendes opens his second Bond film in Mexico City during a parade celebrating Dia de los Muertos. Seemingly without a single cut, the camera floats along with Bond (Daniel Craig) through the parade, into an elevator and a hotel room, out a window, and across the roofs of Mexico City and out into the airspace above them. It meanders for a solid four minutes before the first discernible cut. The whole thing is accompanied by the jangling ambient soundtrack of a parade in the background, its volume and timbre different in different spaces, giving it an effect similar to the opening of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. It’s a piece of cinematographic artistry for the ages, and the ensuing stunts and explosions are delightfully chaotic.
Director: Sam Mendes
Producers: Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson
Writers: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth, Ian Fleming (characters)
Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Editors: Lee Smtih
Music: Thomas Newman
Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott
Premiere: September 4, 2015 – Telluride
US Theatrical Release: November 6, 2015
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Similarly impressive are the opening titles, a throwback to an era in which the artistry and novelty of title sequences was truly breathtaking. In typical Bond-movie fashion, nearly naked women writhe lit in colors of gold, but the choreography of their movements and the dreamlike imagery that surrounds them is stunning. Craig makes an appearance flanked by faceless women who are soon enveloped by nightmarish tentacles—a reference to a signet ring Bond finds, showing a 7-armed squid. Sam Smith’s emotional Writing’s on the Wall pales in comparison to Adele’s theme for Skyfall, but we can hardly fault Smith for that since Skyfall is in the top echelon of Bond themes, and the only one to win an Oscar. All in all, the first ten minutes of Spectre are promising and impressive.
But after an aesthetically stunning introduction, Spectre hits its first roadblock: its script. Reportedly the result of several rewrites, including bringing Daniel Craig himself into the writer’s room, this story is a mess. It takes place in the aftermath of Skyfall. The historic and delightfully ugly MI6 headquarters is in shambles, having been blown to bits by Silva (Javier Bardem), and new leaders are taking over the department and christening a new high-tech headquarters. Ralph Fiennes is “M,” taking over for the recently departed Judi Dench, and Andrew Scott (BBC Sherlock’s Professor Moriarty) plays “C,” the new head of British Intelligence. C’s first act in his new office is to deactivate the antiquated 00 program putting Bond out of a job. He plans to switch the department over to a new system of high-tech surveillance, integrated into the new headquarters that functions as a giant computer, using drones instead of agents. The vague indictment of NSA spying and drone strikes is barely concealed, here, but not articulated well enough to have a point.
It’s clearly evident to everyone who sees C that he is up to no good. Bond and M both mistrust him immediately, and soon are certain that he is connected to some secret non-governmental cabal grasping at world domination. But their distrust is never explained. Maybe it has to do with his slimy demeanor or some super-sensory ability to read people that comes from years as the world’s greatest secret agent. But Bond’s tacit wariness of anything technological also smacks of inter-generational anxiety—Bond is the baby boomer and C is the millennial, relying on technology instead of good old fashioned legwork. In that sense Bond also feels oddly reactionary, as if his misgivings really come from a personal fear of change rather than C’s underhanded agenda. The whole relationship is an uncomfortable admission from the script, as if these are issues faced by one of the writers becoming manifest in their character by accident. It just doesn’t make sense for one of the world’s best-known gadget users to be so fearful of technology. (Bond is a man who wouldn’t be alive today without a variety of wacky computerized wristwatches and souped-up cars.)
This feeling of archaism is bolstered by Craig’s appearance. Not to say he looks bad, he is just no longer the hunk walking out of the ocean that he was in Casino Royale. He remains a talented actor and a handsome man, but middle age is creeping through him and that craggier appearance fits all too well with an aversion to new things. There have been a lot of Bonds and we’ve seen them all age while they held the title (with the exception of George Lazenby, who only played him once) but Craig’s decline is all the more noticeable since his character is suddenly so curmudgeonly. It’s out of line with the established character and serves primarily to bolster the plot along faster—we don’t have to spend any time to know that C is a bad guy.
And then there is the plot itself, which is meandering and futile. The central antagonist is an organization called SPECTRE—dredged up from some of the dreadfully campy Roger Moore Bond movies of the 70s and 80s. These are the films with evil genius Blofeld sitting in his wheelchair and petting his white cat, not exactly the most exciting source material to plumb. But beyond that, the whole concept of SPECTRE as an organization seems woefully dated. While Moore’s SPECTRE felt like a stand-in for the Soviet Union, set as it was in the midst of the Cold War, this SPECTRE is totally lost.
Their nominal goal is to gain access to all the world’s security material, to somehow parlay that into global control of the world, but what they plan to do with that control is never explored. They enact terrorist attacks across the planet in order to scare governments into signing over their surveillance access, but what will they do once they have it? They never express interest in holding the world ransom, or changing anything politically—they are already all extremely rich and powerful individuals—so their plot to gain access to the globe’s NSA spy data seems oddly aimless, as do Bond’s daring attempts to stop them. Lines like “SPECTRE will have control of everything,” fall particularly flat when there is no thought as to what that control is or means. “So what if they do?” you might reply. In a post-modern, globalized world without clear heroes and villains this kind of storytelling is a challenge, but saying the antagonists are motivated by a vague sense of general villainy leaves much to be desired.
And then, as the plot progresses, it gets even stupider, turning from a Dan Brown/Illuminati caper into something more clichéd: a superhero origin story. Somehow, bolstered by the success of Skyfall, Mendes has decided to dig into the next few years of the life of young James Bond, when he was raised as a foster child. Yet Mendes does so in the most superficial and ridiculous way imaginable—a family secret, a lifelong hatred, and an unexplained vengefulness. The primary villain, played by Christoph Waltz, is mincing and domineering but not very interesting—a real waste of his formidable talents.
As the film goes more and more off the rails, it feels like the production crew just stops trying. At one point, Bond wanders through an abandoned building that has been set up to terrify and torture him, and his arch villain has done the dastardly act of printing out photographs of his departed loved ones and taping them to the walls. Really, that’s the intimidating tête-à-tête between super villain and super spy; black and white copy paper printouts of M, Vesper Lynd, etc. taped to the walls with scotch tape. I guess he didn’t want to spring for color.
It’s also worth mentioning that Lea Seydoux makes an appearance here as the romantic lead. She plays a character who feels completely tacked-on, a psychologist and the daughter of a former SPECTRE operative who is unwittingly pulled into this maelstrom of a plot. Her existence is essential in Bond’s uncovering of SPECTRE, but only because of the strange and convoluted narrative maneuvers that brought them together in the first place. (You can see why this script needed so many rewrites to be even barely comprehensible.) Here she is cast as uncomfortably young; her Madeleine Swan looks to be about 20 years Bond’s junior.
And beyond that, every moment that Seydoux and Craig share the screen feels forced and awkward. Their lack of screen chemistry is actually somewhat impressive. How two talented actors can’t even pretend to like each other is quite a feat, but it takes all the punch out of their scenes together, or the eventual conflicts that her character is slotted into as a nondescript piece. There is no drama or tension, no sense that these two love (or even like or respect) each other enough to risk their lives. Their romance is so halting and strange, and Bond’s relationship so clearly with her father instead of her, that she feels like a ghost haunting this film, barely visible.
After a stunning opening, Spectre consistently disappoints, hitting a distinct low point in the Craig-era Bond movies. It feels like a waste of its $300 million budget, the largest for a Bond film to date. And more than that, it misses the point of James Bond. Superheroes, and their origin stories, exist to help us identify with them—any nerd could be bit by a radioactive spider or discover a secret alien heritage but James Bond is not a hero that just anyone can become. He is an unassailable force of cool, collected violence, charm, and stylish panache. He is a walking justification of postcolonial British existence, seeming to say simply by existing, “We may not rule the world any more but we are still pertinent.” He is not a man with a childhood and a past to be understood, so much as a manifestation of the collective British id. Can’t we just go back to the days where he was foiling mad geniuses instead of delving into his poorly elucidated sordid past? A crazed mastermind intent on destroying London would be more comprehensible than this jumble of villains. Especially amidst reports that Craig is tired of playing the character, he should use this flop as an opportunity for a graceful exit. Maybe Idris Elba can bring new life to this franchise before it becomes a parody of itself.