We find James Bond (Daniel Craig) moving across three continents in pursuit of the truth behind a shadowy criminal organization known as SPECTRE. Along the way he discovers Italian assassins, a dying familiar nemesis, and new and creative ways to crash vehicles into each other. And all the while on the homefront, ambitious bureaucrat Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) works to fold MI6 into MI5, scrap the 00 program, and generally annoy MI6 head M (Ralph Fiennes), his assistant Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Chief of Staff Tanner (Rory Kinnear), and quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw). What does psychologist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) know of SPECTRE? And is a face from Bond’s childhood, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), truly alive and running the show?
Over the course of the past year I’ve become a big fan of the James Bond films. Not only that, the recent Skyfall is my favorite film of 2012 and in my opinion the best Bond movie; my anticipation for Spectre was naturally very strong. So I’m sorry to report that I think Spectre is the worst the series has been since Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997. Spectre is less a concrete action movie and more a collection of uninspired setpieces, less an entertaining Bond story and more a pseudo-fanservice-drenched house of mirrors.
I know I’ve rather showed my hand, but let’s talk good stuff first! Spectre should silence critics of Craig’s Bond who peg him as too dour. He’s got that twinkle in his eyes, a sense of sharp humor that brings some welcome levity. I love Q in this, his relationship with the frustrating 00 agent in his charge, and the general use of the MI6 cast. The two highlights of the movie are the big, legitimately creepy SPECTRE meeting; and the pre-titles Mexico City sequence, which needs only a helicopter to deliver the best action scene of the film. The Día de Muertos bursts with life, and the powerhouse filmmaking from director Sam Mendes and crew is apparent from the beginning; the film begins with a long oner tracking shot that sets a great first impression. Too bad the impression doesn’t last.
Now, ever since the first trailer, we’ve known that Franz Oberhauser (now, of course, head of SPECTRE) is the son of the man who took in James after the Bonds died, making Oberhauser Bond’s long-lost foster brother. This is presented to us as a big deal, but the film does nothing with it. The one time the script does touch it, Oberhauser’s dialogue addressing the matter is so quickly brushed over and so nonsensical that I can’t believe this is the final draft. Supervillain wants to kill superspy; superspy wants to kill supervillain. There. That’s the same as what we get here. If you removed all references to Bond’s foster-brother and just proceeded with a no-frills, traditional supervillain characterization, nothing. Would. Change. If this was the screenwriters’ attempt to “make it personal” between hero and villain, it failed miserably.
And the script has the gall to build up Oberhauser in the most insipid way possible: through fanservice. You see, Oberhauser is the head of SPECTRE, and the villains of the previous Daniel Craig Bond movies all turn out to be working for that umbrella organization all along. So Oberhauser actually says stuff along the lines of, “Le Chiffre, Green, Silva – it was me all along,” and “Your precious M was killed – that was me”. NO, IT WASN’T YOU. IT WAS BETTER, MORE INTERESTING VILLAINS, IN BETTER, MORE INTERESTING MOVIES. Since the film dares to bring him up, look at Raoul Silva in Skyfall, a great example of a Bond villain who makes it personal in a compelling way. His axe to grind with M is integral to his character and to the overall story, and he’s a fascinating foil for Bond because they have crucial similarities as well as obvious differences. Oberhauser is barely a character. He’s full of hot air. Does it add anything that he’s Bond’s foster brother? Why does Oberhauser allude to backstory regarding his relationship with his father without elaborating on any iota of context? Why has he done anything he’s done? Why should we credit him as anything other than a jack in the box? I guess you could maybe say Waltz is kinda fun in the “role”, but he’s building a sand castle and the high tide’s coming in.
The problem of continuity fetishism persists throughout the film. Spectre folds in references to the three previous films with such persistence I don’t know whether to be frustrated or amused. Seeing the images of Le Chiffre, Vesper Lynd, Dominic Green, Raoul Silva etc is cool the first time, but the film just keeps beating the dead horse, serving only to remind me of other, better Bond movies. It’s an ouroboros snake of sorta-fanservice, devouring its own tail and sucking the story of Spectre of any meat on its own bones. It’s insular, it’s navel-gazing, it’s self-defeating.
As I’ve said, I think the film blows its best action setpiece before the title sequence; with the partial exception of a fight in a train car, the remaining action is largely uninspired with little in the way of dynamics. Oh, the vehicular stunts look great in and of themselves. Practical vehicles clash in many configurations of conflagrations, and seeing it in person must have been impressive. But I’m not reviewing the job of the special effects team, I’m reviewing the movie, and from where I’m sitting, the vehicle chases are not anything to get the blood pumping. And worst of all is the shockingly flat third act, which is a genuinely poor and uninventive anticlimax more likely to induce a roll of the eyes than a pump of the fist.
There are plenty more baffling and varied flaws. Andrew Scott’s slimy Londonbound antagonist is dubbed “C” by Bond early on… for some reason. And then every other character starts calling him C in all seriousness from then on… for some reason. I don’t get it. Why C? But more importantly regarding his character, M is forced to defend MI6, the 00 program, and “old-fashioned” espionage again, after the ground was covered much more effectively and poignantly in Skyfall! (More on that, and the whole Oberhauser thing, in the spoiler-y P.P.S.) Most glaring of all, at a certain point, it becomes apparent that we’re supposed to believe Bond and female lead Dr. Swann are supposed to actually be falling for each other (they deployed the “l” word!). It escalates way too quickly; I just don’t buy that the connection goes all the way to love in the course of the film, no way no how. Hey, the script says these two love each other, so it must be true.
Spectre is a great-looking mess with largely unexciting action, baffling story and character choices, and a genuinely bad third act. It’s a disappointment whose main strengths are of the superficial, as everything looks pristine and well-tailored. It’s just that what’s being tailored lacks punch and interest. In the end devoted more to weaving in continuity than being a good movie on its own, Spectre has its head up its own franchised arse. 4/10.
P.S.: Sing-along time! Or, you know, not; your choice. Time to talk about Sam Smith’s Spectre song “Writing’s on the Wall”. Overall it’s… all right. An all right song is an undeniable comedown after Adele’s world-beating “Skyfall”, but Smith’s over-crooned ballad has admittedly grown on me a bit after my first listen. The verse vocal melody is solid, and I even like the falsetto chorus as it’s distinctive and catchy. (The reference in the chorus to the speaker wanting love to “run through [his] blood” reminds me of the speaker of Casino Royale‘s “You Know My Name” stating, “The coldest blood runs through my veins.”) But the song refuses to truly gel, in part because of the vocal flavor; plus, it doesn’t help when Smith comes out with stuff like “I never shoot… to MESS!” (But in case anyone thinks male cod-operatic vocals are without precedent in James Bond songs, I refer you to Morten Harket of a-ha in “The Living Daylights”.) So I like certain discrete elements of “Writing’s on the Wall” in and of themselves, but it’s overall a very mopey experience for a Bond song, whose one attempt to gain a more proactive, rousing quality (“If I risk it a-a-all…”) falls flat for me. And the ending of it just fizzles into nothing. So the song’s a real mixed bag. But it’s leagues better than “Die Another Day”, *shiver*. Okay, I’ve rambled enough about this. If you didn’t notice, I love talking about James Bond theme songs.
P.P.S.: SPOILERS FOLLOW. So Franz Oberhauser lets his fluffy white cat get snuggly with Bond, basically says, “Boo, I’m Blofeld”, and proceeds to monologue. Huh. I must ask what the point is of making Blofeld the equivalent of Bond’s secret brother if it has absolutely no coherent bearing on the character dynamics. What is this guff about Blofeld becoming convinced his father “had to die”??? It isn’t explored at all; it just sits there in the air and never lands with any impact, because we can’t even begin to understand the context. I say again, if the script had gone with a traditional Blofeld characterization, the only difference would be a semantic one. Secret brothers, indeed! When Blofeld showed up with his iconic facial scar, I said under my breath, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” It’s empty iconography with the pretense of piercing characterization, which is worse than embracing simplicity. Next time, make sure you write an intelligible character instead of leaving the heavy-lifting to how he looks and dresses. And another thing: what is up with the scene where Bond is so insistent for Dr. Swann not to be shown the video of her father’s suicide? Is it because he doesn’t want her to face the pain of seeing her father die? I get that, but the way it’s contextualized, it’s framed more like Oberhauser saying, “Observe the real James Bond”. The scene changes nothing in the characters despite being intensely melodramatic, and its obscurity of purpose just serves to make it baffling.
The sour cherry on top of the lackluster ending is the baffling way Spectre leaves Bond and the 00 program. What, the 00s are just shut down? What about the forthcoming movies? Is Bond actually retiring with this woman he never had any real grounds to fall in love with? Considering Bond and Dr. Swann’s onscreen relationship I think it would be more than appropriate for her to amicably part with Bond exactly as she tried to before Bond and the gang drove to MI6. (And that way, she wouldn’t have to be in the damsel-in-distress climax, either!!) I understand that plenty of Bond movies end with him in the embrace of the female lead as they figuratively go off into the sunset, but there was always an MI6 to come back to, a job to do, and the women were always gone come the next story. Will the next film give M the burden of advocating for 00 agents again, after already doing so and succeeding in Skyfall, and doing so and failing in Spectre?!? And don’t tell me how this ending is designed to give closure to Daniel Craig’s version of the character, because James Bond is not a goddamn code name!