The Fascinating Mess of “Spectre”

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In the fall of 2012, Skyfall—the 23rd film in the James Bond series—became one of the biggest motion picture releases of its year, and the most financially successful installment in the franchise’s 50-year history. Worldwide, it raked in $1.1 billion and confirmed Bond’s place as one of cinema’s most prominent heroes. Casino Royale might have brought him back from the dead, but the crazy success of Skyfall suggested that Bond was not just surviving, but thriving, and there was no reason to think that would change anytime soon.

Three years later, Spectre was released, and much of the hype beforehand suggested that they’d be following up the biggest Bond film ever with something even more ambitious. Much of the creative team was back, including director Sam Mendes. An impressive team of new performers was assembled, including Léa Seydoux, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci, and Christoph Waltz as the mysterious Franz Oberhauser. When the title was released, it not so subtly hinted at the return of the eponymous organization from the Connery days. All in all, it seemed like a logical next step for Craig’s Bond, combining story elements of old with the universe that had been set up in recent installments.

Seeing the finished product, that certainly was the idea, but critics and audiences just weren’t buying. Just a few years after taking the world by storm, the latest James Bond movie came and went without much of a fuss. Reviews were mixed at best and hostile at worst. It made a whole lot of money ($879 million worldwide) but it wasn’t anything like the world domination that might have been expected. Instead of sustaining Skyfall’s momentum, Spectre seemed more like a couple steps back.

Upon reassessing the film, the reasons for this relative thud become clear fairly quickly. Spectre is not a great movie—or even a particularly good one—but it is one of the most fascinating texts the James Bond series has produced, and it provides a window into how this series has operated for 54 years and 24 films. The minds behind James Bond have always been more reactive than proactive, meaning a constant awareness of current movie trends and a general understanding of how audiences reacted to the previous Bond film. (It’s not a coincidence that Moonraker—the movie that sent James Bond into space for a massive laser gun battle—was released just two years after Star Wars.) The cinematic history of James Bond is filled with reactions and overreactions, along with giving audiences more and more of something until they decide they’ve had enough, and then it’s time to start over. The cycle repeats and repeats, and Spectre may mark the end of one such cycle.

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It takes a little while for the identity crisis to sink in. At the outset, Spectre provides one of the best sequences of the Craig era, as Bond attempts to foil a terrorist plot in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. (We also see the return of the iconic gun barrel sequence to the start of the movie, which has been sorely missed in recent films.) The first shot—a stitched-together long take that starts on street level and goes through a hotel and up to the rooftops—is exhilarating, and the sequence as a whole quite effortlessly does something the rest of the movie tries and fails to accomplish: it mixes both old and new sensibilities to create a rousing action sequence that would fit into any Bond movie. This is a movie that spends so much time worrying about pleasing everybody that it often forgets that the best way to do that is to just be really damn entertaining.

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. Immediately after the conclusion of the opening credits, you can feel the fingerprints of the producers and screenwriters all over Spectre. This is a Bond movie that tries to be all things to all people; a continuation of the serialization and introspection that has defined the Craig era paired with many elements that harken back to—and occasionally directly reference—the olden days. It’s attempting to be a Connery film, a Lazenby film, a Moore film, a Dalton film, a Brosnan film and a Craig film all rolled into one. Each scene feels incredibly disconnected from the last, and it’s pretty blatantly the result of attempting to please every type of Bond fan. When creating any kind of art, that’s never a great place to come from. That Spectre succeeds at all in the entertainment department is a credit to Mendes’ directorial skill. He does all he can to put this eight-headed monster together as smoothly as possible.

The most blatant attempt to bring old business into Craig’s world is the return of the organization SPECTRE itself. For many diehard Bond fans, this was exciting news, made all the more exciting by the announcement that Christoph Waltz would be coming on board to play the villain. However, this announcement also hinted at the miscalculation to come. Most assumed he would be playing infamous SPECTRE leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the mastermind who went toe-to-toe with Bond throughout the ’60s and early ’70s. However, the filmmakers insisted this wasn’t the case. Instead, he would be playing a man named “Oberhauser.” I was one of many who thought this reeked of B.S., especially since we went through this same thing with the surprise Kahn reveal in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness.

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Of course, Waltz’s character did turn out to be Blofeld, and the film’s handling of the villains in general seems to come out of the 21st century movie franchise handbook. As most major franchises become more and more serialized—modern superhero movies in particular—the Bond filmmakers must have felt pressure to play along. Part of the reason Quantum of Solace failed was that it felt less like a new Bond movie and more like an extended epilogue for Casino Royale. The success of Skyfall seemed to suggest the filmmakers had learned their lesson, but Spectre goes as far back the other direction as humanly possible. Not only is SPECTRE directly responsible for the events of the last three movies, but Blofeld painstakingly orchestrated every last development. Oh, and Blofeld and Bond grew up together. Life’s crazy, isn’t it?

This is, needless to say, dumb. It also completely misunderstands what makes Bond, Blofeld, or movies in general entertaining. Not everything needs an airtight explanation, and not every Bond adventure needs a “this time, it’s personal” angle. It doesn’t retroactively ruin the fun of Casino Royale and Skyfall (luckily, that’s not how movies work) but it does signal that the Christopher Nolan-izing of the James Bond franchise had gone one step too far. It also doesn’t help that the film’s climax places Bond in a predicament that directly recalls the sequence in The Dark Knight where Batman must choose to save the life of Rachel or Harvey Dent. Whether it’s from past Bond films or other major franchises, Spectre always seems to be borrowing something.

Also familiar is the endless talk of Bond being “obsolete,” which the series has brought up every so often since the start of the Brosnan era. It feels especially redundant here, however, since many of the arguments here feel eerily similar to what we saw throughout Skyfall. Only this time, the double-0 program is about to be replaced by a global intelligence system known as “Nine Eyes.” Of course, Blofeld is revealed to be behind the whole affair. The idea of Blofeld terrorizing the world’s superpowers into adopting this network is not a bad one, but like so many things in Spectre, it isn’t fleshed out beyond a handful of broad details. It’s doesn’t help that Nine Eyes advocate Denbigh (Andrew Scott) is so blatantly an agent of Blofeld from the outset that the only thing he’s missing is a mustache to twirl.

In between all these frustrating plot details is a good-looking, occasionally fun adventure movie, as Bond travels to Rome, Austria, Tangier, and the African desert. In this time he meets a few tried-and-true Bond archetypes to help to move the story along: the doomed woman who provides vital plot information while also having sex with him (Bellucci), the impossibly strong henchman of few words (Bautista), and the primary Bond girl who might actually fall in love with our hero (Seydoux). All of these actors do their jobs well, but they feel less like characters and more like items on a checklist. Obviously, this isn’t the first Bond movie with these problems, but in the universe Craig and company have created, it doesn’t quite fit for him to walk into the house of the widow of a man he killed and have her in bed within minutes. The characters talk a great bit about how the world has changed, but instances like this show the filmmakers attempting to force the character back into the past.

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Spectre also isn’t remotely graceful about how it transitions from location to location. Bond movies have always been reliant on the setting, but this is the first time in the Craig era where it felt like the locations were thought up before the story. It’s nice to see Bond return to the snow—specifically the Alps—but the only real reason for him to be there is fan service. Same goes for the very existence of the mountaintop clinic, which had me bracing for Spectre to turn into an On Her Majesty’s Secret Service remake. Oh, and let’s not forget about the train fight. It’s not that Mendes executes all these elements poorly, but it never feels remotely organic. Part of the success of Skyfall was its ability to do something new with Bond. Spectre aims to get by on Bond goodwill alone.

Even so, it isn’t entirely unsuccessful at doing so, and things don’t truly go off the rails until the final act. Once the derailing is complete, however, things are such a mess that it’s hard to imagine what the franchise does next. They’ve so committed to this serialized way of doing things that it’s hard to imagine the next movie not bringing Blofeld back in some way. (After all, they left him alive for a reason.) The big question, obviously, is whether Craig comes back. I suspect he will, since he has one movie left on the contract and has generally seemed open to it of late. If that does happen, the easiest solution would be Bond and Blofeld going head-to-head for Craig’s final act. How they pull that off is a big question, considering the way that Spectre ends. Luckily, it’s not my job to figure that out.

But let’s say, hypothetically, that Craig does not return. Where do the filmmakers go from here? Do they continue with the continuity they’ve created in these films? Or do they start over, again? They’ve put themselves in quite a corner here, especially since they’ve gone off the serialization deep end. One other option is to end the series altogether, but it’s hard to imagine they’d give up now. There have been plenty of opportunities to end James Bond’s run over the course of the last several decades, and each and every time the producers have been proven right by pressing on. Perhaps that’s the positive side effect of constantly trying to give the people what they want: every once in a while, you get it exactly right. Spectre is just a fascinating example of what happens when you miss the mark.

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