based on characters by Ian Fleming
2015 • 148 minutes • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
Spectre feels like it comes from an alternate timeline: specifically, an alternate timeline where the double punch of Die Another Day and The Bourne Identity had not resulted in a hard reboot of the franchise. In this timeline, Brosnan bangs out another movie; Craig slips neatly and seamlessly into the role after fans mutter about how he doesn’t look like Bond (nerds: we’re the same in every timeline); and the quips and the gadgets are thick on the ground. It’s a simpler and more basic Bond franchise in that timeline. How back to basics are we with Spectre? Let me put this way: there are sexy naked ladies in the opening credits sequence again.
At the end of Skyfall, we saw Bond complete his evolution into a masterless monster; answerable to no one now that the one person who could control him was dead. What those final frames suggested was not that we could now return to business as usual, but that the inevitable attempts to do so by the institutions and infrastructures attempting to utilize Bond could only end in tears and explosions. (Just look at the way he sizes up Ralph Fiennes. He feels equal to that man, and that is dangerous.)
Spectre feints in that direction at first; the dazzling pre-credit action sequence, set in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead, turns out to be an extracurricular activity for Bond. He claims, after creating an international incident (pro-tip: never start a helicopter takeover by choking out the pilot), that it was just a coincidence he was there. When M chews him out and grounds him, he takes it with such uncharacteristic grace that M immediately suspects Bond of hiding something from him. “Whatever it is,” he tells him, “it has to stop.”
But, of course, Bond can’t stop: he’s carrying out his own investigation into a shadowy organization. After touching base with Q and Moneypenny, he drops off the map and heads to Rome—convenient, as M is contending against his new boss C, a political type hellbent on ending the 00 program and instituting global surveillance in its place.
It’s in Rome, however, that Spectre stops feeling like a passable successor to Skyfall and more like a by the numbers Bond film with every choice it makes. Women fall at Bond’s feet; hulking hunchmen batter Bond in trains; villains lurk in secret, thematic lairs. The most shocking choice it makes, however, is to portray Bond as a more or less functioning human being. The best and most fascinating Bonds are the ones in constant combat for their souls—it’s Craig and Dalton that shock and astonish, not Brosnan and Moore.
That said, none of those choices are wrong; they’re simply not the choices that I would make or expect them to make. Where Spectre goes from disappointing to baffling is the lack of connective tissue between these choices. Characters jump from beat to beat without development or explanation. It rather feels like scenes are missing.
Case in point: Spectre attempts to introduce a Bond girl who might be able to fill in the Vesper Lynn-sized canyon in Bond’s inner mechanisms. It is no burn on Léa Seydoux to say that she is no Eva Green, but Dr. Swan is also no Vesper Lynn. The trauma of losing Vesper in so many ways was such a formative experience for Craig’s Bond; he may have moved on from the experience, but the only way he’s healed is crooked. To break and reset that bone would be an undertaking, and a worthwhile one. But no effort is expended in that quarter: Dr. Swan bounces from “I’m not going to fall into your arms, Mr. Bond” to doing exactly that.
This listlessness extends to Christoph Waltz’s villainous Franz Oberhauser—after being told just how deep his connections to Bond’s past are, we’re given precious little to support it other than “just trust us, guys.” The film also attempts to set him up as a brother figure to Bond, which feels like a weird retread of Skyfall. What’s troubling is that Waltz is a fantastic choice for the character the film wants him to play—the film just doesn’t put in the effort to give him any ballast.
However, there are things I enjoyed without qualification in Spectre. There’s a harrowing scene over a chessboard between Bond and a ghost from his past that’s expertly staged. And M, Q, and Moneypenny all get to play an interesting role as Bond’s support staff. (If we must make Bond a functional human being, I would have loved to see MI6 slowly become what M was to Bond through sheer doggedness.) M gets a fascinating through line about what it means to be able to kill a man, effortlessly calling back to his own experience. Moneypenny, who is explicitly the only person Bond can trust and also a ray of hypercompetent sunshine, appears to be adapting to her desk job as best she can. And Q is largely genteel comic relief. Seeing all three bounce off each other and Bond is a delight. (Also important to my interests: Q and Moneypenny being work friends, as shown by a scene where they burst in on M at his dinner to hand over some news. I bet she’s met his cats.)
Spectre tries to be lighter and leaner than the preceding Craig films, but, in doing so, neglects to take into consideration what makes those films great. Going another direction is fine—but we have to get all of the way there to make it worthwhile.
I saw this film in theaters.