Back in July this year, I wrote an article listing my predictions for Spectre, the newest instalment in the 007 franchise.
Flash forward several months and it’s now possible for me to gloat like a criminal mastermind over those bits of future-gazing I nailed, even as I steadfastly deny all authorship of those forecasts I flubbed.
But as much as I’d argue that more of my guesses were right than wrong, the one thing about Spectre that I freely admit I didn’t see coming was how much it would ultimately diverge from the tone set by billion-dollar predecessor Skyfall.
In Spectre, we find superspy James Bond (Craig) pursuing his own agenda, as he works outside the chain of command to track down a vast criminal organisation that appears to have its tentacles everywhere.
Meanwhile, Bond’s boss M (Ralph Fiennes) is struggling to keep the 00-section above water in the face of moves to replace his team of covert assassins with mechanised drones and surveillance software.
Both of these threads soon weave together in surprising and suitably explosive fashion, when Bond – aided by the enigmatic Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) – finally tracks down the subject of his investigation, SPECTRE, and its leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man with terrifying links to Bond’s own past…
This all well and good, but in the spirit of 007 himself, let’s move straight on to tackling the elephant in the room head-on: No, Spectre isn’t as good as Skyfall.
Don’t take that as me signposting this review as a negative one; on the contrary, on balance, I found this latest Bond adventure rather entertaining.
For the most part, it plays like a throwback to the older entries in the series – if Skyfall represented a promise to restore to the franchise more of its familiar characters and tropes, then Spectre can be viewed as the fulfilment of that vow.
As such, depending on your attitude towards the pre-Craig era, you’ll either enjoy Spectre for its (mostly) indestructible hero, fun humour and occasional cheesiness, or find yourself longing for the days of Casino Royale and its Bourne-lite approach to novelist Ian Fleming’s source material.
It should be said that returning director Sam Mendes still brings to the table a lot of what made the last film so successful, handling the action sequences and character-driven moments with equal aplomb.
Unfortunately, he’s let down by this film’s story, which never really clicks. Writers John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have crafted a tale that lurches from a fairly languid first act into an exciting second, which propels us in turn through to a climax which arrives too late and just doesn’t work on either a characterisation or thematic basis.
On the plus side, many of the scenes along the way are highly entertaining, thanks largely to the sharp dialogue by Logan, Purvis, Wade (along with Jez Butterworth, on scripting duties only), but the whole thing feels like it could have been streamlined down, particularly once scenarios begin to repeat themselves (Bond’s been captured…again!) and not much actually seems to happen.
Spectre might not ever truly drag, but it still feels like editor Lee Smith could have been a bit more judicious with the scissors. Even so, you get the sense he did the best he could with the narrative available to him, and on close inspection, it’s a flimsy one at best.
Luckily, the cast are all in terrific form for 007’s 24th outing, especially Craig, who continues to deliver the most rounded portrayal of James Bond ever committed to screen. His Bond remains a (shaken, not stirred) cocktail of paradoxes; he’s just as capable of cold ruthlessness and as he is droll humour, and possesses a fragile core mostly hidden by his fierce physical prowess.
Indeed, if Skyfall showed us Bond at his physical nadir, Spectre showcases him at the peak of his powers. He’s almost too good, truth be told, and only apparently superhuman henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) offers 007 anything closely resembling a physical threat.
And then there’s Waltz as Oberhauser. Unlike Hinx, Oberhauser isn’t a brawler; he is in fact the first true supervillain of the revamped 007 franchise, and Waltz brings a fitting amount of cerebral menace to the role.
However, this is also one of those instances where what seems like a no-brainer of casting ends up producing less satisfying results than one would hope or expect.
It could be that his character isn’t afforded the chance to take shape until far too late in Spectre‘s runtime, or perhaps it’s because the “eccentric-psycho” form of villainy has grown stale from overuse, but whatever the case, Waltz never quite sticks the landing.
Ben Whishaw, on the other hand, does. As nerdy gadget boffin Q, he ends up the surprise stand-out of the supporting players, and his scenes with Craig drew the loudest and most frequent laughs from the theatre audience.
Elsewhere, Ralph Fiennes is dependably hard-nosed as M and Naomi Harris remains an inspired choice as the one woman out of Bond’s reach, Monnypenny, while Andrew Scott does the best he can with the fairly underwritten role of slimy bureaucrat Max Denbigh.
Speaking of underwritten, that’s a word that could be applied to both the Bond Girls this time around.
Monica Bellucci has little screen time and even less to sink her teeth into as the widowed wife of a gangster, while Seydoux fares somewhat better in a part that broadly works (although her Dr. Swann falls short of the best Bond Girl in the modern times, Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd).
As with Oberhauser, we’re introduced to Dr. Swann well after we should have been, undermining whatever connection between her and Bond the filmmakers were hoping to establish, leaving her as little more than a disappointing, albeit gorgeous, distraction.
But then everything in Spectre looks gorgeous. As with any 007 film, the beautiful actors and stunning locations certainly help, but Hoyte van Hoytema’s skillful cinematography should still be recognised regardless.
His imagery might not have the same crispness or depth as that of Skyfall DP Roger Deakins, but van Hoytema (who did masterful work on Interstellar last year) does a great job of capturing a similar visual feel to what came before, whilst at the same time injecting his own shadowy sensibility into the mix, which is apt, given the covert nature of this film’s antagonists.
Over in the sound department, aside from the high calibre foley work you’d expect from a Bond film, Thomas Newman’s score is for the most part very good, evoking the movie’s retro vibe and working in Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On The Wall” theme song to nice effect.
Smith’s much-derided title track is still a bit drippy, but predictably, it fits somewhat better in the context of Spectre itself, not least of all owing to the opening credits it accompanies, which are so overblown as to border on camp.
Really though, if there’s anyone that should be taking a bow for their work on Spectre, it’s Chris Corbould and his team of practical effects magicians.
They, together with an army of digital artists (who selflessly do their level best to hide the seams of their work), deliver an incredible array of set pieces, including an attention-grabbing helicopter battle over Mexico City and a thrilling car chase through the streets of Rome.
It all looks as convincing as could be, and you’ll definitely leave the cinema with the sense that you got your money’s worth in terms of spectacle.
So by now I think it’s pretty clear that I’m by no means out to savage Spectre. It’s a very enjoyable film, my only major gripe is that this enjoyment exists on a predominantly superficial level.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
That this turned out to be the case came as a bitter let down, particularly after Casino Royale showed that a Bond film could be genuinely moving, and then – after the misstep that was Quantum of Solace – Skyfall went on to illustrate that a 007 film could provide meta textual and real-world commentary, all while engaging us on an even stronger emotional wavelength.
Oh, it’s not for want of trying on behalf of Mendes and his team that Spectre falls short in this regard. The filmmakers launch several earnest attempts at replicating the above feats, and while never completely striking out like the gang behind Quantum, they never fully make it happen, either.
Spectre opens with a concise, dramatic statement:
“The dead are alive.”
There’s a reason we’re told this up front: it’s the main idea underpinning the entire story, and all throughout, the ghosts of Bond’s past refuse to rest in their graves.
This doesn’t just apply to Oberhauser, Bond’s surrogate brother from childhood who faked his own death and “resurrected” himself as fan-favourite foe Blofeld, but also to all the constant reminders that plague 007 of the loved ones he has lost and the enemies he has killed.
We feel glimmers of emotion when these memories are invoked (as well as those of Dr. Swann, who has her own grief to carry), but nothing as strong as in similar scenes from earlier in the Craig-era.
As I hinted at earlier in this review, something else that seemed weak to me is the film’s ending, when Bond chooses not to kill Blofeld in cold blood.
It’s set up neatly enough, in the scene between M and Denbigh, when M points out that a license to kill is also a license not to, but the way it plays out during the finale feels too unreservedly heroic.
Now, I love me some unabashed heroism, but when you apply that sort of behaviour to a character as morally ambiguous as Bond, he appears to be acting against his nature.
I’m not saying a scene like this couldn’t have worked if handled differently, but as presented, it rings false to me and my reading of Bond’s personality and capacity for personal growth.
Also, what’s the thematic take away from this ending? That human killing machines are inherently better than inhuman ones? If so, that just seems to miss the point of Fleming’s work, which presented espionage types as ammoral killers no better than blunt instruments, even further.
That said, even if the human versus drone issue seems a bit out of place, it’s hard to fault the filmmakers for working in a topically sensitive, Snowden-inspired surveillance theme, and like said, whether I agree with it or not, it does all flow quite smoothly from the moment the idea is introduced through to the moment of pay-off in the final act.
(I should also acknowledge here that Spectre contains other subtextual business about cuckoos, and about birthing beauty out of horror, but I honestly couldn’t see enough substance in either of these elements to bother banging on any further – feel free to let me know in the comments if I’ve stepped over some gold!)
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
In crafting a follow up to Skyfall, Sam Mendes and his team faced a challenge great enough to give even 007 pause.
Whilst they weren’t completely successful in their mission, largely thanks to a weak storyline and uneven thematic elements, with Spectre, they’ve still delivered something most long-time James Bond fans will enjoy.