The past is the present in Spectre, and that’s not a good thing.
I’m not really a Bond fan. Let’s get that out of the way. Thanks to my dad, a die-hard, holiday-TV-marathon, Sean-Connery-is-king, we-survived-Die-Another-Day-in-theaters fan, I’ve seen every movie at least once growing up. I knew Honey Ryder and Blofeld, Scaramanga’s third nipple (somewhat traumatizing for a sheltered girl) and Shirley Bassey’s crooning. But unlike other childhood influences on an impressionable mind (Star Wars, The Avengers — no, not that one, the British series), Mr. Bond never stole my heart. I had a limit in my search for redemptive qualities, and that limit was testosterone-infused male fantasy with a side dish of mortifying sexism. (Not that wee Kelcie knew what sexism was. She just wanted the women to do more than be naked.)
That all changed with Craig’s reign, one of the rare dark ‘n gritty reboots I’m 250% okay with. It gave Bond a soul. A bleeding, beating, tangible heart and soul. Classic fans cried foul at the loss of their camp while I rolled around like the proverbial kid in a gourmet candy store. Sure, it was candy, but with actual stakes that bred actual drama, character flaws, the dark underbelly of a post-911 world (albeit still in a flashy superspy way), and a self-awareness that deliberately walked back the weaknesses of its history, it was the best candy.
(Here’s a spot for you to insert your Daniel Craig as eye candy joke. I’m thoughtful like that.)
So there’s my bias, upfront and clarified. And here we are, nine years and four films down the road, and Spectre is the most like the films of yore. This is no longer a Bond who snaps “Do I look like I give a damn?” when asked “shaken or stirred,” or one who spends months playing dead so he can do some soul-searching about his life’s purpose. This Bond has grown into his legacy and there’s no question as to his relevance. He struts his fine suits and quips his improbable one-liners with a knowing smirk that’s as much an aside to the audience as an internal reflection of his own arrogance.
This is James Bond, after all; we know who he is as much as he does. Who could compare? Who can beat him?
And there’s the rub.
Spectre, arguably, has everything your typical Bond film needs. Its narrative set-ups and dramatic arcs are superb given their retroactive handling (no one had this planned in 2006, duh). It manages to bring Craig’s run full circle into a decently cohesive narrative (something I’m a sucker for), and if this is the actor’s last bow, it’s overall a lovely, understated swan song. But with faith in a successful formula, the tension vanishes.
It’s not as though Spectre’s predecessors brought doubt that the famous hero of our fill-in-the-blanks franchise would succeed, but the journey to that endpoint was essential. Surprise: Bond wasn’t flawless! He was outwitted, outgunned, and had to fight tooth and bloody nail for a victory. Even now Casino Royale and Skyfall manage to feel electrifying because there are consequences, uncertainty, and psychological chess-masterings. (Or poker-masterings.)
Sure, the MI6 life had its glamorous moments, and it wouldn’t be right if Craig’s Bond didn’t grow into a more recognizably suave creature than his troubled beginnings. That’s called “character evolution” and “backstory.” But being 007 came with a cost.
It’s too easy in Spectre. Bond is an unstoppable hurricane of a human, a nigh-god. He barrels through scenes like a Terminator in a three-piece suit, so why should I care when the dramatic effect is rendered hollow? Of course it’s fun watching badassery unfold; I have a huge soft spot for genre movies. But without a meaningful struggle toward our outcome, without a true physical, emotional, and mental challenge, the whole thing devolves into a well-filmed checklist of plot points rather than a compelling tale.
Dazzling opening sequence? Check.* Gadgets? Check. Improbable escapes? Check. Women melting into Bond’s arms? Check and check. Christoph Waltz, one of the most spine-chilling actors of the generation, was a caricature of the iconic character he played rather than something a step farther and truly frightening. Everything happens in a safe, secure vacuum, tied up with a nice bow of male triumph assisted by plot conveniences and short-cuts galore.
*(Truly, huge kudos to that opening sequence. The Touch of Evil-esque tracking shot alone was worth paying a ticket for.)
Spectre’s Bond is haunted as much by his past as he is by the legacy of his own franchise. History’s embedded in the movie’s DNA. There were expectations to meet and fond references to make (including a return to writhing naked women in the credits, now with laughable octopus tentacles! WHAT), so James Bond conforms to the archetype rather than stretches into humanity. Did Casino Royale and Skyfall succeed because they veered enough away from the comfort zone of assumed cliches, and focused instead on crafting character and tension? Only dabbling their toe into the fun nostalgia? Likely. The careful restraint made it fun. Skyfall in particular struck the ideal balance between indulgent winking fantasy and high-stakes uncertainty, with a ruined, broken Bond rediscovering himself in the face of an enemy who surpassed him and his mentor. How did we lose that?
In any case, my viewing experience can be summed up by an image in the last act: Waltz’s Ernst Savro Blofeld peering out from behind an impenetrable glass wall, separated from Bond. I was watching through a barrier of detachment.
Now, for other details:
For all the hype they made over Monica Bellucci as the first age-appropriate Bond girl, they don’t get many brownie points for having her in the movie for less than ten minutes, and at that only as an exposition point for Bond to seduce and drop like used socks. Where oh where is the Vesper Lynd who sized Bond up from the moment they met and matched him toe-to-toe, line-for-line? (Oh, right, she died for his manpain. Sigh.) Her “you view women as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits” speech was deathly skewering to the flagrantly misogynistic ways of old, and they just…kind of forgot about it. Hey, sex! Characterization what?
Madeline Swann fares better as a Vesper-inspired love interest, and like the movie itself, all the parts fit on the surface. The daughter of a Spectre agent is so my jam I probably would’ve written it as a fanfic, and as shipper Blofeld remarks, she’s indeed the perfect candidate to not only understand Bond, but to push him into a better version of himself. (Not that the “making-your-bad-man-better” is a good romance story, like, ever, but they managed to avoid the worst tropes.) His tenderness and her tenacity made a great match as two lonely people finding a home in each other, and it’s refreshing for Bond to have actual emotional investment in a woman instead of her existing as the token sex object.
But aside from wanting Madeline to have a consistent attitude toward Bond, or at least an evolving one less rushed, I didn’t care. (Sense a theme?) Take Casino Royale. Bond and Vesper fell in love in movie-time, sure, but between the actors’ chemistry, solid relationship development, an emotional arc anchored to the narrative path, and plenty of “Bond get your act together you douchenoodle” from every character, that felt like a hard-won, genuine connection. What happens after a visceral, near-death battle with villainous henchmen? Vesper hides in the shower, traumatized, and Bond sits with her. Without judgment, without sexual ultimatum. How much more human and satisfying is that over whiplash-inducing, endorphin-fueled banging ten minutes after Madeline makes an (admittedly enjoyable) crack about “falling into your arms, seeking solace for dead daddy”?
Hilariously, Bond has more chemistry with fandom favorite Q than the second great Love Of His Life. Which, well, is kind of understandable, because Q is a precious adorable misanthropic child whom I want to put in my pocket and cuddle forever. Moneypenny, glorious as ever if underused as ever, also sparkles with Craig as someone just as unquestionably intelligent and capable. She’s the only one who can call out his bacon in the aching void that Judi Dench left, which adds to the teeth-gritting frustration over her lack of screentime. (I miss Dench ridiculously. My tombstone will read, “Yes, still bitter over M’s death.”)
And since I seized my mom’s arm and squealed like a chipmunk at the back of his head, I’d be remiss not to devote more attention to Christoph Waltz, gift to mankind. As the scene-stealer of every movie, even one’s he’s not in (he’s just that magical), it’s no surprise he’s the highlight. Waltz is one of the few actors capable of taking a villainous character to over-the-top extremes without losing the grounded sense of what makes that character terrifying, so I was surprised to see him so restrained. It makes sense, though: we don’t want Blofeld, Mastermind King of all Villains, to feel like a repeat of Silva, and Blofeld, Mastermind King of all Villains, would be the spider at the center of his web*. Attuned to every quiver, utterly in control of himself and everything around him, is part of the job description.
*(To steal a Moriarty-ism. Which, hi, Andrew Scott! Love your face.)
Having said all that, in a true turn of irony, Blofeld’s shadow didn’t stretch as threateningly or omnisciently as Silva’s. Sure, Waltz holding a kitty is enough to get me into the theater, but I need more.
Speaking of, Spectre has shit lighting for their meetings. Do you think Blofeld sends his crew in beforehand to make sure his face is PERFECTLY OBSCURED BY SHADOWS? He’s gotta have the budget for a better light kit.
Don’t get me wrong. In concept, it’s practically perfect in every way. I had fun. And maybe if Skyfall hadn’t pushed our collective buttons in ways we never knew we wanted (yes, it really is worth that hype), we wouldn’t notice.
If previous entries satisfy, Spectre leaves us wanting too much more.