Film Review: Spectre (2015)

“I don’t know,” James Bond says at one point in Spectre, when asked what would happen if he stopped to think about the reality of his violent life. This scene cuts to thematic core of Daniel Craig‘s Bond era. It is also, however, a moment you’ve seen before, specifically in Craig’s first go-round as the super spy: 2006’s superior Casino Royale.

Oh sure, there are some minor differences between the two moments. In Royale, the beautiful woman posing the query was Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd instead of Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann in Spectre. Thematically though the two beats are closely aligned and attempt to do the impossible. They strive to parse, no less, the human psyche of an inhuman character.

Prior to the Craig era, it was questionable if Bond could be approached with introspection. Since his inception the character has been treated as a construct, a virile locus where male fears, anxieties, and fantasies could be funneled and turned into something spectacular. This changed with the hiring of Craig. Suddenly, Bond could be interpreted as a character, as a person. But, for as progressive as that sounds it also raised an interesting question, one which brings Bond’s poignant response of “I don’t know,” into a critical light. If Bond stops to think about what it means to be Bond, can he then still be Bond? Or, does that make him something else? Irrefutably, it makes him more interesting; but does it run contradictory to the iconic ethos of the character?

This is what the Craig films have attempted to answer, but it is also a question that, after four films, has decidedly gotten tired. In Spectre we see a Bond that once again vacillates between the Bond of old – complete with quips, gadgets and nonsensical hookups – and the psychologically complex Bond of new, something that became noticeable first in the weakest of the Craig films: 2008’s instantly forgettable Quantum of Solace.

Spectre not only has Solace’s tonal inconsistency, but even its emotionally and psychologically resonant moments feel like old hat. It probably doesn’t help that its story continues Bond’s intractable conflict (which began in Royale) with the villainous organization known as Quantum… er Spectre, and once again saddles its spy with enough childhood trauma to make even Batman appear sunny.

If Spectre can be said to have a storyline it’s a slim one at best. There’s a big bad who wants something – portrayed by the most perfunctory casting choice of all time, Christoph Waltz – and it features Bond fighting, killing and fucking like mad to stop him. Yet, Spectre is far more concerned with world-building than narrative, interweaving nods to past Craig films and tying them together in a semi-thrilling, semi-bloated way.

As an enormous and often gorgeous film, Spectre is a testament to the craft of its cast and crew. Director Sam Mendes – returning for his second consecutive Bond film – pulls together a roster of talent that includes Chris Nolan’s editor Lee Smith and veteran Bond production designer Dennis Gassner. The result is a striking piece of work that contains some remarkable set pieces. Consider the opening sequence, shot in an unbroken take in Mexico City. Mendes’ camera immerses viewers in the lush and colorful Day of the Dead celebration, and we watch as Bond stalks through the city’s avenues and rooftops before attempting to kill a number of men with ties to Spectre. It’s a richly textured, deeply atmospheric and thrilling opening, but it also marks the film’s aesthetic zenith. Although there are some great location shots that follow, the film’s DP, Hoyte van Hoytema, simply cannot match the artfulness Roger Deakins brought to the previous Bond romp Skyfall.

The opening also introduces the fatally flawed nature of Spectre’s script, which often undermines what is transpiring onscreen. Nothing in Spectre makes much sense or receives the requisite development, something perhaps inevitable considering its virtual stable of credited writers. For example, like past Craig films Spectre’s script is deeply concerned with Bond’s baggage. Yet, this feels largely shoehorned in – far more so than previous outings. The character’s dark familial issues are again manifested in a surrogate sibling antagonist, but in a less cohesive way than with Skyfall’s Silva. Additionally, Spectre has a disconcerting and thoroughly unexplored reverence for the past. This is seen with Ralph Fiennes’ M and Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny, who spend a bulk of their time struggling against Andrew Scott’s C and his attempt to replace MI6’s field agents with the global security network of big data and Internet surveillance (which obviously has nefarious implications). Spectre’s retrograde attitude towards this plot point is personified by the hapless and underused Fiennes, whose character delivers a jaw-dropping speech railing against computerized surveillance and glorifying the “good old days” when government agents would play it straight and just shoot you in the head.

The actors are for the most part fine; although, with such an impressive cast you wish they were working with a better script. Spectre’s “Bond girls” are inconsistently treated, with Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann having a small arc and backstory and Monica Bellucci being totally wasted. Despite her considerable beauty, past pedigree and unique distinction of being an older Bond woman, the Italian actress only gets about five minutes of screen time. She definitely ranks as one of the most trivial and anonymous conquests of the Craig Bond era.

Unsurprisingly, the character with the most room to breath is the main man himself. Now a seasoned veteran of the series, Craig has never seemed more confident serving as the nexus point for a blockbuster. But confidence doesn’t mean perfection. Craig cannot overcome the mechanizations of Spectre’s script, which puts Bond into situations that run counter-intuitive to the actor’s interpretation of the man. This is most evident in the film’s seduction scenes, which are not credible considering Craig’s steely depiction of the spy. More successful is his considerable physicality, seen in Spectre through frequent albeit consequence-free clashes with Dave Bautista’s silent assassin Mr. Hinx.

From an acting standpoint though Craig’s Bond is best during quite moments, where you briefly see the sad, lonely inner-life of the character, one that Bond himself cannot truly contend with or understand. This dialectical tension, between the inner and the outer, the crippled and the active, is what Craig will be best remembered for bringing to the character. At this point though we’ve seen a lot of this before, and now it’s safe to say that it has been definitively played out through Spectre.

Again, when Bond says that “I don’t know,” in the scene described above he isn’t lying. The character’s dry wit, fast lifestyle and almost psychotic devotion to queen and country have stymied any significant self-reflection. However, greater self-understanding has also eluded the character due to the simple necessities inherent to such a franchise property. Spectre bluntly builds on how the Craig era has repeatedly flirted with the character’s conflicted self, pushing this theme to its natural and over-the-top conclusion. After four films, there’s nowhere else for it to go, there’s nowhere else for Bond himself to go. Unfortunately, that’s the thing, it has to go on, at the very least in the favored studio ploy of our time: the dreaded reboot.

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