Hollywood, CA…“The dead are alive,” declares the opening title card (a first in the franchise), for Spectre. It’s a running theme throughout the twenty-fourth official James Bond film, over which the shadow of Bond’s legacy looms large. More so than any of the previous films, particularly in the Daniel Craig era, this new story tries to maintain continuity and return Bond to his roots, throwing our agent against unstoppable henchmen, using weird gadgets, and of course, reintroducing the shadowy criminal organization of the title, which was especially prevalent in the Connery era.
For those not in the know, the SPECTRE organization itself was created to be a politically neutral threat to Bond, a group bent on world domination led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a bald madman first played by Donald Pleasance, followed by several different actors. The syndicate’s acronym, “Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion,” as well as its signature octopus logo (symbolizing their desire to reach into the murkiest depths of world crime), became ubiquitous in early Bond films including Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. However, after Connery’s role concluded in Diamonds Are Forever, SPECTRE and Blofeld disappeared from the franchise…until now.
So here we are: SPECTRE is back, and the Bond legacy is renewed. Unfortunately, director Sam Mendes, who also directed Skyfall, has crafted a film that’s so obsessed with its legacy that it forgets to create an original and interesting story. While the film has fantastic action scenes and is technically proficient, the story and characters ultimately fall flat, and the reveal of the villain’s plan and identity (which any astute viewer will be able to pick up from the film’s trailers) cheapens the film and feels unsatisfying.
The plot, in typical Bond globetrotting fashion, finds our hero in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead, hot on the trail of the mysterious organization Spectre under the last orders of the previous M (Judi Dench). Meanwhile, back in London, the 00 agent program is breathing its last under the new M (played by veteran actor Ralph Fiennes, who ascended to the position at the end of the previous film), who is clashing with the head of MI5, codenamed C (Sherlock’s Moriarty himself, Andrew Scott), who seeks to replace the agency with a vast surveillance program codenamed “Nine Eyes.”
From there, the film hops around from Rome to Austria and more as Bond uncovers more about the shadowy group and races to stay one step ahead of unstoppable henchman Mr. Hinx (played with commanding physical presence by wrestler Dave Bautista, fresh off his star-making role as Drax the Destroyer in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy). Bond also joins forces with Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the daughter of one his previous enemies. While the dialogue doesn’t exactly leap off the screen, Craig brings more of his dry wit to the character, and the film does an excellent job of showing the more human side of Ms. Moneypenny (played by returning actress Naomie Harris), as well as Q (Ben Whishaw), who gets more focus and several well-done and humorous scenes.
Visually, the film is a delight. The cinematography and shot composition are spectacular, with the varied locations and sweeping shots only adding to the action set pieces. The opening scene, in particular (which takes the place of the usual pre-gun barrel teaser sequence), features an epic tracking shot that follows Bond through a crowd in Mexico, into a hotel, and across the rooftops. The film features several thrilling and frantic chase scenes, which are packed with small details and a joy to behold (a helicopter fight scene in Mexico really stands out). And while some scenes are dull and devoid of color, many of the locations are bright and crisp, particularly a fight sequence on a train and a chase in the Alps.
As mentioned above, the movie is obsessed with its legacy, and while this shadow weighs heavily on the story, it works well with the visuals and action scenes. Said scenes take costume cues from You Only Live Twice and Goldfinger (Bond’s iconic white tuxedo makes a triumphant return) and locations from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and License to Kill, among others. Additionally, after setting up a return to the classic Bond formula at the end of Skyfall, this film is the payoff, with more of the classic gadgets, cars, characters, and even the original theme (although the rest of the score is fairly lacking, even Sam Smith’s theme song) making a comeback.
Somewhat ironically, that same legacy that brings such visual flair to the film is also its downfall. Put simply, the story suffers from what is called “continuity lockout:” that is, if you haven’t seen the previous three films, you’ll be fairly lost, as this one doesn’t take much time to play catch up. Even worse, Spectre attempts to tie all the previous films together, without taking the effort to explain exactly how this is the case. Perhaps most egregiously, the film never attempts to go beyond its references and find deeper meanings. For example, the name of the organization is simply a reference (the acronym isn’t present in this version), a callback for longtime fans with no deeper significance. In a similar vein, the recreated shots and scenes from other films are merely that: basic recreations that lack any originality or creativity.
The shadow of the franchise even devalues some of the characters, which might have otherwise elevated the film beyond its mediocre status. Mr. Hinx, for instance, is a terrific obstacle in the vein of Richard Kiel’s Jaws; but ultimately he’s merely a roadblock (he has ONE LINE of dialogue) who receives no character development. The most egregious example, however, is Seydoux’s character, Dr. Swann.
The idea the she’s the daughter of a villain is an interesting wrinkle, and when she coldly shuts down Bond’s charm, it seems at first that she might subvert the classic Bond girl formula…until she doesn’t, and becomes yet another of his conquests (although, to be fair, Seydoux is excellent in the role, and takes a more active role than most Bond women). And for all the hype of Monica Bellucci being an “older Bond girl,” she appears in one scene and then vanishes from the plot. There’s also Andrew Scott as C; while Scott is a fine actor, his typecast role as Moriarty on Sherlock unfortunately leaves no doubt about his true allegiances in the film. As for 007, Craig is as entertaining as he’s ever been, but he seems tired and weighed down, which dampens his scenes somewhat. Last but not least, there’s the main villain himself…
MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
Surprising absolutely no one, Christoph Waltz’s character, identified as Franz Oberhauser, is actually Ernst Stavro Blofeld. This twist, as it were, is one of the worst parts of the film, on par with the Khan twist in Star Trek: Into Darkness. While Waltz is a terrific actor, alternatively cunning and laughing mad in the role, the only reason for his character actually being Blofeld is apparently because everyone expected it anyway, and you can’t name your film Spectre without Blofeld making an appearance. Even here, 007’s legacy haunts the film: his character takes the name Blofeld for seemingly no reason, and the story gives him the iconic scar, but—as with the rest of the film—it’s all surface details, references to better Bond films that exist only to cash in on the nostalgia factor.
Even worse, rather than simply being a megalomaniacal mastermind, the film attempts to give Blofeld a personal reason for hating Bond. Towards the end of the film, it’s revealed that Blofeld is actually Bond’s stepbrother…yes, really. Apparently, all of the previous Craig film plots were orchestrated by Blofeld…simply because his father was Bond’s adopted childhood guardian, and Blofeld felt that his father loved his new stepbrother more than him. Because he was no longer dad’s favorite, Blofeld killed his father, faked his death, and created a criminal empire, seemingly only to torment Bond.
This reveal, in addition to being utterly dull, actually serves to make the character less interesting than he was before, with his mysterious past. And while his character claims to be behind the previous films, the script doesn’t bother to expand on this beyond his simple claim, leaving the whole personal vendetta feeling lifeless, cheap, and ultimately, very pointless. As io9.com put it, “personal is not a shortcut to depth.” Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Blofeld’s master plan is essentially a beat-by-beat retread of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
SPOILERS END HERE.
Spectre is not a bad film. It’s not even the worst Bond film. Ultimately, however, the combination of visual flair and an obsession with legacy add up to an uneven and somewhat dead film, devoid of depth. The film’s slavish devotion to continuity means that it never gets room breathe. While it does an admirable job setting up Spectre as a threat for future films and bringing Bond back to his roots, it falls flat when it comes to characters, serving only as a nostalgia trip for longtime series fans. The dead might be alive, but perhaps they should have stayed in their graves for this one.
Final Score: 6/10