Here we are again (spoiler notice)
There’s something to be said for Bond as an auteur series. Back for seconds is director Sam Mendes, who did a superb job infusing Skyfall with an unusually personal story for Bond and an even more unusual, quaintly apocalyptic final act. And it worked. Having him return for Spectre means there’s continuity beyond the usual nods and customs. The blasted-out MI6 headquarters features prominently, Bond receives his personal effects from what remains of Skyfall manor. The film knows an auspicious start with a Day of the Dead action scene that has everything you’d want from the series. And it needs it, because this is of course the big one, the denouement of three movies’ worth of setup.
Much has been leading up to this: the reveal of arch-nemesis Blofeld and his seditious organisation Spectre. What kept me up at night (such an ardent fan am I) was the doubt that modern day Daniel Craig Bond, and especially the tense thriller environment Mendes helped create, would never support such an inherently goofy concept as a cat-scratching, droopy-eyed villain with an acronym-based industry of henchmen surrounding him. There’s a reason Dr. Evil works as a caricature.
But then the intro titles manage to produce chills. Tentacles glide over naked bodies (inducing memories of David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and Spectre is presented as an entity that corrupts, both morally and physically. And as he so successfully did in Skyfall, Mendes fills the first half of the film with a seriously cool noir thriller mood. Killers stalking each other, teasing out information and probing who to trust and what’s at stake. But more so than before, there is an art house quality to the picture. This Bond phases almost into the realm of visual symbolism. Striking is a Roman funeral (almost readable as a quirky companion piece to La Grande Bellezza), where the visitors disappear between rows of columns. Interesting shots abound, like the one where Bond and his companion sit back-to-back on a train station, or when 007 executes two assassins while out of focus.
It’s pretty much flawless Bond, this first half. Tension rises. Anticipation builds up. Then Blofeld joins the stage and we’re back in the Sean Connery years. Christoph Waltz does a fine job with the villain, portraying him with such gusto that he might well have been Inglourious Basterds’ Hans Landa’s brother. But despite his natural magnetism, which is great, something feels decidedly off. It’s not him, it’s just... Blofeld. The film doesn’t seem to be able to give him anything meaningful to do. When Mendes introduced Silva in Skyfall, he was terrifying. He had a personal grudge against M and seemed capable of anything – without ever losing credibility. Spectre gives Blofeld the same motivation: he is revealed to be Bond’s stepbrother and quite nuts, and now wants to torture his only living family. But his character falls apart as soon as we get to know him.
It's a bit too much of a coincidence that two boys who were once brothers each end up as champions of opposing causes. And how could a clearly insane man become the head of Spectre? How could such an unwieldy organisation exist in secrecy in the first place? Near the end we enter what must surely be the cheesiest holdover of Jurassic Bond: the exotic evil lair, in Africa this time, filled with legions of well-educated IT specialists who have apparently decided the evil life’s for them, and also know martial arts? This base – designed by the same architect who dreamed up the Death Star – is utterly blown up by a single bullet shot into an exposed valve. I do hope the Rolls Royce survived the blast.
Of all the throwbacks, there’s an actual torture trap involving little drills. And after that predictably fails to kill Bond, Blofeld manages to create (in no time, apparently) yet another elaborate death trap. At least Quantum, the evil group looming over the last few films and now re-imagined as being but a division of Spectre, had a believable mode of operation, relevant motivations and more style when it came to meeting. But then, Tosca’s not for everyone.
Frustratingly, it all feels a bit too retconned. Bond has a brother he didn’t care to think of in the last three films? LeChiffre, Greene, Vesper, White, Silva, they were all part of Blofeld’s ploy to inflict personal harm on 007? Not only does it make little sense, it takes away the validity and poignancy of their own respective stories. It could’ve worked if it wasn’t so clearly invented after the fact and shoehorned in.
There is, fortunately, still much to adore here. The home team gets some deserved screen time, Bond girl Madeleine Swann holds her own, and the scenes with Mr. White, in his final reprise, are powerful. It remains a somewhat mythical experience to watch a new Bond. From the moment you watch the world from the view of a gun barrel, you can’t help but be transported, delighted. Not even a sagging second half can really bring it down. Still, though...
Consider the movie’s theme. The opening montage conjures up dreams of corrupted innocence and beauty, Spectre being an ominous presence that seeps into everything that is good. But the film itself recycles most of the ideas from Skyfall – Bond’s childhood coming to haunt him, MI6 under threat from supposed obsolescence, information as the ultimate weapon – only vaguely worse. Combined with an evil presence that is nearly without a reason to do what it does, and a sorely missed Judy Dench as the heart and soul of British intelligence, this Bond has little to say. At this point one almost wishes some world-destroying satellite to appear. Any point would’ve been better than no point at all.
Mendes clearly has an eye for creating intriguing Bond moments and knows how to visualise them, but even he stumbles over the cartoon villain of the piece. Pity, because when he uses Bond tradition with whimsy instead of being crushed by it, he is able to put a remarkable, authorial stamp on the series.
Spectre is half Skyfall and half You Only Live Twice, and the result is just as haphazard and awkward as you’d imagine. The film is made with extreme technical competence and an eye for design flair, but fails at a conceptual level. These two universes, these two facets of Bond, have grown so far apart that they’re impossible to merge again. Going forward, either we proceed with Blofeld’s camp or return to the spy thriller Bond that was set up in Casino Royale and Skyfall. I know which one I’d choose.