James Bond: The Spectre of Emotions the Film Never Actually Earns.

Here be Spoilers.

Spectre isn’t aggressively bad like The World is Not Enough or Quantum of Solace. But neither does it hit the heights of the previous entry in the franchise. Instead it sits in the middle ground with The Man With the Golden Gun, a film that could probably be greatly improved by a firmer hand in the editing room. And indeed, like that entry in the franchise, Spectre features a powerful character actor who is criminally underutilized.

The biggest albatross is that Spectre never actually earns the emotional beats that it goes for. They allude to the events of the previous three films, but aside from seeing a few pictures on varied computer monitors, the film never actually puts in the legwork to make Bond process those emotions, or even to put in the kind of plot details to make us believe that Spectre was the nefarious villain all along.

In this vein, Bond’s romance comes too easily in the film. In the tradition of the Roger Moore era, Bond and Madeline Swann fall into each other’s after surviving a violent ordeal. This is made more ridiculous than usual because there is very little chemistry between Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux. But more importantly, Casino Royale introduces Vesper early in the film, and allows the characters to have many well-crafted character moments before actually throwing them together. Eva Green, we miss you.

For all the bloated run time of the movie, it never actually provides the exposition necessary for us to care about any of the characters. There’s so much back-story that hasn’t been filled in, yet so much of the film is drab and dry and blank.

What was Bloefeld’s deal? He’s upset that Bond was his stepbrother? Seriously? So he created this phantom organization just to be a secret asshole? The film provides no serious exposition here to make the audience care.

What is the reason for the organization Spectre to exist? Okay, so they can make a shitload of money by selling crappy vaccines in Africa. That’s just a generally evil thing to do, but hardly a reason to create this giant phantom organization to co-opt government. They’re hitting on Koch Brothers level of evil here, not necessarily Bond villain level of evil.

I’ll just go watch The Constant Gardner again. The producers seem to want this level of critical respect from the Bond films, but are too unwilling to change the formula in order to get it. They keep trying to address topics of geopolitical relevance, but keep using the same blunt Bond formula in order to address it. The reason Casino Royale was so beloved was because, in spite of it being an adaptation, audiences didn’t know what to expect from it.

The filmmakers try to gain relevance here by making the NSA stand-in the bad guy. But what they doesn’t seem to understand is that the character of James Bond has always fundamentally been an exemplar of orthodoxy. And mass data collection is the ultimate Bond gadget.

The problem is, it’s been very hard to deliver a credible Bond villain after the fall of the Soviet Union. There use to be an actual terrible and omnipresent foe in the world. And even in the films where Spectre was foregrounded, the world was large enough in travel, in communication, in the narratives we crafted, that a billionaire with kooky ideas was enough of a existential threat.

And that’s why spy films right now are exclusively dealing with corruption within their own organization. Every Mission: Impossible film, save the second one, has featured Ethan Hunt somehow going rogue or being disavowed. The Jason Bourne films are built around him working against the intelligence agencies in which he used to find employment. And now the Bond franchise, from Casino Royale through Spectre, all features an MI6 that has been thoroughly compromised by villains.

Right now the only people who wield enough power to harm us is ourselves. Western hegemony, and economic policies that benefit the West are by far doing the most harm in the world today. That’s what makes James Bond obsolete.

Now, all of the above I can forgive, all of it, if not for the way Spectre ends by hinting that James Bond is retiring.

My friend Lee had written a fan fiction James Bond ending where he threw his Walther PPK into the ocean and drove off with Moneypenny. Well, ultimately the ending is the absolute reason why this movie failed.

We get the moment where he rejects killing Bloefeld and discards the gun. However, in spite of the promising setup with Moneypenny in Skyfall, there is no emotional payoff there. She just unceremoniously exits the film. Instead, he drives off with the character he has no chemistry with.

I was sincerely hoping that Bloefeld would get away. That with his freshly minted scar, he would grace future films as the Big Bad. But instead he is arrested. If the producers had set up the ending as a launching pad for future sequels, that would ultimately make this a positive review. But the fact that Spectre attempted to be an unearned ending chapter instead of an opening one, and a nominally boring one at that, has relegated it into not one of the Bond movies you skip in your marathon, but the one that perhaps you allow yourself to nap in the middle of.

Spare ruminations:

  • The Mexico City opening was pretty terrific, certainly the best part of the film. But the North African desert action sequence was excruciatingly bad, certainly one of the worst in the franchise. It was on the level of the movies I made with my friends in middle school, where an army of faceless extras would run out at Bond, be inexplicably unable to hit him in spite of the fact that he was out in the open, and they be mowed down by his machine gun.
  • Where do these villains get so much time to do these arts and crafts projects? A the climax of the film, Bond races through the ruins of MI6 to find a needlessly elaborate art display for Bond’s benefit. Tell me, in the time Bloefeld was recovering from his injury, we assume still running his totally-wicked-what-do-they-do-anyways organization, to plotting to take over the world with the totally-not-the-NSA, and he takes the time to run hundreds of yards of red yarn through a crime scene?
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