COLOSSAL SPOILERS AWAIT YOU BENEATH THE COVERT OPS TURTLENECK WEARING MAN. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK
Spectre, the latest James Bond movie, is a horrendously broken piece of cinema. The good news is that it’s broken in a way that promises, in fact demands, major changes to the franchise next time out. We’ll get to those and what they could be, but first off, let’s look at just why this is a ghost no one wanted back at the banquet.
The Daniel Craig Bond movies, through to Skyfall, feel very complete. In fact they form an unusually violent and surprisingly coherent meta narrative. Casino Royale introduces Bond, and us, to his world and then upends it. Quantum of Solace explores the consequences of those actions and finishes Bond’s journey from dubious newcomer to fully onside ‘warrior monk’ . Skyfall brings everything full circle, exploring the pasts of Bond and M and examining just how long someone can do this work without it destroying them.
The final scenes of Skyfall have such narrative weight and gentle, grumpy pathos to them that they play like a sendoff for this version of the character. As a result, Spectre is a curtain call that while at least fiscally earned feels both perfunctory and creatively unnecessary.
The fact it’s a film built on the metaphorical and physical ruins of its predecessors doesn’t help. The final sequence is set in the MI5 building that was attacked in Skyfall. The 00 program is, yet again, up for cancellation. The central reveal is that each one of the massive operations Bond has opposed has been a single arm of a colossal global criminal organization. That last one is a great idea, one that escalates the stakes in the way franchise movies demand but also keeps everything that’s gone before it in context. It promises huge reveals, new perspectives on old events and a new direction for the series.
It delivers on almost none of those promises.
The problems start with the central reveals, both of which fall flat. We find out every villain in the Craig movies worked for Spectre and…that’s it. No context, no further detail, no reasoning and no endgame beyond an elaborate piece of showmanship that manages to almost completely undermine what little presence Blofeld has.
Blofeld himself, and his new found relationship with Bond are an abject disaster. The reveal that he’s the son of the man who fostered Bond is interesting but never explored beyond flat, apathetic exposition. The implication that follows it, that he became the greatest criminal in the world because his father loved Bond more than him is nonsensical to the point of being offensive.
Even worse there’s no sense of a connection between the two men. They should be equals, adoptive brothers who know each other’s weak spots intimately. There should be anger, betrayal, deep emotional connection. Instead there’s half-hearted verbal sparring and mutilation.
Blofeld is the black hole at the film’s centre. He’s an empty space where a personality should be, played so flatly by Christoph Waltz he actually seems bored at being onscreen. A billionaire information dealer with little or no emotional core, it’s like Bond’s fighting Bill Gates only you get the sense Bill would be better organized and care more. Worse still, the ending, which was infamously being written as the film began shooting, ultimately shows him to be a blistering idiot. One who still, somehow, bested British Intelligence.
If the problems ended there Spectre would simply be bad. They don’t.
The expanded supporting cast Skyfall did such great work with are all back and none of them escape unscathed. M is reduced to little more than grumpy exposition, Moneypenny’s previous subtle arc is replaced with looking worried in the background and Q gets a huge personality overhaul. The wonderfully confident, snippy techie of the last movie is replaced by a stereotypical nerd, complete with self-hating cat jokes and puns only he laughs at. Last time, he was Bond’s equal. This time, he’s Bond’s geeky little brother. Even new arrival Andrew Scott, as C, is wasted in a role that should have been a chance for him to really cut loose.
But even they get a better deal than the female leads. The much vaunted arrival of Monica Bellucci accounts for perhaps ten minutes of screen time while the excellent Lea Seydoux is around more but somehow comes out worse off. She gets a couple of moments of physical competency which are nice to see but don’t constitute even half an arc. She’s also part of the film’s deeply unconvincing, chemistry-free love story. She and Bond fall for each other because it’s time to, the script using sex to hurriedly paper over the fact the exact same set up (Bond kills or is complicit in the death of one of their relatives, they sleep with him) is inflicted on both women.
There’s a moment in Skyfall I kept thinking of as Spectre unfolded. M, sitting in front of a committee who will decide her future and very aware her past is trying to kill her, reads part of a poem by Tennyson. The scene is below:
There’s a phrase she doesn’t quite get to which embodies the most egregious problem with the Spectre script and, perhaps, the single good thing to come out of it. That phrase is:
The best lack all conviction
Spectre’s problems are all wrapped up in that line. It’s a a script that doesn’t deliver on anything, worst of all what could have been its bravest moment. Like Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol before it this plays very much like the swan song for the lead actor in the role. And, like Ghost Protocol, there’s a scene that plays like last minute changes were made to avoid that. In this case it’s Bond being tortured by a surgical robot controlled by Blofeld. He drills into Bond’s mind at two points; the first meant to take the edge off his reflexes and senses, the second to destroy his ability to recognize people.
In other words, Blofeld takes the razor’s edge of physical competency and mental awareness that are the only things keeping Bond alive. He ends his adoptive brother’s career by maiming him.
That’s an incredibly malicious, powerful thing to do and it should throw the end of the film into high gear. Bond in constant physical jeopardy as he struggles to use his dulled reflexes to save the lives of people he no longer recognizes. Bond, the man who trusts no one, having to trust the strangers around him are the people he needs to protect. Better still, that’s a clear on ramp to this incarnation of the character leaving as he now, in every way, cannot do his job fully.
Instead he shrugs both injuries off and proceeds to march through the rest of the movie like a craggy-faced terminator. If anything, his bodycount increases.
The lack of conviction on this scene is made all the weirder by the film’s ending. This feels, and is clearly shot and written, like the last material Craig will ever do as Bond. Faced with a choice between M or Swann he chooses Swann. Returning at the end of the movie, he takes the original Aston Martin, restored by Q and drives off into the sunset. No mention of the injuries, no pathos, no emotion. What should be a powerful closing image is robbed of its agency in the same way most of the cast have been. The character, and especially Craig’s run with him, deserved a much better ending than that. And it got one. In the previous movie.
So what’s next?
Bond, like Sherlock Holmes and The Doctor, thrives on change. Embrace that. Switch out the writers and directors and come at the character with fresh eyes. Keep what characters work, get rid of the ones that don’t and mess with the format. The original plan for Spectre was for it to be a two-part story and that would have been far more interesting than what we got. Experiment with the format, build a writers room to plan out the next two or three movies. Do something, anything, new instead of dancing in the bones of better movies.
And most importantly, it’s time for a new Bond. Craig is consistently the best thing in Spectre and he’s one of the all-time great Bonds but it’s time for someone new. And I know who gets my vote.
Idris Elba’s a fantastic actor, a popular choice and has absolutely the right presence. Better still, he’s new and a new Bond, not to mention a new kind of Bond wouldn’t just reinvigorate the series it would exorcise its ghosts. And, based on Spectre, Bond’s ghosts may be the only thing that can kill him.