A Review of Spectre

Note: I saw this a few days ago but came down with a bad head cold immediately after, delaying my review. I apologize this isn’t as timeline as I would like. Still, Spectre looks to have a strong second weekend so hopefully this will still serve its purpose.

If I could select one word to describe the James Bond franchise, it would be “cirrhosis.” If I could pick another word, it would be “inconsistent.” There have been plenty of classic Bonds (Goldfinger, Goldeneye, Licence to Kill, Casino Royale, The Spy Who Loved Me) and plenty of unwatchable messes (Man with a Golden Gun, Moonraker, Live and Let Die, Die Another Day, Quantum of Solace). What’s frustrating is when a Bond film falls right in the middle of the two. You’re thankful that the film isn’t as bad as it could be, but you know Bond can indeed do it better.

Spectre unfortunately falls in that category. It’s entertaining and has some great moments. (I loved the pre-credits sequence in Mexico City. It’s an amazing mini-Bond film with Daniel Craig gliding through the scene as if he’s dancing on a stage.)  It also has some good ideas, particularly involving the huge new data bank in London that is being set up to replace the double 0 program.

But Spectre also fully utilizes the James Bond formula that the Daniel Craig era movies had wonderfully ignored. Back are all the gimmicks with the car, the comic opera villain who is more interested in talking than executing their plans, and women who are back to staying in the film for the obligatory sex scene and then disappearing.

This is the same formula that had already been endlessly parodied before the franchise was rebooted with Casino Royale in 2006. With Spectre, that exact formula comes back without a hint of irony.

The idea of bringing back the villainous Spectre organization was an interesting one, as was the idea that it’s the last assignment the former M (Judi Dench) gave to James Bond (Daniel Craig). The current M (Ralph Fiennes), is dealing with the plans of C (Andrew Scott) to essentially replace all of the world’s intelligence organizations with a giant data cache. So Bond has to go over the heads of his bosses to see how the two things could be potentially linked.

The biggest problem with the film is that the filmmakers tried to link everything from previous installments to this new one. They include repeated call backs to the villains in the previous entries and insist that it was all part of some long plan.

How is that even possible? Take Skyfall, where Silva was an ex MI6 agent seeking revenge and did nothing for any plan beyond that. How does he fit into Spectre’s structure? The film never says. It also never says exactly what their end game is. Are they hoping to control every single rogue group in the world? Do they want money? The scene in which Bond infiltrates their group sure feels like a board room meeting. What?

I know that the answers may lie in previous films, but that kind of defeats the purpose of a reboot. Spectre was yours to do anything with. Instead you give us a weak villain with a weak twist. Christoph Waltz supposedly plays a man named Franz Oberhauser, but we all know what’s really coming. And the idea of this organization that wants to take over the world just feels outdated

You can probably already sense my frustration with the formula Spectre has. It was the same as any Bond formula of the past – the formula Casino Royale spent so much effort deconstructing. Even the characters are falling back into their stereotypes. Q (Ben Wishaw) is the same fusspot Desmond Llewlyn was who is hoping that Bond can return some of the equipment. M doesn’t like Bond’s methods but recognizes his ability to get the job done. At least Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is not just a secretary but a fully realized character.

But the thing is the film follows that formula very well. The heavy henchman character Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, from Guardians of the Galaxy) is a whole lot of fun. It brought to mind the campy fun that Richard Kiel brought to Roger Moore’s Bond outings. I even liked Lea Seydoux’s Bond girl Madeline Swan. (Monica Bellucci is in this movie for maybe two scenes so doesn’t really count for much.) As much as the concept of a Bond girl is growing increasingly outdated, she at least had an established character to her and a connection to Bond’s past. Also, maybe it’s just me, but I do like seeing Bond dressed in whatever the height of current fashion is. It’s the one element I’ve never seen overtly parodied and it does make for an interesting time capsule of the era it takes place. Spectre’s design embraces that aesthetic.

And I liked the master plan. The whole “nukes destroying the world idea” is no longer scary – ironically because Bond has saved the world from that threat. But the massive data collections that threaten to utterly destroy the concept of privacy and may not actually save anyone is far scarier to us. In the wrong hands, what would your browser history or text message record say about you? That is an idea that a modern spy thriller needs to approach. Does Spectre have an answer for that? No, but at least it recognizes the threat that’s present. And that finale in the new office, which doesn’t even focus exclusively on Bond, is a real white knuckle thrill ride.

Spectre is still a wildly entertaining Bond film, but it doesn’t feel as effective as the other ones. That’s because movies like Skyfall and Casino Royale treated Bond as a person. They believed in him and wanted to show what would happen if he was placed in an emotionally engaging situation. In Spectre, Bond is just a character again, going through the motions of another situation. It may be fun, but I felt the series had finally reinvented itself. Spectre ultimately feels like a con is being revealed and that the whole “reboot” idea was temporary. But that’s what the series needed and I hope future installments don’t forget the reasons Casino Royale needed to exist.

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