James Bond 007: Revisiting Spectre

We complete our series looking back at the James Bond movies, with a detailed look at Spectre, starring Daniel Craig...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK

This article contains big spoilers for Spectre and Star Trek Into Darkness.

Daniel Craig’s fourth or Roger Moore’s eighth? The former of course but you get the point. The almost-realistic stylings of early Craig have given way to the full blown pantomime excess of mid-Moore (or late Connery, in fairness). Desert lairs, endless car chases, free-wheelin’ helicopters and indestructible airplanes are all very much back in vogue.

The result is a largely enjoyable, extremely silly film which attempts to tie previous Craig outings together at the expense of consistency and logic. There isn’t a plot: more a succession of scenes stitched together. And it still can’t manage a decent finale! Fun but ultimately frivolous. Now who does that remind me of?

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The Villain: It’s Blofeld! Oh wait, you’re saying it isn’t? Who – Franz Oberhauser? Wasn’t that Bond’s old ski instructor? And he’s the villain of the new film. Named Spectre. Are you sure he isn’t Blofeld? I’m mean, he played by legendary baddie Christoph Waltz. And the film’s named Spectre. No, definitely Oberhauser you insist. Okay, maybe it’s an origins thing.

So who is Blofeld then? You know, Blofeld: the head of Spectre. Spectre as in the name of your film. Nobody is Blofeld, you say? Going by the title that seems unlikely.

Is it Andrew Scott? You haven’t tried to be all post-modern and cast Monica Bellucci? You’re not saying, lips are sealed. Okay, let’s wait and see. This should be good…oh look, it was Waltz all the long. And Blofeld and Bond are now foster brothers. Of course they are.

The Girl: Clever, disdainful and French; could Madeleine Swann possibly remind Bond of a certain someone? Lea Seydoux is suitably alluring but Madeleine never works as well as I feel she should. It’s not for lacking of trying: she has more biography than any heroine since Octopussy. Daughter of Bond’s dead enemy, firearm-proficient, resourceful and brave: there’s a lot to like about the lady.

Yet she never quite takes off as a character. Perhaps too much biography is the problem; we hear much about where she came from but see little of who she is. Heavy on detail, light on personality.

The dead are alive indeed. This is comfortably the longest retrospective I’ve written – blame self-indulgence and a lack of deadline – so no time for niceties. Great to see you again though. And you as well.

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Much of this retro is criticism so let’s be clear from the outset: I thoroughly enjoyed Spectre. I’ve watched it twice, a little while apart, and both times it worked as a piece of entertainment. Which is certainly what James Bond is, and arguably cinema as a whole.

That being said, it’s a massively flawed film. Some awarded it five stars, but I don’t get that at all. For me it’s a nailed on three twinkle-twinkles; four I could understand, likewise two. But five? With that finale? Pass it to the left-hand side, people.

The opening tracking shot is probably the most accomplished piece of filmmaking of the entire series. It’s certainly the flashiest. As the camera lingered on the masked Bond, and the drumbeat faltered then resumed, I most certainly got the tingles. The pre-credits as a whole should be considered, if not quite the best ever (Casino Royale for this writer), then a worthy shout for the all-time top five.

Much of the film can be read in this sequence. The undoubted ambition (see aforementioned tracking shot), the touches of humour (the sofa landing is perfect Connery wit), the spectacular (a helicopter pretends it’s a Red Arrow) and the ludicrous (so an entire tower block collapses and the parade just keeps going? Those Mexicans love to party). Bond displays an alarming disregard for civilian casualties. How many died in the tower block, I wonder. Also, why does Bond repeatedly attack the pilot and risk crashing into a packed square?

Sam Smith’s theme is a grower. Hardly a classic but preferable to the post-Goldeneye/pre-Skyfall dirge (honourable exception to Casino Royale, which wasn’t dirge but weaker than Smith’s nonetheless). Kudos to the most ridiculously OTT animation yet. If the next one doesn’t feature a giant inky octopus I shall be sorely disappointed. Squid is also acceptable. Any mollusc, basically – doesn’t even have to be marine. Hopefully the animators like a challenge and opt for a snail.

Back to London for swift reacquaintance with the MI6 Holy Trinity, then. M, Q and Moneypenny again enjoy far meatier roles than their predecessors. Ralph Fiennes effortlessly picks up from Judi Dench, helped by the decision to make his M a different character to hers. M drawls the film’s best line: “Now we know what C stands for,” even if the emptied gun is lifted straight from Casino Royale. Moneypenny has a life and a man in her bed; although it is hinted she may still be enjoying Bond’s. You go girl.

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Ben Whishaw’s Q is unquestionably the star of the show. Replacing Desmond Llewelyn seemed an impossible task. John Cleese tried, and John Cleese failed. Then nobody tried. Reincarnating Q was inevitable; a successful reincarnation was anything but. Thank God for the tremendous idea to transform the older Q into a young geek. And thank God for Whishaw, his two cats and his cup of Earl Grey. Provided the actor is willing he should never be recast.

One minor caveat. Boasting actors the calibre of Fiennes, Whishaw and Naomie Harris is a cause for celebration. But, as I noted in Skyfall, every film can’t – and shouldn’t – include major parts for all three. James Bond isn’t an ensemble gig. Hopefully the heavyweight trio will be content to occasionally take a backseat; a couple of early briefings and that’s your lot.

Dead M’s video raises more questions than answers. Why so cryptic? Oh well, let’s assume she had her reasons. Best not to think to hard about Spectre. You’ll have more fun that way.

And there’s certainly fun to be had. Craig’s Bond has relaxed almost to the point of playfulness. Waving to goons at funerals, scorning vitamin shakes (“flush that down the toilet: cut out the middle man”), hobnobbing with mice after a few too many (the most unexpected laugh of the film, closely followed by the “atmosphere” Aston Martin switch). The lightness of touch isn’t quite Roger Moore-esque but certainly enters Pierce Brosnan territory. Since this contentment can’t last (I fear for Madeleine) enjoy it while you can.

Initially SPECTRE itself looks promising. The Rome meeting is wonderfully atmospheric, all shadows and stone, credibly updating a trope seemingly parodied to death. By treating a ridiculous concept seriously the film makes it work. The problem with QUANTUM was nobody believed in it, not least the writers. The organisation was kept hidden, as though its very existence was a source of embarrassment.

Our early encounter with SPECTRE – long table, suited criminals, dead henchman – does much to establish it. Annoyingly SPECTRE then vanishes, only reappearing in that strange hodgepodge of a desert lair. But we’ll always have Rome: the silent silhouette of John Harrison Oberhauser Blofeld, Mr. Hinx and his deadly thumbnails, menace so palpable it almost suffocates.

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Car chase: fun but overlong. The switches are a great running gag – especially Frank Sinatra – but we could certainly cope with less vroom. At least the music works, adding some excitement to the sight of one car driving slightly ahead of another car (take note, boat chase from Live And Let Die). The whole soundtrack is big and bombastic, just like it should be. Although the score isn’t as memorable as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or the aforementioned Live And Let Die (when they bother to play it), you certainly won’t be unthrilled.

Hello again Mr White. Time hasn’t been kind I’m afraid. Still, for the third time in as many films Bond has you at gunpoint; some things never change, huh? Mr White’s final hour is his finest, offering information on SPECTRE in exchange for his daughter’s protection. Then, after a gnomic mutter about kites and hurricanes, he remembers Quantum Of Solace and duly shoots himself in the head.

Bond girls, then. Or really just ‘girl’ since the much-hyped Monica Bellucci is basically a glorified cameo. Although it’s a shame this fine actress disappears so quickly, there isn’t really space for her. Anyway, she carves out her own niche of Bondian history by virtue of being 50. I did expect her to be killed horribly by SPECTRE but Mendes hates showing his villains without Bond present (thus also Skyfall.) This tactic creates intrigue, occasionally suspense, but personally I think the cons outweigh the pros. Villains seen only through Bond’s eyes are unavoidably undernourished. Silva got away with it but Blofeld suffers badly.

Madeleine Swann is a beautiful cipher. The rapid succumbing to Bond’s charms, after initial frostiness, can be excused due to the heady cocktail of adventure, peril and, well, cocktails unexpectedly thrust upon her. The line about “doing crazy things when I drink” is one of the few moments Madeleine feels human.

Put it this way: can you imagine having a conversation with her? I can’t. Not because she is dull; she just doesn’t seem real enough to talk to. The Bond universe is a strange place where a plausible heroine can be a circus-owning, private island-dwelling jewel smuggler called Octopussy. Writing a convincing Bond girl is arguably the hardest task of all. Fair play to the Spectre scribes: they certainly give it a go. But that Vesper Lynd ghost isn’t banished yet. For Craig, she never will be.

Mr. Hinx is fine, in a hulking kind of way. As regular readers may remember, I like my henchmen loquacious, and obviously the never-named Hinx fails spectacularly in that aspect. His swift detachment from SPECTRE and the narrative as a whole slightly undermines the character. Is Hinx directly following Blofeld’s orders by attempting to kill Bond? If so, why Blofeld’s “I’ve been so looking forward to this moment” spiel when his long-lost brother (God that sounds stupid) eventually rocks up to the base? Indeed why have all the SPECTRE agents from past films repeatedly tried to kill Bond if Blofeld just wanted to torment him? You’d almost think the writers were making it up as they went along.

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David Bautista boasts considerable screen presence, and a physical rival to Craig is long overdue. The train fight is great – when did Bond last endure such a beating? (Serious question… maybe Stamper in Tomorrow Never Dies?) Where does Hinx come from? Who cares. Why does nobody stop the train? Who knows. What about the fellow passengers? That’s easy: they clearly legged it. Wouldn’t you?

The secondary villain is Max Denbigh. Now I loved the reimagined Moriarty so Andrew Scott is always a welcome presence on my screen. However his character is wafer thin; we know nothing of his history, how he found SPECTRE, why he believed an alliance was a good idea. Is he a curdled idealist or a wrong ‘un from the start? Really Denbeigh should be the primary antagonist, the Spectre Largo if you will. But in truth he is little more than a plot contrivance, somebody to threaten M from the inside. Waste.

Onto John Franz Ernst.

Here’s a tip: if you want Blofeld’s return to be a surprise, don’t call the film Spectre. Short of calling the thing ‘Blofeld’ the title couldn’t be more of a spoiler. Personally I think the filmmakers brought SPECTRE back too soon; yes, well done, you’ve got the rights back but the series had coped alright over the last 40, SPECTRE-free years. Why not let Craig serve out his tenure and save the organisation for a younger Bond? Heaven knows following the Craig era won’t be easy: reintroducing SPECTRE after half a century would be exactly the kind of trump card required.

No, let’s blow the load right away. So what if Craig is off after the next film? Let’s pretend he’s been fighting SPECTRE the entire time. Let’s say everybody was really in SPECTRE: Le Chiffre, Mr White, Silva, the whole lot. What about QUANTUM – didn’t Craig already have his own evil organisation to fight? Yes but we totally screwed that up back in 2008. Sod it, QUANTUM can be in SPECTRE too. Like a branch, or rather a tentacle. SPECTRE is the central management to QUANTUM’s Wernham Hogg.

We won’t dwell on this hierarchy, partly as it makes no sense, mainly because the series is trying to pretend Quantum Of Solace never happened. Anyway, you might remember Bond interrogating Dominic Greene in the desert: “I told you what you wanted to know about QUANTUM.” Missed out some pretty key info though, didn’t you, Dominic? Like its actual name. Or the fact it’s run by Bond’s estranged foster brother.

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The retconning is stupid at best, unforgivably lazy at worst. Rather than build a threat over several films (and Bond is perhaps the only franchise allowed this freedom) Spectre tries to buy into a story arc on the cheap. But whatever. Let’s talk Blofeld.

The film manages the impressive feat of making double-Oscar winner Christoph Waltz’s role feel anti-climactic. Why oh why the secrecy? Star Trek Into Darkness pulled the same trick two years earlier. He’s not Khan, he’s not Khan – oh wait, actually he’s Khan. Surprise! And of course it fell flat on its face. At least Star Trek didn’t name the film The Wrath Of Khan and play innocent.

Fans aren’t stupid. Fans know the series just regained the rights to Blofeld. You can’t fool them. And the casual viewer? They won’t care! So really, what on Earth is the point?

Another problem, touched upon way back in this series: the cult of Blofeld vastly exceeds the importance of the character. He isn’t Moriarty or the Joker, the ultimate nemesis always coming back for more. Ask fans the best Bond villain and the names Goldfinger, Scaramanga, Red Grant, Klebb, even Silva will occur more often than Blofeld; who isn’t even the best villain of his own era. He only really worked as a faceless mastermind, pulling the strings yet detached from the main action. Keeping Blofeld mostly hidden, with another SPECTRE member as primary antagonist, would be a smoother introduction – but Craig doesn’t have time for that.

Unfortunately the iconic portrayal – Donald Pleasence – is comfortably the most ludicrous, played for laughs ever since Dr. Evil in 1997. Introducing the Blofeld of cultural legend – white cat, big scar, short, bald – would be utterly unworkable. So instead Spectre fudges; a glimpse of a cat, a belated scar. I wish the writers had totally reinterpreted the character a la Heath Ledger’s Joker. A young, handsome Blofeld, say, an ice cold sadist with big dreams. Waltz could have been the perfect distraction; only for the true Blofeld to be revealed at the end credits. But not Andrew Scott (too Moriarty) or Monica Bellucci (gimmickry).

Or, shockingly, you could just tell the truth. “Yeah, Waltz is playing Blofeld – how great is that! Now let’s focus on writing a truly memorable villain rather than a ridiculous fraternal backstory required to manufacture a shared bond between the characters to justify the unnecessary hype we ourselves created.” The brothers reveal is so pointless, carrying all the potency of a fart in a hurricane – or should that be a kite? It doesn’t help that twelve years separate Waltz and Craig: but in the photograph the two boys look virtually the same age. I don’t buy it for one moment.

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Waltz isn’t bad. He’s just…Waltz. Just as he was Waltz in Django Unchained and Waltz in Inglorious Basterds. In fairness he does good Waltz. But I never saw past the actor, never saw Waltz and thought ‘Blofeld!’

Partly blame this on the stupid Oberhauser farrango. Also culpable is the decision to hide Blofeld until the final acts, allowing very little scope to establish a character; a character whom, as already noted, is far less than his legend suggests. But you know what? Waltz isn’t blameless. His mannerisms are inconsistent. Is this Blofeld a genius? Insane? Playfully sadistic? All three, presumably, but it never felt plausible.

Take the torture scene. Craig does his part, palpably horrified by the ordeal. But Waltz flits from enjoyment to boredom to bloodlust, never settling on a satisfactory tone. You couldn’t accuse the double-Oscar winner of slumming it, quite, but neither is Waltz exactly powerhouse. He isn’t terrible, of course not. He’s fine. And that’s the annoyance. He should be so much more.

Very nice of Blofeld to allow Bond and Madeleine a brief tête-à-tête mid-torture. And do those guards have their eyes closed? How could you miss the watch handover? We all know the subsequent escape is ridiculous so I won’t bang on about it. I’ve seen more realistic shootouts on arcade games. A couple of bullets and BOOM goes the lair.

Speaking of lairs – hasn’t the accommodation gone downhill since the days of Dr. No? Bond and Madeleine are locked in what appears to be a motel room. Once you got four-poster beds and fish tanks the size of a swimming pool; now it’s window blinds, flat pack furniture and everything is beige. Did SPECTRE blow the budget on all those computers? The whole base is rather underwhelming; it looks more like brewery than a launchpad for world domination. And the film is remarkably reluctant to show us around.

As with QUANTUM, one senses the rebooted Bonds are a little embarrassed by all this outlandishness; lairs, evil organizations and megalomaniacs. Yet the writers clearly feel obliged to give the people a taste of what they think they want; the result is a unsatisfactory half baked dish, a sort of tepid You Only Live Twice. We get a sort-of lair, an evil organization shorn of any trimmings, a meglomaniac with no masterplan. It’s painfully obvious the series brought back SPECTRE for the sake of it, without any clear idea of what it wanted to do with them.

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Perhaps, post-Austin Powers, Danger Mouse et al, the concept of SPECTRE just isn’t workable in the modern world. But a crucial aspect has been overlooked; worse, counteracted. SPECTRE worked in From Russia With Love and Thunderball because of its visibility, because those films showed as much as possible. Kronstein, Klebb, Grant, Largo, Lippi, Fiona Volpe: we saw these people act and interact. Ultimately it’s not the plan, or the lair, but the members themselves. Yet Spectre forgets this; it hides the members in the shadows. Blofeld, Hinx and Denbigh never appear independently of Bond or M; neither do the trio of villains ever exchange a word.

Incidentally, when was anybody last fed to anything in Bond? Skyfall had Komodo dragons; but I’m talking a proper “extermination-by-my-dangerous-pet.” Can’t be Licence To Kill, can it?

The infuriating thing about Spectre? Rewrite the lair showdown – throw in a ticking clock, impossible odds, don’t kill Mr. Hinx on the train – and you’d have a perfectly good climax. Everybody leaves happy, the runtime becomes a cool two hours, and comfortably the weakest section of the film would be averted. Mendes deserves great credit but his record in the final act is not good.

More damningly, the problems – and potential improvements – are obvious. I’ve not mentioned Nine Eyes because I barely understand it and anyway, why bother? We all know it’s rubbish. Couldn’t Bond have thwarted a plan to blow up Cape Town? You know, a devastating attack to force South Africa to join the network thing? Don’t think Bond’s ever been to Cape Town, either – two birds, one stone!

Obviously it isn’t that simple to write a Bond: and in some ways this is the most frustrating aspect of all. Twice now Mendes and his team construct a fine three-quarters of a film yet stumble on the last furlong. It’s like a batsmen fluidly stroking 65 only to hoick a full toss to long leg with a century there for the taking. At least Skyfall was an interesting stumble there.

The Spectre finale is terribly weak: inane, incoherent, utterly illogical. Give yourself five minutes and I bet you could think up a better ending. Let us know in the comments if so.

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So Blofeld survives and turns the MI6 building into a warped playpen. Why not. And Q fiddles around with a laptop and saves the day. Somehow. And now Blofeld has a homage scar, even though only one Blofeld was ever scarred and he had the least screentime. (In the next film will Waltz suddenly develop alopecia?) You guys can point out all the flaws – I haven’t the energy – but two cheats are unforgivable.

Firstly, you cannot present Bond with a Catch-22 – the girl or your life – and then give him both. The MI6 building is massive – yet he covers every floor in two and a half minutes? What did he do, teleport? Secondly, nobody is allowed to shoot down a helicopter with a gun. Maybe, just maybe, if Bond got into position and had one chance to nail the pilot – but he’s just taking potshots at the fuselage! What does he even hit? Next time a small army unload machine guns at Bond’s aircraft, and the damn thing eats a ton of bullets but somehow keeps on flying, I’ll remember Westminster Bridge and shake my head.

Rather damningly, after two and a half hours Spectre feels like an incomplete film. It tries very hard to provide closure. Bond quits the service and quite literally drives off into the horizon, a beautiful woman at his side, a future ahead of him. Only Blofeld remains alive, SPECTRE largely unexplored, and there’s one more film on Craig’s contract. Since no coherent threat has been foiled – Cat O’Nine Tails doesn’t count – it’s hard to view the film as a standalone mission. Of course Spectre tries to plug itself into the broader arc of the whole Craig era but stories don’t work like that. Neither, really, does James Bond.

Indeed the Craig era, despite its laudable efforts at continuity, has rather proved that Bond films, like Bond, work best alone. Certain elements can carry over – supporting characters, shadowy Big Bads if you must – but essentially each Bond should tell its own story – not part of another’s. Casino Royale and Skyfall work because anybody can watch them; Quantum and Spectre (relatively) fail due to their leaning on the past. And Quantum (essentially a sequel) fails worse than Spectre (more of a shameless retcon).

Consider Mr White. A shadowy figure in Casino Royale; revealed as a member of shadowy organization QUANTUM in Quantum of Solace; absent and unmentioned in Skyfall, as indeed is QUANTUM; revealed to be a member of SPECTRE, not QUANTUM, in Spectre, a bigger shadowy organization that controls the members of QUANTUM who are really members of SPECTRE. It’s a mess.

One could plead extraneous circumstances but this is Bond, the biggest franchise in the world: there are always extraneous circumstances. Writers strike, directors leave, actors leave, actors who don’t leave age, studios lose money, critics criticise; and if you’re lucky somehow a new entry is wheeled out every three years. These are not helpful conditions for a successful multi-film narrative. Audiences should leave a Bond film satisfied; not asking “what happens next?”

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Enough. This retrospective (retro-spectre-ive? Eesh) is nearly as long as the bloody film. It’s a big, fun, flawed outing, shooting bullseyes one moment, missing the target completely the next. Rather like the series in fact. Perhaps only after Craig takes his final bow can true judgement be passed. And that won’t be for at least another film, I all but guarantee it. Quite possibly another couple. Good. His has been a thrilling tenure and, make not mistake, we’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Best bit: The opening is spectacular but the SPECTRE meeting is even better; eerie and almost magical.

Worst bit: The girl or your life, Bond? Or both if you run really fast.

Final Thought: Why does Bond address Blofeld as ‘Blofeld’ despite knowing him as Franz Oberhauser his entire life? He literally heard the name ‘Blofeld’ once! Surely it would make – oh why bother.

Next time: Get on your tuxedo, pour yourself a martini – it’s the Boscars! A not remotely arbitrary celebration of 24 films (and arguably Never Say Never Again). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll briefly remember For Your Eyes Only is a thing (provided I don’t forget it).