The Anticipated: Spectre

In All, Movies by David

After a change of pace with Jem and the Holograms, this week’s edition of The Anticipated is a return to form. James Bond has always been a weird franchise. Decades old, the series has been rather resistant to change. I have have always found many of the films enjoyable, but have never really been a real fan of the series. But I have found Daniel Craig’s Bond to be increasingly compelling. You could say I’ve become a fan of his set of James Bond films–after all, Casino Royale is a great movie, and Skyfall is a truly magnificent film. (What about Quantum of Solace, you ask? We don’t talk about that movie.) So this made it natural that I would be super hyped for today’s film, Spectre, which is likely Craig’s last turn as 007. (Considering how much Craig hates playing Bond, I’d say it’s most definitely his last turn, but I guess stranger things have happened.) Did Spectre prove to be worth the hype, or was it a Quantum-sized disappointment? Let’s find out.

Spoilers Ahead

Spectre (November 6th, 2015)

How was it? 

It all starts so well…

That is a bit difficult to parse, because so much of this movie is all over the place. The critical response to this film has probably gone too negative (in case anyone forgot, Quantum of Solace happened, and is far worse than this movie could ever dream to be), but at the same time there are significant problems with this movie that are deeply troubling. Still, the greatest sin of this movie is the fact that it had to follow Skyfall, a magnificent movie that served as an exquisite deconstruction of the James Bond series as a whole. Spectre, meanwhile, is a deeply flawed reconstruction of the series (right down to modernizing a key villain from past Bond films) that struggles to rebuild what it destroyed. Admittedly, this can be a hard thing for any movie to do, as films like the Dark Knight Rises and to some extent Return of the Jedi discovered when following The Dark Knight and Empire Strikes Back (respectively). People are always going to be looking extra hard for flaws in any movie that follows a great one. But both Dark Knight Rises and Return of the Jedi are better movies than Spectre. Even though the new Bond film is being unfairly maligned, it’s still problematic in any number of ways. Most interesting to me is how the film completely falls apart in the second half.

The first half of Spectre actually works really well. It starts with a mindblowingly great action sequence set in Mexico City during a Day of the Dead celebration, and then from there moves along at a good, deliberate pace. The heavy in this movie, Mr. Hinx, an assassin played by Batista, is an awesome and formidable villain, and Bond’s main love interest Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) shows the potential to be a compelling, and formidable character. It is only with her help that Bond is even able to defeat Mr. Hinx. Then Bond and Swann go to the villain’s lair, and everything falls apart. The film packs way too much into the final hour or so, and nothing really works. Cristoph Waltz’s Blofeld proves to be a far less interesting and formidable character than his henchman, Swann goes from being a competent character to a damsel in distress who is basically useless for the rest of the movie, and the action just stops working after being so crisp earlier in the movie.

The relationship between Bond and Swann is especially frustrating because of how important it is ultimately supposed to be. It is hard to understand why Swann would have the impact she has on Bond. Their love story is shoddily told, and the two actors are never really given a chance to build any chemistry together. Many movies have their characters fall in love within an unrealistic timeline, but this felt especially quick, especially on Swann’s side. It never really makes since why her love for Bond forms as quickly as it does. Combine this with the movie’s failure to properly show Bond’s character shift, or fully contextualize how the Craig films as a whole shaped his character, and the result is that the end of the film falls completely flat.

These flaws are especially frustrating because Spectre does a lot well. The animated title sequence is amazing, as is the opening Day of the Dead action set piece. The acting is fine, and the cinematography is mostly good, Hoyte Van Hoytema doing a solid job following Roger Deakin’s work in Skyfall. The film never feels long even at two and half hours, and the atmosphere and tone of the movie mostly works, even if it is weirdly uneven. Craig is solid as always, other than the fact that he doesn’t really have enough to do. I was really intrigued to see how this performance would go; Craig has never really enjoyed playing Bond, and now that he has presumably done his last film in the role, he has really stopped pretending that he finds the character likable in almost any way. His attitude has added a certain edge to the character, a biting layer of bitter self-loathing, and I wondered if Craig’s antipathy might bleed through especially strong in this performance. Instead, the film keeps Craig to busy to really engage with the material outside of an action setting. It’s a choice that really hurts the film overall, because for a lot of the story to work, Bond needs to go through believable character development, and he simply does not. Nor does he really get to interact enough with anyone else in the film. When you add in that the movie never misses a chance to let its subtext show, it’s easy to see why Bond’s character is such a mess by the end of the film. Spectre tells an ambitious story that never quite works–and worse yet, actually undercuts a lot of the solid work the Craig Bond films have done as a whole.

Isn’t this based on…?

Well, it’s a James Bond film, so it is about the least original thing possible seeing as the whole series is based on novels by Ian Fleming. This one is especially fun since it is based on a past Bond films that used Blofield as the main villian. Add in the fact that the series is British, and it’s the perfect formula for Hollywood to use and profit from.

Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?

Batista absolutely knocks this role out of the park.

Hmm, this is a toughie. From a quality standpoint, probably not, especially considering that a lot of what made me excited for this movie was to see what direction this film would take the Bond franchise as a whole after Skyfall took a sledgehammer to everything. The film attempted to end things in a grand fashion by tying all of the Craig Bond films together under one big storyline, but it fails to do in any real sense. Blofeld never feels as threatening or as set-up by the earlier films as he should; and worse, the through line for Bond in this run of films just doesn’t work. Part of the reason for this isn’t Spectre‘s fault at all, but Quantum of Solace‘s. After Casino RoyaleQuantum was supposed to be Bond’s vengeance period, a formative part of his character development; but Quantum is so flawed and inconsequential that it leaves a gaping hole in any attempt to tie the series together. Spectre really shouldn’t have bothered trying, especially after Skyfall successfully pivoted away from the convoluted mythology of the first two Craig films after Quantum had scorched that plotline to the ground.

Still, while the film itself failed to do a lot of what I had hoped it would, it did make a ton of money, proving that Bond continues to have staying power in this day and age. Spectre had the second largest opening weekend for a Bond film of all time, and is well on its way to being a financial success, just like Skyfall was. In that sense, this film is quite a big deal. Casino Royale was only barely profitable domestically, and Quantum of Solace was much closer to a domestic box office failure than success. So Spectre proved that audiences have a reinvigorated desire for James Bond, which can only help the series going forward, especially considering they’re going to have to cast a new Bond. Spectre‘s financial impact isn’t enough to overcome its creative shortcomings, but it does put this film ahead of some other films on my list. (Even though I like you way more than most people, Tomorrowland, you should have never been on my list.)

Would I recommend it to others?

If you are a fan of James Bond then this movie is worth watching, but unlike Casino Royale and Skyfall, this movie isn’t really worth watching for non-Bond fans, especially in theatres. The opening of the movie is well worth watching again and again, but the rest can honestly be skipped without losing too much beyond a humorous scene here or there.

How does this film measure up in a post Mad Max: Fury Road world?

Look, I am glad this is an age equal pairing, but couldn’t Belucci have done literally anything of substance in this movie?

Not well, honestly, other than the beginning of the film, which is as I have stated repeatedly is stunning. Still, the real question this film brings is, what place does James Bond have in the modern world? Bond films have struggled to figure out how to adapt to the changing culture, especially considering many of the franchise’s fans are older men who want the films to be exactly as they have been since the 1960s, a pressure that has caused the series to stagnate at times. In no place does this show up more than the concept of the Bond girl. The gender politics in these movies is suspect at best, even with the Craig Bond movies doing what they could to at least make Bond’s relationship with women slightly more respectful (especially, ironically, with Olga Kurylenko’s character in Quantum of Solace, who no one really remembers because that movie is terrible). Still, the concept of the Bond girl is really starting to wear thin, and especially after seeing what Mad Max allowed its female characters to do, it is getting increasingly frustrating that Bond films don’t do more with their own female characters. Skyfall turned the concept of the Bond girl on its head to show how problematic it has been, but Spectre was in the position of having to reconstruct and almost reaffirm what a Bond girl is going forward, and it is not a pleasant sight.

Going into Spectre, a lot was made of Monica Bellucci being a Bond girl who was actually older than James Bond himself, or generally someone actually close to his own age. But she doesn’t do anything in this movie. She exists so that Bond can show up, get information from her, have sex with her, and then send her away. Sure, it’s nice that they allowed someone like Bellucci to play this role, instead of believing that only much younger actresses can play such a sexy role, but that doesn’t change the fact that the role itself is pointless, and feels like a relic from the past. Bond really needs to take a page from the last Mission Impossible and allow its Bond girls to be more like Rebecca Ferguson’s character, who was just as badass as Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt without making Ethan seem any less badass. This doesn’t have to be true all the time, but it would help set up a message of respect for women going forward that the Bond films have just struggled with for so long.

How would I rate it?

Using our handy dandy made-up anticipation meter for this film, Spectre receives 4 martinis shaken not stirred out of 10, because the film just doesn’t really work, even if it is going to make loads of money.

For an actual rating: This film is deeply flawed, but still an enjoyable experience, so it gets 2.5 stars out of 4 stars. The first of half of the film is really quite good, which makes the movie a more positive than negative experience, even if the second half is a disaster. It isn’t a bad movie. It just isn’t a very good movie either, and feels like it could have been so much better.

That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. After a bit of a flurry of activity, things will be slowing down until December, when I will return with Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and The Revenant. So be on the look out for those, and until then try to remember that Q’s prototypes are really expensive, so try not to break them the first time you use them.