Film Review: Spectre
Spectre | UK and USA, 2015 | dir. Sam Mendes | 148 mins
By now you will quite probably already have seen Spectre (which is fortunate as spoilers are ahead). If not, you will at the very least have caught the many splendored adverts for the film – for what is the point of Bond if not to be the world’s most pornographically produced product placements? – and that means you likely already know the main plot points…
We open with Bond in Mexico for a stunning opening sequence. He finds a lead for someone he’s been tracking, has a disagreement with M (an ever more weirdly coiffed Ralph Fiennes channeling Voldermort) and irritates a brand new C (Andrew Scott, miles off his usual Sherlock form), and spends the rest of the film undertaking off-duty chasing of the dark criminal masterminds of Spectre (the “Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion”), led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz, all sinister in cashmere and Persian cat hair). Excitably staged chaos, naturally, ensues in a variety of improbably exotic locations… But you knew that would happen didn’t you?
Spectre is our first film in a post-Dench-as-M world and it suffers for it. When Bond was initially revived (after a brief but badly needed ‘90’s hiatus) Judi Dench was a brilliant choice for M. The franchise was resetting itself for a more feminist era, with women in senior roles in the workplace, men occasionally (and ever more so) presented as eye candy, and (gradually) a few post-Perestroika bad guys. Casting M as a woman nodded to Stella Rimington, the first female Director General of MI5 and – perhaps relatedly but certainly more interestingly – the first head of MI5 to embrace greater transparency and scrutiny for their work. Dench was also a wise choice as she also gave women a powerful stake in the franchise beyond the usual line ups of helpless half nude set dressing, lazy untrustable women archetypes, or the (very rare) ruthless lesbian bad guys.
A female M meant Bond had a boss with real bite – particularly after the Pierce Brosnan films (I always think of Brosnan as a transitional Bond, moving us from Retro Bond with his aged leisure jackets and hairpieces to the Modern (buff) tailored Bond era). M was not part of the boys club in any sense, and her air of disapproval was all the more potent and her threats all the more believable for that. Dench’s M had the balls to actually suspend Bond and (mostly) mean it… She was also unusually unseducable although flirted with, her presence lending tacit female approval for the character’s excessive hijinks: a morally ambivalent cross between a protective mother and Lady Macbeth (incidentally one of Dench’s most marvellous roles) forever threatening to cut her favourite son off and take away all his favourite (lethal) toys, even as she encourages his misrule and manipulates his destiny. And so a new order was signalled when Skyfall saw Dench bow out as M (however improbable that end was – the real Stella Rimington is now a non-executive director for M&S when not writing novels).
And it turns out that the new order, the Remixed Modern Bond, ushers in conservative male-dominated leadership, shaped by an incestuous political elite… Which does, I suppose, feel fairly contemporary in some important and disheartening ways. We therefore have Ralph Fiennes as M, styled as politely brutal old boys club – indeed, it feels like no coincidence that Fiennes has been cast given both his Harry Potter form and his best left forgotten role as John Steed in the abominable 1998 Avengers revival movie. In his loose-fitting double breasted tailored suits, Fiennes’ M recalls Retro Bond, with so little in the way of balls and complexity that Dench’s M is still calling the shots – sending Bond off on missions via recorded messages, “nothing would stop her doing her job, not even death” he quips.
I mention the suiting not as an afterthought: in Spectre the tailoring does at least half the work of the script. In the opening sequence we know Bond by his very tightly fitted (single breasted) tailoring and confident stride long before a mask is removed. Meanwhile C is clearly untrustworthy with his full some hair, his obsession with formality but not for ritual, and most damningly of all, his poorly cut off the peg suit. He is clearly a social climber with no sense of tradition, because as Bond would have you believe, rational decisions in power rely on the patriarchal authority that comes with the right suits, the sense of social propriety and, of course, the wisdom to be born into money and class at such a level that one may reject the advances of the most seductive of bad guys offering financial and power rewards. Fear not Britain, Spectre seems to be saying, the aristocracy have your back, no need to worry about those unscrupulous subverting forces…
I, like many, have a love/hate relationship to Bond and that means Spectre triggers a real mixture of disappointment (see above) but also moments of delight.
There are some wonderful things to enjoy here: the opening Day of the Dead sequence is genuinely exquisite, shot in a continuous and very cleverly fluid take. There is real grace and elegance to both the motion of the camera and the choreography of our key players. Bond may be more obviously objectified in Casino Royale’s beach scene, but here he prowls with a far more alluringly sexy Gene Kelly elegance.
The Day of the Dead sequence shows off Mendes’ strengths as a director, and his sense of theatre and visual spectacle. And then, just as you marvel at the cleverness, it all goes off-key as the set pieces and stunts drag the sense of pace, immersion and (oddly) the sense of danger down many notches. And that is disappointing but not surprising, for Bond must now out-stunt even the most ridiculous action movies with the result that these set pieces seem utterly implausible, particularly for any type of undercover operative. I all but gasped as Craig ever so casually stepped across a convincingly high roof (played so very differently from the Casino Royale Parkour scene), but I felt absolutely no sense of danger – or medical plausibility – when I saw him walk/dance his way out of exploded rubble. It was as if Cary Grant urbanely walked across that roof, alive with ambiguous tension, but suddenly as the explosion occurred, he was replaced with an unusually attractive Mario Brother, hopping through obstacles and sight gags. As he finds his feet at the end of the stunt it is suddenly hard to take that prowling as seriously again, because he may be about to elegantly dodge danger, or he may be about to temporarily halted by a spinning turtle. The tension and the reality of the moment broken.
However, there are other things that work well too. Ben Whishaw is not only settling in as Q (a character absent from the books and therefore always harder to write or perform), but Spectre sees him adventure beyond his tech cupboard and better prove his skills. That works well partly as Ben Whishaw is charm and nerd personified – and looks more ordinary and therefore a whole lot more like a spy than Craig. His locatoin scenes add crucial credibility to what was always a rather thinly written stunt and product explainer. The Q of Skyfall and Spectre is clearly skilled, working to a (slightly) more realistic budget, and has his own personality. Of course those currently watching Whishaw in London Spy will also be well aware that even with an enlarged role for Q, very little of Whishaw’s best acting skills are really being called upon here.
Whilst Whishaw has, unexpectedly, a more interesting role in Spectre sadly the same cannot be said for Andrew Scott. In Sherlock, Scott is so dazzling with his ambitious, absolutely callous, and very flirty performance as Moriarty that he seems like a wonderful casting choice for a low level bad guy. Yet in the Spectre script they have given him very little to work with, and seem to have done little to tailor the role to Scott’s strengths. But it isn’t just about the script… I suspect the direction for Scott may have run along the lines of “be corporate, be evil, but also be as straight and boring as possible”. It isn’t much to work with, especially in his cluster of short office scenes. There is an importance and fascinating dramatic tension that could be played out through focusing on the banality of evil but that requires far more skillful writing and a genuine sense of danger. And that is made all the harder as Scott is co/sub-bad guy with the effortlessly creepy Christophe Waltz (and his grim Jaws-like associate Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista))…
In Spectre we have a panoply of bad guys (and it is guys, although lone female crime baron merely has a cameo): Bond vs Mr Hinx in a series of Fast & Furious stunts with inappropriate moments of comedy (recalling the Pink Panther films or the Italian Job) seemingly written to sell super cars to a very particular macho niche of the audience. And if Spectre has a nod to the modern face of the chaos and brutality of terrorism Bautista’s Hinx and the opening sequence (with Alessandro Cremona as Marco Sciarra) are it… And of course these bad guys are relatively easily vanquished as fluffer action readying Bond for the real bad guy. From there we have parallel bad guys stories: it’s Bond vs Blofelt, each more viscerally violent and steeped in Retro Bond baggage than the other; and M vs C in a battle for bureaucratic supremacy that seems more true to the modern world of spying. It does work to have the attention spread a little more widely – and reflects the impact of shows like Spooks and Orphan Black on the aging Bond franchise – but it does turn the whole enterprise into an old(ish) boys club (with boss level hierarchy perfect for the game of the film, no accident I’m sure). Apart from Moneypenny, whose early bravery is quickly sidelined and undermined entirely (for what are women for, if not to accidentally compromise your mission?) as the men take on what the writers clearly deem the really important dangerous manly posturing power and action stuff.
Apparently Mendes was still editing right up until the week of release and that is entirely plausible. Based on that final edit, it seems he and his crew of writers (there are many credited, all men, all with at least one other sub-par Bond screen writing credit) seem to see writing, directing and editing women, and most especially sex scenes, a hideous chore. Which is odd, as they seem – true to all Bond – so keen to objectify those women in the first place, then instantly get bored and lose all interest. Perhaps this reflects their dual target markets of teen boys (wanting to look but with no idea what to do with a real woman) and overseas sales in even more gender unequal markets that prioritise public moral uprightness with rather stone age personal moral choices and sexual politics. Perhaps it gives away how much the film is shaped by middle aged men out of step with a world in which Tinder, Grindr and more fluid notions of sexuality make Bond looks thoroughly traditional in his bedroom habits. Or maybe this is all just where we are with a 12A rating at the moment: we can watch a man have his eyes gauged out in grotesque close up but a bared breast – let alone the full nudity of a mature woman or a scene of female pleasure – would corrupt the world.
In the last Bond outing, Skyfall, some of that disinterest in women played out more interestingly with the homoeroticism of bond’s perpetual trailing of men, particularly Javier Bardem, interested only in physically engaging with one another. Given the tightness of the suits, the particular preened variety of gym (rather than, say, military) buffness of Craig as Bond, and the casting of two wonderful openly gay actors (Scott, Whishaw) and the wonderfully camp Waltz in supporting roles it seems bizarre not to play with that. Every moment of Craig on screen is boy eye candy and what little chemistry there is comes from his scenes with other men… Even the tiniest scrap of script writing (and producer/studio) confidence a much more interesting and far more edgy homoerotic Bond movie could have emerged from this rather lacklustre reworking of familiar 007 tropes.
But that would require a sense of humour, and in Spectre all humour is utterly drained away with the more playful Craig moments of his earlier Bond appearances gone. All of that means we are left with some of the most bizarre sex scenes of any Bond film… Or rather a showy lack of sex scenes…
Bond’s first conquest seems to be the result only of a physical reaction to danger, for there surely isn’t any chemistry or interest between the pair, even though in Craig and Monica Bellucci we have two of the most attractive people to grace any screen. Bellucci, so publicised for being the oldest “Bond girl” to date is hardly featured, her role merely to hand Bond a ring. The sum total of their sex scene is a sub-50 Shades of Gray moment of stylish partial undressing, and a post coital shot that owes a debt to the lingerie stylings of the Benny Hill girls, because having cast an older woman they clearly cannot countenance actual nudity (how exactly might one enjoy such an encounter in such immaculately unruffled underwear? Or am I missing the point by assuming that Bond’s women might in any way enjoy their couplings?). As Bond leaves she is left with a promise that almost certainly means nothing… but we’ve already forgotten her, just like Bond, before we’ve even left the room…
Bond’s second, and central dalliance is a very young, very conventionally pretty, blonde, Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux, improbably well attired at every moment, though also both objectified and always well covered) who is a full 21 years younger than Bellucci and might easily be playing Craig’s daughter. Craig is a full 17 years Seydoux’s senior – something not deemed notable in any publicity in notable contrast to his 4 year age difference to Bellucci, whose casting was publicly deemed brave and edgy. The relationship with Swann does at least attempt to develop a little depth with some sort of development of the relationship between them, albeit following the (as Pop Culture Happy Hour would say) “they fight, and then they fall in love” dynamic so beloved of movie producers, and so rarely the makings for anything but the most dysfunctional relationships in real life.
The problem with Bond is, and has long been, one of expectations and the impossibility of meeting all of the needs of the many Bond audiences. On the one hand they must be family films, and must be profitable exportable block busters. On the other hand they must be exciting action adventures, and also glamorous and sexy (problematic bed fellows at the best of times). And they must do all of that with a great theme tune (and oh, is Sam Smith’s effort for Spectre so very far from that) and the full buy-in from products and advertisers featured so prominently. There are so many components to a movie in the franchise that, whilst there is some evolution and change, they more or less make themselves…
And yet the fact that Mendes’ two films for the franchise have managed to reimagine Bond back into the dark ages (most horribly in Skyfall’s no consent exploitative sex worker seduction scene), speaks volumes about the power of Bond as a juggernaut that can stand even the most ill advised of missteps. It isn’t just the sexual politics or the product placement – though Omega has been astonishingly successful with the product demonstrations and conspicuous screen time (quite possibly longer than Bellucci’s and certainly move loving) in Spectre… There are the computer games levels that have clearly been designed into the scriptwriting, and the mission-setting sequences in Spectre that feel suspiciously like pre-packaged Cutscenes preceding effects that are far more grounded in the physics of console games, than reality. But should that be surprising? After all the Bond that brought the series back from the brink was Golden Eye – arguably a more popular game than film. But do I want to watch a console game for teen boys in the cinema? Not usually…
There are a few glimmers of hope though, and a few reminders that some adults were part of the film making process at some point… Spectre is about corporations at the heart of government and the weakness of modern cash strapped government in the face of wealthy global corporations and their leaders (a recurrent modern bond theme); terrorism funded by corporate, government and gangster backers; and most interestingly, about the problematic motivations and public justifications for state use of electronic surveillance. It came out in the weeks that the UK Government proposed to track literally every citizen and retain their data for a year as standard. And I’m writing this review in the aftermath of the Paris attacks with policy shifting swiftly and unwisely every day. Because by far the craziest thing about the Spectre plot is that, in many terrifying ways, it is too real.
If only the scriptwriters had done more than just cherry pick at these issues: the surveillance; the threat and then reality of a terrible helicopter crash in the middle of a city; the image of a plane wrecked on a picturesque mountain side… It’s as though they have watched the news and thought “what a great visual”, “what a great stunt challenge”, “ah, that would make a great idea as long as the guy didn’t die at the end” rather than feeling anything empathetic. But then, belatedly realising that films need some sort of human centre, they have loaded the script with artificial emotional moments about as convincing as Bond’s interest in women. Considering these stunts all depict devastating moments they are loaded with potential for real drama, peril, fear, and the kinds of jeopardy that makes an action film scary and engaging, rather than cartoonish. But Mendes and his writers seem to reject any notion of being absorbed beyond the Spectre-cal.
The writers are no better on technology, with stunt “smart blood” used to track bond when a GPS tracking device implant would actually be plausible and no less effective. Smart blood is clearly one Nature headline remixed in a writers brain with some sort of Wired infographic of how Lance Armstrong cheated through the Tour de France. M looks shocked that C has bugged Moneypenny’s phone even though Google has been recording everything you ever vocally searched for, Barbie may be listening to all your kids conversations, and the News of the World was way ahead of everyone on the hacking front. One can only daydream about the stories we could tell about the true terrors of the world through the populist lens of Bond if only they would hire (a) a scientist or computer scientist and (b) a woman as part of the writing team (since producer Barbara Broccoli seems to have little influence on the sexual politics of the franchise). Bond as written by Cory Doctorow and Margaret Atwood, as directed by Jamie Babbit? Now that would be a insightful, thrilling, sexy and fun Bond movie to enjoy!
But then, is Bond designed for women in their thirties? That commercial juggernaut isn’t about selling films to nice middle class British audiences… A film receiving a 12A certificate when it includes multiple reproducible lethal physical assaults, and yet shying away from any sexual scenes or nudity and toying with political corruption yet centering on white Italian and german protagonists of evil (and a morally ambiguous Swiss contingent), seems to clearly indicate that this is a film for foreign distribution to as many countries as possible (particularly those with high super car sales), and aimed squarely at teen boys, console game buyers and middle aged purchasers of luxury goods/high street products from luxury brands.
Did I enjoy Spectre? In parts. But I was also disappointed by the inverse relationship between the film’s cost and it’s quality. Maybe that’s the best that can be hoped for from a modern action genre film so massive and so shaped by industry and audience expectations… But if I were looking to extend the long term life and quality of the 007 brand I’d seriously consider how to make a great Bond film, that keeps just enough of the tradition but respects its female characters and audiences, and engages with more thoughtful writing, editing and direction. It would still do very well financially. And it would be so much more interesting and worth rewatching than the easy to export Bond that sees the lead as an avatar for teen boy game players and puts women back in their (powerless) place as doe eyed sex (and occasionally love) interests, untechnical secretaries and pitiable widows, all of them merely set dressing to progress an ever more incoherent plot.