Skip to main content

SPECTRE: Does it meet expectations?



MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SPECTRE

After 2012’s Skyfall – a commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the James Bond film series – any follow-up was going to have hard time hitting that height. And the series, since its 2006 reinvention with Daniel Craig, has been a solid run of films. Even the maligned Quantum of Solace really only suffers in comparison to Casino Royale and, for me, it’s a perfect sequel to Craig’s first outing.

Spectre, on the other hand, doesn’t just suffer by comparison. Its own internal logic doesn’t stack up and where it wants to tie together disperate elements from the three previous films, it makes little-to-no sense. Yes, we’re still talking about James Bond films here. A series whose low points include James Bond in space (Moonraker) and James Bond in an invisible car (Die Another Day).

It’s not that the series has ever been consistently one thing or another, let alone consistently good. Each actor brings his own quirks to the role and every time the character is re-cast, the producers rethink their own take on a spy who was invented post-World War 2.

Roger Moore leaned so far towards comedy, that his films became farcical. Timothy Dalton wanted Ian Fleming’s harder edge back. Pierce Brosnan wanted to be some combination of his predecessors and Sony never seemed to know what to do with this character in the 90s; he seemed so old-fashioned, they decided to polishes his edges away.

With Casino Royale, they transplanted Fleming’s “blunt instrument” from Fleming’s 1953 novel into the present with a film that’s as faithful to the original text as any of the first four Sean Connery films. But this is a James Bond that lives in the world where we have a big screen Jason Bourne and a small screen assortment of leading men who are hard-edged to the point where they are unlikable.

Over the first three of Daniel Craig’s films, different iconic elements were reintroduced to paint a more vivid and complicated portrait of this MI6 agent with a licence to kill. And the ending of Skyfall dropped two final pieces of the mosaic into place – a male M (and his “damnably cold grey eyes” in the form of Ralph Fiennes) and Moneypenny (a sidelined field agent). It almost promised that the next adventure we’d get would hew closer to the classic action/adventure mould of the earlier films.

I like that this series has been flexible enough to reinvent itself. I might find it hard to watch Octopussy or A View to a Kill without rolling my eyes at how old Roger Moore got in the role, but that the series continued after double-taking pigeons and Bond dressed as a clown, shows how resilient the franchise is.

Timothy Dalton wanted a tougher Bond and, for me, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, are two of the highlights of the pre-Craig era. But Dalton’s second outing was his last, because audiences weren’t ready for a bleak story about an agent out for revenge, his licence to kill revoked.

The Craig films seemed to take the adventure of Dalton’s last film to heart, as he’s barely taken a legitimate case since Casino Royale. Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and Spectre are all revenge films of a sort, with Craig’s Bond going rouge much of the time and MI6 feeling even less and less relevant as the series progressed. Spectre, in particular, wants to make a point here about global intelligence agencies being at the mercy of rogue elements (both agents and super villains) but the script is flaccid and facile.

I gave Skyfall a lot of latitude because Sam Mendes was never going to make anything resembling a traditional Bond film and, as I said, I like to see the franchise bent in interesting directions. As much as the Fleming novels mostly have an expected structure, some of them are surprising in the way Fleming chooses to approach the story. “From Russia With Love” doesn’t have Bond appear until the halfway point of the book. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is told from a woman’s point of view and Bond doesn’t appear until the last few chapters. And Skyfall was a celebration of fifty years and Bond was in a reflective mood. We even returned to his childhood home, echoing paragraphs from Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice” about Bond’s parents and his upbringing.

With Mendes returning to the franchise, Spectre again refuses to be anything like a classic James Bond film. Sure, it’s got the gunbarrel sequence back at the beginning (finally) and a rousing pre-credits sequence. But the film deliberately veers away from what you are expecting. There are effectively two villains, whose plans are only tangentially related. There is a scene told from Monica Belucci’s character’s point of view, until Bond enters at the last minute.

And after about a third of the way through the film, there are really no dramatic stakes. This is Mendes wanting to pull apart the James Bond character, after four films and nearly ten years and see how Daniel Craig’s James Bond ticks. But there’s no story to anchor that expectation.

When Casino Royale was released, I wrote a blog post examining the elements of the James Bond canon that might be introduced in the following films. Since we had a definitive adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel, might we see his series replayed in a modern context? Each successive film built on the last, but with Spectre wanting to cement all this together, the experiment almost falls apart.

The villainous group Quantum is introduced by name in Quantum of Solace, but they are clearly and obviously connected to the events of Casino Royale through the character of Mr White. They were also an obvious stand-in for the recurring villains in the original novels, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

The rights to the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. group and its head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, have been in legal limbo for much of the part forty years, because Ian Fleming published his novel “Thunderball” based on a treatment co-written with Kevin McClory. McClory then co-owned elements of that novel, allowing him to make his own big screen Thunderball in 1983, Never Say Never Again.

Quantum were the modern-day S.P.E.C.T.R.E. until, of course, Sony & MGM reacquired the rights and based their latest film around Spectre's reintroduction to the franchise. This fourth film should have been another definitive step in replaying the Bond mythos. But it’s a misstep in several ways.

The introduction of Spectre is lacklustre. Bond is sent on a mission by the previous M, who has conveniently left a tape with a mysterious clue on it. Bond connects that to some effects recovered from his childhood home, for some reason. He goes to a funeral, rescues the widow and is then pointed to where Spectre’s next meeting will be held. There he comes face-to-shadow with someone who knows his name... but everything is kept perfectly oblique, even though two-and-two can only really equal four.

Why does he connect M’s warning to the name Oberhauser? Why does he ask Moneypenny to check up on Oberhauser’s history both before and after his supposed death? Just because he gets the first two clues at the same time? I guess that tape and the photograph of Oberhauser were in the same box. None of it makes much sense.

We then get the reintroduction of Mr White (“The Pale King”, something Bond accidentally overheard in Mexico), who tells him that all those who were part of Quantum were also really part of Spectre. Thus wiping the slate clean; the producers seem to hate Quantum of Solace so much, we hear the name Dominic Greene (that film’s villain) but never see his face like we do Le Chiffre (Casino Royale) or Raul Silva (Skyfall). Quantum is dead; long live Spectre.

But why should we care? An evil organisation is an evil organisation. What is their nefarious end game? What are these super villains up to?

Something about terrorist attacks and infiltration of government agencies. The head of Spectre is Oberhauser, who was James Bond’s boyhood friend – a brother figure who calls himself the “author of all [Bond’s] pain”, who somehow convinced Vesper to kill herself or something. Not sure, nothing makes much sense by this point. How the plot of Skyfall figures into all this (Silva was seeking revenge on Judi Dench’s M)  is anyone’s guess.

Oh, and Hannes Oberhauser doesn’t go by that name anymore. Call him Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He’s evil, on his mother’s side.

What we have here is a reveal that has all the air taken out of it because in this version of the franchise, the name Blofeld doesn’t mean anything to anyone. It’s just like when Benedict Cumberbatch was revealed to be Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, after a year of JJ Abrams telling everyone he wasn’t playing Khan. What does the audience gain by that? What does the story gain?

The characters don’t care. Bond has never heard the name and doesn’t know this supervillain is best remembered by fans for stroking a Persian cat in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever. Spectre even botches that reveal by showing us the cat before Blofeld reveals his true (new) name. After a year of Sam Mendes telling everyone that Christoph Walz wasn’t playing Blofeld.

There have been memorable female characters in all of Craig’s film, but in Spectre we get Belucci’s Sciarra – who is effectively a cameo – and Lea Seydoux’s Dr Madeleine Swann, who threatens to be interesting but becomes the thinnest-drawn Bond girl in decades. At some point she loses all personality, becomes a victim of daddy issues (an old-saw from the Fleming stories) and then falls in love with James Bond, just in time to need to be rescused at the film’s climax. It’s all so rote.

Sam Mendes doesn’t want to give you the kind of Bond film you used to enjoy, so he gives you a ponderous pastiche of those films, humour and fun completely exised. The fight on the train is an admirable homage to a similar (and far better) scene in From Russia with Love. The confluence of Bond falling in “love” again, with the threat of Blofeld over his shoulder, echoes Fleming’s masterpiece “On Her Majesty Secret Service”. The film is pretty great, too – regardless of what you think of George Lazenby’s one-off 007.

In fact, OHMSS seems to be one of the key inspirations for this film. That book was published a decade after Fleming’s “Casino Royale” and features Bond falling in love for the first time since Vesper. In the film version, there are allusions to previous adventures, mostly to make sure audiences understood that Lazenby was playing the same man that Connery had played in his films.
Spectre tries a similar trick, reminding us of where this Bond has come from – through reference and allusion and homage, without really finding its own voice. Skyfall wanted it both ways and succeeded. Spectre does not.

Earlier versions of the Spectre script (revealed during the Sony hack of last year) suggest that Blofeld’s assistant Irma Bunt from OHMSS was to appear in this film. And, to add insult to various injuries, the last script line of this new film was going to be “We have all the time in the world” – a direct lift from the end of the book and film versions of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Be grateful the filmmaker’s chose to cut that line or I might have done something drastic. Or, in any case, there would have been some memorable invective from my Twitter account.

It’s been a long time since the James Bond series had four good films in a row. Probably some combination of films in the 1960s, to be honest; whether it be Connery’s first four films (Dr No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball) or, depending if your taste leans bigger, the final four of that decade (Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and OHMSS). I was hoping Spectre might buck that trend of inconsistency in the franchise, but it met that expectation full-on.

I did expect Spectre to overshadow Quantum, the evil organisation. I kind of hoped it might. Spectre and Blofeld are to James Bond as the Joker is to Batman. It was the most significant element from the novels yet to be introduced. And now we have a Blofeld who is effectively James Bond’s “brother”, which serves no purpose to the story, either narratively or emotionally.

As ever, even after a terrible film, the James Bond series will continue. I’m hoping Mendes steps away and the next film (possibly Craig’s final film, if this one wasn’t already) is allowed to be bigger, more exciting and a little bit fun.


But how long must we wait until there’s a solid run of four good films in a row? Another half century? Given box office receipts and still (somehow) decent reviews, we might have to wait but the franchise has all the time in the world.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

REVIEW: And Then She Became A Chair by Michelle Myers

  Michelle Myers in And Then She Became A Chair A woman emerges from the darkness, head covered, moving slowly, weighted bags are attached to her dress and drag along the ground behind her. She is in a waiting room. A doctor’s office. A hospice. Inside a commercial begging her to start a new life in Queensland. This is purgatory. Michelle Myer’s one-woman performance, And Then She Became A Chair , is an unsettling, confronting and poetic study in grief. We watch as a woman deals with the inevitable death of her mother, remembering absurd moments of her life, of their lives, in the years, weeks and days leading up to… C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed , a reflection on the passing of his wife, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” And it’s this observation that Michelle explores in this work – grief being the fear of loss, the fear of the unknown and the fear of what comes next. It’s interesting that the first work of theatre I have seen this year is focused so mu

Careful the things you say... Joe Wright’s HANNA & the combination of genres

Once upon a time... I tried to write a film script that melded noir and Grimm’s fairytales, where the femme fatale , clad in a slinky red dress, was also (in a way) Little Red Riding Hood. Where the lover of a hit man discovered his true identity from something hidden under his mattress. Evil (step)mothers, adopted children, hunters, princesses and family fortunes. Noir and fairytales have a lot in common and yet... I had real trouble finding the right tone for the piece. And, in the end, my script read too much like I was trying to get the concept to work, rather than telling a compelling story. Saoirse Ronan as Hanna Joe Wright’s film HANNA , screenplay by Seth Lockhead and David Farr, finds the perfect balance between a high tension thriller and a fairytale coming-of-age story. And travels further into the story of this mysterious girl than the trailer suggests. Going in, I was worried this might be too close to Leon or La Femme Nikita – the original films of which I t

You are far away: Agent Cooper and his troubling return to Twin Peaks

“What year is this?” Dale Cooper asks in the final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return , the last of many unanswered questions left as the 18-part feature film concluded a week ago. It’s far from the first time we’ve seen someone who looks like Dale Cooper lost for answers over recent months. But it might be the first time we have definitive proof that he’s in over his head. Mr C, Dale Cooper’s doppelganger, who was first seen in the original series’ finale back in 1991, returned to the town of Twin Peaks with a goal in mind. Mr C was flexible, though. He had to be; he’d set so many things in motion over twenty-five years, if he’d remained fixated, he would never have come as far as he did. Dougie, Dale Cooper’s tulpa – created by and from Mr C, wandered aimlessly through life, but slowly made every life he touched better. Plans change and Dougie changed with them. Slowly but surely, Dougie pieced together Cooper’s past life and became richer for it. Agent Cooper, th

Carrie Fisher: No More Postcards

Two Princess Leias, a medal and some broken jewellry Did I ever tell you about the time Carrie Fisher kissed me on the cheek? Stick around, I’ll tell it again soon. Carrie Fisher was Princess Leia; no getting past that. Except, of course, she did. And then she stepped right back into being her last year. She was the right person to play Leia because she was the right age at the time and she is part of Hollywood royalty. She was also the right person to have been Leia in retrospect, too. Can you imagine anyone else describing Jabba the Hutt as a “giant saliva testicle”? Anyone else who would bring an audience member up on stage to mount a Leia “sex doll” and whip it away before they get close enough to fulfil their childhood fantasy? Actors, even those of Star Wars­­­ -level fame, go in and out of the spotlight. Oh, you could spot Fisher on screen in the 1980s and 90s, but much of her hard work went on behind the scenes, as a script writer and script doctor. Hook , Sist

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: THE AVENGERS assemble on the big screen

I like superheroes. I grew up with reruns of the 1960s Batman TV series. The Superman films were released when I was really young. The Amazing Spider-Man , Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk were nighttime TV shows. And one of the defining motion picture releases of my teenage years was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. I was never a big comic book reader as a kid – I’ve probably read more comic books, uh, graphic novels in the last ten years than any time before that. But superheroes were always very cool. And Burton’s Batman took my favourite superhero very seriously. Well, until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins appeared – taking it ultra-seriously and much darker than I’d ever hoped for. As a non-comic reader, I find it hard to align myself as a DC ( Batman , Superman , Wonder Woman ) or Marvel Universe ( Spider-Man , X-Men , The Avengers and its consitutent parts) person. They appeal to different parts of my brain. In effect, DC’s superheroes are often lone warrior

Colder by Lachlan Philpott - Red Stitch

Colder Photo: Teresa Noble I’m there. I’m sitting there in the dark. Sitting there in the dark watching a play by Lachlan Philpott at Red Stitch. A child has gone missing at Disneyland but nothing evokes Disneyland for me, not even the actors wearing mouse ears. Especially not the actors wearing mouse ears and affecting exaggerated American accents. I want to feel what the mother is feeling, while officious behind-the-scenes Disney workers assure her everything is going to be fine. I want a sense of her being frantic and frustrated. But I don’t get this sense because the language of the play is putting me at a distance. The expository monologues don’t paint a picture or flesh out a world beyond the very basic (“padded concrete, padded seats”) and the facile (“padded people”). This choral arrangement of voices is not singing. Eight-year-old David remains missing all day and we learn that his single mother has felt separate from him ever since. We ar

Walking out... I couldn't do it, could you?

Every so often, I think about walking out of a play, but I can't. I've never done it and I don't think I ever could. I've never walked out of a film, either. It's not in my nature. In the end, I'd rather suffer through the entire thing so I can criticise the entire play, rather than leave halfway and never know if it got any better or any worse. This has come to mind now, not because I wanted to walk out of Terence Malick's big budget experimental film The Tree of Life , but because apparently walk outs are becoming a phenomenon with that particular movie. And in a packed theatre at Cinema Nova last night, the walk outs were notable by their absense when the lights came up at the end. It certainly won't be to everyone's taste. It's very much an impressionistic film that explores grand ideas through mood and beauty, rather than telling a coherent narrative. But, even those moments in the film that were the most challenging on a "need for

REVIEW: This Genuine Moment by Jacob Parker - Midsumma

Christmas Eve. A bedroom. Two strangers, their limbs entangled; the doona cover and pillows hiding their identities just a little while longer. Riley wakes first to chimes from his mobile phone; an alarm or an early morning text message. He carefully manoeuvres himself away from last night’s hook-up and drags himself out of bed. His family are coming over for dinner and he’s got to clean up his new apartment before they arrive. But first thing is first, he’s got to get rid of “L” – the man he slept with last night, whose name escapes him right now in his early-morning, hangover fog. L doesn’t seem in a hurry to leave, though. He’s checking his messages; friends are texting photos of their Christmas Eve barbeque, trying to talk him into coming over. He’s not sure he wants to. He’s also sending messages to someone in his phone known only as FUTRE HUSBND and ignoring texts from his dad. Riley, in a haze, is trying to put the pieces together from the night before. He got wasted at

REVIEW: Stay at Home, Kasey Gambling – Melbourne Fringe

Have you ever felt trapped at home? I know, it’s 2020. If you can work from home, you must work from home. There are only four reasons to leave your house. You can only leave for one hour a day for exercise. No one can visit. But have you ever felt really trapped at home? And scared? Unable to leave. Four years ago, theatre-maker Kasey Gambling created an immersive audio experience for a single audience member on the streets of North Melbourne called The Maze . It’s still one of the most memorable pieces of art I have ever experienced, headphones in and following a woman on the street. Wearing headphones on the street can get you killed. At home, they should be a form of escape – listen to music, listen to podcasts, phone a friend. And yet, Kasey’s new show, Stay at Home , isn’t an escape. It’s another immersive audio experience, but this time you’re not following a woman, you’re in her shoes. But this is your house. How well do you know your own house? You’d think, after loc

REVIEW: Riot Stage Gets Famous - Melbourne Fringe

Early in 2020, Riot Stage – the youth theatre company – was getting ready to launch their show Everyone is Famous at the Next Wave Festival in May. They had been working on it for two years. They even got as far as appearing at the launch for the Festival. Then COVID happened. The members of Riot Stage had to wrestle with what to do next, just like theatre companies all over the world. They wanted to keep making theatre but had to think outside the box. Instead of premiering a show about persona in the age of social media, they made a documentary about trying to get famous in three weeks. Social media connects us all and every platform has its own quirks and expectations. And they all need content. The Riot Stagers launch new accounts to post art, sexually-revealing photographs, thirsty pics of Harry Styles, bad makeup tips from a learner, and reviews of pickles. The goal, of course, is to get as many followers as they can in three weeks. One Riot Stager goes the old-fashioned