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

My Favourite Theatre of 2019

This year I saw some amazing theatre in Melbourne, as always, and I was lucky enough to visit London for the first time, where I saw some wonderful West End theatre and some really inventive off-West End and independent theatre.
The thing about the theatre in London is that is really seems to be working toward the ideal of diverse casting, even if behind-the-scenes (writers, directors) are still male-dominated. And it’s not just in reinventions of shows like Death of a Salesman, which was a mostly black cast; a lot of shows I saw there were female-focused with racially diverse casts.
That said, I did see a show that was ostensibly about race, which was all white.
I saw some shows again this year, which were as great as when I originally saw them, but they have been on previous year-end lists, so sorry to Hamilton, Muriel’s Wedding and Cock – you’re not on my list again this year.
The lists are in alphabetical order and links in titles to review where available.
TOP TEN 

All About Eve –…

REVIEW: Disinhibition by Christopher Bryant

Flick, known on Instagram as Flick.Eats, and George, known on Tumblr as Boyance, are social media influencers. Flick.Eats posts FODMAP recipes and Boyance is living his best gay life online, but both are lies – constructions of the kind of personalities that get likes and shares and re-blogs. When Microsoft releases a new artificial intelligence bot onto Twitter – Tay, whose followers are #TaysTeam – the world of fake online personas gets trickier to navigate.
Who are Flick and George, really? Do they even know anymore?
Disinhibition plunges the audience right into the internet, the opening scene a perfect recreation of a Twitter interaction: someone posts a photo of their cute dog, lots of other users retweet it and someone @s the original poster, telling them their dog is prettier than they are. All social niceties are gone; people will say anything to each other online.
Presented by Monash University Student Theatre (MUST) and directed with a sure hand and clear intent by Artistic …

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, the third part of this T…

REVIEW: Control by Keziah Warner – Red Stitch

The crew of a space ship, dressed in bold primary colours, rock from left to right in front of us, as they try to keep control of their craft. The group is racially diverse but it’s the white guy, a larrakin Aussie from Melbourne, who boldly steps forward to save the day. “It’s something I have to do.”

Keziah Warner’s Control, a science fiction triptych, begins with a scene of broad comedy, a nod to Star Trek and then jumps back in time to see how this crew ended up in such a dramatic situation. Starting a story in media res can be a pretty tired trope, but here Keziah uses it as a dramaturgical sleight-of-hand; this story is much more complicated than it first appears to be.
A pregnant woman, a puppeteer, a singer and a detective have been hand-picked to be on this space ship, leave Earth and strive to survive in “Fifteen Minutes on Mars” – a Big Brother-type reality show that is manoeuvring this ensemble toward interstellar cabin fever.
Twenty years later, in a library that promises…

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.

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 throughly enjoyed, but would this new fil…

My Favourite Theatre of 2018

It’s that time of year again, when I look back over everything I saw on stage and put together a list of my favourite shows. I saw over 100 shows this year, mostly in Melbourne and a small number on one visit to Sydney.

I will link to reviews if I wrote one.
TOP TEN (alphabetical order)
The Almighty Sometimes – Griffin Theatre, Sydney
Kendall Feaver’s extraordinary debut play is about Anna, dealing with mood disorders and medication and the complicated relationship she has with the treatments and her mother. Superb cast and beautifully directed by Lee Lewis
Blackie Blackie Brown – Malthouse Theatre
Nakkiah Lui’s work is always amazing but this production, directed by Declan Green, was another step up for her – the satire sharper and bleaker and more hilarious than ever before.
Blasted – Malthouse Theatre
Sarah Kane’s debut play from 1990s London is a tricky beast tackling difficult subjects but Anne-Louise Sarks nailed it with a superb production.
The Bleeding Tree – Arts Centre Melbourne

REVIEW: SLUT by Patricia Cornelius

A man is dead, we’re told. A good man. A man with a job. Not a drunk. Not homeless. He’s a hero really. Just wanted to help Lolita and now he’s dead.
We’re told this story – this anecdote – by a trio of young women, friends of Lolita, who have known her from a very young age. In fact, there’s some question about who knew her better and who knew her the longest. Because the better they knew Lolita, the better they might understand her. And the more they understand her, the more righteously they can pass judgement.
Lolita was a carefree child. Used to love riding a bike. Ride it fast. Feel the ache in her legs and sweat on her face. All she had to worry about was staying on the bike and enjoying her lovely, lovely life. She stopped riding bikes when she was nine-years-old.
Her friends tell us that everything changed for Lolita when she turned eight and grew breasts. Huge ones. When she was eight years old. A child with breasts. And boys went into a frenzy. As did her grade five teacher…

REVIEW: This Bitter Earth by Chris Edwards – Midsumma

A young man sips a glass of wine, waiting for us to file into the theatre, while Kylie plays. As we settle in, he’s a long way from settled – nervous, anxious, eager to tell us about a dream he’s had. Even though he knows that when most people recount dreams, they are dead boring.
He’s a country boy who has moved to the big city – let’s call it Sydney – for university. He’s sleeping on his uncle’s couch and after being shown the expected touristy sites, he starts to explore the world by himself.
He’s gay and he’s never seen a penis other than his own. He’s drawn to a busker singing “My Heart Will Go On” and shaken up by two dude-bros shouting at gay couple kissing.
“Stop shoving it down our throats,” they shout, unaware of how unintentionally homoerotic they sound. The guy whose story we’ve been following, decides to follow them.
And this is just the start of the first vignette in a series of short moments by Chris Edwards exploring queer sex and relationships in this fantastical ga…

REVIEW: Chicago - The Musical

The real-life inspiration for the musical Chicago comes from nearly a century ago, when reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins reported on two unrelated court cases about women suspected and acquitted of murder. Watkins later wrote a satirical play about the attention both cases got, focusing on the media’s sensational headlines – something Watkins herself fed into.
The play became a silent film in 1927, a 1942 film named Roxie Hart (starring Ginger Rogers), and later the 1975 musical Chicago, for which husband and wife creative duo, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, struggled to get the rights to make throughout the sixties.
The original Broadway production opened to mixed reviews, as it was considered cynical and subversive – the opposite of what audiences wanted from musical theatre. But times change and this black satire about merry murderesses returned to Broadway in 1996 in a slick, pared-back production, directed by Walter Bobbie with choreography by Anne Reinking – “in the style of Bob Fos…

REVIEW: My Dearworthy Darling by Alison Croggon & The Rabble

A woman lies on a rock, writhing. She is in a state of ecstasy; part bliss and part religious fervour. She is listening and waiting for God. A man enters. He berates the woman for losing something of his. The tableau has turned from the epic to the domestic, a space that The Rabble have played with before, particularly in Joan, their deeply affecting exploration of Joan d’Arc and her lack of voice.
My Dearworthy Darling is a collaboration between The Rabble (Emma Valente, Kate Davis) and writer Alison Croggon, poet, novelist, librettist, critic and author of other texts for theatre. And it feels like the perfect fit.
The Rabble’s work is often inspired by well-known texts, though what they produce may simply echo, rhyme with or retaliate against stories we have heard or told ourselves. Frankenstein. Story of O. Orlando. Cain and Abel. All these works were as much about our histories with these texts as about the stories themselves.
Their work is created in collaboration with actors, d…