James Bond Retrospective: Spectre

We’ve come far in our retrospective, haven’t we? We visited Crab Key and fought Dr. No (1962), we met The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), we came back home to Skyfall (2012), and every adventure in between. We are now at the most current Bond adventure, and today we are going to:

  • See what this film does to take franchise’s new direction in… a new direction.
  • See how a series so developed after all this time can still make the same mistakes, and some new ones too.
  • Take one final look at the series as a whole and what makes it so special after all this time.

We’ve got an entire evil organization to talk about, places to go, brothers to meet. Today our film will be…

Spectre (2015)

Not gonna get too into symbolism here, but the guy’s name is White, and there’s a chess board and he’s on the white side. Eh? Eh? The film is deep.

After an eternity in legal troubles, EON productions finally obtained all the little licenses the Bond franchise found itself in controversy with. They finally obtained the Blofeld and SPECTRE license back after a long time. Another company entirely made Never Say Never Again (1983) (I haven’t reviewed it yet), and the last time we ever saw “Blofeld” was a nondescript fake Blofeld that pet a cat in For Your Eyes Only (1981).

When they got everything back, they knew bringing SPECTRE and Blofeld back was a huge deal, but how were they going to present in a nice, singular film? For that, we must discuss:

The Plot

Can we just get one where Bond goes on an actual vacation? Just like, staying inside his hotel room to watch pay per view or something?

After the events of Skyfall, M leaves a message for Bond to murder an assassin by the name of Marco Sciarra and attend the man’s funeral . He murders him in Mexico City, but a bomb goes off and destroys a city block.

Back in London, M is pissed. MI6 is being merged into MI5, and a private organization ran by a man Bond jokingly calls “C” is overseeing the process and trying to overtake both firms’ duties and information as much as possible. Bond is suspended, and given a new tracking nanomachine by Q, but Q does Bond a solid and gives him 48 hours to do whatever needs to be done before the machines “kick in”.

At the funeral, Bond finds Sciarra’s widowed wife. He protects her from the organization, then sleeps with her and tries to get information (very classy, James). The organization is meeting that same night to determine Sciarra’s replacement to murder “The Pale King”. Bond infiltrates the organization, finds out that the assassinations and terrorist attacks are connected, but the head of the organization figures out during the meeting Bond is there and the meeting disbands as Bond is chased out. Moneypenny calls Bond and tells him the Pale King is actually Mr. White, a leader of Quantum and seen in Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008). Bond also tells Moneypenny to look for a man called Franz Oberhauser.

In a subplot for M and the side characters because you don’t get Ralph Fiennes to be in your movie for only two scenes, C also has an initiative in place called “Nine Eyes” which involves countries pooling together their information and security resources within C’s company for the sake of increased security for everyone. M doesn’t like this, and we’ll leave this alone for a while.

Bond tracks Mr. White (who looks like shit) to Austria and asks him about the organization. It’s a spoooooky organization capable of everything and is like a ghost! Boo! White agrees to give Bond info if Bond protects his daughter’s life. He tells Bond that his daughter can take him to “L’American”.

Bond finds White’s daughter (Madeleine Swann) in a spa clinic, one can’t help but remember the spa clinic in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). He saves her from the Dave Bautista henchman, and also discovers the name of the organization is SPECTRE. Yep, the same organization from classic Bond, and… the title of the film. They visit L’American and discover the location of Oberhauser’s secret lair. The two are icy towards each other, but they warm up to one another progressively.

Bond and Swann get on a train to a spot in the Sahara desert. The organization’s henchman comes back again to kill them. It feels a tad like From Russia With Love (1963). When they murder Dave Bautista, Bond and Swann finally admit their feelings for each other and sleep together.

Oberhauser welcomes Bond and Swann with open arms to his remote and secret base. He shows off his surveillance toys and lays EVERYTHING out: Oberhauser was Bond’s stepbrother when his father adopted Bond. Oberhauser killed his father in an accident and disappeared, and doesn’t particularly like Bond. He’s also been responsible for all the bad things to happen to Bond as an agent, taking credit for Quantum and Silva. Now, he’s the private contributor to C’s company and when the Nine Eyes initiative happens in the sub-plot he’s going to have access to pretty much all of the information in the world.

Oh, also, he doesn’t go by Oberhauser anymore. He goes by Ernst Stavro Blofeld. HUGE SHOCKER. Bond and Swann escape the base and blow a bunch of stuff up, but the bigger problem is they need to go to London and stop the Nine Eyes from starting and Blofeld is still on the loose.

Bond and all of the supporting cast stop the Nine Eyes program and murder C, but Blofeld has Swann captive in the abandoned MI6 building. Bond goes through a weird haunted house of stuff, saves Swann, and stops Blofeld. Blofeld is scarred, looking like Donald Pleasance’s portrayal in You Only Live Twice (1967). Bond decides not to kill him, and Blofeld is taken into custody. Presumably, so he can be a spooky Hannibal Lecter-type in sequels.

Bond retires from duty, having fallen fully in love with Swann. Everybody wishes Bond luck, and Bond tells Swann that they have “All the time in the world”: an iconic song that played during On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and harkens back to the classic relationship between Tracy and James, perhaps ominously.

A Closer Look

Honestly, this is an inefficient method to hold meetings for the most secret criminal organization ever.

Uh, there’s a lot to go over, but nothing is particularly meaningful. I think this film tries the hardest to call back iconic Bond imagery, but unlike Skyfall it’s not so much a blend into something new as it is just a lesser version of something much better. Swann as a character, for instance, feels like a blend of the best Bond love interests. Mainly, Tracy from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Tatiana from From Russia With Love. But just calling back to those characters doesn’t make Swann particularly great. I think Swann is an above average love interest, but the pacing of her relationship with Bond is definitely flawed and they shouldn’t be madly in love with another hour left to go in the film.

Likewise, when we talk about SPECTRE and Blofeld, there’s an entire legacy of Bond films to come to terms with, and this film tries to do it all in a single film. What’s bizarre is you can see Quantum as presented in Casino Royale as the skeleton for such an evil organization, but instead of utilizing something already built the producers and writers apparently thought the name of SPECTRE was what was essential to the story.

It’s not. SPECTRE is a boogeyman, made by Ian Fleming so he could have a criminal organization beyond spies just fighting Communism. What was special about it was its presence within the films. It was the singular continuity thread connecting all of the early Bond films together. Now, this film tries to make it that same continuity thread with no thematic buildup.

Worse, Blofeld might be Bond’s greatest villain. The best example of an evil mastermind. There have been many performances by different actors with many nuances to each portrayal. I don’t particularly hate or dislike the Waltz portrayal, but it feels like it’s trying to do everything. He’s smart and educated like Telly Savalas, but psychotic and unpredictable like Donald Pleasance. A bit goofy like Charles Dance too. Waltz and the makers of the film didn’t commit to a portrayal, and that’s the biggest sin here.

Tonal inconsistency exists throughout the film, but also the messages and themes are tired. How many times have we questioned the relevancy of the 00’s? How many times have we wondered if Bond is done for good? Security and information in the modern age have become the key themes here, but they were already dabbled in Skyfall. The film doesn’t even have the decency to affirm Bond’s role. Instead, the film ends everything in question. Bond chooses love over his duty, and I like that as a character beat for him, but the film never tried to question his duty. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service did.

I’d be remiss if I ignored some more obvious Bond callbacks. On the train, Bond wears something very similar to the white tux in Goldfinger (1964). It was a big part in the promotion of the film, too. The Asian guy from the Poker game in Casino Royale is also in the SPECTRE meeting. A lot of random stuff can also be seen as callbacks. The parade at the start of the film can be seen visually as similar to the Thunderball (1965) parade or perhaps the dead voodoo imagery in Live and Let Die (1973). If there’s more, post them in the comments. Otherwise, I’ll be here all night.

What’s Good?

See, Blofeld before this always wore white or grey. Now, he’s wearing black. He’s different. Huh, huh, do you see it?

It’s a lot of small things, this rewatch wasn’t terrible for me. As said, I don’t mind the Swann relationship when you look back on all of the Bond films. She’s not Dr. Goodhead or Octopussy.

The movie does a decent job at giving the supporting cast a more fleshed out personality and stuff to  do. I particularly like Moneypenny and Q, who feel more lived in than in Skyfall. Bond calls Moneypenny in the middle of the night and they question each other about who Moneypenny spends her nights with. Q is less of a sleek new age hacker, and more of an absolute dweeb. He’s got a mortgage and takes care of cats. He laughs at his own jokes.

The film has more of a camp element than any Craig film has had before, and that’s fitting for a SPECTRE and Blofeld film. At times, the humor is very strong and welcome. A lot of times it feels organic. I particularly like Bond’s personality in normal conversation. How he treats a spa clinic that doesn’t serve alcohol but does serve digestive enzymes (“go ahead and pour that down the toilet. Cut the middle man.”)

This film offers an uncommon setting for a Bond scene: Bond’s home. We don’t normally see Bond at home, the most notable being in Live and Let Die. Moore’s Bond had a distinguished pad for a distinguished gentleman. It fit more with the image of Bond. This film’s apartment is bare, Moneypenny mistakes Bond for just recently moving in. This portrayal is actually better and more suited to the character of Bond and not the image. It shows that he doesn’t actually have a taste for the finer things in his own time. He doesn’t indulge while off the clock. Perhaps because he’s never off the clock. That’s really cool.

Visually it’s still pretty. It’s not as amazing as it was with Roger Deakins, but Sam Mendes does an admirable job directing with his new cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema. The colors of the film are also much more subdued. It’s a film of browns, beiges, whites, and similar filters. It’s appealing, but not distinctive to the point of bland.

And uh, hmmm. I like Dave Bautista. He’s a cool henchman, all a henchman needs to be in a Bond film is a threat and he served that purpose appropriately.

That’s all I got.

What’s Bad?

The guy that played Moriarty in the BBC Sherlock Holmes series will not be playing a bad guy in this. No way. Impossible.

Whoever thought to make Blofeld Bond’s secret long lost brother needs to never write a James Bond story ever again. I THINK I know why they did it: they wanted to make Blofeld the ultimate bad guy and the brother angle helps emphasize the personal aspect to Bond. The Telly Savalas version of Blofeld was also obsessed with lineage and family, searching for a Count title when Bond actually held a special bloodline. I think that might’ve been the excuse to make family such an important aspect of the film, but it is never used appropriately. Also, the last portion of Blofeld’s fight with Bond leans towards horror and something like SAW (2004). Putting all of this into a single villain is a major whiplash. Take another spy contemporary, Guy Ritchie’s The Man From UNCLE (2015, the same year!). In that film there’s multiple bad guys working together. The psychopath that wants to torture American Spy Napoleon Solo is built as a former Nazi scientist and works for the evil masterminds. The evil masterminds themselves don’t indulge in body horror, because evil is meant to have many faces. Making it into a single face and a single person leads to much messier consequences.

The humor was praised earlier, but there’s a double edged sword here. The escalation in tone and violence are some of the biggest reasons why Bond has had trouble with camp in the modern era. A film like Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) doesn’t have to deal with tone issues because it commits to fun. Here, we see a building bombed during a Día de Los Muertos parade and modern audiences feel shock and horror. The scene is punctuated by Bond landing from a collapsing building onto a couch. That’s funny, but ultimately unwelcome to the tone. It’s a reoccurring problem, too.

The side characters are also given a weak B-plot when not dealing with Bond. M feels like he’s given a huge status in this film, and it feels bizarre. M and C are the ones that debate about the relevancy of the Bond program and the larger implications of a security state, but these are also some of the weakest scenes in the film, another reason why the film may not have a lot of thematic oomph.

Also, I’m mixed on the Monica Bellucci scene. What I like and what was marketed is that Monica Bellucci is near Craig’s age, and holy crap that shouldn’t be news or a major bullet point but I’m very glad the film can embrace older feminine beauty. What’s bad is… the context and content of the scenes she’s in. Bond is violently seducing a widow mourning her husband. It’s kind of gross to be honest, and I thought Bond films were better than that now.

I dislike the song “The Writing’s on the Wall” by Sam Smith. The intro is okay, I think the octopus invading the imagery of the rest of the sequence is cool. The song itself is also well produced and performed, but it feels like a halfway between a sweeping romance and an ominous ultimatum.

Looking Back

MI6’s car insurance policies must be CRAZY… Did I make that joke before? Only one way to find out.

I love James Bond. I’ll see ten bad Bond movies in the hopes we get another great one. He’s fantasy, he’s adventure, he’s action incarnate. He does what’s right, he does what the government tells him to, he’s beyond a singular action hero and has become a cultural icon for Britain. What’s more beautiful is how these films change over time, and how Bond can be so malleable, yet still so strong in his image. He’s a gentleman, he’s a blunt instrument, he’s everything everyone wants to be yet a cautionary tale for everyone just the same. I think Bond films hit their lowest point a while ago, now it’s a franchise that will survive the times by virtue of the willpower behind it.

I used to watch these films with my dad and we’d talk about which ones we liked and which ones we didn’t. We’d talk about which girls were cute or which plots were too silly. I was really young, but these conversations of continuity helped build my understanding and analysis of film as a whole. I look at films like this because of conversations about James Bond. That’s really magical to me, and it’s what I wanted to capture in this series.

Originally, this was meant to be released right before the new film, No Time to Die (2020, maybe???). Now, it’s just by itself. I’ll still go over other spy films and see what they learned from or did different than the Bond series. I’ll do the non-EON films, I can’t wait to see Max Von Sydow as Blofeld again. Whatever I do, I wrote my heart out on every Bond film out so far, and that makes me so very happy.

The last addendums to the retrospective in particular will involve rankings: the movies, the songs. If those come out and someone reads those and asks, “what is this guy smoking?”, now they have twenty four articles to visit and understand where I come from.

OH OH also, the torture scene is dumb. A tiny drill drills into Bond’s head and it’s supposed to make him brain dead, the thing happens, but Bond is magically okay. This is dumb, a trap has to have consequences. I’ve got nothing else to say.

What I Drank

Do trains in the desert really offer fine dining? Is that a good idea? Did you break out your best Tuxedo only for your end destination to be in the Sahara?

Swann orders herself a dirty Vodka Martini, which is a Vodka Martini with a splash of olive juice and an olive garnish. Shaken, not stirred.

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