Here you have it, almost 5000 words on Spectre that looks at the film’s plot, its shortcomings, and my expectations for the film. All of the photographs in this monster baby of a post come from antovolk‘s trailer screencaps on flickr .
It feels like almost everything I’ve done has led up to this point.
For me (and many fans), 2015 was the year of the spy. I’ve seen most of the spy films and television shows that came out this year and of course, I spent most of my year watching and rewatching James Bond films so that I could write my column over at The Mary Sue. From Dr. No to Skyfall (with a few unofficial films along the way), I made my way through every single James Bond film made between 1962 and now. Most of these movies I watched a minimum of three times. Others? Yeah, I went way overboard.
I think that after a year of spy comics, movies, and shows, it was inevitable for Spectre to fall short of the hype that I had built up, a crashing force of momentum born from the moment that they announced the title of the film. I’ve spent close to a year of my life eating, breathing, and dreaming about James Bond. I may be behind on Fleming’s original canon, but I am nearly one with Eon Production’s slightly softer canon.
Here’s the thing though: maybe all of that time worked against me. Maybe I was destined not to completely enjoy Spectre because it had been built up to Leviathan-like proportions in my head thanks to this year. I don’t know. What I do know is that I saw Spectre twice – first on November 7th with my Skyfall partner Rob and then on the following Tuesday with my trusty notebook – and it has yet to move me the way that Skyfall did.
It isn’t that Spectre is a bad movie. It’s not. It’s full of lush scenery and pretty people and the most brutal fight scenes. Craig is a good Bond and I’ve got to admit that even his least popular Bond film (coughcoughQuantumOfSolacecoughcough) is better than like ninety percent of the worst Bond films out there.
Spectre is almost entirely my thing.
Except for where it’s not.
Spectre ties together the scattered threads of Craig’s movies. It ignores much of what came before, creating a definitive four-movie canon for Bond in the twenty-first century. Normally, I’d love the fact that Eon Productions is working towards this definite canon where we can pinpoint events and Bond isn’t stuck in the Cold War era for much of his life.
But here’s the thing: Spectre is doing that thing I hate in comic books.
Everything is connected. Every villain, every crime. They’re all connected and there’s always someone bigger and scarier out there waiting for a bite of Bond/our steel-jawed hero once the subordinate fails.
Personally, I think that relying on that repetitive trope sucks. I hated it in Batman with how Snyder and Capullo are giving us a world where Bruce needed to become the Batman and essentially he’s the reason for all of his villains hating him. Where someone else has been the architect of Bruce’s path and his mission and we’re all being dragged along for the ride.
Bond is already the center of the universe because hello – we’re watching Bond films, not an ensemble-centered movie like the Mission Impossible series – and I don’t think we really needed a movie where our villain is someone who’s dedicated his life to basically fucking Bond’s up. Spectre becomes very personal, very quickly. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing because we’ve been hungry for more knowledge about Bond’s pre-MI6 past since the start, but villains who make everything personal from the get go kind of lose my interest.
Now, here’s where the serious spoilers are going to start. I took extensive notes on my experience on the second time I watched Spectre and I have thoughts about the franchise, about the film itself, and my year of Bond. So I’m going to recap Spectre and spoil the hell out of it for anyone that hasn’t seen it yet.
We open in Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos.
I remember watching the Graham Norton show right after I got home and hearing how much of an effort went into the crowd scenes and the helicopter stunts.
One thing is that the opening for Spectre really does kind of set your expectations good and high for the film. Everything is so pretty and I love the parade scene where you have all of these extras in fancy dress with skeletons everywhere. They apparently started with 1500 extras and then just digitally manipulated that until it looked like they had ten to twenty times that in the crowd scenes. How amazing is that?
It’s a very typical Bond pre-opening scene but I like it. I think that honestly for me, this was where the hype was still very high up.
The first time we see Craig-as-Bond, he’s dressed in this gorgeous skeleton suit and he’s wearing a skull mask with his top hat. It’s legitimately the sexiest thing in the entire movie and part of that is because he’s just so darn confident. (You can argue that some of that attractiveness is because you don’t exactly see his face for a good part of the scene and there’s something to be said for the appeal of anonymity…)
Another way that this scene is reminiscent of older Bond films is how there’s this weird humor in it while Bond is going around destroying local infrastructure. On accident, he blows up a building and takes out a Mexico City block but it’s framed as funny because he keeps almost dying or getting set up to fall to his doom and then something saves him.
A bit of floor that hasn’t collapsed yet.
A wall ornament.
It’s a little gag but a funny one.
The fight scene that follows a frantic chase through the center of the city is also pretty innovative.
I mean, it takes place in a helicopter and it’s very close and brutal. I counted no less than three barrel rolls in the scene and I loved them. The fights ended in a predictable way of course, with Bond tossing his target (the assassin Marco Sciarra) out of the helicopter after wrenching a familiar ring off of his finger and then doing the same to the helicopter pilot a few minutes later.
I do wonder why Bond does certain things –
Yes, we do find out his motives are particularly M-shaped for all of this, but at the same time we’re still looking at a British agent of espionage that’s so full of himself and confident in his abilities that he doesn’t care that he’s about to cause an international incident. I too would probably kill a man for Dame Judi Dench, but I’d have a lot less imperialist baggage tagging along when I went to do it. Like Bond himself doesn’t tend to destroy things in his home territory. He goes outside – to Austria, to Hong Kong, to Mexico – and wrecks their shit.
I also think that Bond can’t be much of a spy considering how many people know who he is. Like he’s got all the subtlety of a brick to the face. So it’s no wonder that essentially three of the past four Bond films have had some measure of “well we have another international incident to deal with” because Bond is literally too recognizable.
I think that it’s a serious problem when before your movie even properly starts, we can tell that someone’s going to cuss Bond out for being unsubtle and going off half-cocked into a situation where they don’t even have political presence.
But hey, aside from the fact that I have never understood how Bond keeps collecting a paycheck, the pre-opening scene wasn’t bad. And it was interesting enough and funny in enough parts to help me turn my brain off for some of it.
Next: The opening.
It’s legit four minutes of heavy-handed tentacles on everything and women fawning over Bond. When Rob and I first saw it on Saturday, we were cracking up because it’s basically tentacle porn and Bond-body worship. Two things I can be down with on their own, but like –
This was over the top and an unsexy tribute to the older openings that were kind of focused on how much silhouetted nipple they could get away with using. It’s ridiculously sexual even though it’s also giving us the glimpses of the connecting threads of Bond’s life and spooky Spectre henchmen wandering around. It’s really hard to be super positive about the fact that Bond is also centered as a sexy sex object but one guy versus a dozen half-naked women?
Not exactly even.
What’s good about the opening is that Writing’s On The Wall is actually growing on me. It’s never going to be within my top five of Bond themes, but I like the lyrics so much. It’s the arrangement and Sam Smith’s weird warbling that make it fall short. When he isn’t warbling and when you have the swells of his voice rising high it’s fantastic.
I just wish that the song and the opening were consistent.
That actually brings us to my two major problems with Spectre: the repetitive/formulaic nature of the film and a lack of consistency in characterization and tone.
It’s a bit repetitive and formulaic to the point where I definitely felt that I’d seen much of the interactions between the characters and some of the plot.
Rob and I kept joking (but not really) that Spectre was really Hydra because and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are basically super similar films.
Look at CATWS, one of the biggest recent films about widespread monitoring and intelligence being turned against good people in the pursuit of evil goals, and then look back at Spectre.
Simplified, they’re both about an agent of imperialistic espionage trying to stop a widespread surveillance network from destroying the lives of civilians and giving evil a serious leg up. They’re both films about the perils of a surveillance state that a cadre of villains have or want access to in addition to infiltrating government organizations.
It was also kind of predictable – even more so than Bond films tend to be – and my friend Robert and I absolutely guessed that Max Denby/C was working for Hydra – I mean, Spectre from the second he showed up.
However, it’s not just that connection.
I just kept feeling that I had seen several aspects of this film in other Bond movies, not just things I’d seen in other franchises. I know, I know. Maybe the ‘Year of the Spy’ is working against me here because I have seen all of the other Bond films and I know more than I have ever needed to about how the films are set up, but everything was super familiar.
Seriously, how many times are we going to have M bawl Bond out for bucking his orders?
How many times is someone going to propose that the 00 program is obsolete?
How many times is Bond going to go off without permission and not get any actual reprimand for it (because, he’s always right apparently)?
I get that Bond going through a mission like he’s supposed to might not be super fun, but it’s getting boring to see the formula of Bond fucks shit up > Bond gets yelled at for causing an incident > Bond gets proven right and everyone sees things his way > Bond saves the day.
What did break up the monotony in the film was Bond’s interactions with Eve Moneypenny and with Q. That really helped keep the film lively – even though Eve really just seemed to vanish into the background after a certain point while Q and Tanner got a bit more screen time. Otherwise, we’d just be dealing with the creepshow that is Christoph Waltz’s Oberhauser and the weird flip-flopping relationship between Bond and Madeline Swan.
I absolutely love how basically Bond makes everyone around him super suspicious of his motives just by being genial and warm and agreeable to what they suggest. He’s obviously working on some ulterior motive but he’s being so darn nice (for him) that no one is sure what to expect.
I can’t get over how much of an awkward little shit Q is.
I adore him. Ben Whishaw is a great actor and despite my own flip-flopping, I do enjoy him as Q. He’s closer in age to Bond so the banter takes on a different dimension from our previous Q’s.
I also like that both Q and Moneypenny are shown as holding their own against Bond while also occasionally absolutely mystified at how he even freaking exists. There’s this scene where Q and Bond are standing in front of this perfect Aston Martin and we’re all assuming that it’s for Bond.
Like, not at all.
Q basically rubs it in his face and it’s hilarious because he’s totally trying so hard not to lose his shit in front of Bond.
I’m assuming that after work that day he met up with Moneypenny for drinks and they had a good laugh about the look on Bond’s face when he realized that the car was going to 009 instead of him.
Now with Moneypenny, I’m of multiple minds.
I like that she isn’t like Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny and that we get a bit more about her character.
She’s beautiful and she’s charming and she’s able to keep up with Bond easily. At no point do we have a joke about her pining after Bond (in fact, Bond is who seems to be doing much of the wanting while she gently shuts him down despite their marked sexual chemistry).
What I don’t like is that we don’t really get much about Moneypenny or Q. Yes, it’s still not an ensemble cast, I know. I do hate that consistently through the Bond franchise, we never get to know much more about the supporting characters aside from what relates to Bond or their business. I want to know more about Moneypenny and Q.
I want to know about what got them into MI6. I want to know what Q’s named his cats. I want to know who Moneypenny’s boyfriend is. I want to know why M isn’t capable of remembering Moneypenny’s birthday?
Seriously, where’s my Spectre novelization and masterbook like the Crimson Peak book my dear friend Kenia got me for my birthday? Because that’s apparently the only way I’ll learn anything about two characters I enjoyed seeing on screen a fair bit more than Bond. (Actually, in general I’m pissed that we’ve largely let film novelizations fall by the wayside because they’re so much more accessible than films for certain kinds of people…)
After scenes where Bond is putting his plan into place (working with Moneypenny and Q to disappear off the map and then stealing the Aston Martin prototype), the film kind of picks up and heads to Italy. This might actually be my favorite part of the movie. There’s just so much to like and it’s super dramatic from every single angle.
Marco Sciarra’s funeral? Dramatic.
The widow Lucia Sciarra’s initial reaction to Bond? Dramatic.
That slow motion “I know I’m probably going to die but I’m going to look good when I do” stalk that she does through her house as Spectre operatives follow her? Dramatic.
I loved that there was an appropriate amount of drama in the film and it all worked so well in the Italian scenes.
So there are a few things I want to talk about with regard to the scenes set in Italy and I’m going to do it out of order because I want to talk about the role of women in this film and my interpretation of them later on.
First, let’s talk about Spectre as an organization.
They’re just horrible. Legitimately horrible. But one thing I have always lowkey admired about the casting people from Dr. No on back is that SPECTRE (or Spectre, since they’re dropped the acronym) has always been a diverse evil agency.
This is kind of a place where I try to find positives in a negative, but Spectre isn’t Hydra. Like some of the best villains and hench-people we’ve seen have come out of that organization and they were definitely memorable. Even the members we saw in this film were interesting enough that I’d want to see more of them in later movies.
What I don’t like is that Oberhauser isn’t content to run his criminal empire. Here he is with this incredible power and he has gotten over Bond on multiple times so what does he do – confront him and manufacture a way to get Bond into his clutches? That is such a bad idea. I really hate “grand architect” type villains. I’m just going to say that over and over again until someone hears me and understands that we need to go back in time and shake the person that made our media so reliant on this trope.
Next: Dave Bautista as Mr. Hinx.
Okay. I love Bautista and Hinx is bae. He’s a brutal, big, and silent henchman in the style of Oddjob or Jaws but with Red Grant’s menace. Despite the fact that he too was part of the formula of Bond, he was refreshing. I liked that he lived as long as he did and got to beat the shit out of Bond while he did. Like the second I heard that he’d be in this movie, I knew I’d love his part. There’s something about him (and in a suit, like dang) –
He freaking jabs a guy’s eyes out.
I’m far from a fan of eye-horror (in fact, eye injuries are a major squick for me) but I had to admire how easily he took down that guy and then how much trouble he gave Bond in a fight scene near the film’s later parts. It’s interesting how in a room full of murderers, traffickers, and nasty people, one quick death leaves them all in silence. He stuns them into silence. Like… wow.
And the train fight scene he’s on?
It’s one in a long line of train fight scene where Bond gets his ass thoroughly handed to him (see Red Grant, TeeHee, and Jaws) but it’s also a bit more brutal. Hinx is only human but he keeps on going. He gets set on fire and that barely fazes him. In the end, his end comes only because Bond cheats and he’s hauled into the night. We don’t actually see him die so maybe we’ll get to see him in the next Bond film as a serious player in Spectre’s politics.
I do still have a bone to pick with the franchise for not being diverse enough to allow for an actor of color to play a villain on the level of Blofeld (and for how many villains of color are actually henchmen and are silent throughout). I’m not a screenwriter so I doubt I’d get a chance to work on a Bond film, but if I did, I know exactly the kind of villain I’d work with because women of color really haven’t had a chance to be incredible throughout the show and May Day was basically it in terms of villainous women of color.
And speaking of women –
This movie could’ve done a bit better on how women were portrayed.
Monica Belluci is lovely as Lucia Sciarra, but here’s the thing: it’s super difficult to count her as a Bond girl. Not because of her age, but because she’s basically only there for like under ten minutes before Bond leaves, flush with information.
Let’s be very real here: Bond playing opposite a Bond girl his own age would’ve been less newsworthy if reporters knew that she was only in the film for a small amount of time and given an open-ended treatment where you can infer that she dies. (Yes, he does give her Felix Leiter’s number but what are the chances that she got to a safe space before someone from Spectre killed her?)
Articles for the film would have you believe that Bond spends the entire movie with the widow Sciarra.
Instead, we get a wide-eyed young woman a good 12 years younger than our leading actor (who plays a character that seems younger than that). Madeline Swan has so much potential and I decided that I was going to like her from the moment that she told Bond to get out of her office, but at the same time, she has some issues as well.
Her characterization seems all over the place. Sure, she’s going through trauma and the death of her father, but at the same time, it’s super hard to make sense of what we’re seeing or how she’s acting.
One minute she’s super pissed at Bond and the next they’re flirting. Even after they’ve had sex, I can’t tell that they’re actually fond of each other because she freaks out on him after she realizes how her dad died (which I really don’t get because yes, he used Bond’s gun to do it but that was literally him taking control of the way that he died since he was days away from death).
That’s why there are two things that really blow my mind: that she tells him that she loves him in the torture scene (after she finds out that her father killed himself with Bond’s gun) and that she walks away from him anyway at the climax of the film. The first one doesn’t make sense because they didn’t seem to have that relationship. I am so here for ladies being in love and owning that, but she’s known Bond for like a week.
How is she in love with him?
And then – if she’s in love with him, why is she walking away? I feel like the writers just wanted her to be in a damsel position that they couldn’t get her into otherwise (because she’s good with guns and it’s implied that she’s good at hand-to-hand combat) so they were like “well lots of women want Bond to change so let’s make her be one of them”.
I really want to know if they couldn’t have done that scene or 90% of Madeline and Bond’s scenes differently. There’s a lot of telling but not so much showing. I’m still not sure how they went from Bond kind of patronizing her to “I love you too and I’ll leave MI6 for you”.
Like I’m all for happy endings, but this doesn’t necessarily feel like we’re going to get one. What it feels like is that they’re going to set the characters up to do an updated version of what happened to Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service where he leaves MI6 for her and Blofeld (or one of his henchmen/another villain) kills her to get to him.
Which I’m not okay with because fridging is never cool.
Despite my confusion with how they handled Madeline, she’s also basically me if I was a Bond girl. Which kind of means that I’d make weird choices and absolutely bone Bond after helping him kill a guy, but whatever – you all know me by now.
Okay. I know I’ve gotten way off track, but I’m going to try reign myself back in and wrap this up.
Spectre hinges on themes of widespread surveillance. The cameras on every corner aren’t just feeding to your local government, they’re potentially sending information to an organization that thrives on exploiting people. It’s a legitimate fear but one that we’ve kind of shifted. Instead of fearing that our government is stalking us, we can kind of relax because in these pieces of media it’s Hydra or Spectre or SPYRAL out to get your information and steal your secrets.
Spectre (thanks to Max/C and Oberhauser) can swoop right into the space caused by these fears.
Okay, since I think I’m wrapping up this recap, I think it’s a really good time to talk about my bone to pick with our big bad. I understand rebooting canon. I even get that since we’re framing this Bond as a new one and wiping the slate clean, that all f the other cast members have to be updated as well.
But did we really have to go with the avenue that they did with Oberhauser/Blofeld? What was good about Blofeld in the original Bond works was that he was just evil. He didn’t have this burning urge to get back at Bond for something super petty.
Bond was just in his way and he had already been an accomplished criminal by the time that even happened.
Making Blofeld about Bond is like the push to make Bruce/Batman the center behind all the bad stuff in Gotham City.
Legit – one of the things that Rob and I observed was that Blofeld/Oberhauser is Tommy Elliot in a nutshell. He killed his father because he was jealous of what Bond had and went on to center Bond in an extensive web of hate and evil.
It wasn’t cute in Hush and it’s not cute here.
Petty villains aren’t awesome. Already, I don’t like Christoph Waltz as an actor (he makes me uncomfortable in ways I can’t quite verbalize) so to see him playing Blofeld/Oberhauser as this caricature dedicated to masterminding Bond’s downfall from the start rather than a predator trying to kill an overly intelligent piece of prey didn’t work for me.
He also isn’t very menacing.
A good Bond villain is subtly menacing. They make you worry for Bond. They make you wonder what they’ll get up to before Bond has to put them down. There was one scene where all I could focus on was how the guy’s pants didn’t fit him properly. He just wasn’t captivating.
I also just can’t get over how this guy let petty beef get in the way of running a massive criminal organization. He’s just not an efficient villain. Obviously, to continue letting Bond win you can’t have hyper efficient villains, but really – who lets a grudge get in the way of ruling the world? That seems ridiculous.
One thing about pre-Spectre Blofeld was that his interest in Bond started as a result of his constant interference. He targeted Bond because he was frustrated by Bond being dropped into his plans, not because he’s been holding on a grudge since he was a kid. And it’s not even a good grudge. For about six months, Oberhauser’s dad treated Bond well as a kid.
So Oberhauser kills his dad, changes his name, and decides that he’s going to kill every single woman that’s important to Bond?
Yeah, because that makes so much sense. It is so annoying to see a really great villain reduced to the hot mess of Blofeld/Oberhauser in Spectre.
Now I’m going to be even more honest: I think that Spectre is a good movie for some values of good and I don’t regret spending money on it (or Rob spending money on it, more accurately), but I’m a little mad that this is the follow up to Skyfall.
It falls short for me in so many ways and even though it’s beautifully filmed, it’s might actually tie with Quantum of Solace in terms of “meandering plots that I got bored of and figured out the twist early on”. The characterization (from Bond and from Madeline Swan largely) left me confused because this Bond isn’t anything like the Bond in Skyfall and Swan is just all over the place.
I don’t like how Waltz portrays Oberhauser/Blofeld and I feel like the series would’ve done better by not trying to bring back iconic aspects of the franchise like that. We could’ve flipped the script and revitalized Spectre with a female head the way that Elementary did with Moriarty. See that – that would’ve been awesome. At the very least, we could’ve done away with the jealousy and pettiness that made Waltz’s character look like a giant child.
As we near the end of my year dedicated to all things spy-centered, I’ve got to say that Spectre was a kind of disappointing climax. It was almost what I wanted but after all the Bond I’ve watched and all the research I’ve done, it really really let me down. Maybe things’ll change by the time I pick up the DVD next year but for right now, I’m feeling like Spectre wasn’t really the best Bond movie we could have gotten.
If you’ve watched Spectre, how did you feel about it? Did it exceed or fall short of your expectations?