I wouldn’t call myself a loyal fan, but I like the James Bond movies. There have been greater and lesser entries, with actors doing greater and lesser work playing the character. Daniel Craig, in play since 2006’s Casino Royale, is one of the better ones - and the first, I believe, to have a decisive narrative arc that spans multiple films. This makes his series uniquely self-contained among the franchise, and his first and third outings as the character rank among the series’ best. So when I say that Spectre - Craig’s latest and presumably last Bond film - is a thundering misfire, thin on character development or byplay, and somehow full of excess while stumbling mightily in the action department, it’s really nothing personal.
Movie Review: Spectre
By Ben Gruchow
November 12, 2015
This is an overweight dirigible of a film. It’s gigantic, overwhelming in its scale, and yet once the final descent begins, you’d really rather not be there. I hasten to add that the movie is not a true disaster, but it proves that Eon Productions can go toe-to-toe with Disney/Marvel when it comes to making bloated, fussy sequels that threaten to collapse under the weight of expectation and hubris. This is not helped by the story we’re given, which at least carries the illusion of momentum for a decent sprint before devolving into an episodic mess.
Bond is on a hunt to find the meaning behind a ring with an octopus etched into it; this hunt will take him to various European locations before finally settling on Rome, where he discovers a secret council that controls all of the world. When the society is revealed, Bond barely seems affected. This is appropriate; we have seen so many hidden councils secretly controlling all the world in the Bond franchise by this point that the EU should really start regulations and set up a tax code just to keep track.
To locate and infiltrate the mechanisms behind this council, he needs the help of one of its old members—specifically, the daughter of one of its old members. She is a psychologist at an exclusive mountaintop clinic, which matters little, and her name is Dr. Madeleine Swann, which matters less. She will aid him in tracking down the elusive head of the council, called Spectre, while MI6 faces their own inquiry in Britain from a rival organization, bent on eliminating the double-oh program.
I have described perhaps the first 30 minutes or so of plot, with Swann’s introduction perhaps coming a bit later than that. I hope I have also conveyed, without spoiling anything (it’s eye-opening how little most of the above description matters to the overall story), Spectre’s convolution and general superficiality. Let’s return to that mountaintop clinic. It’s a staggering location, metal and glass and bold architecture seemingly dropped on a snowy peak. The only way to get to and from the place is by plane or by cable car. It’s exactly the type of lifestyle-porn location filming we are accustomed to seeing in a traditional Bond film.
The other set pieces used are generally effective, if for different reasons. The opening sequence in Mexico City is jaw-dropping in its scale and escalation, and it’s the best set piece in the movie. An early scene showing the old MI6 headquarters, blown up in 2012’s Skyfall and primed for demolition here, all but assures us we’ll be returning to it in the third act in some fashion; the cinematography and lighting give us a nice way to send it off. And I liked, as always, the juxtaposition between futuristic high-tech and Victorian Gothic architecture.
I had trouble caring much about what was happening in front of any of these scenes, though. What transpires in the old MI6 building is the most routine of thriller sequences; gorgeous locations are used in the service of plot points that don’t take advantage of them. Late in the film, we attend a high-tech facility in the middle of a desert, with green lawns and sleek metal clashing wildly with the sand and rock around it. The facility operates with a legion of staff and security, all dressed in expensive suits and treating the opening and closing of doors with the utmost gravity, and all I could think of in the moment was: Where do the staff and security live? What’s their commute to and from work like? Do they get reimbursed? Where do they eat lunch? These are not questions you want to be asking yourself, and the movie isn’t interested in answering them.
I think I get what the producers were going for here; after the low-key tension of Casino Royale and the grand, almost operatic statements of Skyfall, Spectre is supposed to be a return to classical James Bond, with the attendant artifice, womanizing, and anonymous henchmen. The Daniel Craig era of Bond is not of this tone, though, and the prior three films in the series have all been more interested in themes and explorations of consequence and revenge.
So, what we see here is an attempt by the producers to give us Classic Bond: the return of the Good Bond Girl story arc, the megalomaniacal villain (played here by Christoph Waltz, with a narrative twist I wouldn’t dream of spoiling, mostly because it’s somehow both nuts and clichéd), the larger-than-life setpieces. Writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, meanwhile, are trying to hold onto the tone they’ve cultivated over the last three films, and director Sam Mendes is trying mightily to jam the two into a chimera that satisfies both requirements.
Spectre does neither, unfortunately. It starts out well, with that Mexico City sequence, and then the air is slowly but steadily let out of it as we get the sense of a filmmaking team trying to express everything about all shades of the Bond character that’s ever appealed to anyone, while also tying up loose ends and providing the central actor with a proper exit (Craig’s exhaustion with this franchise is palpable throughout all nine or so hours of the movie’s lethargic 148-minute runtime). The Good Bond Girl arc isn’t earned by the standards the Craig era has established.
The story is mundane when it’s not repeating themes and conclusions that were done with more skill and effect three years ago, and mundaneness is toxic to a Bond film. It’s not even particularly attractive; Hoyte van Hoytema steps in as cinematographer, taking over for the incomparable Roger Deakins. He gives us a film that is draped in muddy yellows and browns, alternating with the occasional muddy blue.
This is very clearly an expensive piece of work, and I have no trouble believing the reported $350 million price tag on the production, insanely excessive though that may be, based on the sheer scope of the locations and effects involved. And you can sense Mendes and the screenwriters attempting to make the material work on a more successful level than it does. There’s nothing here that’s actively bad, but there’s also nothing here on a technical, character, or closure level that approaches what we’ve seen over the last three Craig films. In their quest to shove everything into the movie, the filmmakers have produced an end result that’s neither fun nor momentous, and ultimately drags itself over the finish line with a pronounced lack of energy. The tableaux on the Westminster Bridge that presents itself near the film’s end is more appropriate than it should be.