In Spectre, James Bond has an origin story fit for a marvel superhero. Unfortunately, it ends up feeling tacked on, unnecessary and cynical.
There's a moment in Spectre when, having narrowly scrambled free from a particularly explosive penultimate showdown, Daniel Craig turns to Bond girl Lea Seydoux and announces briskly “It’s not over yet”. For a moment it's as though 007 himself has learned and internalised the formula that dictates his world. Yet whether or not things are “over” for Bond, both the character and the concept is a question which troubles the film.
In 2012’s Skyfall, Bond was having a tough time. Grappling with the death of M, surfacing childhood trauma and some very off brand ennui, it seemed 007 had well and truly come loose from his lah-di-dah tomfoolery and embraced the franchise's reboot to become the hardened, blonde football player Daniel Craig so closely resembles.
Persevering with a temperament best described as "vaguely haunted", this time around Bond embarks on his own secret mission. Tipped off by M from beyond the grave, it seems everything from the last three films can be conveniently traced back to secret Octopus-themed terrorist organisation SPECTRE, and it is Bond’s task to take them down, romance Seydoux, and keep it chill with his bosses in London.
Curiously, Bond’s enemy here is two fold: he may have a terrorist organisation to fell, but just like the rest of us he finds himself at odds with bureaucracy, office restructuring and a smug new boss with beady little eyes who thinks his job could be better done by a drone. It is in this odd backdrop of banality that the subtext of the film finds its footing, and with Ralph Fiennes repeatedly attesting to Bond’s relevance and necessity, it's as though he's trying to reassure the viewer too: Of course Bond is not redundant. Just look at him!
Once a cheery unknowable cad, Bond is now all about the backstory, and not just any one either. Revived from the original novels by Ian Fleming, 007 now has an origin story fit for a marvel superhero. With dead parents, a mysterious estate, and trauma that has rendered him brooding and jaded, Sam Mendes has mixed the old with the new and homage with rebrand. What could be more modern than that?
Unfortunately, Bond’s back story, wherever it comes from, feels not only tacked on and unnecessary, but cynical. Do we want to restore Bond or reconceive of him altogether? There is a sense of sudden reluctance to throw a very lucrative baby out with the bathwater, and rather than show respect for cinematic heritage, the appeals to tradition here feel like pandering.
Spectre makes promises of newness, rejuvenation and progress that it just cannot keep. Bond is unapologetic in causing international incidents and wasting government money. A subtext of Edward Snowden-esque surveillance culture ultimately goes unexplored. Even Monica Bellucci's much publicised ‘oldest ever bond girl’ is more of a gimmicky cameo than the groundbreaking break in formula it was much touted to be, and the more ‘age appropriate’ *cough* Seydoux takes the lead Bond Girl role.
Ostensibly “strong women”™, both Bellucci and Seydoux are predictably lovely, beautiful, refined, and stylish. They appear tough while fulfilling their roles as objects of the male gaze perfectly. The formal rendering of spectacle may have changed, but the purpose remains the same. It's perhaps why the homages work only in terms of style but never in substance.
In similar fashion, the titular Spectre was last seen in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, and is a throwback to Bond lore as old as time. But without Wikipedia, this may be lost on most viewers. Instead there is a confusing series of moments - are we supposed to recognise this character or understand the connection?
Rather than enrich the experience, this expectation of familiarity sadly only dilutes our time with what should have been the masterstroke: Christoph Waltz’s fabulously flamboyant villain who, with his meteorite crater lair and fluffy white persian cat, is more Austin Powers than Dr. No.
With a hurried frenetic structure, Spectre moves from set piece to set piece all the while remaining enigmatically aloof as to the actual plot, as though desperate to remind us of the exciting cosmopolitan travel 007 once represented. In fact, by the film’s midpoint, Bond starts to hop from country to country when a phone call may have sufficed. This fast paced action, while fun, lends the film an oddly fragmented feeling, a characteristic which ultimately results in a distinct lack of momentum for the strangely brief and perfunctory final act.
As aesthetic spectacle and pure entertainment, Spectre for the most part works just fine. Beautiful to look at and with an excellent supporting cast to quell Craig naysayers, one might even be convinced to see it as a return to form. But in trying to suture depth and motive onto Bond, Sam Mendes brings to light questions he does not wish to answer. And in spite of considerable box office success, the question of what is next for the franchise remains a little shaky (if not stirred).