Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Twenty-Seven: Spectre (2015)

Backstory and lore are dangerous concepts when misapplied in cinema.  Take Rob Zombie’s 2007 Halloween remake.  Take also the 2010 version of A Nightmare on Elm Street.  While both films had myriad flaws, chief amongst them in both cases was the rush to demystify the lead character.  While James Bond is a world away from Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers, his cinematic incarnation has resisted the urge to reveal too much character history: a facet serving him as it served the more successful incarnations of those horror icons.  We know Bond is an orphan, half-Swiss, half-Scottish, with his parents having died in a climbing accident.  We know he’s a public school hailing Oxbridge alumnus, recruited by MI6 from his position as a naval commander.  The books tell us a little more, but that’s a different art form – with different rules – entirely.

Similarly, with Bond villains.  Usually they are one-shot deals, turning up part-way through an adventure with a dastardly plan, often involving extortion and threats of mass murder.  In terms of what else we know about them, though: usually only what the plot requires.  Max Zorin’s background as an experiment in A View to a Kill is relevant to his instability of character, his genius level, and his background with the KGB, for example.  Usually, we see a little of their story, but, unless it’s a return appearance, James Bond is always meeting them for the first time, and he learns of them in concert with the audience.

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In line with the contemporary desire to deconstruct characters, lay open narrative avenues previously closed, and to interlace the journeys of protagonist and antagonist, 2015’s Spectre is a product of its time.  Namely, the decision to have James Bond and his most famous villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, have shared a home for part of their childhoods.  Equally, the age of the cinematic universe has moved cinema away from the concept of standalone entries within a series.  So, where Bond would finish a film in the arms of a woman, and two years later a new mission would start with no reference to her or to any of the events of the previous film, Sam Mendes’ second instalment as director would look to tie together the four Daniel Craig entries.  As we’ll see, much of the logic behind this makes little sense.

Spectre opens at the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico (after a gunbarrel mercifully returned to the start of the film).  James Bond (Daniel Craig) is on the trail of terrorist leader Marco Sciarra, a lead we later find was left for him, posthumously, by the late M (Judi Dench).  Upon his return to London he is upbraided by M’s replacement (Ralph Fiennes), as the mission was unauthorised.  Heading to Sciarra’s funeral in Rome, Bond, first seducing his widow, Lucia (Monica Bellucci), learns Sciarra belonged to a secret organisation of criminals.  Using Sciarra’s membership ring, James infiltrates a meeting of the organisation, finding the leader to be Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man whose father fostered Bond as a child, after the death of his parents.  With reference made to an order to assassinate ‘The Pale King’, Bond finds this is Mr White (Jesper Christensen), a senior figure in Quantum, now known to be a subsidiary of this organisation, he later learns is known as Spectre.

Upon locating Mr White, the dying White asks Bond to find and protect his daughter, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux).  Finding Swann and rescuing her from Spectre henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista), they liaise with Q (Ben Whishaw), where they learn of Spectre’s links to all of Bond’s previous antagonists (in the Craig era).  Heading to Tangier, to a hotel Mr White used to frequent, Bond and Swann learn of Oberhauser’s base in the Sahara.  Heading to the base, Oberhauser reveals that he is responsible for funding a Joint Intelligence Service that is looking to take over MI6 and decommission the 00-programme – and has placed Max Denbigh (C – played by Andrew Scott) – there as its head.  Franz tortures Bond while explaining that he felt James supplanted him in his father’s affections as a child, that he has adopted the name Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and that he went on the form Spectre, in part to target Bond.

Escaping Blofeld, Bond and Madeleine return to London to meet up with the rest of the MI6 crew to arrest C.  M and Q thwart him, while Bond is drawn to the ruins of the old MI6 building, scheduled for demolition after the events of Skyfall.  A scarred Blofeld has abducted Madeleine, who Bond must rescue before the building detonates.  Escaping by boat, Bond and Swann give chase to Blofeld, who is escaping in a helicopter.  Shooting down the craft, Bond spares Blofeld’s life; leaving him to be arrested by MI6.  Bond then takes his repaired Aston Martin DB5, and leaves the service, for a new life with Madeleine.

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In the era of the Amazon review – where everything seems to be one or five-star – the polarisation around this film on social media was somewhat extreme.  Just as Quantum of Solace wasn’t even the worst Bond film of its decade, Spectre is not quite the crime against cinema some have advocated.  It’s a well-shot, decent enough adventure, for the most part.  It does, however, have some serious issues that will be film breaking to many.  For the sake of space, let’s focus on three.

First, Madeleine and James have zero chemistry.  Just none.  The concept of Bond partnering – if with anyone at all – with the daughter of an assassin makes sense.  She understands the life, the mentality.  More than this, as a physician with Médecins Sans Frontières, she brings a life, career, and character of her own to proceedings.  In theory, anyway.  In practice, they are declaring love for each other based on absolutely nothing we’ve seen on screen.  In fact, it’s really jarring.  Seydoux is absolutely not the problem.  An accomplished actress, she has very much the look and bearing we’d expect from a character in her position, but she’s underserved by a script that fails to develop the relationship fully, with only a short gun tutorial scene giving any hint these two are even warming to each other.  Given the Craig run began with Eva Green, and one of the romances of the series, that’s a huge disappointment.

Second, Ernst and James’ relationship has been mocked widely.  Rightly so.  On first viewing, this reveal had been so widely trailed, that the fact it was even somewhat competent felt like a win.  With the benefit of hindsight, however, this is beyond pointless.  Not only does it reduce Blofeld’s motivations to petty jealousy, but it shrinks the world we’re in if everything revolves around a random British agent.  With Christoph Waltz failing to nail a memorable take, and his character motivations being so reductive, Spectre took a big step towards putting a final nail in the coffin of this inconsistent character.  Where Bond and Silva had strong chemistry in Skyfall, here there was none, leading to a slightly misleading impression of the main players going through the motions.

Finally, the film tries to tie together the events of the four Craig films.  Now, a very long article could be written on the flaws of this.  So, in brief, this requires far too much happenstance for it to work.  Blofeld would need to know that Bond was to be promoted to a 00; he would need to guess that the plane explosion in that film would be thwarted – by Bond; he would need to know the Treasury would assign Vesper to Bond, and that Mathis would be there in person to pin the blame on.  We could go on with the logical fallacies.  Finally, it makes Silva an agent of Spectre, and Quantum, effectively, an arm of the organisation: both unsupported, and, in fact, discouraged by readings of the previous films.  This is a lazy retcon, dreamed up on the fly, and actively damaging both to Casino Royale and to Skyfall.  Certainly, it did not feel like the reveal of some EON masterplan they’d been cooking up for nearly a decade.

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Mendes had said, some time before signing for this film, that Skyfall had seen him exhaust all of his ideas: that he had done everything he wanted to do with a Bond film.  On balance, this was probably true.  In hewing closer to a standard issue Bond film than anything else Craig had done, Spectre lacks any of the uniqueness of Skyfall – a singular Bond entry if ever there was one – with even parts of Thomas Newman’s score recycled from the previous film at Mendes’ insistence.  The rush to tie together an era that had been wildly divergent in tone anyhow was a mistake: a mistake designed as a possible sign-off from a leading man not committed to any further entries.

In marketing the film, Craig received the usual barrage of questions about continuing in the role, to which he replied, famously, that he’d rather slit his wrists.  By 2016, in an Evening With-type event in New York, he sought to clarify those comments: making the point that it’s like asking someone 85 yards from the end of a marathon whether they’d like to do another.  Whilst no one has ever confirmed any tensions on the set of the 2015 film, circumstantially it seems not everyone had been pleased with the end result.  Leaks during production suggested deep concern from the distributor, Sony, about the direction of the script (their concerns mirroring, almost exactly, the main critical bones of contention upon release).  By 2017, a more rested Craig announced live on US television, to Stephen Colbert, that he would return, and that he wanted to go out “on a high”: a telling expression.  With the release of Bond 25 slated for November 2019, production was set for late in the year prior.

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After first hiring Trainspotting‘s Danny Boyle to direct, creative differences – yet to be confirmed, publicly, in detail – led to Cary Joji Fukinaga being brought on board, and the film’s release being delayed into 2020 – first February, then April.  Finally, EON made the call to push to the film back, by over seven months, to November 12th in the UK, and 25th in the USA.  A long troubled production has had the final issue of Coronavirus with which to deal.  With research suggesting up to 40% of the film’s revenues could be lost with an April release, with a number of cinemas closed in the Far East, and the path of the infection – and the final likely extent of its spread – unknown, an already long-delayed 25th Bond entry has moved in the hope that the world will be past the worst of the outbreak by the Autumn.

The film itself, however, is locked.  With a confirmed running time of 163 minutes, there is now a final cut of the film we hope to see in November.  Despite the frustration of losing an extra half a year, confidence can still be high for what we’ll see with the final product.  Probably still best known for the first season of True Detective, Fukinaga is the first American director to get a Bond gig – and not before time.  With a tighter rein on script leaks, a trailer and set of marketing materials that suggest an extremely attractive looking work, and with a more engaged, happier looking Daniel Craig having worked off a script with input from, amongst others, Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag and Killing Eve, hopes remain high for No Time To Die.

You can read the entirety of our Road to Bond 25 series here.

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