Spectre (2015)

Spectre
Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth.
Released Monday 26th October 2015 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc.
Rated 77%
Certified 12A (British Board of Film Classification)
148 minutes

Spectre nudges Daniel Craig’s rebooted Bond closer to the glorious, action-driven spectacle of earlier entries, although it’s admittedly reliant on established 007 formula.

Spectre is a film which looks to be revealing the writers’ non-existent secret plan but in the process just comes across as trying too hard. Spectre is the organisation behind the Craig era films’ organisations, from Casino Royale, through Quantum and whoever Rodriguez was supposed to be working for during Skyfall. But the problem is that it seems to be working backwards and finding a way to connect them, rather than being the conclusion to a story arc. Which has the effect of making it look like fanfiction more than anything else.

The main problem is that it doesn’t try to be about anything. All Spectre provides is a connection between the Craig era’s three previous films, but that’s a premise which is completely arbitrary. Particularly as the Bond series has the habit of rebooting itself every few films. There’s no official continuity of James Bond, but my headcanon is that each Bond takes place in their own world.

So for one film of many, constantly-resetting, other films, to reveal that something’s connected them all, is meaningless given the next one will probably be the last one of this era. Therefore, Spectre, as a film, lives for the moment rather than remembering what franchise we’re dealing with. Not that I’m against using SPECTRE – it’s just that, if this Bond era is going to get its own version of the organisation started with Sean Connery, it’s disappointing that it’s more of an origin story than anything else. And to make that origin story seem unique, a lot of liberties are taken.

Particularly with the revelation that “Franz Oberhauser” is indeed Ernst Blofeld. Just like how Naomie Harris denied that “Eve” was Moneypenny. As well as “Obserhauser” wearing Blofeld’s iconic Nehru suit, is seen in the trailers overseeing Spectre from the shadows, being a German character played by a German actor, implied to have a close relationship to Bond as children, actually being Blofeld even if not in name regardless, seen with motion-tracking dots where Blofeld’s iconic scar is, and initially having no official character name. It was obvious from before Spectre had begun that “Oberhauser” was in fact Blofeld.

And yet, this was constantly denied. Clearly, an attempt was being made to surprise the audience when Spectre turned-out to be Blofeld’s origin story… despite the title being the same name as the organisation Blofeld commands in previous Bond eras. It’s all build-up to the real story, as if people don’t know who Blofeld is. Other than perhaps Goldfinger, Blofeld is the most well-known “Bond villain”.

Blofeld’s the Moriarty to Bond’s Holmes, and Spectre is even executed like the James Bond version of The Final Problem (Arthur Conan Doyle) – Bond finds the mastermind responsible for setting-up all his previous cases (which just happen to be those by sheer coincidence) and in defeating that mastermind makes himself irrelevant. But many of the scenes in Spectre was the debate between Mallory and Denbigh over Bond’s effectiveness. After Skyfall so successfully told a Bond tribute that used that very concept as its own premise, it’s mind-boggling that Spectre re-uses the same story ideas and then contradicts itself at the end. Bond was only needed because of Spectre’s existence, and now that Blofeld’s behind bars, Bond’s no longer required.

As a character, Spectre reduces Bond to being driven by an improvised destiny as opposed to himself. Every Bond film of the Craig era has now been essentially retconned into simply being a three-act prologue to Spectre, the main event. And yet, Spectre becomes really predictable as a result. The jump-scare moment isn’t scary because it’s obvious from the framing, Denbigh being a Spectre agent is obvious from the start given his goals, Blofeld being Bond’s adoptive brother was like a two-piece jigsaw, and Blofeld being incarcerated at the end was pre-determined from him being Blofeld, i.e.: a recurring character.

And it’s so obviously being set-up for a sequel. With no more Blofeld to kill Bond’s “girls”, Bond settles down with Swann and enters a situation reminiscent of On her Majesty’s Secret Service (Richard Maibaum). So it turns-out that Spectre is also just a prologue for Bond 25. As far as Bond eras go, Craig’s is the most narrative-based, but to its own detriment; as a result of Spectre, none of them are stories anymore – merely extended pre-credits sequences that continue longer than the extended take that director Sam Mendes opens with.

The question now is, where do we even go with Waltz’s Blofeld? And what about Spectre? Bond seems to be forgetting that Spectre’s still out-there in Rome, and presumerably, Blofeld’s No. 2 will replace him. And what about the other agents?

They could be in MI6 still. But instead, Bond’s got the underdeveloped girl with whom zero chemistry is produced, and has driven off into the sunset in the rebuilt Aston Martin DB5 that was felt so forced into the plot that the simple purposes of nostalgia were obvious. It worked for Skyfall because of the occasion, but in Spectre, it’s just another throw-back to hide the present story not working. When there isn’t confusion, there’s predictability.

And when there isn’t predictability, there’s nostalgia. Which is a word originally used to diagnose the inability to move on from the past. Which is ironic, given Spectre is trying to reinvent the past by telling Blofeld’s origin story and retroactively acting as a semi-prequel to the Craig era. Now, Casino Royale (Paul Haggis), Quantum of Solace and Skyfall are lesser films, because they’re supporting Spectre.

Even the antagonists are lesser for it, because they’re supporting Blofeld. That sounds a premise with much potential – the Bond Villain of Bond Villains, so to speak –  but the execution is too self-absorbed to know when to stop. So much time is spent wading through the past and continuity that if everything carried-over from before is stripped-away, Spectre is very shallow as a film. Spectre‘s only contribution to the franchise is the establishment of a a connection never present, and therefore in a way that’s difficult to believe due to the short-cuts taken.

Short-cuts which cast aside what’s been the era of the best Bond so far simply because of its own over-inflated sense of self importance. Critically, the most popular Bond film is Goldfinger (Paul Dehn), but it didn’t get there by driving a steam-roller over From Russia With Love (Johanna Harwood) and Dr. No (Berkely Mather). And it too wasn’t steam-rolled by Thunderball (John Hopkins), You Only Live Twice (Roald Dahl), Diamonds are Forever (Tom Mankiewicz) or Never say Never Again (Lorenzo Semple, Jr.).. It just remembered that it was a film, like any number of films, and decided it only wanted merit for being the film that it was, not because it was trying to resemble a Netflix finale.

We could’ve had the Craig era’s take on SPECTRE and Blofeld, but instead you get the impression that SPECTRE was chosen simply because of the intention to foolishly tie the previous Craig films together, and not because SPECTRE was anything more than convenient narrative collateral with brand recognition. And that’s why Spectre is Blofeld’s origin story, rather than than just being a fully-blown film that embraces and celebrates Blofeld as a character. But instead, Blofeld had to begin as “Oberhauser” in an attempt to make us believe that’s who the character really is. But “Oberhauser” was so obviously Blofeld that one wonders why Sony weren’t realistically open with this.

It could’ve been a marketing opportunity. But now, previous antagonists are forced into a context that doesn’t fit at all. Rodriguez is revealed to have been a Spectre agent, despite only having been motivated by his intention to revenge himself on Mansfield, and therefore being one of the most complex antagonists of the series. But not anymore – now, like the other characters of the Craig era – he was simply a servant of someone else. I just hope the Craig era doesn’t become a servant unto itself.

Other reviews

Star Trek III: the Search for Spock

Premièred by Paramount Pictures
Star Trek III: the Search for Spock
Written by Harve Bennett

The death-and-resurrection formula has been used in the hero’s journey so often that it’s become a labelled stage of the hero’s journey, the “Abyss”, which is considered a time of revelation for the characters involved in the mono-myth. It dates back as far as the death and return of Jesus Christ in the Gospel, and the general versions of that story’s been referenced by most stories featuring a character who returns from the dead.

In The Final Problem (Arthur Conan Doyle), Watson recalls how Hudson described Moriarty as having a face like the Devil. It climaxes with the apparent death of Sherlock Holmes, who’s believed to have fallen into the Reichenbach Falls, described as an “abyss”. In the following Holmes story, The Empty House, Holmes returns.

Biblical narrative was already a source of material for Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan (Jack B. Sowards), where Spock was last seen as he died in an act of self-sacrifice above the Genesis planet battling a fallen prince consumed by hate. His casket was labelled “Mark VI”, an obvious allusion to the description of Christ’s death and resurrection in chapter six of Gospel of Mark (Mark the Evangelist). Those Biblical allusions were part of made Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan such a substantial story; the references were woven into the story appropriately, as opposed to being included to seem interesting. Which is why it makes sense for a sequel to return to those themes – Kirk’s returning to Genesis, and to that story. The problem is, it’s difficult to do that when a story’s pre-determined. In fact, it’s difficult to really do anything original in a pre-determined story, because, unlike most stories which just follow a general format, Star Trek III: the Search for Spock already had more pre-requisites than usual: it has to explain how Spock returns, why he mind-melded with McCoy before his death, what happens to Vulcans after they die, how this fits into the aftermath to the creation of the Genesis planet, and it needs to have an antagonist. Tough order of the day to serve right.

Ultimately, though, that’s not the largest flaw with Star Trek III: the Search for Spock. Because, regardless of those things, the one thing we know is that Spock returns. That’s the goal Kirk’s trying to complete, and we know that happens, because otherwise Spock couldn’t be in a potential Star Trek IV. Paramount made no attempt to cover up that ending. Or indeed, any of it. The Enterprise’s destruction wasn’t just alluded to in the tagline –

“All that they loved, all that they fought for, all that they stood for will now be put to the test… Join us on this, the final voyage of the starship Enterprise.”

– but was even shown in the trailer:

It’s not as if you can blame Paramount. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan had been a phenomenal success, and money makes the movies. While one title they could have used is Star Trek III: the Search for More Money, perhaps a more appropriate one would’ve been Star Trek III: the Enterprise Destructs at the End – as opposed to the previous one, Star Trek: Spock Dies at the End. Then again, Star Trek III: Spock Returns at the End is at least more accurate, because he’s barely in it. And I know he’s seen for most of the story, but all he’s doing is rapidly ageing due to the unstable atmosphere of Genesis. You know, the place he was taken after his death? Why is Kirk “search”ing for Spock? He knows where he is. Or is he on Genesis, and not McCoy’s head, having transferred him his katra. Exactly what a “katra” is doesn’t really get much development – why transfer the mind of a dead Vulcan into another, living Vulcan? I know the Vulcans are logical, but that’s just weird. So Spock is either in this in a large capacity or a small capacity, but either way, the Vulcan child we see on Genesis isn’t Spock until he does at least get his “katra” back, even if that’s an under-developed concept. Why he was even a child on Genesis is also a very arbitrary element of the plot – he was dead, so surely Genesis should just return him to life? Why did Spock even bother leaving the Mark VI without his burial robe? Especially since half of Genesis is just snow.

It’s possible I’m over-thinking this, but it’s directed by Leonard Nimoy. He is Spock. He understands Vulcans more than anyone. Personally, I think Spock should have stayed dead for it to actually mean anything, and this really proves why. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan had set-up Spock’s death in such a perfect way that going back to it means moving forward with remaining elements. It’s basically saying “write your way out of it”, picking-up with leftover story and trying to carrying-it on. And it’s that kind of storytelling that leads to questions like “why didn’t Saavik tell Kirk Spock needed returning to Vulcan?”

And as if to make things even more confusing, it turns out that by the end, he still isn’t Spock, because his memories are still developing. He just about recognises Kirk, but we’re left on a cliffhanger. Say what you will, it’s really more of an afterthought to Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan, rather than a next chapter of the story that feels as if it needs telling.

Star Trek: the Search for “Spock”(?)