Spectre: Money can’t buy creativity

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This review contains spoilers for the film Spectre (amongst others).

I’m not sure if I’ve seen a Bond movie polarize critics as much as Spectre, but I imagine opinion is divided into two camps. The people who already know that the film is an unwatchable mess and those who wrote their original reviews in a flush of adrenaline after the initial critic screenings.

Of course, the augurs were all there: a bloated production budget that makes Spectre the third most expensive film of all time — just behind Pirates of the Caribbean three and four. Then there’s the lifeless, airless theme that seems more appropriate for a Lambrini-infused wedding reception punch up held in a Bishop Auckland pub car park. Throw in the rumors of last minute re-writes with debutant Bond scribe Jez (Jez? Jez!) Butterworth and you just knew something was wrong.

On a macro level, Spectre is less a film and more a series of expensive set pieces that are either breathtaking, soulless vistas or breathtaking, lifeless action sequences. The introductory sequence has all of the components for brilliance: a single steadicam shot following our hero as he walks through a Day of the Dead parade, into a hotel and out onto the rooftops. Technically, it’s mind blowing, but there’s something just wrong enough with it that it feels more like the cut scene from a video game than cinema.

Pre-Credits

The action soon kicks in, with Bond trying to kill a rogue terrorist as he tries to kill a rogue bomber trying to escape in a helicopter. The helicopter in question, of course, is hovering over a full city square jam-packed with clueless locals. On paper, this should be thrilling, but the sequence lacks any viscera or energy to make it worth getting excited about. Even worse is that the gaps in internal logic are already becoming noticeably visible and we’re not even at the credits yet.

On a macro level, Spectre is less a film and more a series of expensive set pieces that are either breathtaking, soulless vistas or breathtaking, lifeless action sequences

For instance, Bond is engaging in some aerial fisticuffs with his rival across the back seat of a helicopter. The pilot, naturally, is trying to assist his boss, but is limited only to tilting the craft to try and get Bond to fall earthwards. Bond, of course, is capable enough to avoid such a fate — so why then does he begin to punch and strangle the pilot partway through the fight? All it does is risk the lives of thousands below and leaves the ostensible bad guy time to get a few more punches away. Naturally, Bond throws both out into the square below and recovers the craft in traditional For Your Eyes Only / GoldenEye fashion. But something’s still not quite right, because we linger on Bond flying the helicopter for two moments too long before the theme kicks in.

Credits

Daniel Kleinman is a gifted, talented artist, but like the department store sales clerk trying to convince you that you need a vegetable spiraliser, he’s a tad fair-weather. If the film is good, then Kleinman gives it his all, producing a smart and inventive intro that sets the scene (and the tone) for what’s about to come. When the film is a turd, then he gives up and starts phoning it in.

If you don’t believe me, compare his back-catalog. GoldenEye conveys all of the film’s themes and manages to cover the downfall of the soviet empire, while Tomorrow Never Dies is just meaningless jargon. The World Is Not Enough is smart and reasonably sexy, while Die Another Day is embarrassingly camp. Casino Royale is a triumph, as is Skyfall, and you can probably work out that when the titles are good, the film normally is, too.

If you’re not into the idea of a Monica Bellucci-a-like getting done by an oversized sea creature, Spectre is likely to put you right off your next trip to Yo! Sushi.

Here, he’s saddled with Smith’s windless whining, so the sequence opens with a shirtless Craig staring lifelessly into the camera while being fondled by women. Of course, since Spectre’s corporate branding is an Octopus means that Kleinman gets to indulge in making the audience watch the world’s most expensive tentacle hentai. If you’re not into the idea of a Monica Bellucci-a-like getting done by an oversized sea creature, Spectre is likely to put you right off your next trip to Yo! Sushi.

As an aside, you’ll notice that Bond titles always seem to work better the fewer tits are jiggled about on screen. Spectre is tit-tastic, whereas Skyfall only had two gratuitous shots of women — one some stylistic hair flicking, the other a 50th anniversary callback to Maurice Binder’s work. In addition, Casino Royale had zero tits (and is probably the best title sequence the series has ever had), while Marc Forster and MK12’s risible Quantum of Solace intro was nothing but soft core shots of tits — and suffered for it.

Act One

And so, the film begins with the UK about to join the Nine Eyes — a global network of digital surveillance agencies, with drones, laptops and surveillance about to rule the world. As such, there’s little need for a small group of bloated old tories in sharp suits to wave pistols at foreigners, and so the 007 program is to be shut down. The authority figure that makes the decision is “C,” played by Andrew Scott’s flip-flopping Anglo Irish accent and has the phrase “smug bastard” written on his forehead.

Prepare to be shocked when you learn that he’s not only a civil servant, but also in the secret employ of secret agency Spectre. M (Judi Dench) dispatches Bond to combat the organization via a posthumous DVD extra, telling him to keep his mission a total secret. That lasts for about four seconds before he spills his guts to Moneypenny, but not before Daniel Craig attempts to act “casual” in what can only be described as rehearsal footage. Saddled with intentionally trite lines like “oh, that’s lovely,” Craig manages to muster up none of the required sarcasm.

Soon afterward, Bond dashes off, Aston Martin concept car in tow, to visit Italy and watch the villain from the pre-credits get buried. His widow, played by Monica Bellucci, then pops up to say two lines to Bond before wandering out of frame. She pops home, makes herself a drink and prepares to be assassinated only for our hero to wander in and murder her would-be killers. She doesn’t seem particularly grateful for the stay of execution, mind.

As an aside… some sex

bond-girl

It’s here that we see to start the structural similarities to Skyfall, the last Bond movie that was made by the same production team. Early in the second reel, Bond meets Sévérine, a former child prostitute who promises to lead him to Mr. Silva, the villain. Despite being a survivor of being a sexually trafficked child, Bond quite cheerily creeps up to her in the shower and, broadly, forces himself upon her.

Now, this is a Bond movie, so I’m not expecting him to grab a cup of tea and have a discussion about the finer points of consent with her. But the sequence is just rapey enough for you to think “is this on?” Your conscience isn’t troubled for long, however, as Severine is shot in the head about four minutes later, having fulfilled her role as the “damaged goods” Bond girl.

Spectre, meanwhile, has Bond grabbing Bellucci’s marked-for-death widow by the hands, pushing her up against a mirror and then, boom. I’m sure that the filmmakers intended it to look like just some sexy, consenting power play, but it’s hard not to see Bond, once again, taking advantage of a vulnerable woman. Oh, and as soon as he’s dipped his wick, he’s off, with Bellucci never to be seen again and, presumably, murdered by a hired goon as soon as our hero leaves the room.

It should be no surprise that Bellucci, one of Europe’s finest actresses (and yes, she’s hot) is criminally underused here. That’s because not a single character, even Bond, manages to get through this film with a shred of character development. As soon as that brief moment of awkward excitement is done and dusted, she’s discarded.

Act Two
WaltzSpectre

Bond then infiltrates the corporate offices of Spectre, a beautiful Italian hall with multiple levels and a long, sinister table. It’s worth nothing that every frame of this film is beautiful and much of that $300 million budget went towards the cinematography and production design.

While Bond is lurking in the shadows, we hear some of the most tin-eared, expository dialogue that’s ever been recorded by professional actors. Each department head gives a progress report on their criminal activities, which include “counterfeit drugs” and “trafficked women,” each one delivering their stats with blasé matter-of-factness. I’m fairly sure that even the folks who run Coca-Cola prefer to use hyperbole and euphemism when they’re casually discussing the murder of trade union leaders.

Blofeld dispatches Hinx to go and murder the Pale King, because he clearly can’t stand what’s being done to David Foster Wallace’s legacy.

And then, Franz Oberhauser turns up to sit in darkness and slow the action down to a crawl. I wonder if Sam Mendes hadn’t watched Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds and wanted to recreate the slow-burn action of the pre-credits sequence in which Waltz’s character sweats out a Jewish family in hiding. The tension in Tarantino’s version is painful to watch, but the sparkling dialogue and precise direction make it gripping. Mendes’ cover is inferior in every way.

We’re then introduced to Henchman A, sorry, Mr. Hinx, played by Dave Bautista, a big burly bloke with a throwback secret weapon: he wears nail polish and pokes people’s eyes out. He’s also, as it turns out, super-stealthy, a supreme race car driver and, uh, whatever the film’s plot requires him to be. Oh, and he only says one word in the entire film, which is a bit of a let down given how impressive he was in Guardians of the Galaxy.

So, Hinx turns up and Oberha… actually, look, he’s played by a famous Austrian actor, he wears a Nehru jacket and he’s in a Bond movie just a few years after the Fleming estate regained the rights to Blofeld. If you can’t work out that there’s a Star Trek: Into Darkness-level twist coming, then please apply for a place at your local primary school. Blofeld dispatches Hinx to go and murder the Pale King, because he clearly can’t stand what’s being done to David Foster Wallace’s legacy.

Bond, of course, takes a moment to visit Jesper Christiansen’s Mr. White (just two films after he swore he’d never film another Bond movie). White directs him to his daughter and the film’s heroine, Dr. Madeline Swan, yet another underwritten cypher who mostly stands besides Daniel Craig as we bounce from one gorgeous location to another. It doesn’t help, of course, that the film constantly refers back to Vesper Lynd, Bond’s first love from Casino Royale. Not only is Lea Seydoux about a tenth of the actress that Eva Green is, but Swan is little more than a bag of flesh who is never trusted or asked to do anything on her own. The one heart-in-mouth moment in the film is when Bond grabs Lynd’s interrogation tape, and for a minute the film threatens to kick into a high gear. It doesn’t last.

Act Three

There’s a scene on a train, it’s a bit boring, and Bond for no reason other than because it’s a Bond movie wears a white tuxedo. After that, we’re taken to Blofeld’s immaculate headquarters in the middle of the desert, where our villain reveals that he’s (basically) Bond’s adoptive older sibling. Except he hated his unwelcome intrusion into his family so much that he murdered his own father and became a crime boss. There’s half a second of interesting material in this supposed duality, quickly snatched away because the next scene turns up. Except it’s the obligatory torture scene, in which Blofeld uses a dentist’s drill on Bond to make him forget everyone he’s ever known.

The 12A rating here means that we can never really get into the gritty body horror that would have otherwise made this scene so effective. The moment the drill hits bone the whole audience winced in agony, but Mendes again mistakes slowness for tension. As such, we get to hear Blofeld prattle on about our hero forgetting the face of the woman he loves, and then nodding towards Swan. Which makes little sense, since they’ve been together for about a day and a half and only boned on the train because there was no in-carriage WiFi. A love story here is required not because it came from the characters, but because the screenplay required it, and there’s no visible chemistry between the two leads.

Bond quickly blows Blofeld’s lair into the stone age with a pyrotechnic sequence cribbed straight from Quantum of Solace. Man, they even walk off into the distance with the fire raging behind them, although Thomas Newman didn’t bother to get the rights to Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions for some reason.

They’ve been together for about a day and a half and only boned on the train because there was no in-carriage WiFi.

Then, it’s back to London as the cast remember that there’s actually a threat that’s kinda, sorta, maybe requires dealing with. The whole Bond family is in action here, including Feinnes who must have a clause in his contract meaning he can’t just sit behind a desk and hand over a folder, like in the good old days. Unfortunately, he bungles the material he’s been given (M and Q basically get all the half-decent lines), here’s a for-instance:

Early on in the film, Craig tells Andrew Scott that he’ll stick to calling him C, with a wink to the camera to show what he really thinks of his new boss. To bookend that moment, Feinnes approaches C in a shot-for-shot remake of the pre-credits to Casino Royale, where Craig disables the gun of the man he’s been sent to kill. After Scott pulls the trigger to find it empty of bullets, Feinnes says “Now we know what C stands for…” and the audience roars in triumph “… careless” and the audience sighs in resignation.

Blofeld then pops up again to remind Bond that he has been the “author of all of his pain,” and that he’s been responsible for all of the baddies in the new series leading up to this point. He takes responsibility for the actions of Le Chiffre, Greene and Silva, and gloats that he was behind the deaths of both Lynd and M. Except, that’s clearly a massive contradiction of what we know about the films, since Le Chiffre was an independent third party, Greene worked for Quantum and Silva was a rogue agent hell-bent on revenge.

As nice as it is to try and tie-in the themes of the last three films to try and present you with an all-consuming villain, it falls flat on its arse here. That’s because it’s done in such a hacky and contradictory way that it’s toe-curling, and Blofeld might as well have taken credit for traffic problems on the A42 and Hurricane Sandy in the same way. I know that Quantum was a redundant organization as soon as the Spectre rights were regained, but trying to glom on one criminal network onto the other simply doesn’t work.

Oh, and there’s a priceless moment when Blofeld repurposes a shooting gallery to remind Bond of all that he’s lost. But this immaculate, rich-beyond avarice supervillain uses cheapo A4 photocopies that have been blu-tacked onto the walls. As such, you’re instantly left to imagine that he took some time out of his day to install his old Canon Bubblejet, buy a couple of cartridges of black and white ink and go to down with Google Images. A sinister villain it does not make.

The film ends with Bond capturing Blofeld on a bridge and, rather than kill his presumptive sibling, leaves him in the hands of his boss. Delivering his resignation off-screen, he drives off with his new beau in his restored DB5. If the filmmakers wanted to end Daniel Craig’s tenure in the series, they did so with a measure of style. Except Craig is still contracted for one final movie, so any happy ending will have to be tediously un-done by the sequel that’s currently in preproduction. As such, you can already see the Bourne Supremacy-style intro wherein Swan is murdered with ties to MI6, returning Bond for the series to continue.

Lifeless characters, flat acting, a nonsensical plot and a vague, unclear threat that’s never really made clear to the audience. Blofeld’s Spectre should be the most terrifying organization on the planet and yet never seems to do worse than most major corporations these days. The sight of old English heroes fighting against the forces of surveillance seems quaint in a post-Snowden world, especially since Britain is a leading offender. In the same way that Quantum of Solace’s “ripped from the headlines” tale of privatizing Bolivia’s water supply was trite compared to the genuine human tragedy that really took place. Throw in a bucketload of underwritten characters and jokes that fall flat on their face at every turn and you have a film that looks beautiful but lacks any substance.

Perhaps, when the budget reached that $300 million mark, the filmmakers discarded the screenplay and decided to finish the film by referring to a wad of £50 notes. It’d make more sense if they had.

Stray Observations

  • Christoph Waltz’s ankles are the ugliest ankles I have ever seen. Whoever thought it appropriate to dress him in short trousers and sockless loafers needs a slap.
  • Bond turns Jeremy Clarkson when he tells a barman to tip a health smoothie down the toilet to “cut out the middle man.” If you can’t imagine Roger Moore selling a line like that, nobody else could.
  • Bond’s Omega Seamaster comes with a cloth Navy-style strap which is impractical for a spy-on-the-go. It’s clear it has to be cloth since he couldn’t have removed a chain-link bracelet with his hands tied, but still…
  • In the opening credits, Sam Smith is credited as the performer of the song, not the writer. Were his claims that he penned the song “in ten minutes” all a lie? Clearly someone in the credits department thought so.
  • In the rebooted series, Bond wins his DB5 from low-rent criminal Alex Demetrios in a hotel poker game. Two films later, however, and that same car has regained its Connery era weapons, which ruins the continuity and takes you out of the film. Now, it’s been restored at great expense by Q — taxpayer cash to fund a retired spy’s weekend ride? Now that really is far fetched.
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