Film

The Flipside #6: Spectre

Brice Ezell and Evan Sawdey

Spectre attempts to unify classic Bond camp with the grittiness of the Daniel Craig 007 films. Can anything be salvaged from the resulting mess?


Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Christoph Waltz, Andrew Scott
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures
Year: 2015
UK Release Date: 2015-10-26
US Release Date: 2015-11-06

Ezell: It took me three times seeing it in theatres -- yes, I saw it three times -- to understand Spectre. According to the now close to cemented consensus, I wasted time even trying to get my head around Daniel Craig's most recent James Bond effort: penned by four different screenwriters, including Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade in addition to the British playwright Jez Butterworth, Spectre fills its two and a half hour running time with a dizzying array of international locales, callbacks to previous Bond films, and improbable leaps in logic. On my first two viewings of the film, I knew that the film is not really understandable in any conventional sense. How does Bond know to get to his nemesis Blofeld's (Christoph Waltz) remote desert lair, and why do Blofeld's men greet him with champagne and a private hotel room when he arrives? How does Villainous Meathead (Dave Bautista, playing someone called Mr. Hinx though he's really reduced to the former appellation) know to follow Bond to the desolate Austrian home of Mr. White (Jesper Christensen)?

But as those undeniably legitimate plot questions tumbled around in my head after seeing Spectre twice, I started to feel something that became all too apparent after screening number three, something best put by the film critic Matt Zoller Seitz: "Took me a while, but I eventually figured out that if I'm ambivalent about a work of art yet I think about it constantly, I like it." What drove me to see Spectre for that third and fateful time concerned the outright eccentricities -- or, perhaps -- deficiencies of Bond's globetrotting mission. My third viewing didn't change my perception of the plot's myriad flaws: even though Bond films rely on far-fetched terrorist schemes and whiplash-inducing global travel, Spectre pushes the limits of the Bond genre in both of those respects. But in the mess of the movie, I saw a common thread that made sense of the nonsense.

No, I'm not talking about Darren Franich's theory, published in Entertainment Weekly, which maintains that the events of the film after Bond gets some cerebral acupuncture at the hands of Blofeld all take place in Bond's imagination, and that he, in fact, died on Blofeld's operating table. (The fact that Craig is returning for Bond 25 rubbishes that theory outright, though that's not to say Franich doesn't come up with an interesting reading.) What I see in Spectre, the first Craig Bond film to outright embrace the classic Bond tropes that Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall eschewed, is a commentary on Craig's performance as Bond. Craig's first three Bond affairs rebooted the British spy, trading in the glamour of Pierce Brosnan for the shock and awe of a post-9/11 MI6. Bond became less picky about his martini orders and didn't have to find a way to sleep with three different women over the course of a single film. In Quantum of Solace, the thought of sex doesn't cross his mind until he ends up in a ritzy hotel room with a young, beautiful British consulate official. Before and after that fleeting moment, it's all bullets and questions asked later.

Spectre, however, is a document of the Craig Bond style giving way to the Bond that people thought Craig had effectively killed. Before I get into the nitty-gritty of my theory of Spectre, I'm wondering if you are harboring any theories about the film. Perhaps one has to do with the strangeness of the Monica Bellucci cameo, which seems important to the plot but then goes away after five minutes?

Sawdey: Oh Mr. Ezell, my dear friend, I do have a theory about this film that, after consulting with numerous researchers and fact-checkers, is as bulletproof as the windows to Bond's own Aston Martin DB10. Ready for it? Here it is: this movie is terrible.

No, but, actually, it is. Outside of a bravura pseudo one-shot opener that feels in keeping with the tone of the Craig run (recognizing his eyes through the skull mask is perhaps one of the most underappreciated character intros in all of cinema), this is a remarkably indulgent, introverted mess of a film that fails at one profound thing: trying to bring camp into a franchise steeped in grittiness and a grand sense of realism.

Part of what made 2006's Casino Royale so invigorating wasn't so much the then-heralded turn towards Jason Bourne-styled melee combat but instead resetting a character who had fallen into parody. He wasn't a shameless womanizer so much as he was a hurt man lashing out, only sometimes earning our sympathy. He wasn't a suave martini-ordering sex god so much as he was a man who knew his limits and frequently charged through them, noticeably drunk during his downtime at the start of Skyfall. He wasn't a suave shooter of bad guys so much as he was someone who at times had real reservations about killing as many people as he did. Instead of smooth like Brosnan, he was rough and hot-headed. It was a noticeably different Bond that worked in much more grounded, real-world sensibility.

It's for this reason that for as bland as the big action set pieces are on Spectre, featuring a been-there, done-that quality to them (we've seen our share of train fights and shootout at this point), the story, about a mysterious organization that seems to have vested interest in Bond's life, at first draws us in before turning into a massively terrible joke. Blofeld suddenly takes credit for dispatching every villain of the last three films into Bond's life? That's illogical to the point of stupidity, which, it turns out, is a currency that Spectre is fluent in. Then we get into finale-setup cat-and-mouse games with spray-painted taunts, bomb countdowns, and a finale wherein Bond is somehow able to take down a helicopter with a pistol. This isn't commentary: this is bad writing.

So that being said, flawed as Franich's theory was, viewing Spectre through the lens of that made me think that there was merit to it. After "time flies" and Bond can escape Blofeld's diabolical torture chair, a dazed Bond can stumble out of Blofeld's facility to shoot people hundreds of feet away with pinpoint accuracy. The entire evil lair blows up in one single massive explosion. Even the "surveillance state" subvillain of Andrew Scott as Max Denbigh gets a theatrical death that itself feels even more ridiculous than Skyfall's third act Home Alone routine.

So I'm here for the regular moviegoer, Brice, standing up against any backtracking into finding this movie to be considered good or watchable. That being said, you are my Flipside partner in crime, and your opinion is trusted. How will you convert me into a Spectre cheerleader? (If it's by bribing me with an Aston Martin DB10, then you're doing great work.)

Ezell: I'm happy to bribe you with Aston Martins, under one condition: you immediately drive it into the nearest river. Seriously, the Bond series, which supposedly fetishizes cars, actually hates them.

I have to admit that even though I see a kind of meta-commentary value to Spectre, the screenwriters went about it in ludicrous ways in several points. Shooting down a helicopter with a pistol isn't something most first person shooters will let you get away with, let alone an action film. Bond's multi-story descent from the soon-to-be-demolished MI6, which ends with a magical rescue by a giant net that rolls him and his paramour Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) to safety, ranks high on the list of deus ex machinas in the Bond franchise. The abundance of absurdities in Spectre undoubtedly derive from what must have been the most confounding sequence of re-writes a film has seen in recent memory. But I want to make the argument that however much these grandiloquent action sequences rubbish the politics-driven realism that has defined the Craig Bonds; it leads to a fascinating result -- intentional or not -- that says a lot about how the Bond series has changed in the past few decades.

I'm glad you bring up Spectre's incorporation of, to use your words, "camp into a franchise steeped in grittiness and a grand sense of realism." Camp and realism: it's the tension between these two that defines Spectre, and depending on which of the two you prefer, that will determine how much you're likely to enjoy the film. If you like Craig for how he turned Bond into a stone-faced government assassin, Spectre will read as nothing but aesthetic sequences of violent extravagance. Should you miss the smarmy camp of the Bonds of yesteryear, the plot involving "C" and government surveillance will feel like realpolitik being shoved into what should just be a good time. Because those disparate elements are never reconciled, Spectre will always be a movie in tension with itself. For that reason, I'm not surprised the film left most people baffled. But this tension between camp and realism, which at its core is the tension of the James Bond character itself, results in a fascinating piece of work, warts and all.

No character better manifests this tension than Blofeld, played by Waltz with characteristic charm even as it looks like he's on autopilot for much of his screen time. Like Franich, I was taken aback by Waltz's performance as Blofeld, in large part because he felt so esoteric despite being behind the massive global conspiracy at the heart of Spectre. When Bond asks Blofeld about his desert lair, Blofeld simply replies that it's "information." While torturing Bond, Blofeld calls himself "the man inside [Bond's] head." The most telling exchange between the two men happens right before the drill torture scene:

BLOFELD: So James, why did you come?

BOND: I came here to kill you.

BLOFELD: And I thought you came here to die.

BOND: Well, it's all a matter of perspective.

Even when the film stresses Blofeld's connection to the more practical elements of the plot, his presence never feels tangibly villainous in the way that Silva (Javier Bardem) and Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) do in Skyfall and Casino Royale, respectively. Blofeld exists not as a bad guy for a secret agent to take down, but as a kind of metaphor with which Bond must wrestle. So much of how you take Spectre hinges on how you understand Blofeld. Taken as a straightforward plot device, he can seem like a cheap attempt to retcon the four Craig Bond films, but to me, he's much more than that.

Before I get into the final bit of my spiel, help me out here, Evan. What do you see in Waltz's performance as Blofeld?

Sawdey: Oh, it's telling isn't it? Behind the scarred face lies Waltz's big "actor's secret", which for this character was: "Just how big of a paycheck can I get with this thing?"

All non-kidding aside, Waltz phones this thing in, leaving one strangely drawn to the blunt, nearly-wordless performance by Dave Bautista, himself doing a lot of heavy lifting as an unstoppable menace, often through the sheer and simple of doing the heavy lifting and then throwing the heavy things in Bond's general direction. It was reminiscent of a classic Bond villain (Jaws, obviously), but the single-minded focus of Mr. Jinx lent itself well to Bautista, who arguably has one of the more memorable performances in the film.

The larger issue with Spectre lies back in what Blofeld's bizarre endgame is. Sure, he traffics in information which is power, but the reveal that he was the neglected put-upon brother of an adopted young James Bond doesn't add up, his empire seemingly designed to put an end to some overstated sibling rivalry. Technically, this concept could be expanded out into something tangible, but what made Skyfall so exuberant was how deftly it mined Bond's past, forcing him to confront the oft-spoken of but little-approached issue of his adoption, Silva's attack on the orphanage he grew up in with M (Judi Dench) in tow literally destroying the remnants of his past, a poetic notion made quite literal with the death of M herself, giving the franchise a tangible sense of loss and genuine change.

Bearing that in mind, we dive into his childhood yet again? Uncovering a shadow organization not too unlike Quantum of Solace? The involvement and eventual death of M gave Skyfall sizable emotional weight, which is something that Spectre just can't match. Shockingly, meta-commentary doesn't lend itself to warmth, meaning even an appearance by Mr. White, one of the few constants of the Craig era, simply doesn't contain the same potency as that of a character that (let's be blunt here) we care about.

Now, bear in mind, I do want to leave ample time to rip into the terrible Sam Smith theme before we depart, but I'm curious now: what makes Waltz's Blofeld such a distinct creation in the Daniel Craig Bondiverse?

Ezell: Indeed, the meta-commentary I see Spectre as facilitating doesn't (and can't) have the emotional depth of the Bond/M relationship in Skyfall or the Bond/Vesper romance in Casino Royale. For that and many other reasons, Spectre certainly falls short of those two series peaks. My reading of Spectre has no aspirations to elevate the film as a work of genius: it is a mess, full-stop. To me, though, it's a mess that says something in spite and because of its construction.

Blofeld stands out in the crop of Spectre's oddball features. While I like many of Spectre's detractors take issue with the growth of "cinematic universes", where cash-grabs all too easily overpower "expansive storytelling", I didn't find the retconning of the Spectre organization all that ridiculous. Quantum of Solace (which, while not great, ain't as bad as it's made out to be) functioned as a direct extension of Casino Royale, and the effects of that film's events on Bond are evident in every frame of Skyfall. Tonally, Mendes faces a challenge in trying to connect the more cartoonish Spectre to its more serious predecessors, but in terms of plot, I don't buy that it's a reach.

Blofeld's connections to the first three Craig Bonds isn't really plot-driven, in the way that Marvel films feel the need to introduce a new character every five minutes to as to connect strands of plot to the inevitable next vehicle of the comic book franchise. When you go back and listen to Blofeld's dialogue, he's uninterested in the monetary or even power implications of the surveillance scheme that threatens the globe. All of his dialogue is directed solely to Bond: it's as if the movie steps out of being about Bond trying to stop an evil scheme from destroying the world, and more about dealing with an unresolved dimension of his past.

The way Mendes shoots Blofeld indicates this in numerous instances. When we first see him for an extended period, he's a shadow in a grand board room (sumptuously rendered by cinemaphotographer Hoyte van Hoytema). In the final act of the film, when Bond faces Blofeld divided by a large pane of bulletproof glass, Mendes angles the camera from just behind Blofeld, which renders a mirror image of Blofeld on Bond's side of the glass. Just before this moment, Bond goes through the hollow shell of what was once the MI6 building, where Blofeld has set up shooting range targets with images of people from Bond's past: Vesper, Le Chiffre, Silva, and then Bond himself. When Blofeld tells Bond, "It's always been me, James. The author of all your pain," I don't read that as the screenwriters actually trying to say that the events from Casino Royale to Spectre were all done so Blofeld and Bond could have a showdown. Instead, this is the moment where Bond truly reckons with himself, and what he's done. The intrigue of Waltz's Blofeld is that he's nothing like the old-school Blofeld, nor is he a villain in the conventional sense. The Blofeld of Spectre is an incarnation of Bond's woes and struggles. When Bond doesn't kill Blofeld in the end, he leaves behind the brutish old version of himself, the trigger-happy killer that blitzkrieged his way through the three darkest Bond films in the series. The opening title card tells the audience that "the dead are alive". The dead, in my reading of Spectre, is the kind of Bond that Craig transformed beginning with Casino Royale. The old Bond, even with all the sophistication brought to the Craig Bond entries, was never fully dead.

I developed this reading of Spectre based on the presumption that it would be Craig's last outing as Bond. To me, everything about this movie suggests it's Craig's farewell: the movie is about the transition from the gritty Bond of Daniel Craig to whoever the next Bond will be. At the end of Spectre Bond gets into a swanky car with Swann after leaving MI6, the moral of the story seeming to be that Bond is moving past his life as a government assassin and off into the sunset with a tough woman who understands him. Perhaps it is that simple. Or, perhaps, what's really happening is that Craig is leaving Bond behind.

That all seems well and good for my theory, but Craig recently announced he'd break out the tux and shaken martini one last time for the upcoming 25th Bond film. No details have been announced about the writers or story of that movie, so I can't say how that will bode for my metaphorical reading of Spectre. Hopefully, my theory -- however elaborate -- still holds.

As if that wasn't enough of a #hottake, I have one more: I don't hate Sam Smith's opening credits song. I don't love it, but I think it suits the mood of the movie well and has a good melody in the chorus. Maybe that's my real crazy opinion about Spectre.

Sawdey: It's interesting to me hearing you postulate that, because it reminds me of a lot of the fan response to Quantum of Solace: it was initially dismissed as being a lesser followup to its stunning predecessor, but even for a multi-million dollar franchise such as Bond, a small cult has grown around it, some claiming it's secretly one of the best, most complex films in the series.

Mind you, I"m not going to make that claim about Spectre, and when you really boil it down, you can ground things however you like for Bond: he lives and (is expected to) die by his villain. Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) isn't even in the same wheelhouse as Silva or Le Chiffre, his actions barely registering on the bad guy Richter scale. Ultimately, Blofeld hues more closely to Green, at the end of the day, his fancy drills and evil hotel staff still not enough to leave a lasting impression, as trenched in Bond history as he is (they got a fluffy white cat for M's sake!).

I will say though, with this and other similar theories that have emerged is that Spectre really could live up to all our wildest dreams and more if the next installment takes some of these ideas into account and makes some true risks. While I don't imagine it will (outside of, maybe, killing Bond?), I'm willing to view it with ample skepticism but a large swelling of hope. If it really is Craig's last outing, hopefully, it ties everything together tighter than Q's beloved bowties.

That being said, while I do love the main orchestration, it's the bombastic chorus, and excessive amount of empty space leaves Sam Smith's "Writing in the Walls" as a surprising whimper of a Bond theme, of which the Craig era has been notably hit-or-miss. Chris Cornell and Adele provided ample, contemporary tunes that, if not exactly era-defining, were at least notably memorable. While I was not a fan of the Jack White/Alicia Keys collaboration that headlined Quantum, at least their entry sounded a bit better when paired with the expectedly over-the-top opening sequence. Weird as it was, it truly was a shame that Radiohead's attempt at a Bond theme never picked up traction. That kind of off-center tune would have worked just fine for an entry as truly out-there as Spectre.

Ezell: The Radiohead "Spectre" resoundingly beats Smith's song in terms of quality. But I'm also of the opinion that Radiohead's song isn't a better fit for the film. I think of "Spectre" less as a movie theme and more like a B-side to the brilliant A Moon Shaped Pool, released almost a year after Spectre. The "Bond theme" aesthetic has been tinkered with by dozens of bands, yet even the most successful results in that style (Pepe Deluxe's "My Flaming Thirst") don't necessarily scream, "Put me in a movie!" The grandiose, orchestral Bond theme style functions cinematically even without any film to back it up. Smith's theme, by contrast, feels like something that could only exist in the tentacular opening sequence of Spectre. I'll never put the song on my iPod, but for its brief few minutes in Spectre I find it fitting but inoffensive.

Because of this theory I've developed of Spectre, I too am curious as to the events of the next Bond installment. So much of Spectre feels like Craig giving his farewell to the franchise that I can't imagine how he'll suit up the next go-round. Will the series try to bring back the less fanciful, more brutal Bond of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace? Or will the dive into camp continue? Most importantly, will they stick to one or two screenwriters to ensure plot consistency? It's all too early to say. The liminal mood of Spectre, which positions Bond on the edge of the border between Gritty Craig Bond and Campy Old-School Bond, leaves a lot open for the next writer(s) and director.

All of this to say: although I've come to realize that I like Spectre -- I've thought about it even more than Casino Royale, to me is a perfect Bond flick -- I might come to change my reading of it upon seeing Bond 25. I know my theory of Spectre bucks what the Occam's Razor principle would have us believe about it -- that it's a major studio production that got overwritten into obscurity -- but I can't get the metaphorical weirdness of Blofeld out of my head. The whole sequence of Bond out in the desert feels nothing like the ordinary climactic fight between Bond and the main baddie. Where other parts of the movie show the haphazardly stitched seams between re-writes, Waltz's performance as Blofeld and Mendes' direction of the Blofeld scenes come across as intentional. Blofeld isn't the external villain that Bond must vanquish in order to save the world from certain destruction (or, in this case, preventing The NSA: UN Edition); he's "the little man inside Bond's head," a physical manifestation of the rite of passage that is one Bond giving way to the next. Of course, should Blofeld return in Bond 25 -- Bond didn't kill him, after all -- Waltz could transform the character into a more traditional bad guy, all quirks, and elaborate schemes. But I'm kinda hoping this is Waltz's only time in the Bond series. This Blofeld is oddly muted, but in so doing he becomes the true lasting effect of Spectre.

So, Evan, I leave you with this question as we await Bond 25: what kind of vehicle will Bond improbably destroy with a small pistol in the next installment? My guess: a military drone is hovering at 10,000 feet. Two shots, then an explosion.

Sawdey: It's pretty clear that this franchise is lacking in limousine car chases, so something involving multiples of those crashing and stunting off each other would make my heart sing. All set to a new theme song by Pink. Or Alessia Cara. Or Imagine Dragons or ... oh goodness, there was something in my martini, wasn't there? Damn you, Blofeld!

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