When I went to the theater to see Spectre I accidentally asked for tickets to Skyfall at the counter. Man, I wish they obliged me.
Bond movies repeatedly bear the same defects over and over, defects that nobody cares about because they make things more entertaining, take things higher over the top. Contrived twists, overlong runtimes, and homogeneous characters, to say nothing of bottomless ammunition clips and Bond’s rubber bones, are all forgiven because they keep Bond in the center of the – key word here – action. Escapism has long been the franchise’s modus operandi, and it’s not something the Daniel Craig era was meant to change when it succeeded the thoroughly embarrassing Die Another Day. Despite the over-correction of Quantum of Solace, which veered too close to Paul Greengrass’s faster cutting, grim Bourne movies, the current era has held true to the cause, changing out the Saturday morning cartoon excess of the sillier Bonds for the Saturday night-after-bedtime excess that adults want to see. Quibbles over tone and details aside, it’s working, and it’s as entertaining as ever.
Spectre is boring. The movie positioned to be the pinnacle of the Craig era, the beginning of another fifty years of Bond, is boring. Anyone paying attention could have heeded the warning signs. Beginning with script leaks and ending with Daniel Craig’s grousing on the press tour, Spectre has had no shortage of bad buzz. By and large it feels like a movie that fell apart in the edit, but one can’t help but detect the pervading sense of cynical aimlessness that went into its entire making. Skyfall cashed in on the franchise name with spirit, and it succeeded. It made all the right callbacks while telling a new story with style. Spectre uses the franchise as a paint-by-numbers playbook, piecing together tired cliches, rote action sequences, and sluggish pacing into one bland package.
Things kick off with a technically impressive tracking shot that follows Bond walking around a bit during Mexico City’s Day of the Dead Parade. It encapsulates the vision for Spectre perfectly: flashy and without substance. Following a decent action sequence, things grind to a halt with Sam Smith’s atrocious theme song and a conceptually muddled opening credits sequence riddled with bad CGI, which, in its frequent depiction of characters throughout the Craig era, determines to connect the events of all four films together if it has to kill itself to do so, a la Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, which we all remember so fondly.
Following Bond’s suspension (yet again) from MI6, which is in danger of being shuttered (yet again), he follows up on a cryptic lead from Judi Dench’s deceased M via video message, drawing him closer to the all-powerful criminal organization he’s been hunting down for years. Bond’s past is tied to the organization as ludicrously as MI6’s future is tied to it in a vaguely bureaucratic kind of way, but beyond a very, very token argument against the abuse of government surveillance programs, there seems to be little at stake for the wider world. Worse, the decades’ worth of international terrorism and corruption detailed in the past three films just might all be Bond’s fault.
Pairing badly with its daft plotting is director Sam Mendes’s rigorous visual aesthetic. Following in the footsteps of cinematographer Roger Deakins’s gorgeous work on Skyfall, Hoyte Van Hoytema delivers endless glamour shots of Bond traveling through sterile, desolate frames, all for the purpose of capturing the lone hero in an unforgiving world, but this time around it reeks of unstudied pretentiousness, forcing a larger scope when there is none, because this is James Bond and it’s supposed to be big. This sense of going through the motions affects everything. The action sequences are divested of any thematic structure, boiling down to two men entering vehicles, racing, then crashing into something. Its primary henchman, Dave Bautista’s Hinx, is a blank slate. Its Bond girls, Lea Seydoux and Monica Bellucci, are cast beneath themselves and represent the worst in Bond girl stereotypes. Even the climactic scene in SPECTRE’s evil lair, bearing a strange resemblance to Uncle Lars’s moisture farm, is a damp squib, or – thinking optimistically here – an incredibly arch joke on Bond fans that most people won’t appreciate one bit.
With Bond movies you can feel like you’re watching the same old thing after awhile. But it’s not actually supposed to be the same thing. Everything about Spectre is stolen from elsewhere. Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, The Living Daylights, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die, You Only Live Twice, and Tomorrow Never Dies are a few of its predecessors that are burgled for details. It even takes notes from the Austin Powers series. Christoph Waltz reprises his role as Hans Landa, changing cute catchphrases from “That’s a bingo!” to “Cuckoo!” Andrew Scott gets to play his Moriarty again. Dave Bautista gets to play a mute Drax the Destroyer. Ralph Fiennes’s embattled M is morphed into a male version of Judi Dench’s stentorian speech machine.
Ben Whishaw is the one person who comes out of Spectre looking good. With his aloof nerd act as the hip, young Q from Skyfall out of the way, he’s allowed to have more fun, and he makes the most of it. The same can’t be said for the rest of the creative team, who appears to have hit the wall. We celebrated their success with Skyfall, but now we’re enduring the hangover, too. How so many things went wrong and why they did is impossible to tell. Mendes and his crew should still have it in them to mount another elegant, fun Bond like Skyfall, but this isn’t it. A couple bone-crunching fistfights aside, Spectre is just one big yawn. Hopefully Craig sticks around for one more film, because if he bails now thinking he’s going out on a high note, he can think again. He’s skipping out on the check.