As far as titles for movies go, Spectre could hardly be better named. Right from the start it’s clear that this is a film full of ghosts: past, present and future, dead or alive, benign or threatening – this latest James Bond movie is a conspicuously haunted affair.
You can’t say that they don’t warn you. Even before the film starts, there’s an on-screen caption declaring “the dead are alive” and then we open in Mexico City on the Day of Dead where by tradition the deceased are said to walk the streets once more. And to really hammer the point home, Bond is there at the posthumous direction of the late, lamented M to carry out a clinical low key hit on a terrorist planning an atrocity. Unfortunately things don’t go quite according to plan and end up being rather messily high-profile, imperilling the very existence of MI6 as a result.
Despite all the spectral signs and portents in the opening minutes, it still didn’t prepare me for the jolting glimpses we get of the late M (Judi Dench), Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) and Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) in the opening credits sequence. Nor are these just grace notes: along with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), their presence is keenly felt throughout the film from the very start and exorcising these ghosts becomes Bond’s main preoccupation during the entire endeavour.
As a result, Spectre is audaciously trying to be at least three films at once, starting with weaving an overarching storyline for the whole of the Daniel Craig era of the Bond films. The huge success of Casino Royale was meant to lead on to a direct continuation of the story in A Quantum of Solace but unfortunately that film’s box office flop and generally incoherent storyline sabotaged that plan, and when Sam Mendes came on board to direct 50th anniversary celebration Skyfall he took the series off in a whole new direction. Or so it appeared.
Returning for his second consecutive Bond film after initially saying never again, Mendes grasps the mettle and this time not only picks up the story from Casino Royale but also finds a way to credibly link it with Skyfall. (As for A Quantum of Solace, it too is brought into the fold but you get the distinct feeling that mentions to it are cursory and kept the minimum possible. Understandably and correctly so.) Now we find that all the events that Bond has been facing since 2006 have been the design of one man, and one shadowy organisation.
It’s the first time that Spectre has been in a Bond film since Diamonds Are Forever; in a long-running lawsuit, writer and producer Kevin McClory claimed the rights to Spectre and its shadowy head Ernst Stavro Blofeld because they were part of his collaboration with Ian Fleming on the story that eventually became Thunderball. McClory even wrangled the case into the legal right to remake the story as Never Say Never Again with Sean Connery in 1983 opposite the official Bond outing Octopussy starring Roger Moore the same year. Even though McClory died in 2006 the case was not resolved until 2013 when MGM finally reached a financial settlement with the McClory estate to buy the remaining rights and finally allow the series to use Spectre again, instead of trying to cook up its own replacement criminal network under the name Quantum.
When the casting of Spectre was announced there was a lot of chatter that Christoph Waltz would be playing Blofeld. In fact his character here is Franz Oberhauser, who has his own very personal reasons from childhood for wanting to plot an elaborate and extended revenge on Bond, thereby making him a much deeper and more complex figure. That said, as the head of Spectre, he’s pretty much interchangeable with Blofeld: the only way in which he really differs from the classic Bond villain is the name, the white cat and the scar down his face – give him those and Waltz would be Donald Pleasance reincarnate.
Still more ghosts, then – this time from Bond’s past stretching all the way back to the death of his parents when he was a young boy. But we also have prominent ghosts from the future-as-was haunting the corners of this film as well.
Casino Royale was a reboot of the Bond story, taking him all the way back to when he first attained his license to kill, in the process effectively retconning the 20 films that preceded it. Indeed, Skyfall finished at the point when a new M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) were in place, and M’s office was once again a wood-panelled affair somewhere in Westminster rather than the state-of-the-art Thames riverside MI6 building that Judi Dench’s character had presided over for 15 years. That finish had felt like a homecoming, that the films had come full circle: if at the end of Skyfall Bond had been dispatched to Jamaica tasked to investigate the sudden death of station chief Strangways then it couldn’t have felt any more natural. It was such a powerful end that it was hard to imagine where the series would go and what it could do next to top that.
In that and in so many other ways, Mendes and Craig were always up against it following up their global 2012 mega-hit, and the first thing to make clear is that they haven’t quite been able to. Then again, it would have been a genuine miracle if they had, and at the same time they certainly haven’t crashed and burned: Spectre is a strong film full of interesting ideas and at times dazzling creativity, daring to be different and therefore not surprisingly suffering the odd stumble and misstep here and there along the way while still ultimately delivering an impressive and enjoyable piece of cinema.
So how did they get around what felt like such a natural end to the series with Skyfall? The answer it seems was to go back to the future via the past. Spectre is full of teasing hints, winks, nods and knowing throwbacks to some of the classic stories of old, especially those that originally featured the Spectre organisation when it was still just an acronym for the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Such heavy handed spelled-out explanations aren’t needed in the 21st century incarnation and just the image of the many-tentacled creature extending its grip in the darkness is all that’s required.
Throughout Spectre I was conscious of a constant sense of deja vu. Perhaps some of it was my imagination working overtime, but I’m pretty certain that most of it was fully intended by Mendes, writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth as well as Craig himself who gets an unprecedented co-producer credit this time around. The opening battle in the helicopter reminded me of a similar pre-credits sequence from For Your Eyes Only (ironically the one in which Bond tangles with a certain unnamed bald, cat-stroking super-villain in a cheeky riposte to McClory). Then Bond goes to Rome to attend the funeral of a Spectre agent and meet the widow (an all-too-brief appearance from Monica Bellucci), a sequence clearly evocative of the start of Thunderball. There’s also a mountain top building straight out of O.H.M.S.S. (and lovingly referenced by Christopher Nolan in Inception.) And then there’s the brutal fight on the railway train which kept reminding me of the battle with Red Grant in From Russia With Love, or perhaps Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me. Or perhaps even with Tee-Hee in Live and Let Die, a film that seems to get referenced in several visual ways in Spectre from the skeleton garb that Bond dons in the opening scenes through to the all-black combat wear he adopts toward the end of the film.
Think I’m overreaching? I have definitive proof that at least some of these nods to past films are entirely intended, but it’s a bit of a spoiler so look away now if you’re squeamish. Okay? Ready for me to carry on? Then I’ll let slip that Oberhauser has built his headquarters in a crater, surely an incontrovertible tip of the hat to the all-time classic Bond supervillain lair in You Only Live Twice.
Ahh, but here’s the clever thing about what Mendes, Craig and the rest of the team do with Spectre: while it pays sly homage to all these grand classic Bond traditions, in each case it does it with a 21st century twist and reinvention. In the case of the lair in Spectre, the crater in question isn’t located within an extinct volcano in Japan but is instead to be found in a meteorite impact crater deep in the Moroccan desert; and far from some space-age science fiction facility, it looks like nothing more than a very believable and down-to-earth oil and gas facility with some nice guest rooms and a bevy of satellite dishes attached.
This sense of ‘something old, something borrowed’ but crucially something completely reinterpreted in the process is the other major preoccupation of Spectre. You can feel it in the theme song, Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” which when heard on the radio comes across like an uninspired parody of greater title songs of the past, but once allied with Daniel Kleinman’s visuals becomes much stronger and more appropriate for the film’s ambitions. Even Kleinman himself seems to be looking backward this time around: gone are the innovative stylings he brought to Casino Royale and Skyfall and in comes a sequence which is the closest he’s come yet to homaging his illustrious predecessor Maurice Binder. However, whereas Binder always left things to the last minute and relied on inspiration that quite often didn’t come, Kleinman’s turn this time around is like the best title sequence that Binder never got around to as he uses the recurring motif of the dark, slimy tentacles probing their way through the inky blackness to produce a slow but gripping and somewhat nightmarish opening.
Throughout all of this, what comes through most of all is that Mendes isn’t just trying to deliver a sequel to Skyfall or weave the Craig era into one coherent narrative (which is more than A Quantum of Solace was able to manage to pull off in its one meagre 90 minutes contribution). What he really wants to do more than anything this time around is simply to get to play with the full Bond toy box. That might sound a strange thing to say considering what he got to do in Skyfall, but there had been a lot riding on that film and it ended up being a very fine and impressive art film not to mention hugely commercially successful. When I reviewed Skyfall I called it “a phenomenal, game-changing outing for the franchise” but conceded that it still didn’t actually feel like one of the big classic Bond films of the golden era such as Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, the entire Moore era, or even later outings such as Tomorrow Never Dies. For this reason a lot of long-time 007 fans might well have ended up coming away from that film feeling disappointed that it hadn’t delivered entirely to their expectations of what a Bond film could and should be; and while I loved Skyfall to bits, I could also rather agree with that point of view.
It seems that with Spectre Mendes sets out to correct this. He’s made a film that deliberately celebrates and embraces those aspects of the Bond mythos as much as it builds on the Craig era to date. Most noticeably, the humour is back after a decade of quite po-faced offerings although not in the same overtly self-deprecating style that Moore majored in to the expense of the films’ credibility. Even so there’s more laugh-out-loud moments here than we’ve seen since Pierce Brosnan was in the role, and they’re nicely judged and much appreciated.
Similarly, the structure of the film heaves closely to the classic 1970s ‘travelogue’ format of the Moore years such as The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker with the action moving on to a new international locale every 20 minutes or so based on the thinnest of connecting storylines: we start in Mexico City, stop off in London, head to Rome, then to the mountains in Austria before decamping to Morocco first in Tangier and then via train to the remote desert before finally returning to London. All of which is fine, but it does mean that the film keeps having to stop, reset and restart every time there’s a new caption come up to announce the change in location. And that has a real impact in the pacing of the film, which at times feels utterly derailed for as long as 10 or 15 minutes. Young children would struggle to sit still and not be bored during these stretches (then again it’s a 12A certificate and the fight scenes and associated injuries are brutal enough to make it a high-end 12A at that) and I confess there were stretches where even my mind started to wander and I began fidgeting in my seat. At 148 minutes the film is the longest in the Bond canon and frankly it feels like it should have been more aggressively edited in order to retain the pace and momentum.
The quiet spells are used to build up Bond’s character, although Spectre never seems to find anything to say that is nearly as interesting or as insightful about 007 as Skyfall managed in a less heavy-handed fashion. A lot of time is also spent on the leading lady, Dr Madeleine Swann played by Léa Seydoux, and strangely for all this screen time and careful script work she still doesn’t come across as being all that memorable. Neither does Dave Bautista’s Mr Hinx who starts off promisingly looking like a wordless Bond henchman of the classic Oddjob/Jaws style but who never really manages to spark into life and whose final scene is oddly abrupt; I spent the rest of the movie waiting for him to pop up again for a final confrontation but instead it never happened, meaning that we were robbed of the sense of fulfilment of his demise. And as for Waltz, he makes a brilliantly sinister and powerful entrance chairing the Spectre annual general meeting, but his later scenes suffer from underplaying and a distinct lack of menace.
Similarly the film oddly fluffs its big ‘supervillain lair destruction sequence’: after an effective sustained sequence of surgical terror, Bond and Swann suddenly break free, Bond shoots some gas cylinders, and Oberhauser’s entire base and years-in-the-making plan go up in flames. Obviously he rather stinted on the health and safety compliance. It’s all rather perfunctory and again less than entirely fulfilling, although in this case it’s quickly followed by the real finale, one of the film’s best sequences set back in London in a familiar but devastatingly altered location, a literal haunted house.
Probably the best part of the film is before the titles: Bond tracking his prey through Mexico City. The fight in the helicopter is thrilling enough, but for those of us of a cineaste persuasion the real high comes in the four minute single-take sequence following Bond through the streets, weaving through the carnival parade, into an elevator, stepping out of a window and walking across the rooftops. Mendes is arguably showing off a bit here by homaging Orson Welles’ all-time classic opening to Touch of Evil (brilliant film by the way – if you have never seen it, please do so!) but it’s wonderfully and beautifully done, even though I suspect he cheated with a couple of sly Hitchcockian disguised cuts along the way.
No matter if he did, it’s an exhilarating and audacious opening to the film that establishes a beautiful visual style used from there on throughout all the various locations. Even a standard car chase through the streets of Rome is shot in a slick modern fashion that somehow makes it look profoundly different from the way the Bond films used to tackle such sequences, and which is no less exciting for all that. Having said that, the film doesn’t look quite as lush and sparkling as Skyfall did: not meaning to be disparaging to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, but it just highlights that extra special one per cent that someone like Roger Deakins brings to each and every film that he makes. How that man has never been given a truck load of Oscars before now is beyond me.
In between that brilliant beginning and breathless finale is a somewhat more uneven journey. It tries to be both old style fun while continuing the deeper, soulful and more melancholic style of Skyfall and the two approaches don’t always play well together. It does however make for something quite different and unique, which is quite an accomplishment for a series that has been running for 53 years and 24 films and which still seems fresher, more innovative and more willing to take risks than pretty much any other blockbuster films out there in the endless cavalcade of comic book franchises, sequels and reboots that we’ve been suffering from for the last few years.
It’s the reason why James Bond is the one series of films that will always get me out of my home and into the cinema. I haven’t missed seeing a new Bond film on the big screen since my very first one, Live and Let Die in 1973, and on the evidence of Spectre I’m not about to any time soon because they always manage to make the trip worthwhile.
Let’s hope Star Wars: The Force Awakens similarly delivers. That and Star Trek are the only other two film series that get my assured loyalty at the box office these days: it was certainly quite something to see the full trailer for the new Star Wars film just before the start of Spectre. If it means I end up going to the cinema twice in consecutive months then it’ll be the first time in a long, long while indeed. Who knows, maybe the silver screen isn’t quite as dead to me yet as I’d thought after all.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Spectre is on theatrical release worldwide. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2016.