Monday, November 16, 2015

"Spectre"

Not "SPECTRE" apparently, because here the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion seems to have no acronym and just be a bunch of people called 'Spectre' who aren't very nice.

Now Blofeld's back, surely Baron Samedi
is next on the 'villains to revive' list.
My review of Skyfall seems all too applicable to Spectre in some respects. I've yet to rewatch Skyfall (and I have little desire to do so, to be honest) but my primary objections to it haven't mellowed over time: I think it's fundamentally a rather pretentious film which absurdly expects me to take the character of James Bond seriously and care about his problems. As I stated in that review, I think treating Bond like a drama is inherently nonsensical, because it's a genre franchise about a larger-than-life character in almost wholly unrealistic situations, and therefore his feelings, thoughts and inner life fundamentally offer little for the audience to reflect upon.

Bond 25: Bond Has A Nice Cup Of Tea
The writers and directors of modern genre films need to realise that they are not writing the next great English/American novel, and that the nature of their medium innately precludes such aspirations from being sensible. The same delusions of dramatic grandeur affect current British television properties like modern Doctor Who and Sherlock, shows which similarly offer pointless masturbatory ruminations on the nature of unreal and unrealistic characters as if they have to compete with "literary" art.

Spectre is not as egregious in this as Skyfall was, but it suffers from many of the same problems: it's slow and dry, it's boring-looking, with a grey- and brown-dominated colour palette, and it's not shot or designed in a particularly interesting way. It feels more grounded in its own action than Skyfall admittedly, with a less dreamlike tone, but this accentuates its dryness. This is also emphasised by the fact that the plot is extremely unoriginal.

"Yeah, I'm all right."
Large parts of the plot of Spectre are extremely similar, if not identical to, 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, another dry and unexciting film. Consider this: in both films, the security agency (SHIELD, the Joint Intelligence Service) has a new headquarters in the nation's capital (by a body of water, even). It's revealed that the head of said agency (Pierce, C) is in fact allied with or a part of a nefarious secret organisation (HYDRA, Spectre) which wants to use the legitimate organisation to take over a massive surveillance network (Project Insight, Nine Eyes) to get up to mischief. A rag-tag team of surviving "good" members of the original organisation (Fury/Widow/Falcon/Maria Hill, M/Moneypenny/Q/Tanner) must infiltrate the new, compromised headquarters while the protagonist has a "personal" showdown with the film's other main antagonist with whom he has an almost fraternal connection (Bucky, Oberhauser). I felt like I'd seen a good deal of this before. Bucky and Oberhauser are both meant to have died in the snow only to have actually survived, for goodness' sake.

Good thing we all wear these suspicious rings
with this very retro-looking logo on them.
Now let's get to the main attraction: Spectre itself and Blofeld. I didn't think these were handled effectively. Having finally regained the rights, they shoot their bolt almost immediately by introducing the whole shebang: Spectre is this evil organisation which manipulates world events and their mysterious unseen leader is a man named Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Note that in the original Bond films, SPECTRE and Blofeld were dealt with over no less than six films. SPECTRE is first introduced in Dr. No as the titular villain's employer. In From Russia With Love they try to exacerbate tensions between East and West. Following an unrelated diversion for Goldfinger, Bond then deals with the second-in-command of the organisation, Emilio Largo, in Thunderball. It's not until You Only Live Twice that Bond finally meets Blofeld himself, and it takes that film and two more, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever, to finally deal with Blofeld and put an end to the entire situation. In fact, apart from Goldfinger, the entire Connery/Lazenby era involves SPECTRE in some shape or other.

"Seat belts on, please!"
That's a hell of a lot of story, and it makes SPECTRE seem appropriately sprawling and mysterious - octopoid, like its logo. And while some of SPECTRE's and/or Blofeld's activities are very over the top and have become clich├ęs, like the volcano lair and the laser satellite, generally their motivations were fairly clear: to play the superpowers of the Cold War against each other for money and power. That's what SPECTRE is, essentially, in those films: a very elaborate criminal organisation. Yet at the same time it functions as a reflection and even a parody of the very powers it is playing: all of Bond's spying and all of the espionage and struggles between Western governments and the Soviet Union for political and economic supremacy are ultimately little different, in those stories' eyes, to the actions of criminals manipulating affairs for the sake of profit and control. Note that in Blofeld's fish tank in From Russia With Love, all three (the West, the USSR and SPECTRE) are the same creature.

Not so here, of course. The Cold War's long over (arguably), or has at least transformed, which leaves one wondering what SPECTRE's purpose really is. What do they get from the human trafficking, from the fake pharmaceuticals they apparently sell, from the elaborate surveillance network they intend to take over? It's all very unclear, and it seems as if the film can't really come up with a good reason for Spectre's existence in the "post 9/11 world", as opposed to the world of the Cold War, much in the same way that HYDRA's role in The Winter Soldier in my opinion lacked impact. Spectre seem menacing with their elaborate Rome meeting, but we don't have enough time to really see them do anything. The film tries to do far too much. Their most threatening element seems to be this bulky henchman with no neck who is apparently immune to punches, who seems to be intended as comparable to Red Grant or a similar figure but feels like an arbitrary stooge for Bond to have a difficult fight with.

"James, don't you remember how you shot my face off during The War?"
Let's turn finally to Blofeld himself. It's this which gives Spectre similar levels of pretension and delusions of grandeur equivalent to that of Skyfall. In that we saw Bond under siege in his old family home; here Blofeld is the pseudonym of Franz Oberhauser, who knew Bond as a child when his father looked after Bond for a couple of years when his parents died. Oberhauser apparently murdered his own father out of jealousy and faked his own death, before renaming himself Blofeld and establishing Spectre.

In my opinion, it's all far too personal. We learn all this "backstory", but nothing actually substantial about this new Blofeld, apart from the fact that he's clearly a patricidal psychopath. What else does he want? Why did he establish Spectre? What's he been up to for all these years? Most of all, how did he, as he claims, manipulate events behind the scenes in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall when all of those films already explained themselves? Spectre tries to establish itself as some kind of shocking resolution to the "Daniel Craig tetralogy", but does so by simply telling us that it is and expecting us to believe it. We constantly hear references to past characters: Vesper, Le Chiffre, Greene, Silva and the like, but Spectre has no way of actually establishing any of the narrative connections it claims because they don't exist, which gives Blofeld's claim to being "the author of all your pain" (Bond's, that is) no substance or profundity whatsoever. Oberhauser even states that he only started going after Bond because he got in his way, which makes the plot revelation of their shared past completely unnecessary and irrelevant; it doesn't provide either of them with motivation, and is only there to shock the audience with the largely meaningless concept that Bond and his traditional arch-enemy knew each other for a couple of years as kids. So what? The film does nothing with it, so why should we care? But we're meant to care simply because the connection exists, and in this way the film treats the audience like gasping idiots who will swallow any twist, no matter how trivial, purely because it is a twist.

Land, no.
The older films were from an age where everything didn't have to be "personal" and Hollywood action films weren't incompetently striving to involve novelistic characterisation and discourse in modes for which they were completely unsuited. Blofeld was there characterised perfectly well: as a ruthless, cynical man who toyed with the lives of the whole world simply for his own personal profit. In Spectre it's simply not clear what Blofeld wants or why he is the way he is: he describes himself as a "visionary" of sorts but we're never informed of his vision; I don't know why he particularly cares to torture Bond the way he does unless he's simply some kind of sadist. The weak "personal connection" element and the need to rush through the character wastes Christoph Waltz in an admittedly rather unimaginatively cast role, in which the character and his organisation seem to exist not for the sake of the story but so that Bond fans will recognise the names and be titillated. While I think the "personal connection" aspect was unnecessary and doesn't really work for Bond in any event, there was no need for either the Spectre organisation or Blofeld himself to have a role in the film. The character is simply not very interesting, being not as visually striking as Donald Pleasence's Blofeld, not as effective a foil for Bond as Telly Savalas', and not as amusing as Charles Gray's (my personal favourite).

Everything else is fairly bland, as I've already stated. The most visually interesting part of the film is the Day of the Dead sequence in the beginning. There's nothing else that is particularly glamorous in terms of location or activity. The script contains a few chuckles, but not much. Daniel Craig puts in a workmanlike performance as Bond, but he's not especially interesting to watch for most of the time. Bond girl Madeleine Swann is okay as this instalment's "reasonably competent female deuteragonist" but nothing too memorable. Ralph Fiennes as M mostly has to do a lot of the grouching and grumbling that I thought was subverted as the best element of Skyfall. The final capture of Blofeld by Bond simply shooting his helicopter (something which consistently fails to succeed in almost every Bond film) was a little anticlimactic.

For your cool, cool glasses only.
In terms of good parts, the pre-titles sequence in Mexico City isn't bad at all, featuring characterful location work and a frantic punch-up in a helicopter. I don't mind the song for this one, and the title sequence itself was okay, even if the octopus motif was rather laboured. I was glad that they used M more effectively towards the end. As I said before, there are a few humorous moments, including from Craig himself. Other than that I didn't find much that was particularly engaging about it.

Assuming Daniel Craig doesn't do another Bond, it's disappointing that he's essentially three for four in terms of mediocre films (although admittedly a lot of people thought Skyfall was good for whatever reason). I think the explanation for this, however, almost lies in the fact that Craig was cast for Casino Royale, which is in my opinion a good film which worked perfectly well on its own terms, and in which the chemistry of Craig and Eva Green was ideal for a striking standalone Bond film which didn't need and couldn't benefit from sequels or follow-ups. It's possible that the tenets established for Casino Royale, such as a more serious tone, arguably more realism, more emotional drama and the like, have in fact burdened the rest of the Craig era because they were invented for the sake and success of that single film and not for an entire sequence of films. In that sense it's possible that the last three films were doomed from the start.

"Well, if we destroy Kansas the world may not hear about it for years."
Daniel Craig may be departing, but the great success of Skyfall and the relatively substantial success of Spectre mean that we're probably likely to see more of this kind of thing in the future, unfortunately. It would be appealing if the Bond franchise could recapture a little of the colour, glamour and energy of days gone by but I doubt they'll bother. It's disheartening to say it, but it seems unlikely that we'll see that kind of Bond film made again. "Blofeld" may have been spared, but it's possible that Bond is, in many ways, dead.

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