The newest James Bond outing is finally here, and it’s a doozy. Spectre (2015, dir. Sam Mendes) is set in an uncertain time in the Bond universe, where the tried and true Double-O program is at risk of being shut down in favour of advanced technology and surveillance programs. Whilst internal politics at MI6 threaten his occupation, the one and only James Bond (Daniel Craig) has been tasked to track down a mysterious organisation, which may be closer to home than he initially believes. This adventure takes our protagonist to Mexico City, Rome, Tangiers, to the snowy slopes of Austria, and to his home base of London, in search of an organisation whose tendrils appear to have a reach spanning across the globe.
Warning: This review will probably be filled to the brim with spoilers, so please don’t read unless you’ve already seen the film, or if you don’t mind reading spoilers.
The first thing I’ll say about Spectre is that I don’t really understand all the backlash that it has been receiving. My partner and I recently rewatched all the previous 23 Bond films, and when I think about the series as a whole, I feel that Spectre settles in well with the overall Bond universe. It fits particularly well with the rest of the Craig films, being one of the more gritty, brutal, and straight-up violent films. This may therefore mean that Spectre resorts to the same formula as the rest of the Bond films, but it’s a formula that I for one enjoy watching. The masterminds behind the Bond franchise have a good thing going, and it’s a formula that generally tends to excite and thrill, except when they get it terribly wrong. We all know the general gist of how the plot of a Bond film is going to go. Perhaps some viewers have become a bit tired of it, but I haven’t.
Daniel Craig in particular has received some criticism for appearing sleepy or “over it” in this film, and I have to say that when I watched this for the first time, I tended to agree with that assessment. However, again, when I look back on his chapter of the Bond films, I’ve noticed a pattern revealing itself. Craig’s Bond in Casino Royale (2006) had just obtained his Double-O status, and was a lot more wide-eyed in comparison to the subsequent films, in which he appears to become more and more jaded and practised in his exploits over time. Craig plays Spectre‘s Bond as someone who has been in the espionage game for a sizeable amount of time, who isn’t surprised by much, and is ready for most kinds of conflict that come his way – including the face of an entire building falling down on him in the absolutely thrilling pre-title sequence. I would contrast Craig’s so-called sleepy Bond with Sean Connery’s narcoleptic Bond towards the end of his run, who was clearly so bored and upset by the time Diamonds Are Forever (1971) happened that it resulted in one of the worst Bond films of all time.
If I ever met Daniel Craig in real life or had the opportunity to interview him, I think that’s the question I would ask – whether this style of acting and progression of character over the films is intentional, or whether he is actually getting a bit tired of it all. Which, given the extreme stunts that he performs and the relentless press schedule that comes along with this juggernaut of a series, would probably be quite normal. But I digress!
I was pleased to see that Spectre also makes great use of its supporting characters. Naomie Harris is wonderful as Moneypenny, and I was happy to see her take a larger role in this film. Ben Whishaw also steps a bit further forward in his role as Q, and provides a portion of the film’s generous servings of comic relief. Ralph Fiennes steps up to the plate as Head of MI6 M, taking over from Judi Dench after her untimely death in Skyfall (2012). I enjoyed watching the internal politics and the merger of MI6 and MI5, and Andrew Scott is the perfect snivelling double-crosser as C, even if his double-crossing was obvious from the very beginning. Monica Bellucci’s brief role as Lucia Sciarra is nice but somewhat forgettable, despite her insane beauty which is difficult to look away from. I think my favourite supporting role however was Léa Seydoux as Dr Madeleine Swann, who is of course Bond’s love interest. Whilst I was not wholly convinced of the chemistry between Bond and Swann, Seydoux is such an impressive actress and portrays Swann as a very strong woman indeed; one of the stronger women of the Bond series in recent times.
Christoph Waltz gets his own paragraph because, as many have guessed correctly, he plays the famed villain of the series – Ernst Stavro Blofeld, in what is a lovely reveal towards the middle of the film. I know some reviewers believed that he was underused, or didn’t have as much of an impact as people may have expected. I saw Christoph Waltz’s interpretation of Blofeld as a mixture between Telly Savalas’ Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and Charles Gray’s Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) – charming, but almost too much so, with a sneaky sense of humour, whilst at the same time being very commanding and authoritative. It was a subtle performance that may have been a little bit too subtle for most, who know and love Waltz’s portrayal of more outrageous villains, such as Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (2009). I’m not a fan of the addition of the backstory connecting Bond and Blofeld, but I did enjoy the way that this new Blofeld was introduced, and Waltz’s interpretation of such a classic villain, even though I’m not sure he’s my favourite of the Craig era villains (Mads Mikkelsen may be the winner of that award).
In terms of the secret organisation plot, I think the reveal of Spectre was was done very well, but I was almost sad that the film didn’t reveal what its name stands for – Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. That would have been a lot of fun (even though I understand that there are copyright limitations involved), but it also would have allowed for a more clearly defined and stated purpose of Spectre; instead, we get the feeling that the organisation is a disparate group of evildoers who just so happen to come together and have the one person leading them. I did love that we saw all the members of the organisation sitting around a table and telling everyone about their nefarious shenanigans. It felt gloriously old-school and the visuals reminded me slightly of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – occult-like and Kubrickian. I was somewhat disappointed that there wasn’t a button for Blofeld to press for someone to fall into a hole. But this is the modern interpretation of the classic secret organisation, so we get a Game of Thrones style eye-gouging instead.
The story itself of Bond finding out about the organisation plays out in typical Bond film fashion – with him finding clues which take him to different parts of the globe, wooing women and defeating henchmen (such as Dave Bautista’s Mr Hinx, who is definitely the strong and silent type) – which does play to a formula. But this formula is visualised on screen with some beautiful direction and cinematography, and gorgeous film locations and costuming. It feels like each location of the film has its own characteristic colour signature, which makes everything feel refreshed and new during each chapter of the story, aesthetics-wise. As with Skyfall, it appears that there is a particular emphasis on visual symmetry in each shot. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema also worked on Her (2013) and Interstellar (2014) – both visually sumptuous – which gives you an indication for his love of colour and hazey atmospheres, which are both used very well in this film.
I have to also say that when I first heard the theme for Spectre, ‘Writing’s On The Wall’ by Sam Smith, I was severely underwhelmed. I couldn’t listen to it the whole way through because I was so bored, and I tried numerous times. But after watching the film and watching this song set to the amazing opening title sequence, I have actually fallen in love with the song. I can’t stop listening to it. The song and its dominant refrain serve as a familiar leitmotif throughout the film – an eerie and sprawling melody that is matched with some beautiful shots. The score by Thomas Newman in general is also exquisite. Sam Smith’s theme is matched in the opening title sequence with some amazing imagery of fire, creepy octopi and their tentacles, and women shrouded in ink. This opening title sequence tells less of a story but is heavy on thematic imagery, which I actually prefer.
It’s also not possible to write about a Bond film without mentioning the classic pre-title sequence. The pre-title sequence of Spectre is set in Mexico City’s Day of the Dead celebrations, and starts off the film with a bang – firstly, a long scene which appears to have no cuts until Bond identifies his next target, keeping the audience on its toes. Then, a thrilling chase and insane helicopter fight scene that threatens to overshadow some of the other awesome action scenes in the main body of the film. I loved the fact that it was set during the Day of the Dead celebrations as this lent a creepy and intriguing aesthetic to the whole sequence – skeletons everywhere, dancing, rhythmic and booming music. This was the perfect way to set up the film and begin Bond’s quest to find out about a mysterious secret organisation, and after what felt like such a long wait between films it was the perfect jolt back in to the series.
There were some aspects of the film that I didn’t quite enjoy – as aforementioned, the tenuous and invented backstory link between Bold and Blofeld, and the questionable chemistry between Bond and Swann. I also didn’t appreciate the attempt to link all of Craig’s Bond’s previous nemeses to the one organisation. Sure, some work, such as Dominic Greene of Quantum of Solace (2008) and Mr White of Casino Royale. But I don’t think the link with Silva of Skyfall fame worked. His character really felt like one man and his followers on a mission of anarchy and revenge, not one piece of a grander puzzle. Still, despite these relatively minor gripes, Spectre is far better than the majority of Bond films. It’s perhaps not quite as good as some of Craig’s other performances, but it is still one of the better offerings that the series has brought forth.
I really enjoyed Spectre, and after hearing people say how underwhelmed they were by it, I feel a bit puzzled! It’s always a huge thrill to see a new Bond film at the cinema, and I think Spectre satisfies every criteria of being a worthy film to see on the big screen – massively huge explosions, some sequences with thrilling action, sly humour and fun references to previous and classic Bond films. The film is surprisingly funny at times and pokes fun at both itself and the franchise as a whole. It may not be the Bond film everyone was looking for, but it’s a good one.
Is it worth paying for a ticket?: Yes! In fact, I saw it at the cinema twice in two days.
Watch the trailer here.