“My name is Lester Burnham,” intones the protagonist of Sam Mendes’ debut film, American Beauty. “This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I am 42 years old. In less than a year, I will be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I’m dead already.”
With his second foray into the Bond universe, Mendes has, in a way, come full circle. As Spectre begins, James Bond, like Lester Burnham, is a dead man, though he doesn’t know it yet. We meet one of cinema’s most virile action heroes dressed in a ceremonial skeleton costume during Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, a cultural event in which celebrants pray for the souls of the departed and wish them well on their spiritual journey. A certain emotional detachment has almost always been a part of 007’s persona, but in Spectre, all the fire has gone out of Craig’s Bond, who seems tired, resigned, soft, passive – even, on occasion, serene. Mendes sends Bond drifting elegiacally through a kind of purgatory, reliving past traumas, resolving internal conflicts, and ultimately achieving some kind of peace.
On paper, all this sounds really intriguing, and it is, sort of. Unfortunately, Bond’s spiritual odyssey is subtext hiding underneath an awfully messy text. Hulk Film Crit writes that each James Bond film A) is an overreaction to audiences’ responses to the previous film, and B) tries to cash in on the success of current blockbuster trends. (Two years after the release of Star Wars, James Bond went to space in Moonraker.) If Skyfall was largely successful in striking a deft balance between the gritty modern Bond of Casino Royale and the beloved “classic” Bond tropes, Spectre is both more modern and more classic, losing any sense of balance in the process. The plot here is utterly, thoroughly silly, and yet at the same time, is strenuously striving to convince us of how serious everything is.
Equally problematic is the way Spectre opts to cash in on the current “shared universe” craze – popularized first by Marvel, with DC now jumping on the bandwagon – in a spectacularly ill-advised attempt to tie the events of the previous three Bond films into one cohesive narrative. Evidently, Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser was the real bad guy behind the bad guys of the preceding films – and his evil organization, SPECTRE, was behind the evil organization QUANTUM. None of this makes much sense, nor does it carry much dramatic weight. When Waltz begins to monologue about being the author of all James’ pain, one finds oneself trying to figure out how that logistically works, rather than experiencing any sort of emotional response.
Around this time, Spectre brings back yet another blockbuster fad, the Name Drop – in which a character reveals that they are, in fact, a Previously Established Character from the same franchise. Examples: Joseph Gordon-Levitt being Robin all along in The Dark Knight Rises, Benedict Cumberbatch being Khan all along in Star Trek Into Darkness, and Naomie Harris’ character being Moneypenny all along in Skyfall. The problem with this storytelling device is that it rarely means anything to the characters in any narrative sense. Kirk and Spock have no reason to bat an eye when Cumberbatch intones, “My name is Khan.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character already knew his own name was Robin. It means nothing to the characters in the story; it is merely winking at the audience. And such a reveal has never been more meaningless than when Christoph Waltz whispers to James Bond that he has changed his name to Blofeld, which was his last name on his mother’s side – or something. It doesn’t matter to Bond, and it doesn’t matter to any casual Bond fan, since Blofeld hasn’t been in a film since the off-brand Never Say Never Again.
At other points, the text undercuts what could be meaningful subtext in more crucial ways. Spectre casts Léa Seydoux’s character, Madeleine Swann, as an echo of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale. The film makes the argument that Swann is the woman who James Bond ought to settle down with – a crucial element in his redemptive journey. Yet Swann’s role as the perfect Bond girl is too transparent; she never takes on a life of her own, as Lynd did, and Seydoux’s pairing with Craig has none of the chemistry of his pairing with Green.Not pictured: Meaningful romance subplot.
Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly has propounded what strikes me as a rather silly off-text theory, arguing that the last 30 minutes of Spectre are a hallucinatory dream sequence experienced by Bond as he dies in Blofeld’s torture device. While the film may not support this reading, I prefer it in some ways – even if Bond is not literally dying or hallucinating, the final act of the film takes on a quality of dreamlike wish fulfillment as a sensible narrative gives way to overt theme exploration, culminating in a climactic moment in which Bond, who Swann has been pushing towards non-violence throughout the film, chooses not to kill his nemesis. This choice only works on an allegorical level, as a resolution of Bond’s internal conflict, a metaphorical gesture that the old Bond has passed away. The moment is undercut by the fact that it makes no sense in any other way; narratively, it serves no purpose to spare Blofeld’s life, and ethically, one could make a strong case that Bond should kill Blofeld. All this results in the film’s ending – which features Bond driving away into the sunset with Swann after apparently turning in his license to kill – feeling inescapably hollow.Pictured: A meaningful romantic subplot handled with tact and poignance in, of all things, a Mission: Impossible movie. Go watch it.
Ultimately, all of Spectre’s genuinely interesting ideas are so obfuscated and muddled by half-baked execution that the end result is both supremely forgettable and actively frustrating. This summer’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation bears many distracting resemblances to Spectre, which only serves to throw the latter’s flaws into sharper relief. Most crucially, Rogue Nation was built on the romance between Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, which is infinitely more successful than that between James Bond and Madeleine Swann. I’ve enjoyed all three of Craig’s outings as 007 to date (yes, even Quantum of Solace), but at this point, I can’t imagine a follow-up to Spectre that would be satisfying. Perhaps it’s time for the franchise to be reinvented once again. Let Daniel Craig’s James Bond rest in peace.
P.S. Hoyte Van Hoytema contributes a few striking images, but after an impressive but cold opening shot Spectre almost entirely lacks the aesthetic flair that so elevated Skyfall – and the cast is underused across the board.