‘SPECTRE’ Review | Lower Your Ex-SPECTRE-tations

[The following review contains some spoilers, most of which are kept vague or were already revealed in the trailers, but all of which were necessary to discuss the movie properly.]

Two dozen films later, I think it’s time to admit that James Bond has brainwashed us. We expect the same crap film after film and if we don’t get it we get mad. It doesn’t even matter if it’s not good crap anymore. It just matters that it’s the same. 

Bond always begins with a POV shot from the inside of a gun nozzle, as if that ever made sense, and proceeds to dazzle us with hallucinogenic imagery of women in various states of sensual yet rarely erotic poses, as if giving us a peek into our hero’s hollow, superficial, sexist psyche. Then the story proceeds apace, riddling the audience with plot hole after plot hole, distracting us with stunts and set pieces and – if we’re lucky – cackling maniacs bent on world domination. It’s kind of fun but do we really need dozens of these with only minor variations between them?

The plot of a typical James Bond movie (with notable exceptions) is complicated enough that it hides the fact that the characters (with notable exceptions) have no emotional depth to them. We are rarely meant to feel something meaningful when we watch a James Bond movie, and when we do that one usually becomes a classic (Casino Royale, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). We are instead supposed to stare slack jawed at high-priced product placement and GQ masculinity and all the attractive women who mostly exist to seduce or be seduced, or threaten or validate that GQ masculinity.

Related: Ranked | All of the James Bond Theme Songs

I’ve asked a lot of people and most of them couldn’t remember the plot to an average James Bond movie if you put a gun to their head. (Maybe it was a mistake to test out the gun part.) It just seems as though the most memorable aspects of a typical Bond film are the stunts, the styles, the locations, the gadgets and sometimes the villains. I suspect this is why Casino Royale was such a rousing success. That film had all the superficial glamour you could ask for but you could also tell what the hell was going on, and not just because Giancarlo Giannini interrupted every two minutes to explain the rules of poker. And at the end, as the story of Bond’s true love tragically concluded, you felt something more powerful than “I wish I could afford a cooler car.”

So SPECTRE may have misfired a bit when it doubled down on plot, deciding that all of the previous Daniel Craig movies in the James Bond cycle were leading to something terribly important and suggesting that perhaps we all should have been paying closer attention. But not to Quantum of Solace, of course. SPECTRE only brings up Quantum of Solace when it absolutely has to and ignores it the rest of the time, which to be fair is how the rest of the world treats Quantum of Solace, but I digress.

The plot to SPECTRE kicks off when James Bond receives a post mortem mission from M, played by once again Dame Judi Dench, who literally phones in her fifteen second cameo over Skype. The mission sends him to multiple countries in pursuit of a mysterious organization called SPECTRE, which was responsible for every crime committed in the first three Daniel Craig movies, and which also keeps a whole separate Quantum organization around because… of reasons? Tax reasons? Important evil tax reasons? No one ever explains it.

The problem with the whole SPECTRE idea – the movie and the organization, if you think about it – is that it’s an afterthought. It’s one thing to make a plan come together and another thing to do a bunch of random stuff and then claim you had a plan after the fact. SPECTRE, the organization, doesn’t even have a goal to speak of other than giving Bond something to fight against. They’re consolidating global surveillance but they never explain what they intend to do with it. And a last minute attempt to retcon a backstory between Bond and the villain Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, doing his schtick) is a feeble ploy to add emotional context where there is none. It’s like that scene in Spaceballs where Dark Helmet tells Lone Star “I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate” but we’re actually supposed to take it seriously.

Actually we’re supposed to take the whole damned movie seriously. After an affable first act, filled with action and familiar characters interacting in a familial way, SPECTRE sets about its task of being the most serious and important James Bond ever. Sam Mendes ups the style ante from Skyfall until the whole film plays like a pompous cologne commercial, artsy as hell but oblivious to the fact that it only makes sense as a shallow celebration of the male self-image. But whereas that image used to be a jet-setting heroic playboy, now it’s a tortured sexy soul who only cares about his personal baggage.

There is action in SPECTRE, some of it rather cool, but the majority of the most impressive stunts play out with grim determination. What should be a highlight of the film – a nifty sequence in which Bond crashes a plane down a mountain to chase a convoy of jeeps – is so desaturated and one-note that you half expect Bond to emerge from the rubble depressed. So it comes as no surprise when he more-or-less actually does.

But worse than that, the best parts of SPECTRE all turn out to be scenes that evoke earlier, better moments from James Bond’s past adventures, in an apparent attempt to echo the classic films while also adding angsty drama. Knockdown fights on trains (From Russia With Love), giant doom bases (You Only Live Twice), sexy ski resorts (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and even the aforementioned mountain chase (For Your Eyes Only) serve as depressing reminders that, after more than five decades, there are only so many places left for James Bond to go, and one of them was down Nostalgia Boulevard.

I’ll give SPECTRE this much: if James Bond’s story were to end here, it’s as good a place as any. There’s a distinct sense that Bond himself (and not just Daniel Craig) is tired of this repetitive, soul-crushing crap and ready to move on. I for one say he’s earned the respite. Like the franchise itself once argued: “Live and let die.”

Photos: Sony Pictures

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.

The History of SPECTRE