The James Bond movies have always had a backbone formed in nostalgia. In recent years, the Sam Mendes entries (Skyfall and Spectre) have had a tendency to use the past to propel the future. But, the past is something to learn from and not forcibly replicate, and while Spectre has every intention to be something fresh and progressive (in terms of Bond’s arc), it turns against itself and becomes a lesson in a misunderstanding of history and why this can become a great, and subtle, poison for a franchise.
In the latest entry in the series, we find James Bond (Daniel Craig) at the same crossroads as he was before — a dying breed in a world moving full speed in the other direction — and this leaves him secluded from the politics of the spy world. This includes a shift to a 007-less world by C (Andrew Scott), who is doing his best to push Bond, M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and Q (Ben Whishaw) out of the field in favor of a more data-driven approach to spying.
This slim Snowden-era subplot fizzes out early, until reappearing at the end, in favor of a more direct plot about Bond searching through his past in order to create a future for himself. Skyfall was exceptional for taking this almost faceless being (in James Bond) and bringing a humanity to him that we hadn’t see before and Spectre misguidedly does this again.
It is easy to read between the lines with a series that has been attempting to re-invent itself since Craig first took over the role in Casino Royale and truly found new ground with its last entry, thanks in part to the direction of Mendes. This isn’t the case for Spectre, which seems to be the hand-me-down brother of Mendes’ previous Bond movie, electing to re-create action sequence after action sequence that includes spitting images from its predecessor, a score that feels copy and pasted from the same movie, and a story so obsessed with the past that it is hard to differentiate the previous from the current.
This is not only disappointing from a James Bond point (not nearly as lazy as Quantum of Solace repeats but close), but as a blockbuster. In a genre where we need to demand more intuitiveness and creative passion, all of that was drained in favor of a has-been act. It is indicative on us as the audience that we will accept this blatant sloppiness because without an outcry against it, or even an acknowledgement of how poor these choices are, studios will continue to make this call and our movie spectacles will suffer for it.
Because of this, Spectre puts us full steam into the web that has allegedly been tying the Craig films together — starting with Casino Royale and ending here — with Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) at the head of it. In probably the most obvious recent reveal ever (aside from maybe Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Into Darkness), the re-invention of the classic Bond baddie helped to tie the past with the present and Waltz does enough with the role, but no more or less. It is a villain dictated by our own pre-conceptions rather than an actual fully fledged person.
And that becomes the case for most of Spectre. For all of the innovation that director Sam Mendes brought to Skyfall, he repeats himself in Spectre. The journey to the secluded island becomes a trek to a state-of-the-art facility run by Blofeld, the climactic struggle between Bond and Silva at the Skyfall mansion becomes a True Detective-esque maze through the ruins of the MI6 building, and the earlier train fight sequence that feels eerily akin to the claustrophobic Shanghai assassin battle, even down to the close-range hand to hand combat.
Aside from the opening sequence in Mexico City, which felt as fresh as it possibly could with Thomas Newman placing the same nuances and sway of the Skyfall opening score to the action, Spectre felt worn and tired. It was apparent in Craig’s features as he went through the motions once again. There is a clear tiredness in his movements.
While never being bad, Craig seemed worn with the role in this entry, especially since it never progressed his character and even betrayed what his Bond had been since his first movie. As the movie comes to a close and he holds a gun to the head of Blofeld, he realizes that life with Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) is more important than this job and walks away. Craig’s Bond may be the most interesting iteration due to his tortured past and the loss that he has dealt with over the course of four movies.
But, it seems like a betrayal to have him walk away into the sunset — almost like Chaplin at the end of Modern Times — when his character has developed a separation from this comfort. Not to say he can never be happy, but this move is something more in line with Connery or Moore, not Craig. His Bond has a reason to leave people at the end of the film, and while it is still scummy, there is a sense of logic behind it.
Spectre is never bad, but it is disappointing. For all the forward movements that Skyfall brought, this one begs the question of whether Bond is truly tapped out in this new blockbuster world. It is a movie that wants to ride the line between Skyfall‘s visual flair and character-driven plot, and a more traditional brutish tale. That line isn’t managed well, and we are left with shredded pieces of a franchise with no earthly idea what the next step is.