“Spectre” Loses Itself in the Ghosts of Franchise Past

Spectre Sam Mendes Daniel Craig in Sam Mendes' "Spectre." (MGM)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. Since December sees the release of Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917, we’re looking back at the London theater director-turned-filmmaker’s eclectic works. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Sam Mendes’ 2012 Bond film Skyfall was a critical and financial success, so it’s no surprise that the world was eagerly anticipating his follow-up, 2015’s Spectre. Mendes initially declined to return for the follow up to Skyfall but changed his mind after seeing the script. Unfortunately, rather than the glorious return to form that many anticipated, Spectre is instead a grand collection of could-have-beens and wasted moments.

Spectre marked the first time in decades that the films would be able to use both the organization SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) itself and the greatest of all Bond’s nemeses: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Blofeld had been ignobly (and anonymously) killed off in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only after an injunction by writer Kevin McClory had kept the films from using either Blofeld or SPECTRE. The lawsuit was settled in 2013, opening the door for the return of the character and his gang, but Blofeld in 2015 was a tricky concept to return to the franchise. 

After 34 years out of the general audience’s consciousness, Bond had moved on from his archnemesis of old. Additionally, after being spoofed three times by Mike Meyers in the Austin Powers movies, it was always going to be a bit tricky to bring back the classic supervillain (and his adorable cat) in any sort of serious capacity. 

In Spectre, Bond (Daniel Craig) goes rogue once again to carry out a mission left to him posthumously by Judi Dench’s M: he must find and kill a man named Sciarra and attend his funeral. The new M (Ralph Fiennes) has little time for Bond’s shenanigans, with MI6 merging with MI5 and Max Denbigh/C (Andrew Scott) coming in as Director, complete with new technology and the intention to end the Double-0 program. 

Bond (as Bond does) brushes these concerns aside, and with the aid of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), travels to Rome for Sciarra’s funeral, learning from Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci) about the existence of the SPECTRE organization. After crashing (both in and out) of a SPECTRE meeting, Bond is pursued by henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) as he looks for former enemy Mr. White’s (Jesper Christensen) daughter, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) and for the whereabouts of the SPECTRE leader, whom Bond recognized as his former foster brother Franz Oberhauser, who now goes by the name of Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). 

Yes, Spectre decided to go that most soap opera of soap opera routes: making Bond and Blofeld secret foster brothers. After all, I’m pretty sure it was illegal in the 2010s to have a hero and villain who weren’t clandestinely related. Rather than Blofeld hating Bond because he wants to do evil things and Bond keeps stopping him, Blofeld has categorically destroyed his life over the course of the past three movies because… Blofeld’s dad sort-of adopted Bond after his parents died? Blofeld calls Bond a “cuckoo” several times, even claiming that his usurping of the son role is what justified Blofeld’s murder of his father, all of which is a little much traumatic familial backstory for a spy lark. 

At what point is an homage just a rehash? 

Skyfall put paid to the recurring theory that James Bond was merely a cover identity for a variety of 007s. But having an extended backstory complete with evil brother is a step too far, especially during a Waltz speech wherein he gleefully takes credit for all of the events of the previous three films of Craig’s tenure, particularly the deaths of Vesper Lynd and M. 

Bond and Madeleine, now a couple, fight off Hinx and Blofeld (the latter at his secret hideout in the Sahara) and return to London to join up with M, Q, and Moneypenny to stop C and his cronies from launching an international surveillance program masterminded by Blofeld, for whom C secretly works. 

C’s true allegiances are meant to be a twist, but if that was the plan then the film’s biggest casting misstep is placing Andrew Scott in this role. Before becoming Fleabag’s Hot Priest, Scott was known primarily as Sherlock’s devious villain Moriarty, and he’s only a few jewel heists short of playing Moriarty here as well. He’s a bad guy?! You don’t say! 

Like Skyfall before it, Spectre is a gorgeous movie, beginning with a striking sequence at a Dia de los Muertos parade in Mexico City and ending with a nighttime building demolishment in London, with lush train sequences, a snowy mountain top health clinic, and a villain’s lair in the deep desert along the way. 

Hoyte van Hoytema, taking over cinematography reins from Roger Deakins, creates some stunning visuals, but there’s a lingering feeling that we’re seeing Bond’s Greatest Hits instead of anything truly germane to the story itself. Hey, remember the mountain clinic in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (more on that in a moment)? What if Bond goes back to the Alps? That train fight in From Russia With Love is something else; what if Bond fights on a train again? 

This same train sequence also mimics the early meeting between Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale, which is thematically appropriate for Bond as it relates to two of his great loves. But when taken with the rest of the movie, it’s just another copy of something we’ve already seen before — with Craig, no less.  

While Spectre works overtime to link itself to the previous Craig films, it owes a large debt to George Lazenby’s sole outing as James Bond in 1969, the aforementioned On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — also known as the one where Bond gets married and almost immediately thereafter widowed. 

Bond has gone into the end credits with no shortage of female companionship over the years. But he and Madeleine are meant to be the real deal, just like Bond and his wife Tracy, so much so that anyone familiar with the ending of OHMSS was likely watching from between their fingers as the happy couple drove away at the end. Happily for James, Madeleine makes it through Spectre, but the comparison is so close as to be frustrating. At what point is an homage just a rehash? 

All things considered, Spectre is still a strong Bond effort, but didn’t reach the critical and audience appeal of Skyfall before it. The Bond franchise thrives on its recurring characters (if not necessarily its continuity), and it’s a fine line to bring back familiar names and places without making the audience tired. 

Sam Mendes is the first director to have directed two back to back Bond films since John Glen, and in solidifying these two as “his” Bond films, tried too hard to tie them rigidly to decades’ worth of Bond lore. Even the opening credits sequence, where images of dead characters from the last three movies accompany Sam Smith’s falsetto caterwauling, all but scream at the audience, “do you remember this??“. The Mendes Bonds are beautiful, thrilling, funny, and sad. But Spectre takes on too much for ultimately too little return. 

Spectre Trailer:

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