It is hard to recreate greatness, especially in the movie business.
This is a lesson that the James Bond franchise should know well; repeatedly the franchise has created a genuinely good movie and followed it up with garbage. Even the most recent Bond (Daniel Craig) has seen greatness (Casino Royale) followed by failure (Quantum). When you do something very well, it is hard to replicate what made the movie entertaining and enjoyable if you try to follow the same path.
Thus we have Spectre, what is undoubtedly Daniel Craig and Sam Mendes’ last contributions to the venerable Bond franchise. I say this not because they deserve to be fired; rather, it is the way the movie is made that heavily implies throughout that this is a sending-off for the two who created what, arguably, is the most artistic 007 film in Skyfall.
The plot is readily available and, to avoid spoilers, I do not want to delve too deeply into details. Instead, I want to focus on where this movie is great and where it falls short.
As movie-makers like J.J. Abrams have shown, the first 10 minutes of an action movie are critical – if you can blow away an audience from the start, conceivably you can cover up other flaws later in the movie. Spectre blows all of its creative energy in its first scene, a beautifully shot and created sequence showing Bond in the middle of a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City. It is the quintessential Bond opening sequence but done with such energy, eye for detail, and mix of seriousness and fun that it is easily the best (serious) opening sequence in a Bond movie ever. We then move into the famous title song credits sequence and, to their credit, the creative team did an excellent job crafting a credit sequence that makes a “meh” Sam Smith song fit perfectly. Save one very odd addition (and when you see it, you’ll know) the title sequence hit the nail on the head for what this movie should be – Daniel Craig 007 needing to confront his demons and the consequences of his actions from his movies.
At this point, we are set-up for a Skyfall-esque romp but it is exactly at this point that the movie begins to fall. What we get is a mish-mash of attempts to be everything to every type of Bond fan. Do you miss the over-the-top henchmen? They’ve got that, but instead of being tongue-in-cheek like Oddjob the henchman in this movie is a little too serious. Do you want the super-villain with a slightly too over-the-top plan? They’ve got that, and – this is not a spoiler since the trailer says it repeatedly – Christoph Waltz tries to emulate the baddest villains of the past. The movie tries to simultaneously pay homage to the past while still retaining the elements of the serious, edgy 007 that made Skyfall and Casino Royale so good.
The problem is you can’t do that, and when you try, you have a movie that’s too long, too stale, and too forgettable. Let’s start with Waltz, the most critical character in the movie. His nemesis <name redacted> is flat, wanting to be as evil genius as a Blofeld but without being as cheesy. The problem is what makes characters like Blofeld memorable is that they have an element of cheese, and without it you get a boring, undramatic bad guy. Dr. Evil is a great parody because he plays up that goofy element, but going the other way is not interesting, and Spectre wastes the acting talents of the wonderful Waltz.
In a similar way the movie tries to please everyone with the main Bond girl, played by Lea Seydoux. At times she is a strong feminist role model, but then quickly falls into the traditional Bond girl trope of years past. This movie lacks the strength to make Dr. Swann nuanced, as instead she comes off as forgettable and a drag on the plot. The movie would have been better emulating what it did with the wonderful Monica Bellucci, although her brilliance may simply had to do with her brief appearance.
Whether it is scenery (skiing!) or sayings (shaken not stirred returns), the movie wants to bring in the best of the old Bond films and marry it to the best of the new. In this way, Spectre is similar to another struggling English icon – Dr. Who. The TV show’s ratings are suffering in Britain, and critics are pointing their fingers in a number of different directions. One less obvious place, however, is that the writers and producers are trying too hard to force the square peg of Peter Capaldi into the round hole left behind by David Tennant and emulate what made him a great Doctor, instead of playing to Capaldi’s strengths.
Trying to be too much to too many people leads to a dull product, aimless and lacking, and this is the major sin of Spectre.