Roundtable: James Bond 007: Spectre (2015)

Spoiler warning: we make no efforts to conceal plot developments in this roundtable.

Anders: Whether we like it or not, films aren’t received in a vacuum. The most recent entry in the James Bond 007 franchise, Spectre, cannot help but be evaluated in comparison with both the films in the series that have come before but also the other action and spy films that have been released this year. And it has been quite a year for the spy film. We had the spy-satire of Kingsmen: The Secret Service, which was obviously indebted to both the Bond films and other British secret agent series such as The Avengers; Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham did the spy-comedy thing in Paul Feig’s Spy this summer; Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation was the latest successful entry in that franchise, and considered by some to be one of the best in the series; The Man from U.N.C.L.E. brought Ian Fleming’s “other” spy creation, Napoleon Solo, to the big screen in another 60s spy romp; and even Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies looked at real-life Cold War spy games and politics.

However, Spectre is likely to be the biggest of any of these films. Not only is the James Bond series the longest running franchise in cinema history, but following Daniel Craig’s turns in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace,and Skyfall (the biggest domestic box office earners in the series), it has also gained a sense of prestige and grandeur that these other films (barring Spielberg), and franchises like Mission: Impossible, don’t have. Spectre has been long anticipated. It feels like an event on the level of a Star Wars or Marvel Universe film, and is likely to garner similar box office draw. With that kind of attention comes all kinds of expectations and hopes that are pinned on the film. Can it possibly satisfy? How satisfied were you both?

Aren: First off, I don’t think there was any way for Spectre to top or even match Skyfall. I think Skyfall is the best film in the series and to expect the sequel to top that achievement is just unreasonable.

Anton: Wasn’t Skyfall your top film of 2012, Aren?

Aren: Yeah, it topped my 2012 Top 10 list. I love it.

With the resounding success of Skyfall, I unfortunately think that Spectre is going to disappoint some people expecting Skyfall 2.0. We’ve already seen this with the immediate critical reaction to the film. It’s easy to think that Bond has always been beloved commercially and critically based off how both Casino Royale and Skyfall were received, but critics have rarely been kind to the Bond franchise. At most, they see Bond films as passable entertainment: big budget spectacles whose shallow thrills make up for their lack of intelligence. I think we’ve done a good job in our retrospective of disavowing that notion, pointing out that the Bond films are far more thematically rich and formally interesting than most popcorn entertainment, but not everyone is going to agree.

Anton: Exactly. Time magazine called Bond a “blithering bounder” in Dr. No upon its initial release.

So if you loved Skyfall so much, Aren, what’s your reaction to Spectre?

Aren: I was very satisfied with Spectre. I wasn’t expecting another film as successful as Skyfall, nor did I want the film to even attempt a similar definitive statement regarding the entire franchise. I wanted a return to the formula built upon the rich characterizations and thematics that we’ve gotten used to with the Craig films. With Spectre, I think that’s basically what we got. It’s not top-tier Bond, but I’m already itching to see the film again.

Anton: I’m probably the least admiring of the film of the three of us, but I still think it is a good second-tier Bond film. What I mean by that is that Spectre is entertaining, handsomely produced, and largely well-executed, but it doesn’t add anything of great significance to the series’ themes or characters, nor does it contain much that will be long remembered within the context of the franchise. It’s not another Skyfall or Casino Royale.

But, as I argued in my Casino Royale review, and as Aren argued in his Skyfall review, Casino Royale and Skyfall work because they are exceptions. I didn’t want Spectre to be Skyfall Part 2. I was hoping for just another good Bond film, and so I was pretty pleased with it. I’m happy to think of Spectre as a decent entry in both the Craig era and the greater series.

However, I do think to some extent that the film tries to have it both ways—to be both a more serious James Bond film and a more fun, outlandish Bond film—and it does so, in my opinion, to its own detriment. I didn’t need more about Bond’s childhood, background which actually adds little to the character. The film is reaching for more significance than it holds, and is not content to be just a good time.

Spectre as a return to formula.

Anton: In any case, Spectre is a bit more of a run-of-the-mill Bond film. As the title indicates, the secret evil organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E., from the Connery years, is back, which means Spectre is retreading earlier ground. In spite of such indications, however, it seems this aspect of the film, this retreading, has generated some irritation in audiences. I’m not sure what people were expecting. Looking back now, how could the villain not have been Blofeld?

Anders:Spectre certainly is a return to expected formulas from the series. After Casino Royale stripped the character and the series down to basics—no gadgets, no Moneypenny, no Q—slowly, with Skyfall and, even more so, with Spectre, the series has re-embraced its roots. Part of this is the sorting out of the legal issues surrounding the use of the SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. Mendes has been freed to play in the broader sandbox of the James Bond canon, and he does so with glee here. We get lots of references thrown in this film, from the return of Blofeld’s white cat and secret bases to battles on trains and in the snow. While Skyfall was conscious of the series’ past, Spectre embraces the almost meta-textual knowingness of the pre-Casino Royale films.

Aren: Yes! It’s also openly playful about the admittedly strange continuity of the Bond franchise. For instance, it again returns to Bond’s fascination with the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger. It even has Q say, “When I told you to return it in one piece, 007, I didn’t mean a piece.” However, we never see Q issue the DB5 to Bond in Skyfall, so it’s almost like Q is referencing Desmond Llewelyn’s iteration of the character and his warning to Connery’s Bond about keeping the car in good shape.

Anders: While I can imagine some people were hoping for something different, it all feels pretty natural to me. Spectre is a film that carries the series forward while looking to the past for inspiration. It builds on the foundation that was laid in Skyfall, as far as being a return to many of the tropes and trappings of the series at the same time that it brings the Craig films full circle, tying everything together. That perhaps may be one of the things that some may not like—I have seen people refer to this as a symptom of the “shrinking universe syndrome” that affects many franchises these days—but in my view, it is successful in giving Bond a full character arc from Casino Royale through Spectre.

Anton: There are allusions to earlier Bond films throughout Spectre, and, for the most part, I think the winks and nods works well. You don’t have to know From Russia with Love to appreciate the train sequence, for instance.

On the other hand, the narrative connections are a bit reaching. I don’t think they needed to link every previous Craig villain back to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. You can tell they never planned it this way from the get-go with Casino Royale.

Anders: If there is one thing that slightly bugs me, it is the coyness through which the production and marketing approached the whole Christoph Waltz as Ernst Stavro Blofeld thing by insisting that he was Franz Oberhauser, a name connected to the Fleming story, “Octopussy.” While the film explains the name change, and not as a “John Harrison”-style simple alias, a part of me wonders why the whole deception was even necessary? It’s like they want to say, “We’re not retreading old ground,” but “Oh, wait! We are! Gotcha!” Needless convolution, I say.

Aren: I’m not sure here. I think at this point in time, it’s very hard to keep anything secret about a particular plot point unless the film’s cast and crew straight-up lie to reporters about the plot, as Christoph Waltz did here. I don’t think such secrecy is necessary, but, in this case, the subterfuge didn’t bother me. I think this is largely dependent on how the reveal is actually treated in the final film. It’s not a big “Holy shit!” moment. Compared to John Harrison’s reveal as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s noticeably businesslike. Bond calls Blofeld Franz Oberhauser, and Blofeld corrects him and reveals his new name. The music doesn’t boom and the film doesn’t stop for the audience to freak out over the fact. It holds it just long enough for it to register with the viewers who are aware of the name’s significance, but it doesn’t make it the big beat of that particular scene.

Casual viewers who are only passingly familiar with the Bond series will not know who Ernst Stavro Blofeld is, or even if they recognize the name, they won’t really react to it as something significant. My fiancée is in this camp. She took the name reveal at face value and moved on. She says it did nothing to enhance or damage her experience of the film. For Bond fans, the name reveal becomes something more delicate, as it can bother certain fans for returning to a familiar character well, or excite them for bringing back the biggest villain of the franchise. I’m of a different mind about all this all. Before the film’s release, I didn’t really care whether Oberhauser would turn out to be Blofeld, and now that I’ve seen the film and know that he does, that reveal does little to change my assessment. It makes me feel a small tinge of nostalgia for the classic Bond films and feel glad that Waltz gives a better performance as the character than Donald Pleasence and Charles Gray did. But then I move on. It’s a new film and a new plot.

As I said to Anton after the screening, even if Waltz’s character were not named Ernst Stavro Blofeld, he’d still be the leader of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and, in essence, he would be Blofeld in action but not name. Spectre just gives him the name too, and plays the moment where Waltz finally reveals it as a little treat for Bond fans. No one else cares, and the moment isn’t overemphasized.

Anders: Yes, I mostly agree with you. But my point being, if it isn’t a big deal to non-initiates, then who cares? As you say, the reveal of Waltz as playing Blofeld matters little to the actual film. In fact, that might be my issue with the whole thing. That particular plot point doesn’t really matter at all, especially the way it makes the childhood connection between the two characters. I’m not outraged that they made that move; it makes sense why they wanted to raise the stakes, even if it moves us into Star Wars and superhero franchise territory, with their incredible shrinking universes. The problem is that they don’t really do anything with that idea of Blofeld as Bond’s dark brother. The point is almost irrelevant, thematically and plot-wise. It’s just kind of an “oh, that’s interesting”-moment.

Aren: Isn’t that so much of what motivates stuff in movies, especially the Bond films? Cool stunts. Cool cars. Anything that registers a “Cool!” from the audience is fair game.

Anton: They just should’ve said from the start that Waltz was Blofeld. I think it betrays some unease about retreading ground on the filmmakers and producers’ part. But, as I said, it’s there in the title, so why not just own it. Casino Royale restarted the chronology, and they have continually re-introduced various characters and elements over the past three films, so why hide your intentions to reintroduce a major villain? Especially when it’s also not a very good surprise.

Also, the big wink for the audience is when Bond sees the big white cat. People in the audience were chuckling and whispering then.

Anders: All this said, I don’t want to get bogged down in discussing that one point, even though it seems to be the major point of contention among fans. There’s stuff in this film that’s fantastic. I loved the opening. The long tracking-shot of Bond in his Day of the Dead costume, leading out across the Mexico City rooftops is great. And the action on the helicopter is stellar. Frenetic, but never confusing, except as much as being in a swooping, out of control helicopter would be. It’s got a subtle reference to Live and Let Die, but still feels like its own set piece. It’s stand-alone enough of an opening, but drives some of the later action. Also, the death and resurrection theme of the Craig films is continued through the literal celebrations and the film as whole—”spectres” of the past.

Anton: I agree about the pre-credits sequence. One of the highlights of the film. I also really enjoyed the car chase through Rome. They didn’t need the opening title, though: “the dead . . .  are alive.” Talk about overstating your themes and storyline.

Spectre as a continuation of Craig-era themes and character development.

Anton: On the whole, I’m more satisfied with the reintroduction of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld than some of the unnecessary revisiting of thematic ground and characterization from previous Craig films.

Anders: Do you feel that the film successfully ties up the seemingly aborted storyline of Quantum of Solace, by making Quantum just another front for S.P.E.C.T.R.E.? It seems a little bit like retconning (I don’t think that was the original intention for the new organization in Quantum of Solace), but this seems to be for the best. It allows that film to take its place in this arc, but I think it does leave Quantum as the least essential of the Craig films.

Aren: It definitely does. Notice that when Blofeld turns the former MI6 headquarters into a hall of mirrors (in reference to The Man with the Golden Gun; it even has Bond shoot a reflection of Blofeld, just as he did Scaramanga in that film) there are pictures of Silva and Le Chiffre, even Mr. White, but not Dominic Greene. The film references Quantum of Solace and I think does a tidy job of sweeping any confusion about the organization of Quantum under the rug, but it doesn’t overemphasize that film’s importance by making Quantum the seeds of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. It’s just another component.

Anton: But they mention Greene as being an agent of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. alongside Le Chiffre and Silva. I don’t think Spectre successfully ties up the storyline of Quantum of Solace at all.

Aren: They mention it, but don’t belabour it. Did you actually want a five minute scene explaining Quantum in detail? I don’t think the average viewer cares about Quantum of Solace at all, so Spectre relegates it to the periphery.

Anton: It’s just an inelegant stitching together of the films.

I’ve actually always harbored a bit of annoyance that Sam Mendes basically messed up the new timeline with Skyfall, jumping Bond forward to being a veteran agent, while at same time trying to restart certain older elements. I think Mendes’ films are a bit confused about whether the Craig era is to be defined as a Batman Begins reboot and return to origins, or a Dark Knight Returns-style reevaluation and return of an old character. We can argue about this in our Daniel Craig Roundtable though.

Spectre exploring Bond as superhero.

Anton: I think with Spectre, they try too hard to reference the previous three films and build a Marvel-like continuity between all four Craig films, but universe building has never been a strong suit of the Bond franchise, or even a real interest in the past. Are they feeling the pressure that all franchise’s seem to be experiencing now, in the wake of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Anders: We have talked in some of our reviews about how the Bond films are sometimes made in reaction to the prevailing trends of the times—the sci-fi trappings of Moonraker, the 80s action filmmaking of Licence to Kill, the shaky-cam of Quantum of Solace. Here Bond’s origin story is fleshed out, he is given a mysterious connection from his past in the main villain, and he does more death defying stunts than he has yet in the Craig films. Even the ending felt a little bit like the climax of one of the Marvel or Batman films, even if it’s not on quite as massive a scale.

Aren: Yeah, I felt this connection too. Notice even how the final scene between Bond and Blofeld has Bond choosing between killing or sparing his enemy’s life. It’s shot very similarly to the scene in The Dark Knight where Batman is going ram the Joker with the Bat-pod, but then swerves away at the last second, refusing to kill him.

Anton: Yes, and visually there are similarities, with the wreckage on a long street.

What do you mean, though, by death defying stunts? Which in particular? And how are they different than in Casino Royale, Quantum, or Skyfall?

Aren: Bond doesn’t fight a villain in a helicopter as it does barrel rolls above a crowd of thousands in Casino Royale or Skyfall. He also doesn’t fly a plane through trees and buildings on a snowy mountainside, knocking off its wings in the process, in pursuit of some enemy vehicles. Spectre ups the scale of almost every action scene. It’s less grounded than the action in Casino Royale and Skyfall.

Anton: Okay, so they’re pushing the action more into the realm of fantasy.

Great supporting cast, solid action.

Anders: One of the things I relished in this film was the fantastic supporting cast. While in the lead up to the film I was most focused on the wonderful, frequent Tarantino-collaborator Christoph Waltz playing the film’s villain (a role he was seemingly born to play with his playful menace and German accent), but it turns out that the slight under-utilization of him is one of my few disappointments with the film.

Aren: He’s a character who haunts the shadows more than anything else. Blofeld’s psychological effect on Bond is more important than any physical action Blofeld actually takes. I like that his presence rattles Bond, that after Bond sneaks into the meeting in Rome and recognizes the man he used to know as Franz Oberhauser, he’s obsessed with him. I do enjoy Waltz, even if he’s underplaying things compared to his turns in his Tarantino films. Still, if he had just given another performance similar to Hans Landa, it would’ve been lazy and frankly kind of insulting. I don’t need a Bond villain as a Tarantino character. As well, I think if they’d had him ham it up more, he would’ve become too similar to Bardem’s performance as Silva, and it would’ve been interpreted as retracing old steps.

Anders: On the other hand Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann—in a cute little intertextual reference to Proust’s memory-triggering “madeleine” in Swann’s Way—is one of the series’ best Bond girls in my estimation. Like perhaps only Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd (one of the “spectres” still haunting Bond in this film) and Diana Rigg’s Tracy Bond, Dr. Swann is given a complete character arc and depth. Sure, she’s gorgeous, but she’s also a real character with desires, traits, and agency of her own. I joked with my friend at the movie that one of the keys to a good Bond girl is that she must have made her name in a sexually explicit European prestige pic: in the case of Seydoux, the Palme d’Or winner, Blue Is the Warmest Color, in Eva Green’s case, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. Of course, Seydoux has also appeared in Mission: Impossible —Ghost Protocol, so she’s no stranger to the spy game.

Anton: Huh, I don’t recall her in that film.

Aren: Madeleine Swann is probably the best part of the movie for me. She’s a great Bond girl—instantly one of the best. I’d already place her near the top of my Bond girl pantheon. She’s so compelling because she’s a fully formed character with her own motivations and development and because there are real emotional stakes that drive her forward. It also helps that Léa Seydoux is a very good actress. She’s gorgeous and a sex symbol, but she’s also given real character development. I also like that she’s not a stereotypical “strong female character.” She knows her way around a gun, but she’s not just a male character who’s been gender flipped. I think it sums her up that when she’s shooting at Mr. Hinx, she’s sporting an elaborate gown.

Anton: I don’t know. I think she’s a good Bond girl, but I was wildly engaged by the character or enamoured with their relationship. I thought she was a standard Bond girl in many respects, just a really well-crafted one, written with some depth, and given something to actually do and think.

Aren: She’s still a supporting character. I’m not saying she’s going Furiosa or something here. But the film treats her as a real character, with emotional development, stakes, and actual motivations. She’s not just window dressing or a glorified vehicle for plot development.

Anton: You’re right in that they’ve made a Bond girl who both inhabits the familiar conventions of the role, while also making her essential to the film, not just a female object to be simply used, by both Bond and the film.

Anders: Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx makes for a great physical menace to Bond, in contrast to Blofeld’s more psychological games.

Anton: Yup, textbook Bond (and action films more generally). Brainy, talky archvillain, plus physically menacing, mostly silent henchman.

Anders: Hinx and Bond have a great car chase in Rome and their showdown on the train in the desert, with its call-backs to the Sean Connery-Robert Shaw fight in From Russia With Love, is an action highlight. Hinx walks a fine line between the outrageous henchmen from the earlier films, like Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me, and the sheer menace that a film like this needs for suspense.

Anton: The train scene is certainly a nod to FRWL, but it’s also in the long line of fight scenes in which Bond smashes a confined space to pieces in a brawl with a physically menacing baddy. People who complain about the reference being overstated maybe don’t notice how many Bond films repeat this motif. And I like that they’ve made it a frequent motif in the Craig era, since he’s certainly more of a brawler than most prior Bonds.

Anders: Finally, I really liked Ralph Fiennes as M. After Judi Dench, he’s excellent in filling the role and given something to do in this installment as well. Though I must say, he’s starting to show his age, but it gives him a sense of authority. And Ben Whishaw’s Q is more fleshed out in this film, delivering some of the film’s funniest bits; he’s definitely made the character his own.

Anton: What I don’t like about having more M in the film is the slow move to make Bond more of a team player. In the final act in London, it was starting to feel like Mission: Impossible, with the whole crew driving around in car together.

Anders: Fair enough. But returning to Bond all of his supporting characters and trappings means making them significant, and on that front I also think Spectre is a success.

Anton: What do you readers think? Is Bond too much of a team player nowadays? Did you hate or love the reintroduction of Blofeld? Tell us in the comments below.

Spectre (2015, UK/USA)

Directed by Sam Mendes; written by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth, based on a story by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, based on the character by Ian Fleming; starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, with Monica Bellucci, and Ralph Fiennes.