November 9, 2015 Leave a comment
Posthumously ordered to Mexico by the previous M (Judi Dench) to kill Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), James Bond (Daniel Craig) uncovers a secret organisation that connects Quantum and the deceased cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). He infiltrates a meeting of SPECTRE in Rome, following a tip-off from Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), where he is introduced to the group’s leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) is dispatched to take care of Bond, stalking him all the way to Austria — to the workplace of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who 007 has promised to protect in exchange for Oberhauser’s location. With Bond AWOL, and both Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) suspected of aiding and abetting his illicit investigations, M (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself in conflict with C (Andrew Scott), who wants to disband the 00 programme as part of a controversial reform of the secret service that will see MI5 and MI6 merged to form a Joint Intelligence Service.
The James Bond film series is a mess, and always has been. Spanning over fifty years and twenty-four movies it has seen the lead role re-cast, the creative team replaced, and the narrative revised so often that James Bond now exists more as an icon than a character. It is this iconography that holds the series together, so that a Bond movie is as identifiable for containing a Bond girl and a Bond villain as it is for featuring Bond himself – heck, the main character has to introduce himself at the outset of every movie just so that the audience knows who is on this particular occasion supposed to be playing him. This formula has produced a number of memorable adventures, but the repetitiveness has made it predictable and over time this has rendered it rote. There is no character development, no narrative progression, no end in sight, just an apparently endless succession of explosions and innuendo that can sometimes stimulate but can rarely satisfy.
It is for this reason that Sam Mendes’ Skyfall — EON’s twenty-third production — was such a success, both critically and commercially. Tasked with celebrating fifty years of Bond, Mendes was really the first director to sit down and think about who the character is or where the series might be going. Even the fact that he was ostensibly operating in a rebooted timeline barely two films old couldn’t stop him from producing the most engaging and comprehensive Bond movie in decades — one that was both emotionally resonant and culturally significant. Skyfall simultaneously operated both within and outwith the series’ established continuity, referencing previous adventures while reinstating fan favourite characters who were nevertheless unknown to Bond. This allowed Mendes to comment on or even slyly mock established tropes while also hitting all of the usual marks. It was at once a standalone adventure and a distillation of everything the series stood for; in many ways it was the definitive Bond movie, and may either have been used to bring one of cinemas longest running sagas to a triumphant conclusion or stand it in good stead to see out the rest of the century.
Obviously, there was little chance that Sony was going to retire one of its most celebrated and lucrative tentpoles, and the existence of SPECTRE shows that of the two options it was going to go with the latter. To the film’s credit, it approaches the idea that James Bond has to adapt to survive head on: Andrew Scott’s character explicitly questions the relevance and validity of the 00 programme in the 21st Century, and spearheads a Joint Intelligence Programme that favours surveillance over espionage. Unfortunately, however, it stops at lip-service, and rather than reach for new horizons the film — as its name suggests — resurrects an organisation that hasn’t been seen onscreen since 1971 to concern itself with instead. Mendes, who after much convincing agreed to return for SPECTRE, is clearly aware of his film’s shortcomings, but having killed M off at the end of Skyfall he is no longer able to refocus attention away from narrative inconsistencies and onto the characters. He overcompensates, contriving to retcon a shared history between Bond and his latest antagonist, but it is neither as convincing or as compelling as the relationship he once had with M. Realistically speaking SPECTRE may only be as incomprehensible as half the other films in the series (it’s certainly as stylish), but after Skyfall it feels all the more inconsequential.
In an age of shared universes and multimedia storytelling, Bond really is beginning to show his age. Like Skyfall, SPECTRE may continue to mirror and directly reference past events (though a fight on a train and a video tape labelled Vespa barely registers as fan-service at a time where Marvel is cross-pollinating between sub-franchises and Fox is commissioning films with the express intention of reinstating some semblance of continuity) but it doesn’t have the same focus or sense of purpose as its predecessor — it confuses matters when it should be clarifying them. Rather than use Skyfall as a jumping off point for new adventures or dynamics, SPECTRE feels more like an epilogue, an after-party, or perhaps just a hangover. The franchise hasn’t been renewed, it’s outstayed its welcome. The suitably stand-out Day of the Dead sequence might have been more than a prelude; it may have been a premonition.