Bond 24: In RetroSPECT(RE)

The runaway success that was SkyFall, a film that became a darling to critics and box office alike, was always going to set its successor a tough task. Spectre fails as a follow-up to SkyFall, presented like the answer to a question no one asked.

This, the twenty-fourth instalment in the franchise, has gone on to achieve divisive reviews and a very respectable $880 million worldwide. It is a stunningly shot, thematically perfect film that delivers some of the most purely ‘Bond’ scenes the series has ever seen.

The opening sequence is close to being a perfect encapsulation of the series’ elements – effortless charm, a hint of sex, building tension, and a touch of brutality, all framed by far-flung and exotic locales.

As the longest film in the fifty-four year old series, it is perhaps unsurprising that the film’s problems become more significant the longer it goes. Everything is going very well until the torture scene – the point at which all the divergent elements of the film come together…and miss. It is here that Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) reveals his true identity – he is Ernst Stavro Blofeld!

Ernst Stavro Blofeld

Firstly, this name will mean very little to the average viewer and has had no build-up to mean anything.

Secondly, the moment Christoph Waltz was unveiled as the new Bond villain, everyone who knew their Bond history supposed him to be Blofeld.

Thirdly, Oberhauser claims to have adopted the name Blofeld from his ‘mother’s line’, so the question must be asked, what the hell is the significance of the names ‘Ernst’ and ‘Stavro’?

This revelation, coupled with the revelation that Blofeld and SPECTRE (a top-secret criminal organisation dating back to the novels) have been behind all the events in Bond’s life during the Daniel Craig films has the troubling side-effect of drawing everything in too tightly. It makes the world of Bond a much smaller one. The ties that bind all the events together as part of some great plot end up strangling the series, not enhancing it.

That Oberhauser would murder his own father in a fit of jealousy due to his adoption of the orphaned Bond is one thing; that he would then go on to become Bond’s polar opposite stretches coincidence beyond meaning.

This is a seismic shift in the series’ story that leaves very little unchanged. It would work better without the implausible and mishandled revelation of Blofeld/Oberhauser’s connection to Bond, or at least by not making Blofeld and Oberhauser the same man. The cliché of the brothers locked in mortal struggle is one that is many decades past its sell-by date.

The torture scene itself is one that is so confronting, so unsettling, that it almost doesn’t belong in a Bond film. How fitting the scene is in the series is up for debate, what is not for debate, however, is how badly the escape is done. After having a drill in his brain, supposedly subject to unimaginable agony, Bond escapes Blofeld’s lair in one of the least tense gunfights in film history. Bond appears to take a nearly leisurely stroll through the grounds, shooting men from long distance with single shots. He hardly bothers to dash for cover and drags the underused Madeleine Swan (Leah Seydoux) behind him. The ease of Bond’s escape after brain injury stretches disbelief to breaking point.

The scenes immediately preceding the torture are perfect Bond film scenes rich in metaphor and played to perfection by Waltz, Craig, and Seydoux. Waltz delivers a masterclass in perfectly-pitched villainy.

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The final act summarises the film perfectly. It’s well done, spectacularly directed, and perfectly acted. There’s just something inescapably wrong about it. Spectre has so many things to recommend it. It is nearly brilliant. It is nearly the perfect Bond film. But it’s not. Madelaine Swan is a very promising character who challenges Bond as no other character has. Bond respects her and her distaste for violence is strong enough to sway Bond away from a violent life. This is shown but never successfully explored. Bond’s line, ‘Out of bullets’, that sees him choose to spare a life and challenge himself to be a better man feels like a perfect denouement to a subplot that is never properly shown – only alluded to. Swan is not a part of Bond’s world and doesn’t want to be, so Bond changes himself to be with her. This is maturity and strength like Bond has never shown. It’s almost enough for Bond to live up to Swan’s inaccurate statement, ‘You’re a good man, James’. It’s just a shame it wasn’t brought to the fore of the movie. The film is looking the wrong way. It looks to who Bond was – it should have been looking to who he can become.

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