‘The dead are alive.’ Thus reads the first title card that pops onscreen in Spectre. James Bond may not be a zombie, but the 007 franchise takes delirious pleasure in cannibalizing itself, forever loading each new installment with jokes and nods to films past. Skyfall kept in-jokes to a sarky minimum and upped the personal stakes. This approach earned it a billion dollars and two Oscars. Spectre takes precisely the opposite approach: it ties itself to Bond lore so tightly that it cuts off its own air supply. Skyfall was smart yet nimble fun, but the past is too great a burden for Spectre to bear. Even with director Sam Mendes back on board, it doesn’t have to be as good as Skyfall; it just has to be good. The opening scene bodes well; starting with a nimble tracking shot, Bond attempts to take out an Italian assassin during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. Things go awry, and the scene builds in tension as a helicopter gets involved. Between the eerie skeleton imagery and top-notch stuntwork, it’s a thrilling setpiece, and the finest opening to a Bond since Casino Royale. So far, so good.”
Then, Sam Smith’s forgettable whine of a song kicks in. This high-pitched dirge accompanies Daniel Kleinman’s typically-stylish credit sequence. Spectre’s octopus symbolism is referenced throughout the sequence, though it means some shots feel more like they belong in Zulawski’s Possession. Once Smith shuts up, we’re back in London to find Bond being reprimanded for his rogue Mexican antics by M (Ralph Fiennes). He’s understandably vexed. Bond’s latest antics might be the last nail in the coffin for the 00 unit, as new Defence Ministry bigwig Denbigh, codename C (Andrew Scott, ditching charm for smarm) seeks to shut them down in favour of a world-spanning surveillance program. Didn’t we have a similar 00-killing dilemma in Skyfall? Spectre is needily indebted to its immediate predecessors. The returning scriptwriting team of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan are joined by Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass) to create a story that tries to balance the leaner, more modern elements of Bond that Skyfall perfected with plots and traits of older Bonds. Yes, the traditional gunbarrel sequence returns to the start of the film, but it’s followed by elements that evoke the spirit of older Bonds (Connery and Moore specifically) to uneven effect. There are nods in the action and plot beats to the whole canon, from The World Is Not Enough to From Russia With Love, but Spectre never leaves its own mark.
On instructions left for him by previous M Judi Dench (Because, y’know, the past), Bond follows a trail from the assassin’s funeral to his widow (Monica Bellucci, doing a lot with not near enough screentime) to a secretive organisation having a whispery board meeting in central Rome. The evil organisation SPECTRE hasn’t appeared in a Bond film since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, largely due to rights issues. Mendes and the script see no need to mould the idea of SPECTRE to fit into a world that has changed so much in 44 years. Here’s a top-secret organisation that can somehow get away with crater bases and high-level meetings in the middle of big cities. Yet, the screenwriters think it’s a gambit so worthwhile that it ties the antagonists of the previous three films into SPECTRE’s web. Its leader Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, exhibiting little of the relish that made Hans Landa so memorable) is a throwback to other OTT Bond megalomaniacs, but with little to define him besides a half-baked backstory that might just have audiences slapping their foreheads. Spectre is so concerned with looking back into the past that it can’t see the stumbling blocks ahead of it.
Following a quick escape from Rome, Bond hops to Austria to meet with Casino Royale’s Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who directs him to to our Bond girl for the evening, Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann; try as that name might, the only thing Spectre has in common with In Search of Lost Time is its bum-numbing length. Realistically, this location just allows for some snowy action to recall On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Spectre lollops along for over an hour at a steady, yet uninspired pace. We get basic introductions to SPECTRE, Oberhauser and our old-school henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista, menacing but sadly silent), but no overawing sense of threat. To invoke another unfavourable comparison to Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s Silva was so menacing because he had a clear agenda and target. In an age where cyber-terrorism is the threat of the day, fights with burly henchmen fall somewhere between quaint and anachronistic. The Denbigh plot taps into issues of covert surveillance versus personal freedoms, but it jostles for attention with Bond’s globe-hopping in a film that’s sorely overlong (148 minutes), yet never allows its characters time to develop. By the time the pace grinds to a halt with a prolonged trip to Morocco, it becomes clear that Skyfall spoiled us.
From the Proust referencing to a continuous mirror motif, there are hints that Spectre is trying to earn bonus points for extra knowledge on its exam paper. These efforts are all for naught when the old school necessities of SPECTRE, far-flung locales and Bond girls needing rescue get in the way. There are plenty of iconography-baiting moments for Bond fans to chew over, but it also means Spectre will be as inaccessible to Bond noobs as Skyfall was fun for all. Enjoying himself least of all is Craig, who looks less at ease as Bond here than in his previous outings; perhaps he really means it when he says he’s done with this role. Seydoux beings more energy to her role, even if Swann is there just to impart information and be rescued. The MI6 bods fare best here. Ben Whishaw’s Q steals every scene he’s in with a quiet smirk and gentle humour, while Naomie Harris is a sparky-if-underused Moneypenny. Meanwhile, Fiennes continues his habit of simultaneously having fun and being terrific. His M is as tough as Judi Dench’s, but he also has a headmasterly quality that makes him both a valuable ally and a keen sparring partner for Bond. On this evidence, an M prequel might be more interesting than James Bond’s return.