The Spy Who Loved Clichés: Why Spectre Stumbles

In “Four Benches,” a play by Ethan Coen (of the Coen brothers) a worn-out British secret agent character bemoans that he can’t stand the “abstract concepts” his organization deals in because he’s left without “one single meaningful feeling word.” This could easily describe the entirety of Spectre, a new James Bond movie that while dismantling the great groundwork of its predecessor—Skyfall—also tries to remove meaning and feeling from every single scene.  And yet, somehow, it’s still marginally watchable.

Light Spoilers for Spectre.

I say light spoilers, because supposing I told you the entire plot of Spectre, I couldn’t possibly ruin a thing. Even if you have hazy memoirs of the Sean Connery Bond films of the 60s, you’re probably vaguely aware there’s a big evil organization called “Spectre” which is all about being evil to the max. And you know they’re evil because they love to put pictures of octopuses on their rings. So, if you think the big reveal in Spectre is James Bond discovering an evil club called “Spectre” (who also loves octopus rings) you’d be right. Guess what else happens! Almost nothing! In terms of mystery-plot twists, events are either really obvious, vague, or cliché. Really, that person is related to that person? Why is the 00 program being shutdown, again? Wait, is that Andrew Scott as Moriarty? That is Andrew Scott! Is he just playing Moriarty? Should I care? Help me, Bond.

But then you look to Bond for confidence and you see Daniel Craig looking bummed out and cranky. Oh no! This Bond is sleepy, not stirred.

It’s funny that the super-slow Sam Smith title song is called “Writing’s on the Wall,” because the dull nature the song and its sentiment serve as both the explanation to the plot of Spectre and also  a telegraphed-out reading of the badness of said plot. Again, without getting into spoilery-specifics, Spectre attempts to tie the three previous Daniel Craig 007 flicks together, by positing that there’s been a web of links between everything going on all along and now that the mastermind of these plans has revealed himself, it’s all going down.  Sound familiar? That’s because they kind of also tried this in Quantum of Solace, with an organization called “Quantum,” in which no one—not even its members or the general public—found solace.

Moriarity or whatever

I will burn you, Bond. I WILL BURN YOU.

Having Andrew Scott in this movie is very distracting not only because he’s sort of just playing Moriarty from Sherlock, but because the plot of Spectre has all the problems of the original Moriarty stories from Conan Doyle—all stemming from a contrived villain brought into existence by speedy writing. More mild spoilers (although this is basically explained in the title sequence and all the trailers…), but Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) takes credit for every single bad thing that has happened in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall. Conan Doyle tried this retroactive mastermind thing with Moriarty, too, and he did it when he was tired of writing Sherlock Holmes stories. Is EON productions trying to stop making James Bond movies?

This phoning-in with Blofeld being “behind” everything is not only super-cliché, but it doesn’t even do the Blofeld cliché correctly. At least the classic Bond films had some dude stoking a cat in the background of a few movies before they revealed that dude was arch-villain Blofeld and he meant business! And if you’re trying to argue this Blofeld is just so good at being Blofeld and that’s why we never saw him petting his cat in these new movies, fine. But by making all the events of the other James Bond movies Blofeld’s fault, Spectre trivializes all the “choices” Bond has made getting to this point, and the sacrifices of his colleagues. In a scene toward the end of the movie (the climax?) Bond is running around in a maze-ish situation designed by Blofeld in which black and white photocopies of the faces of Le Chiffre, Judi Dench, Vesper, and Silva are taped on the walls. The 60s Blofeld had a hollowed-out volcano and stole spaceships for fun! This guy’s got a photocopier from 1990. Oh, he also knows how to put cameras in every room in the whole world.

Surveillance in a brave new digital world also is sort of an “important” theme insofar as the new M (Ralphe Fiennes) is trying to prevent Moriarty Andrew Scott   Evil Paul McCartney What’s-His-Face from switching-on the Death Star of surveillance intelligence. (Seriously, this unified surveillance computer project makes no sense.) M does everything but say, “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve created, the ability to put a tiny web cam in someone’s coffee is insignificant next to the power of Bond!” The weird thing is, this meta-conversation about the role of spies and the relevancy of James Bond was integral to the themes of Skyfall, too. But there, it was handled with stirring speeches and real stakes that felt personal. Skyfall was a promise that the Bond movies were now going to be all about cool new adventures for Bond with a new team of cool people—M, Q, and Moneypenny. Spectre just rehashes the all-these-people-might-lose-their-jobs-to-a-computer plot, and with way less charm. Have I mentioned Judi Dench’s absence was keenly felt?

You can get away with clichéd themes and recycled plots if you’ve got charm, though. Skyfall rehashed a lot of The World is Not Enough’s plot, and we hardly noticed. This was because Skyfall had swift charisma and a knowing, confident sensibility. Spectre has none of that charm or elegance and feels more like a phone-in Bond movie like Quantum of Solace: jerky, slow, confused, and confusing. Aren’t these movies supposed to be fun? I mean, at least a little bit?

Spectre opening shot

What happens in Mexico…should have been the whole movie, actually…

Why did I say this movie was marginally watchable then? The opening sequence, set in Mexico City, was honestly breathtaking and should have been the whole movie. Why did they leave Mexico City! Also  despite there being all sorts of problems in this statement: I love James Bond movies. In Spectre, I got some cool nods to old James Bond stuff and I also got Lea Seydoux as Madeline Swann! She’s not only charming in this movie, but holds her own against Daniel Craig’s grumpiness as well as she can. I’m not sure I buy the chemistry between them, but there’s a scene where they have dinner on a train in the middle of nowhere that’s not only beautiful but exciting. (Bond loves falling in love on trains! See, he is just like you and me!) What else? There’s fairly great car chase in Rome which I liked, and Ralphe Finnes gets a great one-liner toward the end of movie while he’s squaring off against Andrew Scott.

Other than the stunning opening sequence in Mexico City though, my favorite part of the film easily occurred when James Bond interrogates a little mouse. He asks the little mouse “Who are you working for?” and it’s hilarious. It’s also, sadly, the only moment in the movie where you feel like Bond is a real person again. Worse still, because the movie is so plodding and cliché, you wish desperately, that the little mouse would look up at James Bond and speak in Judi Dench’s voice: “It’s me Bond! I’ve come back to life as a mouse to scold you!”

Now, that would have been a twist.

Spectre opens in wide release on November 6th

Ryan Britt’s favorite James Bond song is “The Living Daylights.” He is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truthsout this month from Plume/Penguin Random House.

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