By Brian Surber
Follow-ups are hard. Making The Dark Knight Rises, The Matrix Reloaded, Jaws 2, Weekend at Bernie’s II, The Hobbit, and countless others was probably very hard. What is timeless about the James Bond franchise is that there really aren’t any follow-ups. Each sequel is, more or less, its own story. Spectre, the 24th film in the franchise, is a direct follow-up to the 2012 global sensation Skyfall and, while the film’s problems don’t completely rest on the continuation of Skyfall’s storyline, it does appear the film is so damn concerned with making that film, and Daniel Craig’s two previous appearances as Bond, connect, that Spectre forgets to be a movie all its own. “You are a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond.” Unfortunately for the audience, Spectre is too.
In Daniel Craig’s worst outing as 007, we find our favorite secret agent hunting down a mysterious terrorist organization called Spectre and its mysterious leader, Franz Oberhauser (a surprisingly tame but ultimately boring Christoph Waltz), who is, mysteriously, up to no good. That’s really the entire plot. There’s a race against time and links to Bond’s past, but it all feels so inconsequential as we wait for the big threat, only to realize there really isn’t one.
Spectre falters not in its attempt to guide Bond back to his fun-loving early years, but in its determination and focus to connect the film to Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall. The connections don’t feel forced or strenuous, merely out of place. The Bond films don’t carry from one to the next. You don’t need to have seen You Only Live Twice to understand the dynamics and plot of Die Another Day, and the franchise is stronger for it. In today’s cinema landscape of “cinematic universes,” where films will eventually need a “Previously On” prologue to catch audiences up who didn’t see the other films in the series, it feels strange for Bond to suddenly adapt to a format that it avoided for over 50 years.
It feels strange, but it doesn’t hurt Spectre as much as the filmmakers’ determination to make the connections. For a series where the hook is a new adventure every time out, the film doesn’t really have an adventure to offer. Sure, Bond travels around the world and shoots people, but there isn’t really a plot beyond Oberhauser. The film’s sole reason for existence is to explain the bad luck Bond has experienced in his previous adventures while denying him – and us – his next one. He goes to a beautiful city, learns something new, maybe fights a guy, and goes to his next city, all ultimately leading up to a meet-and-greet.
The film carries a wonderful cast that is mostly left behind. Our Bond girls this time are Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux. Both are talented, beautiful, and capable actresses who are given roles that don’t really amount to much here. Bellucci’s one scene worth note, while well shot, is hysterical in its content. It’s a scene that might not feel out of place in a Brosnan Bond, but sticks out like a gross sore thumb in our more “heightened” Bond era. And Seydoux, so wonderful in Blue is the Warmest Colour, is developed only to the most basic level.
Her Madeleine Swann is a character who could be described as independent and capable but doesn’t really get to do much. She carries a gun maybe twice and multiple times either has to be saved by Bond or has to stand behind him while he shoots the bad guys. She talks a big game but ultimately has to let Bond lead the way while she falls for him (in such a poorly developed way that her declaration of love nearly elicits laughs). It’s tried and true for this series, to be sure, but the trope stands out more than ever in today’s day and age, and both the character and actress deserved more.
Spectre isn’t a terrible picture. The opening scene, for instance, is completely riveting. Set during a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City, it begins with a tracking shot that takes us through the crowd, into a hotel room, and ends on a rooftop. The scene eventually escalates into ridiculousness, but it’s a potent blend of old school Bond thrills and new technology and camera tricks. It’s a fantastic sequence that is let down by the movie following it.
As usual, James Bond and his friends look great doing what they are doing and where they are doing it. Unfortunately Spectre mistakenly attempts to achieve more while providing us with less, trying so hard to tie everything together it doesn’t have the time or desire to be anything else. A lazy narrative masquerading as complexity suffocates Bond’s 24th film. It is a disappointing and confusing decision to fit Bond into the standard blockbuster sandbox, and it unfortunately didn’t work. But unlike the other blockbusters that Spectre seems to be emulating, we know Bond will return. Hopefully when he does he takes us on a brand new adventure. Spectre ultimately feels like a Bond film that’s all talk and no play, and that makes James a very dull boy indeed.