Spectre is very bad. It’s a confusing mash of ideas, none of which pays off. I once noted that the most unbelievable part of The Matrix films was not the ‘human battery’ idea, but instead the idea that Neo wouldn’t end up with Monica Bellucci. My engagement with Spectre ended abruptly when Bond is told that they have five minutes before the next wave of assassins will arrive, and then somehow manages to seduce and sleep with Bellucci within those five minutes. I couldn’t interpret the expression on her face as ‘Yes, I was a sexually neglected housewife of a man who was too busy for me but now I’ve scratched my itch with this English spy’; all I could see was ‘Five minutes? Five minutes and you’re done? You barely took your undies off. You never took your socks off. What the hell is this?’
With cinema’s enchantment broken, I could spend the rest of the time looking at the rest of the story as an impartial bystander. And now I get to rant about the ‘Puppetmaster’ story line.
Imagine you have just finished a really great novel. The hero overcame great odds as she learnt about herself, her world, and the nature of her enemy who stood in as the embodiment of some particular idea or concept. You know what the stakes are: she must defeat the enemy or bad things will happen. Fortunately, she succeeds and the bad things do not happen. The world is either returned to its original state, or it is changed forever in some way for the better.
Then the sequel comes out. Oh, ho! It turns out that the first novel took place in a play pen and the real enemy was standing behind the curtains and actually the world wasn’t the way you thought it was and the stakes were entirely different and the hero winning was all part of some master plan by this puppet master.
You feel robbed. Nothing in the sequel was foreshadowed by the original. Importantly, there’s nothing in the sequel that makes you revisit the original to find something better, or to find a new understanding of the conflict between the hero and her villain.
It’s why the best stories of ‘And then we meet the real boss in the sequel’ are always overtly foreshadowed in the originals. Darth Vader hangs around and does the day-to-day evil, but we know that he has a master who is hidden away somewhere. They did this really well with The Force Awakens: we could accept that somebody with raw talent would beat an injured Kylo Ren because we know that there’s a Big Bad lurking beyond the horizon.
Spectre takes a flying shit on the preceding three films, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall. You thought that Bond was going toe-to-toe with villains who had their own ambitions and motivations for revenge? You were wrong. They were just following instructions. You thought that M died because of an intergenerational war between rogue spooks? Wrong, following orders of the Big Bad. You thought that villains were using Bond’s girlfriends to punish him because this is a misogynist world where women are treated as weak spots? Wrong, Big Bad specifically wanted to kill all of Bond’s girlfriends.
It feels like retconning. Characters are introduced from Bond’s past specifically to create the new puppetmaster. And it doesn’t add any narrative weight. So the overarching plot of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace that there was a secret organisation — ‘Quantum’ — calling the shots is just a cover for the real secret organisation — ‘S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’ — which is actually calling the shots. I don’t care that Bond had a surrogate step-brother who turned out to be some kind of massive supervillain that nobody’s heard of. I also don’t care that this step-brother has been deliberately trashing Bond’s life for decades without Bond ever noticing. It doesn’t add anything. There’s a bizarre scene where the step-brother states that he is the ‘author of all [Bond’s] misery.’ I imagined how this scene might otherwise have gone:
I am the author of all your misery. You loved Vespa, so I killed her. You loved M, so I killed her. You had a pet dog, so I killed it. Remember in high school when you wanted to date Pussy Galore? I told her that you had syphilis. You know when you went on holiday to Madagascar and they lost your luggage? I stole your luggage. Also, I wipe your toothbrush around the rim of the toilet each morning before you wake up. You know how you really liked watching Firefly? I convinced Fox to cancel it.
Imagine orchestrating a huge vengeance plot against a person and they never noticed. Bond expects that his world is going to be full of violence and loss; his step-brother’s great act of vengeance was to give him a life that was indistinguishable from the life he was expecting to live.
Anyway, the rest of the plot is about how terrible surveillance is but surveillance is actually very good so that was a bad plot and I did not like that.
For all the complaints, people really do try to make the best of it. Bellucci is amazing, as always. Craig does a convincing job of portraying Bond — even if all of his injuries somehow are cured when he shoots bad guys. The supporting cast are all quite good, except for Andrew Scott who is terribly miscast. And Waltz is okay, but he’s no Javier Bardem. The film doesn’t really build a sense of fun, and even some of the jokes — ‘And now we know what the “C” stands for…’ — show that the film lacks timing. It’s just a bad film.