Spectre begins as it closes: festering paranoia, sinister purposes, and just a touch of evil. A man in a skeletal mask devoid of humanity skulks across the screen, phallically piercing the frame from the background and doing bodily harm to the image. He is in search of a target, the specifics of which don’t matter. Presumably, he is our prime antagonist, an assassin who would do wrong by the world. In a sly moment of visual wit, we are proved right. He is an assassin, and his name is James Bond. In an unbroken long take in Mexico that lithely swirls and slithers around the backwoods of the frame, the camera preys with Bond, following him and preparing for the prowl. We understand Bond for who he is: a specter in the dark, a ghost in the light. A hunter, and a killer.
The ensuing film is all about stalking, and the nature of predator and prey changes form shot to shot. With Sam Mendes returning to direct from previous Bond film Skyfall and Danish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema choking the film in a jaundiced haze and twitches of shadowy malcontent, Spectre is all about the figures that lurk and linger in the darkness. Visually, it’s a gas, a big budget noir from the minds of hell. Or Weimar Germany.
On this front, the filmmakers are doing the lord’s work. For the sheer intent of filtering both Bond and his various oppressors through the dark nether of expressionist Europe, the film deserves our hearts. All of Spectre’s best sequences follow the film’s title. The opening is its towering achievement, capturing the spirit if not the fact of Orson Welles returning to America in 1958 with something to prove by opening Touch of Evil with one of his most diabolical shots ever. But the film continues to quote from Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and even Carol Reed throughout. The way the malleable shadows dance around the film’s true antagonist in his introduction is a dead ringer for the introduction of Welles’ supercilious Harry Lime – arguably the all time screen antagonist – in Reed’s The Third Man. The finale of Spectre, meanwhile, plays like a modern revisiting of the demented hall-of-mirrors conclusion of Welles’ undying The Lady from Shanghai.
Spectre is a gorgeous film then, and much more aware of cinematic vocabulary than its somewhat middling reception might suggest. There’s nasty, cruel, bruised beauty here; no Bond film yet has captured the dark dance between Bond and foe quite like Spectre, and the film’s lustrous mise-en-scene is frequently majestic in its evocation of omnipresent paranoia and watchful eyes that know all. No film in the series has yet understood Bond the shadow on the world quite like Spectre. This Bond knives through the frame with the weight of devilish cinema history on his back.
Now if they had only taken the “Bond” out of it altogether, we’d be in business. I do not refer to Daniel Craig; he is as welcome as he always is in the role. I refer to the character of Bond; everything that works about this assassin as a sinister space in a choking frame is sacrificed by a screenplay that painfully insists on choking the film not in the specters of its cinematography but in the specters of Bond history. The screenplay, credited to a rogues’ gallery of miscreants and mercenaries, boasts a masterful scene or two, but it is a disaster at the superstructural level. Following Bond to the deepest circles of modern techno-terrorism in the form of the organization Spectre, the script fumbles through characters – two love interests played by Monica Belluci and Léa Seydoux, a henchman played with smirking menace by Dave Bautista – without a clue of how they fit in the larger narrative it wishes to tell. And contrary to popular belief, the trouble with Spectre is precisely that it wishes to tell a narrative. Or rather, to tell the narrative of Bond, retconning the series by blithely and banally drawing enough dots between previous films until a false spider’s web of cloying half-truths lulls us into the belief that the previous three Daniel Craig Bond films were meaningfully interconnected at all.
The late-film decision to weigh down Spectre’s slimy but fatuous Christoph Waltz performance with the oblivious, gluttonous history of Bond at large is abysmal, stopping the film dead in its tracks as it indulges in the worst trends of 2010s Blockbuster franchise cinema – here’s looking at you Marvel – in over-writing its films such that none may stand alone. That Waltz plays Ernst Stavro Blofeld – the arch-villain of the ’60s Bonds – is no secret by now, and the fact is as destructive, hyperbolic, and self-serving as a similar decision to meaninglessly spitfire Khan into the grammatically loopy Star Trek Into Darkness.
Cinematic blockbusters are at their best when they are at their most weightless, and Spectre expends almost all of its energy on dry, gravid insistence on its own importance. Spectre has more than a few tenacious and biting ideas about who Bond is, each evoked in its visual framing and in Bond’s mannerisms and movements. That it feels the need to pontificate on Bond the man in factual, dialogue-driven terms as well – to tell us how he grew up, and to bizarrely redefine him as a Chosen One whose entire life story was preordained by his childhood – is unfortunate to say the least. It is, I think any first year English student can agree, stiflingly ungainly that this rebooted Bond series is still trying to provide an origin for Bond ten years and four films in. The tonal imbalances in all these pictures – careening from portentous, dour gravitas to flippant charisma between scenes – increasingly feels less like an endearing personality tick and more like a series that is aimlessly confused about itself and trapped somewhere deep in its own bowels. Spectre is a good Bond film, but it wants to be the Bond film without earning it.
As a 1940s noir cut down to a trim, merciless 90 minutes and devoid of any loftier expectations of carrying forth the weight of a character over half a decade old, Spectre would be great, if not masterful cinema. As a bloated 2010s’ blockbuster pretending to be a ’40s noir, its just another spy film wearing a mask. It is far too complicated for its own good, moving from handsomely superficial chills and thrills to wearyingly pretentious narrative histrionics. Like each and every one of Marvel’s recent films designed to test drive a new sub-genre without sacrificing the essential caliber of the Marvel brand, Spectre is better because it wears the shadowy suit of its chosen test-drive genre, the noir. Yet the very fact that its brand name insists that it cannot fully commit to that genre ensures it will never be anything more than a half-successful experiment in what could have been.
Bond is best as an enigma, and Blofeld cannot function without his essential dread and mystery. The film’s visuals are alive with this sense of suspicion, this whiff of ghostly pyschosis asking us to peruse the corners of its world. The film’s narrative? Dead set on locating that suspicion, that mystique, in its sights, loading an exposition bullet, and shooting to kill.