The latest James Bond film, Spectre, is named for its revival of the sinister SPECTRE organisation, the group behind the source of much of the world’s woes in the series’ earlier entries. That is the objectively true reasoning behind the film’s title. Upon viewing Sam Mendes’ second Bond outing, however, the title takes on a different layer. Spectre is an appropriate title because there’s only a glimmer of a pulse in the film’s 148 minutes.
As a film, Spectre never veers towards being outright terrible, but it’s perpetually underwhelming throughout; a flat, overlong journey through the motions that completely wastes the talented people it has involved and squanders brief flourishes of invention that it does offer. An opening single-shot sequence in Mexico City is initially an arresting way to kick things off, until some compositing work starts to really stick out and the long take is abandoned for the scene’s remaining ten minutes before an action beat is actually hit.
Aside from that opening gambit, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography offers little else of note. The cinematographer has prior spy film form with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but nothing pops with the visuals here, with often too dim lighting failing to add much spark to rather rote action sequences. A bit with a helicopter in that Mexico sequence is the only thing that comes close to pumping the blood like certain set-pieces of Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale and Skyfall, but this is before the opening credits, before the story even starts.
Perhaps little could have been done to salvage Spectre unless they threw out the mess of an assembled story and started from scratch. Ultimately, it’s the narrative that’s the catalyst for the film’s lack of drive in execution — there’s an almost palpable feeling of cast and crew just doing the bare minimum. Get to the next locale. Get to the next thing on the checklist. Being a reboot series in of itself, Craig’s Bond run has always been self-referential to the franchise’s lore, especially Skyfall, but there’s been a sense of revitalisation in the efforts behind it, even if the wink-wink nods or subversion didn’t always work. Spectre, on the other hand, feels slavishly devoted to getting the series back into a stock formula. If Skyfall was arguably about the James Bond character having an identity crisis, Spectre feels like the series having one. The makers seem to both want to continue the characterisation and fallout of Skyfall’s narrative, but also get Craig doing things more like Brosnan or Moore.
How Skyfall wrapped up gave the filmmakers free reign to take bolder new routes, but they’ve instead gone down the exact same path as J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness, cowardly backing out of reset mode to show you the same things and conflicts you’ve seen before, just with different actors. Here’s a brawl on a train because From Russia with Love had one. Here’s a recurring burly, largely mute secondary villain (Dave Bautista) because, hey, wasn’t Richard Kiel great? Without getting into explicit spoilers, it’s also very much like Star Trek Into Darkness in pretending that its big bad isn’t actually a certain other established big bad you probably already think he is going in. Ahem.
That big bad is played by Christoph Waltz, coasting on his past glories with villain roles, who’s only slightly more physically active as a threat than Werner Herzog in Jack Reacher. Similarly wasted is Léa Seydoux, who gets a token scene of suggestion that she knows how to take care of herself (and one brief moment where she fires a gun to helpful use), but spends most of the rest of her screen time showing that she absolutely cannot take care of herself. The series has attracted more and more established actresses of considerable talent over the last twenty years for its ‘Bond girl’ parts, and that the usually compelling Seydoux is saddled with the worst female lead of Craig’s run is a crying shame.
And the less said about Monica Bellucci’s part the better. Anyone from that quite large group of fans wishing for years for Bellucci to be in a Bond film will surely be furious at all she’s given to do here, and how little of it there is. Still, at least she escapes the film quickly. The rest of the film’s disappointment gets drip-fed oh so slowly and lifelessly.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently a contributing editor at PopOptiq, a writer for VODzilla.co, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.