Spectre isn’t a bad film. It is competently made on most counts, though admittedly this is damning it with faint praise, and it has a fantastic pre-credit sequence that’s up there with the best of them. Nevertheless, Spectre is a huge disappointment – perhaps even more so than Quantum of Solace. Where Quantum suffered from Marc Forster not being very good at directing action, Spectre suffers most from writers that don’t really understand what exactly they want the film to do and, worse, not realising that Skyfall had done most of these things already, and done them well.
At the end of Skyfall, it seems we’re set for a return to old-school Bond. There’s a male M in place, we’ve got our Moneypenny, Bond’s links to the past – and his emotional liabilities – are dead, literally and figuratively. It would be a shame perhaps in this situation to return to the good old (racist and misogynist) days of Connery unquestioningly, but a Bond poised between his cinematic origins and the 21st century could be fascinating. (I’m thinking of what Alan Moore did with the first two volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen especially, as those work both as pastiche of the 19th century originals and as deconstruction – which could be done even in a series of films aimed primarily at being entertaining.)
Spectre is beholden to the past, but it is so in a way that neither understands that Skyfall already was very much aware of its roots nor does it bring anything new to the table. Skyfall succeeded at retroactively filling in the blanks in Bond’s and M’s history in ways that were relevant to the characters and the story of the film. Spectre tries a similar trick, already alluding in the title sequence to the people this particular Bond has lost and then trying to tie together the previous three films by introducing its central antagonist as the puppet master behind it all – and then topping it all by revealing him to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, that most iconic of Bond villains.
Gasp, I hear you exclaim – except this reveal doesn’t mean anything, except perhaps to the most die-hard Bond fans. It’s the same mistake made by Star Trek Into Darkness: it doesn’t matter if you name your villain Blofeld or Khan, because none of the links to the past matter if you haven’t otherwise established them as strong characters in their own right. Blofeld’s plan in Spectre is so abstract and nebulous (and, last but not least, the kind of thing that the good guys routinely do in these films) that all his weight as the main antagonist is based on callbacks, deferring his threat repeatedly. He’s evil – because we retcon the bad things happening in the last three films as having happened at his behest. He’s bad – because we give him the same name as the guy with the scarred eye and the white cat in those earlier films you remember. Except this Blofeld wasn’t even a twinkle in Barbara Broccoli’s eye back at the time of Casino Royale, and he’s not the same character as those earlier Blofelds except in the most conceptual way. You might just as well reveal that the bad guy’s name is (wait for it…) ADOLF HITLER! and expect the audience to root against him because of Schindler’s List.
In constantly pointing to the characters’ and franchise’s past, Spectre forgets to give itself a stake in the present, and as a result it feels hollow. We’re supposed to feel something when we find out that Waltz’ soft-spoken villain was responsible for Vesper Lynd’s death in Venice in Casino Royale, but we felt bad about that death while watching Casino Royale, just as M’s death in Skyfall touched us in that film, but these aren’t losses we still feel several films and years down the line. The Bond movies don’t leave that sort of an emotional trace, nor are they designed to – which means that when Spectre banks on the earlier films having left such a trace, it shoots itself in the foot (possibly with a multifunctional sniper rifle/laser gun devised by Q). The one scene linking back to earlier films that works, more or less, is Bond’s final encounter with Mr White, who’d previously appeared in Craig’s first two outings as Bond; the difference is that the character is actually on screen, he’s not just a brief verbal or visual reference intended to carry all the weight. Otherwise Spectre tends to tell us that what is happening is relevant because of the series’ past, but it fails almost throughout at showing, let alone convincing, us.
Is James Bond still relevant? That’s a silly question. Was Bond ever relevant? Is Jason Bourne relevant? What about Ethan Hunt, or Batman, or the Hulk? The heroes of pop culture reflect the present and refract the past, though first of all they need to engage and entertain. Talk of whether Bond can still speak to us is silly: Casino Royale and Skyfall show that he can. Spectre doesn’t fail because Bond’s an old has-been. It fails because it gets lost in games of “Remember when…?” without giving us enough to remember in the here and now.