10 May 2019

Spectre: haunted by ghosts of its own making

| Esther Packard Hill

The latest James Bond film Spectre is long. Really long – two and a half hours to be precise. While the rumbling explosions, glossy expensive cars, and violent espionage in exotic locations makes the whole 150 minutes visually engaging, Spectre ultimately lets itself down. The film underdevelops its interesting – and extremely relevant – political point; undermines itself by making the narrative too heavily reliant on prior films from the Daniel Craig Bond era; and includes unnecessary, and un-Bond-esque moments of emotional melodrama.

After an impressive one-shot sequence through the swirling, colourful Mexican celebration Dia Los Muertos, Spectre opens with the revelation that, thanks to a merger with MI5, MI6’s Double Oh programme looks likely to be shut down. Gathering intelligence via individual agents is an outdated and ineffective method; C, the new head of the equally new Joint Intelligence Service, advocates instead global mass-surveillance.

In a post-Snowden, post-Wikileaks world, Spectre establishes a stage for a really interesting debate about the necessity, ubiquity and dangers of surveillance. But other than a throwaway comment about George Orwell, and the reassurances of C that surveillance is keeping people safe, Spectre pulls back from any further interrogation of this material. This is a real shame, because doing so would have served to enrich the film while simultaneously adding a layer of pertinent geopolitical complexity and nuance to the fusty narrative.

The narrative is fusty not because we have seen Bond hoon in fast cars through the narrow streets of Rome before, or weave a tiny plane through an alpine forest while simultaneously causing the bad guys to crash their 4WDs before, or escape an imminently-collapsing building before – that kind of stuff never gets old, and, let’s be honest, action sequences are a significant reason why audiences return to Bond films. Instead, the narrative feels old because it relies so heavily on references to Casino Royale, Skyfall (and even the near-universally derided Quantum of Solace) to propel itself forward. The strongest example of this is when Spectre reveals that all the villains of these earlier films are all connected, all part of the same global criminal network! Quelle horreur!

This felt like an incredibly weak narrative move to me; while plausibility has never been a big concern of the Bond franchise, this mass, linked conspiracy felt jarring. Deciding that all the baddies were linked by Spectre weakened the individual integrity of the earlier films and felt like a cheap and quick trick to try to heighten the significance and power of Spectre’s bad guy, Blofeld: “Look!” we, the audience are meant to gasp, “he’s behind all of this!”

While I suspect many viewers will be prepared accept this revelation, because the other three Craig Bond films gave no indication that they were part of a tightly linked series, as opposed to loosely stand-alone films, I found it frustrating. The filmmakers would have produced a better, richer film had they not misguidedly decided that they needed to establish legitimacy for themselves through reverse-engineering a relationship with the earlier films.

Indeed, Spectre is guilty of using weak narrative devices in an attempt to raise the stakes at least twice (serious spoilers follow). Audiences have known since Casino Royale that Bond is an orphan. Now, it transpires that the father of Spectre’s bad guy actually took Bond in after his parents’ death. Blofeld is Bond’s long-lost foster brother who resented baby Bond’s intrusion into his family’s life. This blatant attempt to personalise Blofeld’s vendetta is unnecessary, disappointing melodrama.

While this review sounds quite negative, I still ultimately enjoyed Spectre; it tempers its soaring action sequences with humour and cracks along at an impressive pace. While Spectre’s attempt at political examination is underdeveloped, it should be commended for beginning to ask questions about the relevance of surveillance in 2015. Just make sure you buy a large popcorn to get you through those two and a half hours when you go to see it.

Esther’s Rating: ***3 stars

Spectre is now showing at:
Dendy Canberra
Palace Electric
Event Manuka
Limelight Tuggeranong

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