Spectre of Doubt: What Makes a Bond Film Soar or Sink and What the New Film Should Have Learned From the Old

Bond and M Spectre
Spectre
’s big back-half twists play so egregiously that the rest of the film seems pristine in comparison. Nostalgia for the bland airplane/car chase from Act II is totally understandable when set against Ernst Blofeld’s self-parodic monologue (in which Christoph Waltz spouts all manner of bullshit, including a lift of the very plot twist that killed Austin Powers, Mike Myers’s titanic Bond-parody franchise).

But while the execution and implications of the twists are devastating across the board, they are something of a tangible detail when it comes to diagnosing the movie’s failings. For all the pre-release discussion of problems with the script’s third act, the issues with Spectre start at the very beginning, and offer a helpful guide to just what makes the best Bond films work so well.

From almost the start of the series, the pre-title sequence has been a key part of what makes a Bond film a Bond film. Like with any story, the opening moments are a vital to hooking the audience. So it’s no surprise that the most widely-loved 007 works often feature the most involving opening sequences.

The very first pre-title sequence came in the franchise’s second entry, From Russia With Love (1963). We see our beloved hero (the already-iconic Connery) stalked through the dark by a stranger. With the distant cocking of a rifle, the heretofore unflappable agent draws his own Walther and glances around in fear.

It’s Bond as we never saw him in Dr. No: lost, hunted, and afraid. When he spots his assailant, he fires a stray round that fails to stir the ice cold Robert Shaw, who just smirks. The sense of danger and dread build as Bond rounds a shadowy corner and meets a zip cord around his neck. He struggles, but he’s on the ground in mere seconds.

Who is this villain and what has he done to our Bond? As we start to mourn, the lights of a military training facility ignite and a Connery mask is pulled from the corpse. “Exactly 1 minute 52 seconds. That’s excellent.” The peril to Bond has drawn us into the sequence, the strength of his foe established, and the (partial) stakes of the story are introduced: a dangerous man is hunting James Bond.

The opening sequences would grow bigger and more action packed from there. Goldeneye (which introduced Pierce Brosnan in 1995) features one of the grandest: a spectacular bungie jump from Switzerland’s colossal Verzasca Dam (IDed on screen as a USSR facility). It’s Bond in stealth mode, sneaking through bathrooms and shadows while Soviet troops march the hallways. He unites with 006 (Sean Bean), a raport is quickly established, and the team sets charges in an explosive facility. Before they can escape, 006 is caught and, with some encouraging words for Bond (“For England, James”), is executed by the evil General Ourumov (Gottfried John). As the timers on the charges tick, Bond must escape from under the guns of a Soviet unit (he does), leap from a cliff on a motorcycle, dive toward a crashing plane, and pull the plane up from certain peril (he does).

The stunts are over the top, but the sequence is a success. We meet a new Bond, introduced not only through his action capabilities but his friendship with 006, establish two separate villains, kick off the plot, and even suggest a major theme  (questioning patriotism), all through a sequence of escalating tension and cathartic action.

Spectre is one of many Bond films in which the most well regarded, iconic moments come in the opening sequence. After opening with an epigraph (an incredibly dubious series-first that adds nothing but risibility to the proceedings), a man in a skeleton costume walks with a masked lady through Mexico City’s Dia De Los Muertos parade, up an elevator, and into a hotel room. This impressive single-take ends with Bond pulling off the skeleton costume and setting the sight of his sniper rifle on a nearby window.

So far, so good, as Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning visuals have pulled us into the mystery. We want to know just what 007 might be up to. And we find out, as we hear his targets say, “When will we blow up the stadium?” “At 6.” It’s such a specific establishment of stakes and tension that it’s hard to believe just how quickly those precious elements are squandered. Bond is spotted, he shoots, and he blows up the villains’ bomb, taking the city block with it. He escapes a falling building unscathed, and, terrorist plot thwarted, seems to look around for something to do next.

This moment of indifference loses the audience. 007’s job is seemingly done (albeit with probably-avoidable casual destruction). We don’t know where this is all supposed to go. The stadium will no longer be blown up. The sexy lady in the mask is M.I.A. And then one of the terrorists wanders out from the rubble. Bond watches him go, and decides to follow. We don’t know why he has to follow this guy. There doesn’t seem to be any further threat, and that lack of threat carries a serious lack of tension. They move back through the parade (which is still going on despite the massive explosion blocks away), with lazy glances at each other that recall every generic thriller foot chase ever made. They end up in a helicopter, where Bond, by default, kills the pilot and the terrorist (whose ring he pulls from the man’s finger for reasons we don’t understand) and, surprisingly, prevents the helicopter from crashing into a crowd of people.

This opening shares a few beats and a lot of visual novelty with Goldeneye’s opening, but entirely lacks the earlier sequence’s effectiveness as a movie-starter. There is a chase element to both, but while Goldeneye maintains tension by having Bond running (and riding and leaping and flying) for his very life, Spectre drags us through a stakes-less, tension-less walk through the park. There is no danger to the chase, and the move into the helicopter takes us exactly where we expect it to go: through action movie paces. The ring provides some kind of tease for the story ahead, but its acquisition feels so contrived and nonsensical (unless you’ve seen the trailers) that it’s hard to get overly concerned about what it all means. By the time the ultra-dull opening credits roll, the audience is already wheezing from the uninvolving spectacle.

From this high point, Spectre runs almost immediately into its next story problem. The first scene back from the credits introduces Bond to C, an intelligence bureaucrat who clearly represents a kind of antithesis to Bond’s old-school secret agent. This interaction in the movie’s first real scene seems hugely important. And it should have been. But when Bond leaves the room, he leaves that story behind for the B-list suits at MI-6 to deal with.

Just like the movie, we will leave that thread behind and move with Bond to the next scene, and most gigantic issue plaguing the story of Spectre (only to kind of return to it later, just like 007).

In case we were kind of wondering what Bond was really doing in Mexico City aimlessly chasing a guy, Judi Dench appears as M from beyond the grave to explain it all. “If anything happens to me,” she ominously starts in a recorded Skype video, before giving Bond vague orders to go kill a guy (the now-dead guy with the ring) and “not to miss his funeral.” She gives Bond no context for this mission. Will the world be in danger if he doesn’t go? We don’t know. Bond already knows who was responsible for her death (in Skyfall). He even killed the guy in satisfying fashion. Just what kind of information or tactical advantage 007 could gain from killing this new guy, we have no idea. It’s almost like the filmmakers had no idea, either. And because of that, the audience can’t possibly care.

Dr. No Bond and M

One might compare this inciting incident to the old fashioned mission briefings in M’s office from the Connery days. Those were usually low-key affairs that didn’t exactly whip the audience into a frenzy. But a look at the very first Bond adventure, Dr. No (1962), shows exactly how this sort of scene can effectively kickstart a story.

“Jamaica went off the air tonight, just like that… [Agent] Strangways has disappeared. So has his secretary. So has the new girl,” M tells Bond, following the series of bloody murders that opens the film. “I want to know what’s happened to Strangways.”

So Bond now has one simple goal (along with some enticing tidbits about mysterious transmissions interfering with American missile guidance). And he’s off to Jamaica, and our story along with it. We know exactly what he’s looking for, exactly why, the need for urgency, and the tease of escalation into something bigger than a murder plot. This all occurs in a short, simple dialogue within the padded leather walls of M’s office, and it’s all the audience needs. Compared to the vague mystery-boxing of the Spectre approximation, it’s a model of efficiency in screenwriting.

The blunt, aimless plot propulsion continues for a great deal of Spectre’s screen time, with Bond following cryptic clues toward something that no one knows the importance of. Once he’s stumbled into a round-table of global supervillains, he finally hears something that can lead him to real purpose: one of the shadowy villains states that once the new surveillance initiative passes, a new level of villainous power will be achieved. It’s essentially the old bad guy mantra, “and nothing will stand in our way!” And with the prior context of Bond’s all-important meeting with C that starts the post-credits movie, one would think Bond would write this down or something. But he totally ignores it and continues following loosy-goosy plot threads toward something entirely unknown and quite possibly irrelevant.

Meanwhile, back home in the bureaucracy, we witness the exact same surveillance initiative fail to pass. Victory! The villains have been thwarted. But only one country voted against it, South Africa, and it’s implied that something terrible might come to pass that will soon make them see the error of their ways.

It is this film’s greatest story misstep that sends Bond to continue his no-stakes Easter egg hunt, rather than leap on the serious threat presented by this situation. Bond is in contact with his allies in England, but fails to hear about this development. If Q or Moneypenny let this bit slip in one of their covert convos with Bond, perhaps he would have made a connection with the ominious monologues at the villain swap-meet, perhaps necessitating a race against time to fly to that imperiled nation, detect the threat, and thwart, via some incredible setpiece, the terrorist plot that would press South Africa into support of the diabolical surveillance measure. Maybe Bond would even fail, catapulting us into a third act rife with tension and suspense and the consequences of his actions.

Instead, Bond keeps following the non-clues provided by his stolen ring on a scavenger hunt that leads him to casually show up on the villain’s doorstep to start Act III. Even the characters seem confused about why or how they got there. Meanwhile, a terrorist attack in South Africa is shown briefly in a TV news report, a painful reminder of the thrilling plot that could have been.

Instead of an involving and emotional sequence that almost writes itself, the writers are left scrambling to make things interesting once Bond reaches the end of M’s breadcrumb trail.  This is where we learn that everything that has occurred in the (mostly) terrific trilogy that began Daniel Craig’s 007 run was (somehow, unexplainedly, inconsequentially) controlled by our new villain. It’s a dumb twist that follows an even dumber one (that Austin Powers gag of a fraternal hero-villain relationship) and that is followed by one dumber still. But it’s hard to fault the writers here, when all of their avoidance of basic dramatic construction has lead them to this dead end.

Meanwhile, over in Skyfall (2012), a leap in logic sets off the third act, but it works completely, due to the emotional setup that has powered the whole film. We know what our villain wants: revenge against M for leaving him out in the cold during his MI-6 days. We know he is dangerous. We know he is crazy. And we know he has come devastatingly close to enacting his revenge already. So Bond takes M to total isolation, in the hope that the villain, Silva, will find them. Does it make sense? Not really. But the audience is thoroughly along for the ride. We have been sold on the dynamic between Bond and his boss all film (series) long. The stakes of this gamble are firmly established: life or death. We want nothing more than to see a dramatic confrontation between these three players in the (gorgeously photographed by Roger Deakins) Scottish highlands. The tension is ratcheted to peak levels. It’s a bold move, minimizing the physical stakes (the world will not be ending) while escalating the emotional ones, and it pays off brilliantly in one of the series’s very best finales.

In Spectre, Bond and his love interest escape the clutches of arch-villain Blofeld, blowing the shit out of his evil lair, and head back to London to do something. Bond has finally informed the new M (Ralph Fiennes) about Blofeld’s connection to C’s surveillance plot. So M tries to stop C from doing something involving that. Meanwhile Blofeld is also there attempting to re-enact the climax of Spider-Man with Bond playing the webslinger. An arbitrary timer is set. C falls down a hole. Bond saves the day. It’s one of the most boring and incoherent climaxes in the series, capping one of the most boring and incoherent movies since Connery donned yellow-face (in You Only Live Twice* (1967)).

Watching Spectre is a difficult experience, not just because it lasts for 150 dragging minutes, but because so much talent was squandered. Craig is a great Bond, director Sam Mendes made the terrific Skyfall and several other modern classics, and John Logan has written quite a few incredible, narratively-sound films. It’s hard to see how this team created such a drab experience. The only possible answer seems to be hubris. Hot off the success of Skyfall, perhaps they thought themselves capable of crafting a full return to the classic Bond mythos while totally ignoring the narrative and dramatic rules that allowed the classic Bond films to function on a story level.

Discussion of Bond plots often involves the merits of “fate of the world” stakes (Goldeneye, The Spy Who Loved Me and many others) versus personal or local ones (License to Kill and several others). The true answer is that the distinction doesn’t necessarily matter. What matters is that the stakes provide a clear and compelling reason for 007 to set out on a mission, and that clear stakes continue to motivate everything we see on screen in a manner that generates tension and emotional involvement.

If Spectre has stakes, the audience never knows them. Meanwhile, the biggest mystery dogging us since that cool opening setpiece is never answered: why we should care.

*You Only Live Twice is not nearly as boring as Spectre, and neither touch Die Another Day for incoherence.

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