The Oberlin Review

Latest Bond Film Plagued by Inconsistent Script

Christian Bolles, Columnist

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Looking into the eyes of the man who has plotted to ruin him at every stage of his recent life, James Bond dismisses his enemy with a cold stare and says, “I have better things to do.” The new entry in the beloved franchise, Spectre, looks at the obligations of a modern action film and seems to ask the same.

When it was announced that Christoph Waltz would play Spectre’s main villain, fans rightly expected a movie dominated by his signature manic smile. The previous 007 installment, Skyfall, also directed by now-prominent filmmaker Sam Mendes, focused heavily on Javier Bardem’s unforgettable performance as a broken man with twisted dreams. Skyfall was everything a modern Bond film could be: It had nail-biting action sequences, witty yet callous rapport between the storied protagonist and the various women he courts and an unbeatable villain-hero dynamic. The bar, then, was set quite high for Spectre, and the screenwriters took an understandable but flawed approach to addressing this, attempting to let the movie begin as a Bond-oriented action piece and transitioning to a charged love story before launching into a full-scale blockbuster narrative replete with intrigue and twists.

From the film’s outset, Bond’s life is set squarely in the crosshairs. A brilliantly composed tracking shot spans the first few minutes, reminding the audience that Daniel Craig’s version of the character is a quiet planner, anticipating his next move as surely as the camera tracks it. The opening sequence is a self-contained work, its technical artistry matched beat for beat by clever set pieces and impeccable timing. This is Bond at his most exhilaratingly inventive. One can’t help but share Craig’s pride when he punctuates the action with a subtle smirk, one of many little character flourishes he’s learned to wear on his sleeve through his tenure as the cultural icon.

After being informed that MI6 faces deactivation in the wake of his reckless actions, Bond decides to completely ignore the trouble befalling his friends back home and embark on a globe-trotting odyssey at the behest of the late M. After a very clever quip-session with Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond wanders about for a bit in Rome, and the villain is revealed for the first time in the course of the narrative. The cinematography for this segment is excellent, but the lamb-in-aden-of-wolves cliché has been trodden to the point where even the least seasoned viewer will find the whole thing achingly predictable and almost uncomfortably slow.

After some strained ties back to previous installments, Bond is tasked with protecting the daughter of an old enemy. The next act of the film is its strongest, as it tries its very best to keep its focus tightened around Bond and the woman he has sworn to protect while they’re hunted across the world. The strength of this section rides almost entirely on the fantastic characterization of Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Her character does away with the inherently sexist connotations of the whole “Bond girl” concept, giving her a unique relationship with Bond that is defined by her control over the nature of their interaction. Initially, she flat-out refuses to touch him, and even when she grows accustomed to his presence, she’d rather sleep alone. In most Bond films, the line “I’m going to bed” might drip with “follow me” vibes, but that’s not the case here at all. Swann says what she means and gets what she wants, and it’s truly refreshing to see Bond have to meet her on her terms. It addresses the fact that, as Daniel Craig has pointed out in interviews, Bond has often been portrayed as a womanizing misogynist. Yet when he levels with Swann and the two inevitably take things further, the relationship is equal, sweet and — perhaps most importantly — genuine. This relative transformation reveals a lot about Bond’s humanity, separating him just enough from the 007 we know to give insight into what he really wants in life. Ultimately, the second act does for the third what Swann does for Bond: The former makes the latter look better simply by standing next to it.

What a final act it is. While it’s admirable just how much the movie tries to do, the many attempts to tie in previous installments come off as forced. Despite some excellently written interactions between Bond and his antagonist as well as a truly unsettling torture sequence that will make most of the theater squirm, it throws pseudo-twists at the viewer as fast as it can come up with them, resulting in a muddy climax that’s hard to appreciate when compared to Skyfall. Still, it’s hard not to get the feeling that one has undergone a journey with Bond, from the lonely opening minutes to a final decision that, while it may not initially seem surprising, marks some serious character development.

The viewing itself is a pleasure. The cinematography, conducted by the wellworn hands of Hoyte van Hoytema of Interstellar, Her and Let the Right One In, is the most consistent thing about Spectre, giving it a visual sheen that does some work to mask the narrative troubles within. Technology has paved the way for a golden age of cinematography, and van Hoytema’s expertise demonstrates that fact perfectly. The directing, too, is top-tier. Sam Mendes is an excellent filmmaker, and one can only hope that he’s blessed with better scripts in the future.

Spectre is a hulking amalgamation of disparate parts that amount to an incomplete, messy, yet occasionally spectacular jigsaw puzzle of a film. In its 148-minute running time, its four credited screenwriters seem to fight for the spotlight, dragging Bond from one concept to another before dropping him into yet another dastardly plot orchestrated by a puppeteer masked in shadow. Unfortunately, when those shadows lift, Christoph Waltz’s villain doesn’t fare well in the light, revealing himself to be filled with almost as many holes as the plot. But somehow, despite its ludicrously contrived conclusion and squandering of Waltz’s talent, Spectre manages to stay afloat thanks to the surprisingly believable relationship at its core as well as the stellar director-cinematographer duo at its helm. Though Spectre may not be remembered as one of the great Bond films, it’s a stunning example of the highs and lows possible in modern cinema, acting almost on its own as a singular case study for how to fix Hollywood’s obsession with the loud, dumb blockbuster. With a single skilled writer and a bit more of a heart, this could have been a film for the ages. Instead, Spectre is doomed to fall away as soon as the next installment comes along.

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