Spectre

November 12, 2015
Daniel Craig in 'Spectre' (2015)
Daniel Craig in 'Spectre' (2015)

Each new James Bond movie arrives like a cinematic tsunami. You know it’s coming, and that it’s completely unstoppable. If all the critics in the world decided that Spectre was rubbish it would make very little impression on the box office. A Bond film, regardless of its merits and demerits, is a ‘Must See’.

I was surprised at the way everyone fell over themselves to lavish praise on the previous film, Skyfall (2012). The portrayal of an aging secret agent haunted by the events of his childhood was too corny for words, but it struck a chord with those reviewers who have grown accustomed to feeling moved by the childhood traumas of every Hollywood superhero.

It’s a trick that must be used sparingly if the producers don’t wish to derail this most lucrative of franchises. I’ve never wondered whether 007 had a past, or an inner life. He’s a creature of pure fantasy – a sharp-dressing, wise-cracking ladies man, with a licence to kill. Every new adventure has the same pattern of thrilling chases, narrow escapes and smooth seductions. Any deviation from this formula would leave the fans devastated.

Some critics have already complained that Spectre – the 24th Bond film and the fourth in which Daniel Craig plays the lead role – doesn’t have the same emotional depth as its predecessor. Depth, however, is the last thing one expects from James Bond. This time the traditional opening chapter is truly stupendous. Set in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead, it sets a standard the rest of the film struggles to match. In a flash we are into the credits, which unfold like a brief, dazzling dream sequence, with lavish investment in CGI.

This story finds Bond going rogue on the trail of a mysterious villain. He has been set on this course by a video message from the old M (Judi Dench) that has been sent on posthumously. It makes one think for a minute that the sensitive, haunted Bond of Skyfall might be back for another round.

Fortunately, this impression is soon dispelled. In Spectre we meet Bond at his most cocksure and cynical. It’s an especially congenial persona because one of his main enemies this time is creeping bureaucracy within the secret services. The agency has been put under the jurisdiction of a young achiever named Max (Andrew Scott), or ‘C’, as Bond calls him. C’s grand scheme is to unite the nations of the world in one vast surveillance network. In this vision there is no room for the 00 program, which means agents like Bond will be retired.

While this scheme is being put into action, Bond, with discreet assistance from his old allies Miss Monneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), has skipped off to Rome to track down the secret organisation that is co-ordinating terrorist attacks in cities around the world.

During this brief visit he seduces Monica Bellucci, who plays the widow of a man he has just killed. He also attends a congress of clandestine forces that aim to rule the planet; encounters a ghost from his past; and leads a hair-raising car race through the Roman streets, pursued by the latest giant-sized assassin (wrestler, Dave Bautista).

The love interest this time is not Monica Bellucci, but the French bombshell, Léa Seydoux, who plays Madeleine Swann, a scientist whose life is threatened because of the evil deeds of her father. Although Madeleine initially spurns Bond’s offer of protection, she comes around after he has saved her from a group of kidnappers in a completely over-the-top chase sequence.

The ghost glimpsed dimly in Rome proves to be none other than Christoph Waltz, AKA. Ernst Blofeld. It seems that Waltz has become Hollywood’s all-purpose, grinning, evil mastermind. Although he was no more than a small-time swindler in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (2014), there is not a lot to separate that performance from his role as would-be dictator of the world in this movie.

Like all Bond super-villains Blofeld will be undone by his megalomaniac posturings. He insists on giving the full tour of his futuristic headquarters to Bond and Madeleine. He devises new, especially sadistic ways of disposing of his arch-enemy, when any ordinary crim would simply shoot him on the spot. He makes elementary mistakes, for which he will pay dearly, although he proves almost impossible to kill. All this is par for the course.

The clever part of the story is that it picks up on two potent forms of public paranoia: the idea of a secret organisation dedicated to bringing about a New World Order, and the dread of a world in which everyone’s smallest movements will be subject to government surveillance. In Spectre we see the awful similarities between C’s fantasy of global security and Blofeld’s sinister will to power. The movie will play on the nerves of every conspiracy theorist who views the modern state as no more than a façade for a new totalitarianism in the making.

This should get a specially keen response in Australia, as we now have the most draconian data collection and surveillance this side of North Korea. Perhaps Tony Abbott or George Brandis might apply for the role of supervillain in the next Bond flick.

In this paranoid vision of the future, James Bond is revealed as the hero who will save us from a world run by machines, and machine-like bureaucrats. It is a supreme piece of wish-fulfilment for any of us who have sat for hours on a telephone talking to a government functionary, or their electronic avatars. If you’d always felt there was something unspeakably evil about these people, this tale will satisfy your worst suspicions.

Spectre
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Jez Butterworth
Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, Naomie Harris, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Monica Bellucci, Dave Bautista
UK/USA, rated M, 148 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 14th November, 2015.