Fifty years of James Bond movies have created multiple constants within the series. Exotic locales. Expensive cars. Hammy villains. Rampant sexism. BOOZE! But narrative continuity? Not so much. Up until Daniel Craig took over the tux in 2006’s Casino Royale, the Bond adventures rarely linked together beyond Q’s griping at Bond for blowing up his toys, or the occasional reference to Bond’s dead wife (last alluded to sixteen years ago in The World is Not Enough, last actually mentioned onscreen in 1989’s Licence to Kill.) Otherwise, the films existed in their respective bubbles, each new adventure tenuously connected to the previous one, their flimsy ties made all the more dubious whenever a newer, younger Bond appeared every decade or so.
This film-by-film use of the reset button changed with the Craig era. Casino Royale set up the new 007 status quo, with Quantum of Solace picking up the storyline mere minutes after the credits rolled on the previous film. Then Skyfall finished putting pieces of this updated Bond universe in place by giving Bond a childhood, a home, and a history beyond being the greatest secret agent ever to shoot and sleep his way through MI6. We got a new Q, a new Moneypenny, and saw Judy Dench’s M—the last vestige of the old guard within this modernized take on the series—ushered out the door. After this unofficial three-part origin story was complete, we were left with a Bond wholly different from all the previous incarnations. 007 was no longer just a fine suit and a Walther PPK and an irrepressible libido. He was an actual character. Dangerous. Flawed. A bit nuts. You know, human.
It’s the completion of this cycle that makes Spectre such an odd beast to evaluate. After building a satisfying, coherent origin for Bond, the newest 007 adventure delves right back into his past, once again poking around in his childhood, doling out secrets and conspiracies and tying together previously unrelated events. It’s—if you can believe it—a retcon of a reboot not even a decade old. But where Skyfall deepened and fleshed out Bond’s backstory without overcomplicating it, Spectre tangles the thing into an unholy knot, creating a massive snarl out of the nice, manageable history unveiled in the previous installment. It represents continuity run amok, creating connections within a character’s past at the expense of logic or believability.
To avoid spoilers, I can’t get too far into why this rejiggering of Bond’s early life doesn’t work, but the trailers hint at these modifications. (One warning: those wanting to avoid the big reveal—such as it is—should stay away from the cast listings on IMDB.) Suffice to say, Spectre robs meaning from the previous Craig films to bulk up its own portentousness, attempting to establish yet another one of those overarching “person of destiny” themes already weighing down too many modern cinematic protagonists. And, while such a narrative might work for sci-fi messiahs and superheroes, it seems out of place in the Bond universe. Bond is the best man for the job. He isn’t, however, the only man for the job. It’s a subtle difference crucial to the nature of 007 as a character.
What becomes jarring, then, is how these modern revelations are framed within an installment that reeks of convention. Plenty has already been written about how this 24th “official” Bond film recalls the tone from earlier decades of the franchise, that Spectre marks the reintroduction of the traditional Bond structure and spirit. But it’s less a return to form than a rehashing of the past; other than the brilliant opening tracking shot set amid the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City, much of Spectre comes off as a Cliffs Notes version of the Connery/Lazenby years. And trying to fit this new film-to-film continuity within a framework so steeped in movies from five decades ago eventually becomes a square peg/round hole scenario.
Director Sam Mendes sets the film on cruise control early on, employing well-worn story beats and familiar action setpieces to supplant the cleverness of his previous work in the series. (I’m reminded of that scene from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, where Gus Van Sant sits on the set of Good Will Hunting 2, counting a stack of hundred dollar bills and ignoring the movie being produced around him.) While Skyfall succeeded as reinvention, Spectre hews closer to regurgitation, reveling in Bond adventures of yore without building upon them. It’s more fan service than a story capable of standing on its own, and this impression becomes all the stronger with Christoph Waltz’s presence in the film. His turn as Franz Oberhauser, the enigmatic leader of the pervasive terrorist organization SPECTRE, feels based on an overly respectful study in Bond’s long history of megalomaniacal arch nemeses. Waltz’s performance is remarkably low-energy, closer to the nondescript baddies of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace than Javier Bardiem’s wonderfully unhinged Silva from Skyfall. Oberhauser is sure to tickle the more devoted among the crowd, but his importance within the movie never matches his importance to the fanbase.
This devoted audience long ago was forced to accept the reactionary tendencies of the franchise. Wherever trends head in modern filmmaking, 007’s sure to follow. Live and Let Die capitalized on Blaxploitation. Moonraker aped Star Wars. Licence to Kill found inspiration in the late-80s vendetta cinema craze. Die Another Day emulated a garbage fire. (Garbage fires were big in the early Oughts. For examples, see Vin Diesel’s career.) And Casino Royale sought to make Bond relevant again in the post-Jason Bourne era of spy films. So it’s with no great surprise that Spectre undergoes a “Marvelization” of the franchise, adding an underlying plot between installments to establish a grand cinematic narrative. Yet it simply doesn’t work. The point of the Casino Royale reboot was to clear out decades of history to make way for a newer, smarter Bond. Yet Spectre does its damnedest to reintroduce all that was wiped away, and does so in a flurry of greatest hits-style revisits of Sixties Bond milestones. (Especially retrograde is the film’s attitude towards women. Their treatment here—Monica Belucci’s Lucia Sciarra in particular, but Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann as well—unfortunately falls back upon the damsel-in-distress standard established early in the series.)
The opening text—the first ever used in a Bond film—states, “The dead are alive”, evoking an old Faulkner maxim on the omnipresence of the past in our present. And, indeed, Spectre becomes inordinately preoccupied with the history of the franchise. At this point in Craig’s run, though, the series should be rocketing forward, not floundering amid its increasingly convoluted backstory. Mendes proved himself among the best to ever helm a Bond film by pointing 007 towards the future, challenging the audience with the visual flair and momentous stakes of Skyfall. Yet his work on Spectre rates as flagrant appeasement at best, and lethargic self-congratulatory bloat at worst. It’s as if Mendes has decided that both he and his film are perfectly fine resting on past laurels, defying the progress that made Skyfall Bond’s strongest outing. (Well, the progress and the work of director of photography Roger Deakins. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography on Spectre, while admirable, doesn’t come close.) In the end, this fixation on the past becomes more of a millstone than a motivator, adding unnecessary bindings to a hero who works best untethered. Bond doesn’t need any more continuity. After Spectre, he needs an influx of creativity.