5 Years Ago: ‘Spectre’ Revives James Bond’s Most Iconic Villain
Released Oct. 26, 2015, Spectre had immense potential. In three previous movies as James Bond, Daniel Craig had successfully reinvigorated the franchise back to box-office heights and critical acclaim.
So what happened?
Skyfall, from 2012, was able to restore some measure of playfulness to the franchise without sacrificing the hard-edged grit of the new iteration. More importantly, it had a sense of scale and spectacle, courtesy of director Sam Mendes, at a level the series had rarely seen. Its rooftop chases, burning mansions and neon-backlit fight scenes, backed up by Oscar-winner Mendes' impeccable sense of pace, showed real creativity and innovation, allowing a series that was more than 50 years old to look good as new.
Mendes didn't want to return for what was then called only "Bond 24." Besides his transparency in discussing his exhaustion, he told Metro, "I think the great risk of repeating oneself is that one doesn’t have the great store of ideas that you have when you first tackle a subject."
He was drawn in eventually by the developing script, which, like Skyfall, would deal with themes of mortality, aging and the serious implications of modern espionage. The script saw numerous changes from inception to production, most notably after producers Eon acquired the rights to the main villain from the Sean Connery days: SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), the organization that hadn't appeared in an Eon production since 1971's Diamonds Are Forever.
The copyright issues surrounding SPECTRE were tangled. Ian Fleming's original novels featured the real-life Soviet anti-spy organization called SMERSH, which became SPECTRE in a lot of the early films to avoid too much Cold War relevance. SPECTRE didn't exist until Thunderball, which began as a screenplay by Fleming, writer, producer and director Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham. In 1960, Fleming took the screenplay and turned it into a novel with only his name on it.
A lawsuit followed, with the end result being that Fleming had the novel and movie rights to Thunderball, with credit given to the other two, while McClory could make his own Thunderball film 10 years after Fleming's version hit the screen. McClory's take finally arrived in 1983 as Never Say Never Again.
The inclusion of SPECTRE and Ernst Blofeld, its iconic leader with the Persian cat, led to a distinctive sense of continuity within the 60's films. Mendes knew these early movies well. He told the American Society of Cinematographers, "My touchstones are the Bonds of the '60s, the Bond of Terrence Young, Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger." Where those movies were slick with Alfred Hitchcockian influences and the cool, steely Connery persona, Mendes could tell this new story in a more modern fashion, most notably making Blofeld less of a criminal mastermind than a man with a personal grudge against Bond.
Watch the Trailer for 'Spectre'
In Fleming's novels, Mendes found mention of a Hannes Oberhauser, a father figure to young James Bond and folded him into the screenplay. This became the foundation for Spectre's additions to the 007 lore: the orphaned James Bond raised in exile and usurping the love of his guardian's biological son, who now leads an international villainous syndicate under an assumed name. In effect, Spectre makes Bond and Blofeld long-lost brothers.
Spectre throws out a lot of narrative complications in service of this construct. It starts with Bond searching for an assassin in Mexico during a Day of the Dead celebration. The chase ends with the two of them on a runaway helicopter, and, with great effort, Bond dispatches the assassin, who leaves a ring with the symbol of an octopus on it.
The chaotic debris left behind by Bond in Mexico sets the stage for the plot, leaving him grounded by Ralph Fiennes' M. As MI6 is set to merge with other intelligence agencies, Bond's classic recklessness is no longer desirable, and the 00 program is on the chopping block. This neither deters Bond from his missions nor ends his personal curiosity regarding the ring. Within a couple of scenes, he's secretly driving Q's new car in Rome and investigating SPECTRE.
An unusual amount of the movie's runtime is devoted to Bond's B-team - M, Q and Moneypenny - dealing with the consequences of the merger and trying to track 007 from afar. These scenes exist mostly as filler or exposition, including updates on the MI6 merger and Bond's status and probably more office chatter than has ever filled a Bond movie. The familiar feeling of watching James Bond solve international crimes and get out of horrific jams is lost during these regular cutaways.
New cinematographer Hoyte Van Hotema (director Christopher Nolan's cinematographer since Interstellar) opted for a more muted look than Skyfall's kaleidoscopic blend of colors. In keeping with the title sequence, the movie is often awash in golden hues to evoke what Mendes called the "longing for another time, another era, another reality." This and the movie's sense of gritty realism make for an uneasy mix, as Bond's trips to Austria and the Sahara desert look washed out and of a piece with the drab office-scapes that make up so much of the movie. But the golden look does lead to a couple of striking moments.
One of them centers on Monica Bellucci's recently widowed (thanks to Bond) Lucia. Following a slow and attentive walk through a hallway, she stands in silence as Bond kills an assassin far behind her. As he emerges, slightly obscured in soft focus, the two share an oblique conversation about danger, impending death and the need for a drink. The actual romantic moment the two share begins in tension and ends against a wall, the camera slowly pushing in to reveal a mirror behind the two of them, the dialogue and exposition secondary to what's actually happening. It is easily the most compelling love scene in Craig's Bond series.
Bellucci's appearance as a Bond Girl received a great deal of hype on the movie's release, mostly due to her age. At 50, she was a couple years older than Craig. This maturity reflected the movie's noble ambitions, but Lucia is more or less forgotten a couple minutes later.
Blofeld's introduction comes immediately afterward and is similarly expressive in its golden tones and dark shadows - watch as he is cloaked in shadow through a long SPECTRE meeting, only poking his face out as he calls out James Bond. The criminal organization has been brought into the present day of human trafficking, vaccine-hawking and surveillance. These modern-world ties could never really mesh with the broader villainy of classic Bond villains, so Christoph Waltz, introduced to U.S. audiences as the gleeful, pipe-smoking Nazi commander of Inglourious Basterds, is limited to playing a slighted boardroom tyrant.
Bond's exciting escape from the meeting brings comedy back to the action scenes. As he's driving through a Roman alleyway in a car chase, he ends up stuck behind an older Italian, who sings opera while oblivious to the action behind him. Just as well, since the movie also embraces the sillier gadgets of the past: When Bond presses the exhaust dial on the car, flames erupt behind him.
The man chasing Bond in Rome, and for much of the movie, is a silent henchman played by Dave Bautista, in the grand tradition of Goldfinger's Oddjob or From Russia With Love's Donald Grant. Spectre even borrows one of that movie's classic set pieces, a train fight that plays out in claustrophobic angles and pushes Craig's physicality to its limits.
Watch the Train Fight Scene From 'Spectre'
Bond travels from Rome to the Alps to the Sahara in search of answers about Oberhauser, answers about himself and answers about Blofeld. Along the way, he picks up a psychiatrist, Madeleine Swann, the daughter of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace's Mr. White. The movie continues to throw out huge action moments, like Bond flying a plane in the mountains, but questions linger about Blofeld.
His real introduction comes just in time for the final act, as he explains his and SPECTRE's real plan: the infiltration of a merger among the various intelligence agencies. He explains that all of the preceding Craig films' villains worked for him, and everything in the franchise goes back to him. "Me," he tells Bond. "It's always been me, the author of all your pain." As he explains this, he makes the world of the movies feel remarkably small - every Earth-shaking adventure Bond has faced is retroactively reduced to one organization's series of terrorist attacks. The revelation also weakens the impact of the climax by suggesting the last decade of Bond films have all led up to this.
Everybody converges on London, as the subplots are tied together and Bond faces off against Blofeld for the first time in the new continuity. Ultimately, more of the screen time is given to M facing off against the Joint Intelligence Service's representative, C, which also amplifies the anticlimax of the moment. When given the choice, Bond decides not to kill Blofeld but to let him be arrested instead.
Spectre was the product of much behind-the-scenes turmoil, some of which was revealed at the time when Sony executives' emails were hacked just as the movie was beginning production. The script was unfinished, mostly because of dissatisfaction with the final act. As MGM President Jonathan Glickman said, "For what it's worth, I think the first 100 pages are fantastic." Another message from an executive suggested reviewing "the scene-setting in the lead-up to the finale so the events of the third act are clearer."
The budget for the film would continue to climb, and the climax would feel somewhat unclear, unearned and undeveloped despite numerous new drafts. Then Craig suffered a knee injury during a fight scene with Bautista and production had to briefly halt. It had to be edited on the fly, too. As Mendes told Deadline, it was "an absurdly compressed post schedule, with 16-hour days, seven days a week, no time off, no days off."
Without the grounding intensity of Casino Royale or the operatic heights of Skyfall's Scotland manor climax, Spectre feels lost. It's indebted to studio demands in its rushed production schedule and tired plot. With the constant presence of Bond's allies, the threat of him being a "kite caught in a hurricane" never really registers. Handsome filmmaking and stirring action sequences aside, the movie reeks of exhaustion, with a narrative that suggests intrigue at the beginning and slowly reduces its complex parts into basic, hackneyed answers. Spectre brings back more classic elements of Bond and marries it to the world created in the Craig films, but it's missing the elemental structure that made Casino Royale and Skyfall so compelling.