...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, February 26, 2016

Day 5535: Show A Little ReSPECTRE


So, Spectre. Not SpECTRE, apparently. Which is a shame. Love a good acronym, we do.

Released on the daddies' wedding anniversary, we saw it in the cinema, in IMAX in fact as a special indulgence. Yet this review's haunted us until the DVD release. There might be a clue there*…

The opening extended tracking shot following a Faction Paradox-attired Bond through Mexico City's Day of the Dead has been rightly praised. Not just an extraordinary visual achievement, it sets up the film's themes of Bond as a living dead man, haunted by his ghosts: Vesper, M, and ultimately… spoilers – Blofeld.

(Yes, I'm going to use the name. We all knew who Christoph Waltz was playing; and it's liberally sprayed over the end titles. So we might as well get used to it.)

In fact the whole pre-title sequence is amazing. Bond's shooting the terrorists' explosive – is it deliberately? – and bringing the house down on himself reminds us of the Venice conclusion of Casino Royale even as it introduces the plot point of using terrorism not the old fashioned way to threaten and bully, but more subtly to panic governments into jumping the wrong way, into bed with "C" and his (i.e. Blofeld's) global intelligence network.

The fight in the helicopter is a particularly visceral stunt that outshines the helicopter stunt in "For Your Eyes Only" that it is clearly referencing (for obvious cat-lover related reasons). It's especially bold that the death of the assassin Sciarra (and of his pilot) is essentially off-screen as Bond just unceremoniously boots them out of the chopper and they are gone, as forgotten by the film as they are by our emotionally closed-down hero.

After the deliciously skull-topus-y title sequence, we cut to a grey London and the corpse of Bond-world's MI5 headquarters at Vauxhall. And thence to a funeral in Rome, that has the eternal city looking like one vast marble tomb – and of all the churches in Rome, they pick the one that looks most… Stalinist. With Monica Bellucci's glamourous widow, who does not expect her life-after-death to last long; along with the ghoulishly almost-undead appearance of Mr White, clinging to life through his thallium poisoning; and above all a message from M from beyond the grave this serves to reinforce the motif of the dead being with us.
That the person pulling the strings is the ghost of Judi Dench's M, drawing the threads of Daniel Craig's previous Bond films together in order to uncover the Spectre, makes for a satisfying answer to the questions left open that had made "Quantum of Solace" and even "Skyfall" feel like they were only an opening chapter, almost unfinished.

But we are also setting ourselves up for where the film starts to go wrong.

Before that, Bond's encounter with Mr White leads him to Madeleine Swann, White's estranged daughter who is currently working at a suspiciously Piz Gloria-a-like clinic on top of a mountain. There follows a kidnapping and a gloriously retro car versus plane chase sequence, as magnificent as something out of the Roger Moore era, with the added bonus of seeing Ben Wishaw's Q get to do "in the field" the way dear Desmond Llewellyn used to. And smartly hiding in a cupboard to escape the baddies shows his brains can be as good as Bond's brawn.

Mind you, I'm pretty sure that DNA on the Spectre ring really doesn't work like that. Somehow connecting everyone in the plot and revealing that Oberhauser is still alive. I mean it's Sciarra's ring, not Blofeld's, so you can't even make it a kiss-the-papal-ring pass your DNA along that way thing.

And now of course we arrive at the fatal flaw. The film itself insists that all the clues lead us here.

And the problem is this. The head of the organisation and apparently ultimate author of all that has happened to Craggles over the course of four movies turns out to be someone from his childhood who he thought was dead.

And is also Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

So why all the coy messing with the name? In context of the Bond films, of course we in the audience all know what Blofeld means. But it means nothing to this Bond.

The "(adopted) brother we never knew he had" is such a daytime TV cliché, but it is the real thrust of this film, that knife to the heart of Bond from the moment in Rome when he recognises the erstwhile Franz Oberhauser.

Blofeld? It means nothing here. It's just a throwaway about being "my mother's line", and Bond makes a half-hearted witticism (he doesn't even manage a "What, your mum was called Ernst Stavro?").

The name Blofeld ought to have been haunting at least this if not all four recent Bond films. The reveal that Oberhauser is Blofeld ought to come as the conclusion.

Blofeld brings up the very unpleasant and not-very-Bond-toned eye-gouging scene from the earlier Rome meeting. Yet, when he talks about Mr Guerra (the victim) as "not being there any more"… well, that moment just wasn’t there in the first place. Plus Blofeld was about half a mile away at the other end of that really long table. And that indeed is the problem with this movie – it needs to make references to moments that aren't there.

(Or maybe Blofeld just routinely gets Hinx to gouge people's eyes out; after all he does have his own skull-drilling suite in his own secret base.)

So we get to the secret base in the middle of the desert. Possibly the crater is supposed to remind us of the spectacular hollow volcano of "You Only Live Twice", but how does it fit with our themes of the dead alive? The meteor is sort of impressive, maybe, but doesn't appear to mean or connect to anything.

And we get to the political crux of the movie: information is power. And Blofeld has a lot of it (somehow) so he's very powerful. Here's a video of Mr White shooting himself to show I can see and know everything.

The problem with "knowledge is power is bad" is that we really don't see the application of that power. "Extortion is my business" said Donald Pleasance's incarnation of Blofeld. The "E" in Spectre might no longer stand for "Extortion" but we really do need to see that the ability to pry into people's privacy can be monstrously abused – we need to see those government officials being blackmailed into allowing arms sales and people smuggling. "C" for example could have been being forced to work for Spectre, rather than just Andrew Scott doing his Moriarty thing. Again. We need to see identities being stolen and lives being broken. The invisible tentacles are all too invisible, here. As in "Quantum of Solace", the threat becomes so large and nebulous it ceases to be dramatic.

The one instance of Spectre using this power to know it all – at least we presume this is how they know where Bond is – is that they must, as Ralph Fiennes' M guesses, use MI6's own knowledge of where Bond is (by way of the "smart blood" with which Q has injected him). And yet, that's left as an exercise for the viewer to work out. Mr Hinx just turns up on the train… and that's the sort of thing that Bond villains just do. It's too easy to miss that it's a clue to Spectre's power, because the baddies don't usually need to show how they find Bond when it's time for the next attempt to kill him.

Also, did Spectre buy their HQ from the same people who supplied Quantum with the exploding hotel two movies ago?

What's missing, ultimately, is the twist.

Alex pointed out to me how the film is full of the noir trope of mirroring: Bond and Madeline on the train mirroring Bond and Vesper on the train; Mr White's hidden room at l'Americaine mirroring his (literally behind the mirror) room in Austria; the helicopter stunt at the start mirroring the helicopter at the end.

Madeline is coded as a noir femme fatale… but without ever achieving fatale status. Not that Lea Seydoux is bad, but you've got Monica bleedin' Bellucci in the film (wasted in what amounts to an extended cameo).

(Just as Fiennes' M has all the coding of being the double-agent, too good to be true and perfectly placed to take over as M after "good" M is killed in "Skyfall". But no, there's no twist; he too is just another goody.)

So, I would have made one tiny, tiny change. The end of the movie. Bond has been diverted from the mission to prevent "C" from turning on Spectre's private panopticon into the ruin of the MI5 headquarters – I love the spiderweb of bomb fuses, though it is a switch of metaphor from octopodes to arachnids – and Chuckles has given him three minutes to escape and/or rescue the dame. He ends up in the shell of M's office.

Way Out?

Here's the change: instead of Christoph Waltz watching in a helicopter… it's Madeline. And she is finally revealed as Blofeld. A black Swann not a white one. The real cause of her split with her father.

Then Franz Oberhauser is just Franz Oberhauser. Instead of a coincidence too far, actually it was an ingenious double bluff. His jealous obsession with Bond another tool that the real Blofeld has used as a blind and a cover. And she gets clean away. Leaving her catspaw to face the music and whether or not Bond decides to shoot him.

(Even that – Alex used the term "peremptory" – exploding secret base becomes redressed as another bluff.)

And a movie that was running out of adrenaline after the Austria chase gets a much needed final surprise, a shock ending to leave you leaving the cinema with a surge, not a slow coming off the boil.

Watching it again I think it's not a bad flick. The good bits are really good: the opening Day of the Dead; the sinister menace – de trop eye-gouging aside – of the Spectre meeting; the chase through Rome, particularly the way Q has gaffer-tapped his improvements to the dash of the three-million pound DB10; the old-fashioned-and-revelling-in-it mountain-top chase. Craig continues to be excellent. And he gets to be funny, in moments, in his quiet understated way; often unexpected physical comedy, as when he manages to survive a building collapsing by landing on a convenient sofa. Naomie Harris is terrific as Moneypenny, even though she has less to do than in "Skyfall" and deserves more (at least she gets to mirror the "partner in bed" gag that "Casino Royal" did with M back in the day). Whishaw is, of course, wonderful in everything he does. Fiennes brings gravitas and, appropriately, ennui to M, and is clearly channelling his inner Bernard Lee. Though you do slightly wish he could have dropped "C" off his tower with an, "Avada ke-bloody-davra".

But still the ending is disappointing. Loaded with expectations that just don't deliver. In a way, I think, they are hamstrung by the possibility that this is Daniel Craig's last Bond outing, and the need to give him an ending that is both resolution and upbeat, meaning he gets the girl, and throws away the gun.

I think, perhaps, we'll have a better feel for this film when we can see what happens when it's not the end.

James Bond, after all, will return.

[*sinister chords by Thomas Newman, shadow of tentacles at the end of the mirrored paragraph]


Nick said...

(Spoilers for the TV series Elementary)

I like your alternative ending, but it does come from the same direction as Elementary's revelation that Irene Adler was Moriarty, so if it had ever occurred to them as a possibility (which I doubt) they would have been accused of plagiarism.

Millennium Dome said...

Actually, Mr Nick, you remind me of a point I meant to add:

The twist reveal of the Bond Girl being Blofeld actually appears in John Gardner's second Bond novel "For Special Services" (1982). You can tell she's a bad-un because she only has one breast – a typical Fleming "villain with physical deformity" trope.

Clearly Gardner's work pre-empts the gender-swapped Moriarty but his estate is also rather more likely to sue. I'm sure the last thing Eon want to get into – having finally seen off the Kevin McClory "Thunderball" claim – is yet another copyright row over ownership of Spectre!

Alex Wilcock said...

I think I enjoyed SPECTRE at the cinema more than you did, but part of that was that first time around the (as you quote me saying) film noir direction was continually fascinating: I kept asking myself of the director in all the doubling, mirroring, lines between people and occasional octopi – even one doubling as a chandelier! – ‘What did he mean by that?’ only for it turn out by the end to be ‘Not much, really’. You put your finger on it first by identifying the actual dead-that-live theme (which doesn’t have much to do with mirroring, but which was presumably suggested by “SPECTRE”) and then by pointing out that “What’s missing, ultimately, is the twist.” For all the stylistic hints, the goodies and the baddies are all the ones you expect.

I got a lot of Captain America – The Winter Soldier from all this, but in that the baddies getting their tentacles into intelligence agencies was to *do* something. As you point out, it’s a bit of a fatal flaw in the villains’ plans that they’re just voyeurs (though that fits with Blofeld’s characterisation, you wouldn’t think it satisfying enough for the whole organisation). I’d have made C just a patsy, a moral void ideas man as Blofeld says, but disposable if things go wrong, and had their real inside man the new M; you came up with that for Skyfall, and it’s been so much more satisfying as a thought than what was delivered (the stopgap nobody cared about retiring to a resounding ‘meh’ while the ‘real’ M does the important stuff from beyond the grave). And the shoehorned revenge boasts that Blofeld “was the author of all your pain” wipes Skyfall’s much more interesting implication that Craig’s Bond had a long career – perhaps *all* the Bond films – between his first two films and his third, which retrospectively makes much of Skyfall incomprehensible.

As you say, one of the biggest moments where they drop the ball is on the “Blofeld” name, which comes across as fan service they couldn’t decide what to do with. I love your “What, your mum was called Ernst Stavro?” The film’s called SPECTRE. The name was never going to be a surprise to anyone who recognised that that meant, nor mean anything to anyone who didn’t, so why not just embrace it? It’s all of a theme with the slight awkwardness about how to handle SPECTRE, having decided it’s more exciting than Quantum (and who could disagree), but not quite being able to admit it’s an acronym. The huge Italian conclave was stylish and sinister and did practically all it could to distance itself from the original modernistic metal meeting so comprehensively spoofed by Austin Powers… So I couldn’t help sniggering when their only woman was cast as a ringer for Frau Farbissena and it all came back. And they seemed almost embarrassed by having a secret base. Though I did like – though it doesn’t fit with your theme – the clever mirror of the meteorite being something *from* space that created a reverse caldera.

Alex Wilcock said...

“So, I would have made one tiny, tiny change…”

I like your change. Not least because it actually gives Madeleine some agency and something to *do* – and makes the Pale King’s claim that she was more talented than he was foreshadowing that even he didn’t realise [and Elementary made Irene Adler Moriarty? Dear God! One of my pet hates is the sexism in almost every bloody Sherlock adaptation ever making the heroic woman who can outthink Sherlock into the villain and think it’s clever. But that’s a rant I’ve made several times before].

I’d make a bigger one.

“Not that Lea Seydoux is bad, but you’ve got Monica bleedin’ Bellucci in the film (wasted in what amounts to an extended cameo).”

Monica Bellucci is the most charismatic actor in the film, and she stole it for me in about ten minutes of screen time. So I’d make a change earlier in the film: Mr Sciarra was only Lucia’s enforcer – she was the SPECTRE member, and that’s why Blofeld put a hit on her the moment he was out of the way, to consolidate his hold in her moment of weakness. Bond having inadvertently destabilised her, it would appropriate if, thanks to Bond, she gets to go to the big table after all, and raise an ironic eyebrow in the direction of the shadow at the head of the table.

Then Blofeld’s obsession with his ‘brother’ leads to their expensive base blowing up.

So I’d have gone for a whole alternative last act, in which Sciarra and her regrouped allies in the organisation mount a hostile takeover – in tune with its private-sector ethos – on SPECTRE, or at least a no-confidence-with-extreme-prejudice-and-rocket-launchers against its managing director. Which means the *next* film could have meant Blofeld’s out for revenge on both her and Bond, but has lost his main powerbase, while for Bond, will Monica Bellucci be an ally or an enemy?