Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
The first words to appear on screen during a showing of the new Bond are ‘The dead’, followed by ‘are alive’, against a solid black background. It’s a wholly unexpected and initially elliptical opening for a 007 film, made clear only when the pre-credits sequence commences seconds later – it is set during Mexico’s Día de Muertos (day of the dead), when family and friends celebrate the memory of the departed and help them on their journey in the afterlife. This spectacular annual festival – which parallels Christianity’s own marking of All Souls, making Hallowe’en an astonishingly fortuitous day on which to see the film – prefigures the ghosts of the past that will prove to haunt Spectre in more ways than one.
The audience is immediately absorbed into Bond’s present via an astonishing opening to that initial sequence – a single, lengthy tracking shot that follows a masked 007 along the street, into a hotel room and out onto the rooftops of Mexico City to set up a hit that will change the course of Bond’s life. It is a technical and artistic achievement by Sam Mendes of extraordinary swagger, matched only by the confidence in Daniel Craig’s purposeful stride across the parapets. It sets up a second act within the pre-credits sequence itself, a helicopter ride that is genuinely vertigo-inducing and which segues into the titles.
Here, Daniel Kleinman’s imagery merges the writhing, naked woman of popular Bond film cliché with an octopus and its tentacles like something dreamed up by the late HR Giger, to powerful and commendably straight-faced effect. More reminiscent of the very earliest films in the franchise, it is simpler yet arguably more disturbing than that from the equivalent scene in Skyfall, and it shares the same nightmarish tonality of illustrator Richard Chopping’s Fleming novel jackets.
After a London-set interlude, the next international portion of the film sees Bond attending a funeral in Rome. The immense travertine colonnade of the supremely Imperialist Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of Roman Civilisation), erected during the last war in Mussolini’s futuristic suburb EUR, plays the part of the burial chapel, whilst in a nice irony the eighteenth century Baroque English country house Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Il Duce's animus Winston Churchill, is digitally inserted into the nightscape of the city to become a lavish urban villa. These locational sleights of hand are very effective and confirm Mendes’s ability in this tricky area, and this entire section of the film has an appropriately European, arthouse feeling, right down to the Kubrickian moment in which Bond attends a night-time meeting in said villa incognito, a clear reference to Eyes Wide Shut’s near-identical scene.
Unfortunately, this is also where one the problems of Spectre really begins.
The car chase that follows, through eerily empty streets and with an eyebrow-raising climax, goes, as it were, nowhere, something later repeated with a plane in the Austrian alps. Both appear played for laughs, and given the infamous London Underground sequence in Skyfall, perhaps reveal one of Mendes’s weaknesses.
More worryingly, that car chase climax is the first in a series of nods to the franchise’s past that are scattered with increasing frequency throughout Spectre, almost all of which sit uncomfortably alongside the seriousness seen so far. Thus there is also a massively-built, silent henchman, a fight on a night train, a clinic atop a snowy mountain, a villain in a hollowed-out volcano… This last is actually a giant meteor crater, but the point is well made regardless. The same idea just about worked in Die Another Day, the 40th anniversary release, and was wisely avoided a decade later in Skyfall, so it is unclear why the temptation was yielded to now, post-Casino Royale, when so much is so very different. Such an approach grates alongside the intelligent, smart and original aspects, and especially their darkness. One character’s suicide, followed by the inevitable result of an untended body where carrion crows are abroad, is simply another example of the growing feeling of discomfort caused by this sometimes crass conjunction.
There are other issues. The paralleling of the principal villain’s activities by a sub-plot involving the effective privatisation of Britain’s century-old security services is messy, hurried and ultimately unconvincing, whilst sinister groups of corrupt government officials, throw-away mentions of the dangers of the surveillance state and drones and the importance of knowing when not to pull the trigger all duplicate elements of Skyfall and Captain America: The Winter Soldier but much less impressively than in either of those films. The new production is also far too long, that is to say over-extended with climax after climax and resurrection after resurrection, of hero, villain and even hero’s companion.
As the latter, Léa Seydoux is quirky and attractive but is in truth given little to do after a strong start, and the fact that she is ultimately seen tied to a chair in a building wired to explode is as disappointing to this viewer as the presence of Christoph Waltz as a particular mittel-European enemy from the past, a casting and writing choice that summarises the real problem with Spectre.
Just as that organisation is an octopus with tentacles trying to manipulate everyone and everything, so is this film. One of its appendages represents a certain level of intelligence and elegance, but another crudity and near slapstick. A third stands for homage but a fourth for continuity; a fifth connotes leanness and economy, yet the sixth, seventh and eighth, flaccidity and greed. It’s a rare head than can control so many arms, and here Mendes fails.
Ultimately, the true spectre is that of the past, and here it possesses the present utterly. If the series is to continue, it’s time to let that past go.
Posted 1 December 2020; this post also appears as a blog post on 31 October 2015
Spectre Sam Mendes, 2015, UK