Spectre opens in Mexico City, in full swing for Dia De Los Muertos. Bond (Daniel Craig), clad in black, is running through a crowd of skeletons. It’s an in-your-face reminder of the only constant in Bond’s life: death. Which he soon delivers to an unknown bomber, in a helicopter above a crowd of thousands. It’s not exactly a subtle introduction. Actually, it almost makes you wonder who is hit harder over the head with it—the dead man, or the audience?
The rest of the first section of the film feels like an introduction in and of itself. Bond passes through MI6 headquarters, where he meets with M (Ralph Fiennes) and “C” (Andrew Scott) a hotshot new government employee who believes the future of national security lies in technology and information, not in trigger-pulling. He checks in with Q (Ben Whishaw), and establishes through rudimentary banter that Bond intends to go off-the-grid again, chasing down yet another shadowy organization against M’s orders. He’s even paid a late-night visit by Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), whose warning to be careful is marred by the ambiguous sexual tension between the two. It checks off all the boxes, setting up all the pins for Bond to knock down later.
All of the components for a spectacular traditional Bond flick are present: the many-armed evil organization (hence the octopus symbolism); the exotic locales; the gorgeous girl in the show-stopping dress; the car chase; the martini taken “shaken, not stirred.” And yet, it rings hollow, lacks charm, and feels somewhat like a cardboard cutout. Which is a pity, given how impressive the previous film was.
It’s difficult not to compare Spectre to Skyfall, as it serves as both a sequel and a spiritual inverse. Skyfall was the story of ends birthing beginnings, of resurrection, of the ghosts of the past come back to haunt the agents of the present; in essence, a story mired in the destruction of the present at the hands of the past. In taking down M at the hands of her former agent, burning the ancestral Bond home to the ground, and knocking down Vauxhall Cross in pieces, Skyfall pulled the Bond stories out of the past, clearing a path to the future.
Spectre, however, rejects that forward momentum, firmly moving back to the golden age of spy movies. If Skyfall was the remnants of the past come to tear down the present, Spectre is the agents of the future being eviscerated by the traditions of the past. It’s a return to form and function over modernity’s flash, the on-the-ground agents triumphing of technology’s glossy, glassy hold on present- and future-day security.
Even the visuals of the films are near-perfect opposites. Where Skyfall relied on a trio of primaries—stark white, blood red, and deep blue—”Spectre” is a study in dusty lavender-gray, warm peach, and midnight blue-black. Skyfall‘s Silva, his hair and face a sickly white, worked from the shadows, while Spectre‘s Big Bad, clad in a navy suit (and a surprisingly ill-fitting one, for a Bond villain), operates within an eerily white headquarters.
Unfortunately, where Skyfall succeeded, Spectre falls somewhat flat. Though all the parts are present, the glue that holds them together feels off, somehow. Q is still an adorable nerd—”with a mortgage and two cats,” we learn—but the film, for no good reason, turns him from a composed hacker into a stumbling-over-his-own-words inept geek. Moneypenny’s role in the plot is so minor, her biggest contribution to Bond’s life is literally the fact that she has a boyfriend. And while Fiennes is a perfectly fine, harried, competent M—and we get to see him hold his own in a firefight—he’s no Judi Dench.
If the supporting cast is awkward, the stars aren’t much better. Craig’s straight-faced wit here feels tired. Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux), both stunningly beautiful and sharply witty, is more electric on-screen than he is. What’s not crackling, unfortunately, is their chemistry, which makes it all the more difficult to understand why she becomes so important to Bond, so quickly. And for all that Monica Belluci was hyped as an age-appropriate Bond woman, she barely has any screen time.
However, there is something deeply satisfying about watching the loose ends being tied up one-by-one. The film is peppered with references to the previous three films, and the Big Bad Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) prances and preens with maniacal glee as he claims “all this pain” as his orchestration. It’s delightfully old-fashioned. The emotional depths the film tries to evoke aren’t genuine, but the gallivanting fun of watching elaborate shootouts and large-scale explosions is. Spectre‘s deeply imperfect, but not a total failure. It’s just stuck between two worlds: the dark and gritty drama it’s trying to be, and the old-school cool Bond film whose mantle it’s trying to reject. Honestly, it’d have been much more enjoyable if it just embraced its heritage.