Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE boasts one truly exceptional moment. It is not the much-ballyhooed opening sequence, an invigorating sequence set during Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival. No, it is one of the film’s rare grace notes, a brief moment of relief from the overplotted onslaught of the film’s two hours and thirty minutes. The freshly-widowed Lucia Sciarra (the radiant Monica Bellucci), knowing that assassins are coming to kill her, walks through her gorgeous Italian home, puts on some opera, prepares herself a drink, and walks out to her pool to accept her fate with dignity. Bond soon saves her, and the plot machinery once again kicks into high-gear, but it’s the only moment in SPECTRE that has any humanity.
This comes as something of a keen disappointment, given that Mendes’ previous Bond outing, Skyfall, had many more such keenly-observed, human moments. But Skyfall was, plotwise, a much slighter picture. Coming after the enormous success of Skyfall, SPECTRE carries the weight of higher expectations , and has been settled with a considerably more ambitious arc that promises to reunite agent 007 with his greatest nemesis: the sinister SPECTRE and its iconic leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
The trajectory of the Daniel Craig era of Bond has painted Bond as a fundamentally tragic, damaged figure. Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall sees Bond as the product of a series of tragedies—the death of his parents, the death of Vesper, the death of M—all of which have hardened him into a killer and denied him a potentially more fulfilling life. SPECTRE attempts to offer Bond a happy ending of sorts, and in the story arc that Mendes sketched out with SPECTRE’s various screenwriters, Bond reckons with the ghosts of his childhood, of his great failed romance, and of the death of his mentor.
Each of those ideas gets a subplot of its own. Bond’s childhood is evoked in his conflict with Blofeld, here reimagined as Bond’s foster brother. Bond’s romance with Vesper finds an echo in his romance with Madeleine Swann. Bond further faces the ramifications of M’s death both by responding to her orders—delivered from beyond the grave—and by overcoming the sinister forces that seek to lay ruin to MI6 (the ruined façade of the old MI6 headquarters looms over many of the film’s sequences, a metaphorical reminder of M’s departure). That’s a lot of plot for any film, and the unfortunate thing is that the three strands each seem to choke the other out for attention.
The Blofeld storyline has been structured around Bond’s recognition of his own past, but is written in such a careless way: Bond seemingly never cares about the connection, and all the important beats of the mystery are indifferently-written and directed interludes between larger set-pieces. The opening title card boasts that “the dead are alive,” but nothing here suggests that same ghostly power. In characterization, Blofeld feels confused: he’s the traditional villain, but with a wholly extraneous origin story attached.
The core romance with Madeleine Swann feels like little more than a series of bullet points. Where previous Bond films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale, took their romances seriously and attempted (at least in part) to structure the story around them, the romance here is relegated to a handful of too-brief scenes that cannot possibly carry the weight. It doesn’t help that Lea Seydoux and Daniel Craig do not have instantly-perceptible chemistry, so they are unable to fill in the gaps that left by the film.
The worst of the three storylines, involving the impending demise of old MI6 and the rise of a new surveillance state, lacks any tension or surprise, and largely plays out through very rote scenes involving the MI6 “home team” (M, Moneypenny, and Q). Bond somewhat comes into play during the film’s limp climax at the old MI6 headquarters, but he never feels intimately involved in the fight, even after Blofeld is revealed to be behind it all.
Director Sam Mendes, working with editor Lee Smith, moves through all of this material relentlessly, to the point where none of it carries any weight. Even the action setpieces, with all their glorious stuntwork, fall flat (excluding the opening sequence, which is admittedly fun, even if it, too, is too-tightly edited). Even the worst Bond films are typically capable of a few truly great moments that linger in the mind, but SPECTRE appears and vanishes in a flash, all of its moments mixing into a blur.
The one element that remains impeccable is Craig himself. SPECTRE finally allows Craig’s Bond the freedom to enjoy himself, and Craig seems to relish the opportunity, giving us a Bond who thrives on the exhilaration provided by danger. If Craig does not return for Bond 25, SPECTRE has given us just enough of Craig to be satisfied.