Spectre opens with an extended take that cranes down over a massive parade of people dressed in skeleton costumes to single out a masked James Bond in the crowd. The camera follows him into a hotel, an elevator, and then a bedroom; he flings a woman onto a bed, changes swiftly into a perfectly tailored suit, and climbs out the window to walk along the roof of a separate building, gun in hand, and perform an assassination while the ghoulish parade continues below.
The jaw-dropping single shot is an incredible technical accomplishment. It makes for a gorgeous, foreboding, and incredibly tense sequence, staged and paced with Hitchcockian wit and precision — and that’s before stuff starts blowing up.
Set during Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festival, the sequence introduces a longer pre-credits action set piece, complete with crashing buildings and a vertiginous hand-to-hand encounter in an out-of-control helicopter. It's a scene that pulls double duty as a high-octane opener and a backdoor fundraiser for this $300 million spy extravaganza: It was reportedly reworked in order to qualify for as much as $20 million in tax credits from the Mexican government, which wanted Spectre’s producers to feature the city in a positive light.
I’m not entirely sure that city officials got what they paid for. The film's brief glimpses of Mexico City suggest a dusky, haunted urban landscape full of mystery and death.
But the investment certainly paid off for moviegoers. It’s the single greatest shot in Bond film history, and it sets incredibly high expectations for the duration of the two-hour, 30-minute runtime. It’s a perfect Bond sequence: sexy, thrilling, stylish, extravagantly elaborate, and marvelously over the top. It’s everything you want from a modern 007 film.
It's just too bad the rest of Spectre is such a disappointment — relative not just to its opening scene, but to other recent Bond films, which scrambled the Bond formula in ways that produced two of the series’ best entries: the taut, brutal Casino Royale (2006) and the breathtakingly beautiful Skyfall (2012).
Indeed, while the stunning opening sequence offers a succinct demonstration of all the ways a Bond movie can go right, what follows mostly serves to illustrate all the ways Bond movies can — and do — go wrong.
Spectre handles familiar elements in all the wrong ways
Spectre is the 24th film in the James Bond series, and the fourth to feature Daniel Craig as 007. Directed by Sam Mendes (who also helmed Skyfall), it features all of the franchise’s familiar elements and characters. The problem is that it handles most of them the wrong way.
Let's start with the credit sequence. Bond movies have long been known for their innovative, avant-garde opening titles, dating back to the mod design work of Dr. No and the gilded, surrealist innuendos of Goldfinger.
But Spectre’s credits are just weird. The sequence is built around octopus imagery, with goopy tentacles weaving and waving their way through scenes from the forthcoming movie. It's set to Sam Smith’s overwrought chamber pop ballad "Writing’s on the Wall," an unfortunate song that doesn’t work with the visuals. With its slithering sea arms and an overlay of kaleidoscopic coloring, it ultimately feels like an Apple ad for tentacle porn. The whole thing comes across as unintentionally ridiculous — and a far cry from the jazzy, energetic swagger of the opening titles for Craig’s first outing as Bond, Casino Royale.
Then there are the stalwart Bond characters of Q, Bond’s gadget maker; M, Bond’s superior; and Moneypenny, the spy agency’s longtime secretary. In Skyfall, Moneypenny was given an elevated role as a field agent (though she ultimately got benched). In Spectre, she’s relegated back to what is essentially an assistant role — a researcher rather than a rival.
When Ben Whishaw debuted as the new, young Q in Skyfall, his arrival marked a welcome change for a character who had grown stale and silly. Whishaw’s nebbishy, sly Q was not only younger, but quieter and less overtly comic than his predecessors. In Spectre, however, he’s confined to a more traditional role as the comically awkward tech geek, forced to utter lame laugh lines about living alone with his cats.
At the end of Skyfall, Dame Judi Dench, the actress who had played M since 1995’s Goldeneye — back when Pierce Brosnan was Bond — was replaced with a new M portrayed by Ralph Fiennes.
Dench’s M survived for so long because she was always one of the best parts of the series, regardless of the actor playing 007. Not only did she perform the traditional role of Bond’s boss, sending him on his mission and setting the story in motion, but she also served as a voice of moral authority — a conscience who didn’t just tell Bond what to do, but let him know when he was wrong.
Spectre doesn’t just lose Dench’s powerful persona, it makes M a preachy dud, saddling Fiennes, who seems bored by the role, with a lot of dull sermonizing about the dangerous nature of government surveillance.
That’s because the villain’s plan involves secretly partnering with world governments and taking over a massive global surveillance network in order to … well, it’s never quite clear, actually. The movie’s baddie is played by Christoph Waltz, a devilish Austrian performer with a knack for switching seamlessly between subtle innuendos and maniacally over-the-top melodrama.
It’s hard to imagine any actor better suited to play a Bond villain, and yet the movie totally wastes him in the role. The character, the head of a powerful global crime syndicate who turns out to have a rather personal history with Bond, is just a dud, all shallow menace and vague, pointless monologuing. You can’t even say his ultimate plan makes no sense, because his actual plan is barely described at all.
The film is peppered with pointless references to the franchise's past
SPECTRE, the criminal organization Waltz's character heads up, is a nod to Bond films past. But the movie’s reliance on references to franchise history often makes it feels like it’s run out of new ideas.
That’s certainly the case with Hinx, a beefy, brutal, mostly wordless villain played by former pro wrestler Dave Bautista who harks back to the old days of silly sidekick henchmen, like Oddjob and Jaws.
Bond’s latest love interest feels decidedly retro, too — and not in a good way. In contrast to Casino Royale, which paired Bond with Eva Green’s marvelously self-composed Vesper Lynd, another government agent and an equal with an agenda all her own, Spectre pulls mostly from the old Bond playbook.
Léa Seydoux plans Madeleine Swann, the daughter of an old enemy, and when she and Bond first spend time together, the fatherly quality of his relationship to her is made explicit. At first, she even insists that she won’t sleep with him in order to work out some repressed daddy issues. It’s a moment of strength for the character and a nice counter to the long history of Bond films featuring exactly those sorts of clichéd older man/younger woman relationships.
But just a few minutes later, the movie ruins it, sending Swann tumbling implausibly into Bond’s bed after the two off a bad guy on a moving train. Sure, the scene is a winking reference to similar train-car fights in From Russia With Love and The Spy Who Loved Me, but it totally undercuts the most interesting thing about her character.
Spectre is bad in very typical ways for the franchise
The most disappointing aspect of Spectre is that it feels like a step backward for the Bond franchise. It’s bad in all the ways that bad Bond films are always bad.
Sure, the movie is darker and moodier than its predecessors, with shadowy photography and tougher action sequences. But with a different director at the helm, a less operatic score, and a slightly brighter color palette, it’s all too easy to imagine this same script and story turning out exactly like the cheesy, glib Bond films from the 1970s, when Roger Moore played the part.
Even the visuals are a disappointment relative to what Mendes pulled off in Skyfall. That film featured cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins, perhaps the greatest cinematographer working today, whose stark, liquid compositions made for one of the most gorgeous blockbusters I’ve ever seen.
Up until now, Craig’s Bond films have been all about fighting the franchise’s worst impulses. Some of this has been winkingly obvious: When asked in Casino Royale how he’d like his martini, he shot back, "Do I look like I give a damn?" But a lot of these changes are what make Royale and Skyfall work so well: Downplaying Bond’s reliance on silly sci-fi gadgets, undercutting the series’ penchant for casual misogyny (at least a little), and making the action scenes not only more violent, but more painful for Bond. Casino Royale even allowed him to have real feelings for Vesper Lynd. Craig was the Bond who bled, and even felt real emotional pain. But in Spectre, when he orders a martini, it’s back to, "Shaken, not stirred."
Every Bond film somehow reflects the time in which it's made
Every Bond film is in some sense a reflection of its time, from the Mad Men cool of the Sean Connery era to the Star Wars–inflected dorky disco vibe of the Roger Moore pictures to Timothy Dalton’s chilly Cold War spy thrillers to the generic, big-budget action blockbusters starring Pierce Brosnan in the late '90s. Watching a Bond film provides a sense of a given time period’s fashion sensibilities, its ideas about masculinity and power, and even its political concerns. If you wanted a sociocultural history of the United States since 1964, you could do a lot worse than watching the Bond films back to back.
With its government surveillance storyline and comic-book-like attempts to give the films more connection and continuity, Spectre is no exception. On the surface, at least, it is a thoroughly modern blockbuster, and very much a product of the 2010s.
But the best Bond films are also timeless in their own ways — pop masterworks that transcend the moment. The forgettable, frustrating Spectre not only fails to transcend its moment, it doesn’t live up to its own recent legacy.