"History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind." ~ Edward Gibbon
SPECTRE: Not Scarier Than the Newspapers
Column by Kevin M. Patten.
Exclusive to STR
The newest 007 film is, all and all, a dud. Putting the summation first: It’s predicable, uninspired, disjointed. It sets itself up for real potential by attempting to give the secret agent a genuine backstory, and then fails miserably without much effort. It brings in supernova-sized casting, and then wastes the talent. It teases us with a brilliant and breathtaking “pre-title” sequence, featuring Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival, and then lets the rest of the action drizzle away, at times boringly.
But the real problem with the film – the one emphasized and examined here – is that the bad guy’s scheme has been completely cribbed from a Washington DC playbook, making the once-classic scenario of a “world in jeopardy” nothing more thrilling than what has already been told to us by the always enthusiastic Edward Snowden.
As Peter Suderman says in his review: “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.”
Point taken. But watching the past films, with plots so fantastic an exaggeration of world events, you easily lose yourself in a make-believe situation, one that Fleming himself – although a spy for the royal navy who did once say that everything he wrote could actually occur in the real world – had nevertheless deliberately created in his novels. Example: In Dr. No, Bond trades “blows” with a kraken. Yes, a giant squid. (We’ll come right back to the matter of tentacles in a second.)
In the movie franchise, Bond has infiltrated a secret volcano lair to prevent yet another space-hijacking; stops a diamond smuggling operation just before they’re to be used for a space laser; he even goes into space himself at one point. These ventures obviously forego any serious profile of your average spy.
There were the more “realistic” plots, as in when Bond battles drug traffickers, attains secret “decoding” devices, stops further space lasers – though the villains here are menacing enough to not really notice or care. Plus, they were usually motivated by that timeless “Macguffin”: revenge. After watching Javier Bardem hunt down his abandoner with the only wish to see her dead, it leaves here a feeling of absence. (Revenge was present since at least 1971, when Sean Connery returned to the role, this in a squandered entry which was set up to witness what could have been awesome vengeance for the death of Bond’s wife, only to see it become the first true parody in the series.) The franchise has always toyed these angles, from the out-of-this-world to the hard-boiled spy thriller. Some worked. Others, not.
SPECTRE demonstrates neither of these dichotomies, or at least not very well. It’s given straight away as something read right out of a newspaper (perhaps an “alternative” newspaper), and then lavished with the usual explosions and “Bond formula.” Suderman notes: “[B]ecause 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.” Exactly. The previous, far superior film, Skyfall, did have a contemporary point involving computer hacking – but, to repeat, what moved it forward was the never-boring wheels of payback.
What returning director Sam Mendes did with that film, the wonderful use of Bond nostalgia, simply doesn’t work here. The white cat and scarred face is present, but they hardly matter considering that we’re never even told what SPECTRE stands for. In 1962, the first movie (Dr. No, which was the sixth of Fleming’s novels), it was: “Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion.” With dastardly agendas like that, it would be the organization to have during the days of the Cold War. A filmmaker interested in espionage could, and did, do so much with it. As many observe nowadays, it just seems that the Bond movies have run out of ideas.
This takes us to the “Octopus” motif, what I think is the filmmakers’ attempt at something “new.” If one wears earmuffs, so as to inoculate against Sam Smith’s absolutely terrible title song, the titles themselves are actually quite enjoyable, especially if you’re something of a conspiratologist like me. It features the slimy tentacles of an octopus – a favorite analogy for those who worry about a High Cabal that controls the world – wrapping itself around . . . well, everything, including a naked and enflamed Daniel Craig surrounded and making love to various shadow women.
In the realer world, The Octopus was being chased down by intrepid investigator Danny Casolaro, before he was found dead in a West Virginia hotel room in 1991. He had been following up on “The Inslaw Affair,” the saga of a computer software program, called PROMIS, which linked together the many databases of American law enforcement. Things got more interesting when Casolaro discovered that a “backdoor access” had been created for the software that allowed for spying into the files of whomever used it. After Casolaro’s strange death, veteran researchers Jim Keith – who also died strangely in 1999 – and Kenn Thomas followed up on his notes, leading to the publication of the aforementioned title.
“Everything is information,” Bond’s nemesis – a stupidly reincarnated Blofeld – says while giving the heroes a tour of his desert compound. The line is almost given with what I guess is the metaphysical, something like how this rather mundane villain might be happy that all that quantum mechanical “we’re all linked together on a celestial plane” stuff could be true, and would then one day reunite with the father that was once taken from him by a just-orphaned James Bond. Yet I don’t think this is what’s meant; which is, literally and clandestinely – I can see you everywhere. Earlier, Bond’s chief-of staff-explains the plan: “Nine Eyes,” the program that’s about to merge the intelligence agencies of nine different countries, talking of the international meeting that was soon to be had, summoning both Bond’s boss as well as Blofeld’s very own “inside” man, and this for an “up-or-down” vote by all involved member-parties. It was – indeed the threes words that are said – the “new world order.” And by the way, horridly presented. Even close to being chilled? Not really; and actually, I felt more threatened by Brosnan’s constant World War 3 dilemma.
Though if we were to take Suderman’s advice, to view the Bond Franchise as the occasional multi-million dollar reveal of everything political and cultural and perhaps governmental, two scenes in particular could be seen as unnerving and needing of further caution. One has Blofeld, underground his desert compound, with all his computer hackers seated and heeded at random command, showing a live action video clip of an office security camera. “Is this live?” the underused Academy Award winner asks. That could prove to be daunting the next time you’re out shopping for the newest tech toy.
The other is the concept of “false flag attacks.” As it turns out, South Africa doesn’t vote in favor of the globalized spy program. We are quickly shown a television set with what was CNN “broadcasting” the news of a major terrorist attack in one of the metropolitan cities. South Africa, as it were, changes its mind. “Who could blame them?” remarks Blofeld’s government insider. Who indeed.
The first cinematic concern – a constant, round-the-clock recording of someone at work, visiting businesses, at certain cross streets, and maybe even at home – is mostly on time. The second – violence perpetrated by this wicked global elite – is at least 20-30 years too late, at least since the details of Operation Gladio were divulged to a shocked public. Bush Sr. might now be able to take pride in the fact that movies have finally encompassed his announcement. Maybe then we have to wonder about who comprises the new set of employees, all those state-sanctioned perverts who – as Bond muses about accurately – are mere “voyeurs” getting paid to watch tiny monitors from “9-5,” their security clearance probably somewhere around level Saturn.
At any rate. This was a movie review, not a full blown conspiracy analysis. So it isn’t to say that the film is absent of some really terrific scenes. As already stated, the opening is marvelously done, with thousands of Mexican revelers threatened by an out-of-control helicopter. Mendes was just about correct here: the biggest thing shot for a “pre-title” sequence. Daniel Craig’s 007 is also given a sense of snarky, sarcastic humor. Although it’s not perfect, and does rip off Dirty Harry a bit, exposing the superspy’s funny bone is typically welcomed. His line, when asked about killing the husband of a woman he’s about to bed, is too good not to note: “He was an assassin . . . he won’t take it personally.” Craig also has a brutal fight with former wrestler Dave Batista aboard a train, something noticeably absent from the last entry, and sure to be recognized as the updated “Bond VS. Red Grant.” The promotional marketing was also new and interesting, with the IMAX poster having Bond disguised in a skull mask. Death before Breakfast: an adage definitely attributed to the Bond universe.