Spectre and the Bond Canon / by Chris Weigl

It is the first week in November which, had it not been for the British invasion (of 1812 not the 1960’s) and subsequent burning of the Executive Mansion (now known as the White House) would probably be a national holiday.  November marks the release of a new James Bond film and given that history is so often retold by those who never lived through it this also marks a time to rank the new James Bond film in the canon of James Bond film lore.

In a feature on RottenTomatoes, the site ranks James Bond films based on their Tomatometer ranking.  There are a few things wrong with doing this the way that they have chosen to do it.  Seven of the bottom eight Bond films star either Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan while seven of the top eight star Sean Connery or Daniel Craig.  Its fine to play favorites insofar as your favorite Bond is concerned, but to make it this lopsided seems completely unfair.  First off, let’s admit that Skyfall is not the greatest Bond film of all time.  If they were using their own metric to measure which film was the best then one of the first three Connery entries would be at the top of the list (all three tied with 96% positive reviews.)  However, there is a bias in history where we tend to believe that things that happened recently are greater than things that happened years ago.  Skyfall cannot hold a torch to the early Bond films.  The first four Bond films were the best in the franchise.

What makes even less sense than picking Skyfall as the best Bond film of all time is where the middling Bond films rank in the history of the series.  The two Timothy Dalton entries for instance place number fourteen and number ten respectively in the history of the James Bond franchise.  No matter what your feelings are on Dalton as Bond his films were terrible.  License to Kill is almost entirely unwatchable as is George Lazenby’s entry which somehow comes in at number seven (ahead of The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only, the two gems of the Roger Moore era.)  This is just ridiculous.  Even if you hate Roger Moore as Bond those two entries in the series are still some of the most memorable as is The Man with the Golden Gun, which is one of the best Fleming stories and features one of the great bond villains played by the late Christopher Lee who was always remarkable for his ability to play a likable hated man. 

Spectre, for all its wanting to be a bow-tying affair in the Daniel Craig canon, relies on all the old devices from the previous Mendes film.  Bond films have always been procedural in nature, but there has always been a serialized edge that gives each film its particular standing in the series.  Casino Royale was remarkable for its ability to delve deep into what made Bond such a fascinating character.  Skyfall was interesting because it not only used M in the Bond girl role, but had the balls to kill her off.  This is what those of us in fiction writing call character arcs, you’re supposed to have them in all fiction, but it can be especially difficult to do when you’re writing a blueprint which is what a screenplay really is.  None of this is to say that Spectre doesn’t have character arcs, it does, but those arcs are reserved to the minor characters.  However, the real problem with Spectre was that one never got the feeling that Waltz’s Blofeld matched up to Craig’s Bond.  Where it was reasonable to think that Silva might be able to accomplish his goal of killing M (which he did) it was never realistic for Blofeld to beat Bond. 

This is what we call the stakes.  The stakes have to be realistic in the universe in which the story is taking place.  Never, at any point in the film, did you believe that Blofeld or his organization held even the slightest edge over Bond.  The stakes simply were not there.  It was a mystery that you went along with because you were interested in how they were going to put it all together.  The film works on some levels because of that.  The film also works for the homage it pays to other Bond films.  The scenes in the train were throwbacks to From Russia with Love, the scenes in the desert a nod to The Spy Who Loved me, so on and so forth throughout the film.  It was piece of technical mastery on Mendes’s part for which he should get ample credit.  We all saw how distasterous this idea was when it was attempted by Lee Tamahori in Die Another Day.

Spectre feels more like a placeholder for the next film which is going to have to be a true boom or bust film.  Where producers had to make a gutsy call after Die Another Day they may find themselves in a similar position with the next film.  I mean, just where does the franchise go from here?  Is Bond going to go back to fighting Blofeld time after time?  It really depends on just how procedural they want the franchise to be.  If producers have felt like the last few films have been out of place then it would not be unreasonable to see them go back to a more formulaic approach like they did in the Brosnan era.  If, however, they want to go in a more progressive direction then the Blofeld era needs to end here.  His character had his time in the sun, but what do you really get by fighting him time after time?  That question is one that whoever winds up purchasing the rights to the Bond franchise should spend a lot of time considering.