For all the success of The Martian and the hype anticipating The Force Awakens, the annals of popular culture will not remember 2015 as the year of space fiction, grounded or fantastical; no, 2015 is destined for the moniker of “The Year of Espionage.” One of the most critically successful games of the year has been Hideo Kojima’s magnum opus Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, a Cold War era stealth shooter featuring one of the medium’s most iconic covert operatives, Big Boss (whose initial appearance was designed after the ur-spy himself, Sean Connery). In comics, the unsung wellspring of all that is most popular in culture, Matt Kindt and Clay Mann have reintroduced readers to Ninjak, the affluent and affable agent of MI6 and world’s greatest ninjustu master, in an eponymously titled series which quietly and consistently ranks as one of the best on the racks. And on the dying dinosaur that is television, Archer remains one of the few programs worth watching, the Bond-inspired office comedy for twenty and thirtysomethings who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons having lost none of its signature wit.
But where fiction’s international men of mystery have truly had a place to shine in 2015 has been film. Beginning with January’s Mortdecai, most months have seen intelligence agents, intelligent or otherwise, grace the silver screen, including such films as Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., American Ultra, and Agent 47. This week’s release of Spectre, the fourth and final outing of Daniel Craig as the heretofore definitive James Bond, promised to be the capstone for this seminal year in the genre that 007 has defined for over half a century.
There were ways in which that promise was indeed delivered on. Director Sam Mendes, despite his need of a good editor to infuse a brisker pace and a bit more energy into a decompressed, at time plodding, film, nevertheless brings back from Skyfall his superb eye for cinematography. His use of color and contrast elevates the individual frames of the film, absent of their context, to modernist works of art in themselves. Craig too proves the mastery of his craft in every scene, displaying more emotional range through his singular stoic stare, steely eyes unflinching, than do most actors in their entire careers and the entire suite of emojis combined.
Most importantly, Bond still epitomizes cool. The trappings of the character will always naturally inspire envy: the flashy cars, the string of beautiful conquests, the simplicity of a life where every problem can be solved by pulling a trigger, and the knowledge that one’s actions are always of global consequence. But even stripped of such, Craig’s Bond would still be cool simply by the nature of who he is.
When he and Vesper first had their initial tête-à-tête aboard the train to Monte Carlo in Casino Royale, she astutely remarked, “Naturally you think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain, my guess is you didn’t come from money.” Gone are the days of Bond’s wardrobe being an uncomfortable adornment accompanied by disdain. Nor is he under any pretenses about how human being actually dress; rather, he knows this is how every man would dress had they his timeless sartorial sensibilities and the affluence to afford such adornments.
His Bond is the rejection of the notion of a democratized, egalitarian coolness accessible to the masses. His is a cool that cannot be attained by simply being self-assure and comfortable in one’s own skin. But it’s also a rejection of purely bourgeois displays of wealth which belie a philistine fashionability dictated by the ever ebbing tide of trendiness. Bond neither follows not sets such trends. His cool is classic, timeless, an eternally existing platonic ideal he did not invent but discovered, which he and Don Draper alone have managed to manifest this millennium.
If Spectre was a Parisian runway or Milanese fashion show, that’d be enough. But as cinema in general and a Bond film in particular, it falls short. It first fails with respect to its villain, the iconic arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The character only really works in his introductory scene, menacing only because of his mystery, a whispering cypher draped in shadow. After that, Christopher Waltz initially underperforms, lacking presence; he could genuinely afford to chew the scenery a bit, to be slightly more maniacal as he monologues in his evil lair. He delivers these lines with an unenthusiastic, matter-of-fact attitude that robs the film of atmosphere. Alternatively, his motivations, plans, and appearance by the film’s end all delve deep into levels of camp unseen since the Bronson era. Between being secretly behind every other rogue Bond had faced thus far (logical inconsistencies and plot holes be damned) and the estranged adoptive brother for whom their conflict has always been personal (yes, they literally made Big Brother to be Bond’s big brother), it’s a cliché too far.
The film’s love interest, Madeline Swann, is played by Léa Seydoux, who tries to match Craig’s seeming detachment but instead comes across as wooden and vacant. Though effortlessly beautiful, she is no more so than the average Bond babe, and thus devoid of personality on par with even Strawberry Fields or Séverine it becomes a wonder that this is supposedly the woman to heal the heart left atrophied by Vesper Lynd and draw Bond away from the only life he’s ever known as a spy.
And herein lies the greatest problem with the film. There are two conflicting stories at play. The first is Bond’s final outing, the culmination of every event since the start of Casino Royale. Just as that film was the origin story Bond hadn’t had, so too is the finale Bond never needed. With Spectre annihilated by a single well placed shot and Blofeld defeated (in a melodramatic moment wherein Bond rejects the exercise of his license to kill, having become suddenly meditative on the morality of assassination after mowing down scores of henchmen throughout), the work is finally done; Her Majesty’s Government no longer needs Bond, and he’s free to finally live his own life.
Thematically contradicting this, however, is the interweaving subplot of the film which sees M trying to preserve a place for the double-o program as his superiors seek to shutter it in favor of increased surveillance and drone strikes. It is a conversation both timely and evergreen, every bit applicable as a condemnation of Thatcherism as it is The Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, and the overzealous surveillance of the National Security Agency. M knows that MI6 need not traffic in sex slaves as per Spectre for such an expansion of the agency’s powers to implicitly make it an enemy of the very citizen’s it would be posturing to protect through such Orwellian infringements of privacy. But the world still needs protecting, and thus in the absence of such surveillance there will always remain a need for the likes of Bond.
This leaves the viewer walking away without a clear sense of what the filmmakers were trying to convey. The world no longer needs Bond? The world needs Bond now as much as ever? These don’t seem to be compatible, but both are clearly in the text of the film. Perhaps such could be overlooked in the absence of any other shortcomings, but through most of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime the film fails to be fun.
After the credits of Skyfall, on screen appeared the words “James Bond will be back in Spectre.” No such message accompanied Spectre. That more movies will be made eventually is a given. But whether the world still needs James Bond after Spectre is a question not even the film itself can answer.