Movie Postmortems: SPECTRE

by John S.

Movie Postmortems is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out what the hell happened.

(Movie Postmortems will run on an alternating schedule with Cinema Jackpot!)

 

THE CASUALTY: Spectre

THE CASE HISTORY: November 2012. The 23rd installment in the long-running James Bond franchise is released and becomes an instant success. Skyfall is showered with glowing reviews and stellar box-office. By the time it finishes its worldwide theatrical run, the film grosses over a billion dollars – a definite franchise best. The previous record was set by the similarly-lauded Casino Royale in 2006:  $599 million. There is no denying the massive global impact of Skyfall.

With the near-universal success of Skyfall, the divisive Quantum of Solace from 2008 becomes a distant memory. The Bond franchise even gets some Oscar cachet with the nomination of Adele’s title song for an Academy Award in 2013 – which she wins. Eager to continue down the promising path set by Skyfall, EON recruits its director, Sam Mendes, to return to the driver’s seat. Development on the 24th Bond film begins with a target release date of November 2015.

December 2014. At a press conference in London the official cast of the next Bond film are introduced. Joining Daniel Craig on his next 007 mission are Lea Seydoux, Monica Belluci, Dave Bautista, and Christoph Waltz (in addition to the usual MI-6 stalwarts played by Ralph Fiennes, Naomi Harris, Rory Kinnear, and Ben Whishaw). The rumors that Waltz will be playing  a modern incarnation of classic Bond Baddie Ernst Stavro Blofeld seem to be confirmed by the reveal of the film’s title: Spectre.

November 2015. Spectre opens big around the world. In North America, its debut is just behind Skyfall’s but still impressive. However, while critical notices are somewhat positive in the United Kingdom, the reviews and word of mouth in the United States are decidedly mixed to negative. A national magazine even calls Spectre the “worst Bond film in 30 years.” Elsewhere, a major West Coast newspaper suggests Craig and Mendes should have been replaced after Skyfall to end the era on a high note.

This negative word of mouth slows Spectre’s  roll in North America. After a solid $70 million domestic opening weekend, the movie struggles to hit the $200 million mark and barely reaches it. Overseas business is noticeably down from  Skyfall’s run but still good. Spectre ends its global run with an overall take of around $880 million. It’s financial success notwithstanding, though, the general critical and audience consensus in North America is that Spectre is a weak follow-up to Skyfall.

What the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS:  Spectre is structured like a mystery/thriller with some action sequences. We follow Bond on a winding trail as he follows clues to uncover the identity of the man behind the titular organization. Except it turns out he’s known the truth along. For a mystery to work, both the protagonist and audience need to be on the same footing and discover things at the same time. For a thriller to work, the audience can be ahead of the protagonist to create suspense and thrills. Unfortunately, the audience is in the dark for much of Spectre – which has a dulling effect on the pace.

And when the dark-twist-that-Bond-knew-all-along is revealed, it turns out to be so utterly misguided and lame that one half-expects it to be a joke. Surely the canny, savvy Barbara Broccoli who gives final sign-off on all decisions from scripting to casting to production would not have approved this choice. Yet, there it is on full, serious display. Whoever pitched it to her (reportedly Mendes and screenwriter John Logan’s idea) must have really hyped it up. Quite frankly, it’s the worst idea ever. It’s the one flaw above all others that ultimately does Spectre in.

There’s also something disconcertingly retro about the treatment of women in the Craig Bond films. Yes, Casino Royale’s harsh fate for Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) was true to Ian Fleming’s source novel and was necessary to harden Bond’s outlook. However, no such convenient excuse exists for how the majority of the other female characters have been consistently treated in the last four films. Solange Dimitrios, Agent Fields, and Severine – despite solid performances from Caterina Murino, Gemma Arterton, and Berenice Marlohe – were ultimately all thankless sacrificial lambs killed off after fleeting appearances.

Even the celebrated Skyfall had some questionable gender politics apparent for anyone willing to look deeper. Besides the already mentioned callous handling of Severine, that film paints Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) as a capable field agent who ultimately elects to take a desk job instead – as the assistant to a male bureaucrat (Ralph Fiennes). Then there’s M (Judi Dench) who is finally promoted to full Bond Heroine status – only to be killed off almost casually at the end for all her trouble. Needless to say, she deserved a better fate.

This trend continues in Spectre with the much-hyped but barely-there appearance of Monica Belluci as just another Bond conquest (at least she isn’t killed off this time). Lea Seydoux is the nominal heroine and is a fine actress – but despite some intriguing potential her character is quickly relegated to “damsel-in-distress” status. Seydoux arguably had more impact in her much smaller turn as an assassin in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Overall, the only woman to emerge unscathed from the Craig era so far is Olga Kurylenko as Camille Montes in Quantum of Solace. Camille never once registers as a victim and successfully resists Bond.

The regression of the current Bond films to the gender practices of some of the earlier Bond films is unfortunate when you consider the entries from the Dalton and Brosnan eras unfailingly gave us strong, resourceful female characters who were well-utilized and not marginalized. In those films, “sacrificial lambs” were the exception rather than the unfortunate rule they have become with the Craig films. Spectre is also the first Bond film without Judi Dench and her absence is very noticeable. The M-Bond dynamic between Fiennes and Craig is simply not as interesting as the Craig-Dench connection – and Spectre is all the weaker for it.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: Seems like the folks behind Skyfall got a little over-confident because of its success and made some ill-advised choices in realizing Spectre. Which is too bad, because they also made a few well-advised choices. Unfortunately, these were pretty much overshadowed by the ill-advised ones. Spectre’s mixed reception reportedly scuttled a direct follow-up in 2017. Bond 25 is not expected now until November 2019. Back to the drawing board. Again.  Hopefully it’s “bye-bye” to Blofeld…

NEXT CASUALTY: The Haunting – “Some Houses Are Born Bad.

Our next Postmortem is another flick that did okay at the box-office but still left most critics and audiences cold. And not out of fear or dread. Nope, this 1999 remake of the classic supernatural chiller from 1963 boasted a large budget, talented cast, and an interesting reimagining of the original premise. Except the end result was less scary than your average Goosebumps book.  In fact, The Haunting (version ’99) is often cited as an example of how not to remake a horror movie. What went wrong?

 

 

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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