The newest James Bond film, Spectre, is a rather bad Bond movie. This didn’t use to trouble most people about Bond movies; some would say a certain level of camp, horrific puns, and eye candy was necessary to distract from the outrageously telling male fantasy on screen. Of course, there were always some installments that took themselves more seriously. Goldeneye, for instance, flirts with sincerity in a way none of the other Pierce Brosnan flicks do. Casino Royale is even a rather serious novel. As a first installment in a series of increasingly fantastic tales of the gentleman spy, it’s quite a downer. It was a fitting pick, then, for the new more serious Bond to make his debut. Now, three films later, the series has produced a glamorous nostalgia vehicle that dazzles the eyes, confuses the brain, and inspires a collective feminist sigh.
The Bond franchise is standing at a crossroads. Most of American society is too progressive and feminist to enjoy the Sean Connery films with the same gusto of even ten or fifteen years ago. They are also a little racist (the books much more so) and simultaneously contain an improbable amount of sex and very little actual sex at all. The Roger Moore films are remembered chiefly for their perfect combination of sexism and punning. Who can forget the girl named “Goodnight” who was unceremoniously stuffed in the trunk of a car with the quip “Say goodnight, goodnight!” Timothy Dalton… I mostly skipped over, to be honest. Pierce Brosnan…. you can mostly skip over too.
And then, all of a sudden, Bond became eminently watchable again. Casino Royale is an excellent movie. It still couldn’t pass the Bechdel test, but we can’t have everything. Quantum of Solace was a lot like a short rebound from a bad breakup. Skyfall stunned us all by barely having a Bond girl at all, unless you count M. The end of Skyfall set the whole franchise up for a sort of reboot within the reboot. The end of the origin story, as it were, and the beginning of the story proper. All the established characters came home to roost and the whisper of an Aston Martin could be heard coming around the next bend.
So what in the world is Spectre, then? Think of it this way: Spectre is like a very serious remake of a Bond movie from the early sixties that never existed. There’s an internal nostalgia to the film, as if the early sixties were looking back upon the early forties with rose-tinted glasses, except it’s all shot with the camerawork of 2017. Bond spends half the film as a slightly less gruff Humphrey Bogart, jetting down to Casablanca (Tangier) with Ingrid Bergman (Lea Seydoux). Each successive movie has seemed to take one step forward and two steps back, but this is like two steps back into a time machine.
The film is wobbly throughout, but it’s major problem comes from it’s confusion regarding what to do with its Bond girl. The concept of the Bond girl is not exactly a feminist one and no matter what people have tried, it’s been very difficult to rehab that role. There has been an attempt to make us care about these women, a tactic that worked in Casino Royale but hasn’t worked as well since. Who cried when that one lady with the long fingernails got shot in Skyfall? Bond quips that it’s a waste of good scotch. The problem is his joke… isn’t really a joke. The ghost of Vesper Lynd is conjured up in each installment because it’s the only bruise they can poke. We have forgotten the other women as quickly as Bond has. This, of course, is exactly how it used to be and no one had the slightest problem with it. Bond didn’t fall in love with his chippies, no matter how helpful they were or how good they looked in a balaclava. But the modern franchise is aware that screwing the women spectacularly and then forgetting about them entirely just doesn’t play the way it used to. So it gives the Bond girls personalities, multiple costume changes, and then makes Bond love them. In order to rescue the franchise from the sexism that is stamped on its legacy, the films have been rendered super-serious. Why do we suddenly need Bond and his girl to exchange vows in order to depict her in a non-sexist way? This does not remove the sexism from Bond’s character (something evidenced by a cringe-worthy sequence of potential non-consent near the beginning of the film). It just makes the whole thing feel rather joyless.
And this is the essential difficulty of the new Bond. The franchise is now trying to bring under its tent the glamorous insouciance of From Russia With Love with the startling assertion that Bond’s women are people we should actually care about of Casino Royale. Spectre is the child of that union. An example: There is a long unconnected torture sequence reminiscent of the famous laser moving slowly up towards Bond’s manhood, from Goldfinger. In Goldfinger Bond is practically winking at the camera, as if to say “Laser to my penis! God, what a funny torture joke!” In Spectre Bond is apparently able to render bloodless AI brain surgery completely ineffective through sheer force of will and a totally straight face. The joke of the earlier movie is that Bond’s most valuable asset is his package, something we know the franchise could never do without. In Spectre the danger is the torture will remove his ability to recognize faces, something our villain half-jokes shouldn’t bother him too much, as his women are so interchangeable. His humor is undercut by a weeping Lea Seydoux pledging her love to Bond. It’s a joke that would be funny in Goldfinger but falls flat in Spectre, precisely because the latter is taking itself about twenty times more seriously.
The franchise’s answer to the long history of Bond is to try to make a 196o’s era film but take the emotions and the people very seriously. This marriage worked in Casino Royale, partly because the first novel both has that mid-century mentality and sexism, and also takes its emotions and people very seriously. But, it falls apart here. The unconnected sequences (like half an hour of running through Mexico city looking for a guy that matters almost zero to the plot), the complete misuse of Christoph Waltz (you cannot hire one of modern cinema’s most engaging villains for a two and a half hour movie and give him approximately 20 minutes of screen time. You just can’t.), and the confused depiction of the Bond girl (does she need rescuing? How can she possibly already be in love with him? Is she just there for fashion product placement?) all combine to make this a bad Bond movie. But worse, it’s bad and we can’t enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with a bad Bond movie, but please don’t also make it a joyless one.
I have no idea what the remedy is for this problem. The character of Bond and the stories he acts out again and again have been steeped in mid-century sexism. The current franchise is going through some growing pains trying to figure out how to move forward under such conditions. Perhaps they will figure it out and we will get more Casino Royale level entertainment (where, of course, they had to kill the Bond girl to make that work). Or perhaps it’s time Bond hung up his Beretta and we found a new straight white male fantasy to obsess over.