Ghost in the Shell: Sam Mendes’ “SPECTRE”

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Spectre-Oberhauser-played-by-Christoph-Waltz

Bond: Everyone needs a hobby…

Silva: So, what’s yours?

Bond: Resurrection.

Skyfall (2012)

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The dead are alive.

SPECTRE (2015)

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You only live twice;

Once when you are born

and once when you look Death in the face.

– Ian Fleming, after Basho.

The ideological purpose  of the last three James Bond films have lingered like the smoke trail from a freshly fired gun, and traveling in reverse, it’s only then that the intangible line becomes more solid. Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE is that bullet, firmly establishing that the Daniel Craig Cycle is, and always has been, about James Bond not only as character, but as icon. For Craig’s tenure as 007, it’s not merely about rewriting an imaginary canon, but deconstructing James Bond the cultural institution and construct as a whole.

SPECTRE gives you two directions, neither necessarily mutually exclusive: either Craig’s Bond films are about the emotional arc he travels, or it’s about the relevance of bothering to construct an emotional arc for him in the first place.

You Only Live Twice

spectre 2As Charles Bramesco suggests, “Bond can’t singlehandedly undo the world’s increasing dependence on digital technologies. In his world, and far more rapidly in our own, he’s getting left behind.” Each successive Bond film has employed a mix of the retro and the modern, but in Craig’s era, the subsequent Bond films have given modernity a role in the films, threatening Bond’s very existence. This isn’t entirely new. In a way, Bond has always fought for his relevance, but it became more explicit in 1995 with GoldenEye, the first post-Cold War Bond film. The answer to, “Do we still need Bond?” was a tacit, “We still want Bond.”

Yet, the world around him has morphed rapidly, uncontrollably, to a point where digital technology, its very power and influence of how we understand the dynamics of terror and safety, have become centerpieces of subtext in the Bond films. SPECTRE sets itself in a world where the Double O program is about to be rendered obsolete, where M, Bond, Q, and Moneypenny are worthless when drones can do just as good of a job. This is posited by tweedy little Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), condescendingly referred to as C, head of Britain’s Joint Intelligent Service. His goal is basically create a British version of the NSA.

But the minds behind Bond (John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade), for probably both ideological and logistical reasons, fret at the very idea. While modernity of this kind throws Bond’s existence in the air, it also infers a dangerous hierarchy within the government over its people. M warms that though information might be good, it’s how that information is used that can be dangerous. “Orwell would be horrified,” he quips. Bond, fighting for Queen and Country, is determined to shut this down.

In other words, James Bond is Edward Snowden.

It’s the next logical step for the series if Bond has had to prove his worth for so long, with Casino Royale (2006) being treated as a reboot. The technology in that film existed within financial terms, as it has in other Bond films (Goldfinger, GoldenEye, etc.). In Quantum of Solace, it was about resources; in Skyfall; it was security. SPECTRE returns to this idea of security, but the fourth film is like the umbrella, much more explicitly understanding that it’s about power. And what has Bond always been about?

It’s not been about his power, exactly, given that James Bond as icon is representative of British nationalism. The threat of C’s plan, so to speak, has to do with diluting Britain’s power. C scoffs at the very idea of democracy.

That death and life permeate Craig’s Bond films is emblematic of the status of Bond as a figure in the first place. SPECTRE exists as several things, cinematically speaking: it’s a reply to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a film also concerned with both life and death as well as national security, since it’s sort of a Patriot Acct apologist; and as the Bondian Citizenfour. The more immediate narrative links that the film has to the previous entries primarily exist as poison: the slow decay of Bond, the Icon. Because, as C suggests, we don’t need Bond anymore.

Yet, Bond’s place as a superhero is interesting when judged against the likes of Iron Man and Captain America, whose ideological purposes for one reason or another have an easier time justifying themselves. Iron Man works directly with technology, or rather, is a technology by his very being. But Captain America is no different than 007, is he? Though Captain America: The Winter Soldier also shares anxieties about national security, it feels like James Bond has a better understanding of why we don’t need him.

As Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) leads Bond and Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydouz) down an enormous room papered with computer monitors and various cronies responsible for setting the world ablaze, one can’t help but recall the sparsely occupied area on a deserted island in Skyfall. Silva held Bond there, eagerly waiting to toy with him. Lined up at the sides of the cavernous, dilapidated room were dusty, seemingly useless computers and hard drives. Silva worked them deftly, performing his role as cyberterrorist in expert fashion. With all this at their disposal, there’s no way that James Bond can stop them. Mallory’s (Ralph Fiennes) farewell to his colleagues is a mirror of his predecessor’s testimony in Skyfall: they both quote poets, and while they both speak to a modern atmosphere of espionage and information, Mallory’s short speech is one of reluctant submission. We view it from a computer monitor, from half a dozen different angles, as if we’re supposed to understand that Spectre is a new god and that we are at his will.

The threat contained in Blofeld’s headquarters transcends its basic, superficial presence. Bond’s Old World is decaying and being replaced by something shiny, and new, and enormous. It’s time to acknowledge that Elektra King was right: the world is not enough.

So He Strikes

spectreHoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography stains Bond’s world in muted and diffused pale yellow, the color of the dust that flies through the air as Bond wreaks havoc in Mexico City. Orange lights pours in from a doorway, casting Mr. Blofeld in shadow. It’s not as flashy as Roger Deakins’ work, but it’s atmospheric in the right ways, as if the lack of color saturation is itself its own form of ghostliness. If Bond moved through the shadows in Skyfall, when his obsoletion was not yet complete, then Bond is a shadow in SPECTRE.

If the Craig cycle has set up anything, it’s that everything has been a reaction to the death of Vesper Lynd, making Bond a ghost, a shell of his former self. “Where the blood hell have you been?” M (Judi Dench) barks at him in Skyfall when he shows up unexpectedly in her apartment. He says without compunction, “Enjoying death.” Though the reality of his death in Skyfall was technically more visceral, the death of 007 in SPECTRE resonates as far more important. It’s not Bond that has died, but his entire purpose.

Yet, despite the presence of this subtext, his emotional arc, dizzyingly realized and painfully raw, is a crucial factor that holds the Craig cycle together. Ranging from Casino Royale all the way to SPECTRE, the Craig films are a series unto themselves, with a specific trajectory for its character. It’s Bond as a Broken Heart.

If Bond is to operate on the crux of the idea of the revenge film, that concept is weirdly precluded on understanding Bond’s past as a cinematic figure. So complaints of SPECTRE as “greatest hits collection” doesn’t completely make sense, as the cycle is willingly subverting the formula that lead to its existence. The Craig films, SPECTRE especially, are like orgasm denial: so close to riding the wave of familiar pleasure, but at the last minute retracts its offer of conventional euphoria. SPECTRE ends up operating like a combination of From Russia with Love and Licence to Kill, films where the formula is either reticently being set up, or in the background, but where darkness and melancholia take center stage. It makes the nods to Dr. No and From Russia with Love feel more potent that they’re being reappropriated within the context of a revenge story: rather than an act of fan service, subtle references enhance the and accentuate the design of the narrative, and in turn, the character.

It also means that these films have become more and more violent, perhaps atypical of Bond films of days past. But each shot, punch, and strike has emotional weight to it. Bond is the bleeding heart.

Conclusion

James-Bond-film-SpectreThe self-awareness of SPECTRE reaches its apex when Blofeld has Bond restrained, ready for torture. He gleefully says he wants to get inside Bond’s head, which, while not an impossibility, proves difficult. As a cycle of films, Craig’s have put the most effort in treating James Bond not merely as nationalistic and cartoonish propaganda, but a character whose story is worth telling. But this scene suggests that, while it’s not entirely for naught, Bond is supposed exist, first and foremost, as a cypher and as the poster boy for Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And when no one really needs that, James Bond, Dia de las Muertos mask in hand, becomes the world’s most dapper zombie.

Stray observations

  • This is the first Bond title sequence that has ever featured Bond’s nipples!
  • That Sam Smith song is still dreadful… unless you read it as a love letter from Q to Bond.
  • Have I mentioned that I adore Ben Whishaw?
  • I wish to god that Lea Seydoux had been given more to do.
  • That opening tracking shot is Touch of Evil levels of good.
  • The gun barrel looked really lame.
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