‘Spectre’ is an abysmal, weightless exercise in anti-excitement

By Nate Taskin

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Let me be emphatic, “Spectre” is atrocious independent of its relationship to the 007 franchise. It’s not just a terrible James Bond movie. It’s a terrible movie. Here lies a formless, cliché-ridden non-adventure devoid of any investment in its own story.

After the death of the previous M, James Bond (Daniel Craig again plays the part with a perpetual scowl) tracks down an international assassin, and goes AWOL. Meanwhile, the current M (Ralph Fiennes) must confront the fact that his Double-0 program may face a possible shutdown, replaced by a worldwide digitized information collection system overseen by a man so weasel-faced that no human being on earth could mistake him for a good guy.

Yes, “Spectre” aims for political subtext with some NSA/Edward Snowden parallels, and the results are every bit as clunky and weightless as you might expect.

As he trudges along from one empty, incoherently edited action set piece to another, Bond discovers that this assassin might have connections to a shadowy organization called Spectre, which wants to take over the world – we think. The exact plan isn’t made clear, but I do know that Bond must stop them. Along the way, he punches and grimaces and shoots a lot of people and some stuff blows up.

“Spectre” is a movie that just happens. Scenes go by without any consequence or impact. All of the plot threads act as an excuse to get Bond to the next fight scene, and those scenes have about the same thrill as waiting in line for University of Massachusetts Grab ’n Go.

The script, a truly atrocious piece of work credited to four separate screenwriters, contains zero memorable one-liners. How many other 007 movies do you know that can make that claim? Even the much-maligned “Quantum of Solace” and “Die Another Day” contained at least some attempt at humor. Bereft of any joy or even the slightest hint of wit, “Spectre” subjects the audience to a long, painful slog, and we feel every minute of it.

Nobody in this film behaves like a real human, or even an archetype of a human. Characters behave like robots high on Valium. When Bond kills Lucia Sciarra’s (Monica Bellucci) assassin husband, he goes to his funeral, meets her there, and then goes back to her mansion to have sex with her after he dispatches two goons who want her dead.

Bellucci, a mesmerizing performer, has a grand total screen time of about five minutes, and she uses it to mutter stilted dialogue that is far beneath her. Not only is her role retrograde and reductive, she bears no impact on the rest of the plot, as if she was shoehorned in there because 007 needed to meet his sexual conquest quota.

At least Craig and Bellucci have some semblance of chemistry, a fact that does not extend to the main love interest of the film, Madeleine Swann, played by the baby-faced Léa Seydoux. I suppose a genuine romance with someone closer to Daniel Craig’s age was out of the question.

In any case, these two need to forge an alliance (for boring, convoluted reasons unworthy of discussion) in order to take down Spectre. Bond falls in love with her along the way, because the script tells us he does, even there isn’t a single spark between the two. We barely see even a vague outline of a relationship arc.

Christoph Waltz plays Ernst Stavro Blofeld, one of the classic Bond villains. Look, I love the guy, but he’s rather awful here. His cavalier demeanor has potential, but the script fails him utterly, and when he straps Bond to a death machine that hearkens back to the Sean Connery Bond days, he comes across as more of a bored pediatrician than an evil mastermind.

Late in the film, Blofeld reveals that he has a connection to Bond that actually would, in theory, add a little more investment to their conflict. I say “in theory” because the film does nothing with this revelation. Our spy hero barely even acknowledges this reveal beyond a faint hint of surprise, as if Blofeld’s wham line was added in post-production, and the editor inserted a reaction shot of Daniel Craig with furrowed eyebrows.

This wasted plot element exemplifies the “who cares” attitude of “Spectre.” People react to earth-shattering discoveries and doomsday schemes with the same emotion as they do to burnt toast. “Spectre” throws in disposable dilemmas just to pad itself out. The film’s climax ends with Bond having to make a moral choice that implies the conclusion to an arc that never actually occurred onscreen. As I said before, scenes simply go by.

With the release of the superb working class spy satire that was “Kingsman: The Secret Service” earlier this year, 007 feels ever more irrelevant with each installment. His macho power fantasy-driven bravura and Neanderthal sexual politics can be seen more clearly than ever as relics of a bygone age. Every Craig-led Bond film asks the same thematic question: “Does Bond fit into the modern world?” The answer becomes less and less interesting each successive time.

“Casino Royale” picked Bond apart, examined what makes him tick, and reassembled him in a better form. “Skyfall,” a film whose technical craft I enjoy even when its subtext irritates me, also breaks him apart, only to conclude that he’s fine just the way he is, and further argues that anyone who insists otherwise is a coward that jeopardizes our national security. “Spectre” does not even bother with the autopsy. It cares that little.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]