Spectre (2015)

spectre oberhauser

“Narrative Bonds”

I suspect Spectre will disappoint fans of James Bond. The film is slow and quiet, and all the better for it. Despite this languor, which produces the film’s excessive duration, just short of 2 ½ hours, the film’s action set pieces happen lightning quick. In the opening, Bond (Daniel Craig) knocks down an entire building within the first few minutes. At the climax, he is taken captive at Spectre’s lair in the middle of the Moroccan desert. The compound is built into the sand walls of a semi-circular berm, reminiscent of the shapes of glorious metallic villainous lairs in prior Bond films. The berm is akin to the aquatic stronghold of Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert, 1977), but now strangely desiccated. What would normally take a half of an hour in a different Bond film, takes only a matter of a few minutes: Bond escapes with the girl and blows the place up without much fuss.

Indeed, the film’s purported villain, Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) doesn’t seem to matter all that much to the film’s plot, despite being the head of the most diabolical secret organization in the Bond universe. However, Spectre is an organization we suspiciously haven’t heard from in almost half a century, since Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971). In the new film, it takes Oberhauser a very long time to even show up for the first time, and then again even more time to confront Bond face-to-face. When he does, he announces that he is in fact, Ernst Blofeld, the greatest criminal in the Bond universe.

He explains to Bond that all of the previous villains in these new Daniel Craig movies (Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre [Mads Mikkelsen]; the corporation, Quantum in Quantum of Solace; and Skyfall’s Silva [Javier Bardem]) have been working for him. However, we strangely never get any corroborating evidence for his grandiose claims. I believe, in this case, the mad super-villain is just that, completely off his rocker. This explains his abject ineffectiveness, and would also help the fans of traditional James Bond movies explain why this Blofeld is the worst villain imaginable.

Oberhauser takes on the trappings of a German mastermind, in the tradition of Kurt Jurgens’ Stromberg. The film absurdly psychologizes this turn, explaining that Blofeld is in fact the adopted brother of James Bond, and apparently acting out in response to his father loving the Englishman more than he. In the Austrian hideout of Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), Bond discovers videotapes of the torture of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), his beloved from Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006). This house is indeed under Blofeld’s surveillance, but since Bond never actually watches the tape—one presumes because it will emotionally devastate him—this doesn’t quite serve as proof of Oberhauser’s involvement in the other films.

Spectre suggests that Blofeld is indeed not the true villain at all, that dubious honor going to C (Andrew Scott). A sniveling aristocrat with connections to high-ranking government officials through class privilege, C sells out British national security to Spectre so that he can build a worldwide surveillance network. In a terrific casting move, C is played by the same actor as Moriarty, truly the greatest criminal mind in any fictional universe, in Mark Gattis’ and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock (BBC, 2010-present).

The instability of Blofeld is not just a plot device. He claims to unify the narratives of all the films in the re-booted series of Bond films. This is an important strategy of contemporary complex narratives, creating a tightly bound universe where one episode speaks to another. If it were so, this would truly mark a major break with the James Bond film series, which is the filmic equivalent of episodic series television: one episode can be watched in any order, because there is very little serial plot. James Bond is, and always has been, a sociopath: he can forge no lasting emotional ties, and thus will begin each narrative in the same state, as a cold, calculating killer. But if Oberhauser is just insane about these connections, this development does something far more interesting. Blofeld’s quest for narrative unity allegorizes the desires of the film’s spectators, to see their heavily emotional investment in Bond as more than just stand-alone diversions. And yet, that is, I am afraid, all they have ever been. To not see this would be utter madness.

–Walter Metz