Earth’s inescapable future is the true villain of Spectre
The most affecting action pictures play on the anxieties of their era, getting under audiences’ skin by addressing specific timely concerns on the subtextual level. The rash of paranoid ‘70s thrillers such as Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View responded to the seeds of national distrust sown by the horrors of the Vietnam War and disillusionment in the wake of Watergate. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films spoke to post-9/11 concerns of terrorism and national security, fearfully imagining extremists who’ll stop at nothing to impose chaos and destruction upon order and stability.
The James Bond films are particularly amenable to imprinting like this — their consistent formula has easily contoured to fit the tastes and themes in fashion at any given time — and the latest installment, the superficially pleasing but insubstantial Spectre, works best when offering a commentary on the panics growing more and more common in our digital modernity.
In the film, Christoph Waltz joins the cast as Ernst Blofeld, the leader of the nefarious organization of global villains that lends the film its title, but the real villain of Sam Mendes’ second go with 007 is the inescapable future towards which Earth is currently hurtling.
If megalomaniacal masterminds don’t wipe out the last vestiges of freedom on earth, the Cloud will take care of it for them eventually.
Much of Spectre revolves around internal goings-on at MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service that employs Bond. At the beginning of the film, MI6 braces for a merger with MI5 and new management under the monogrammed M. Like a corporate parent buying out an indie publication, M goes about shifting things to his liking, shutting down the 007 program entirely and prepping what is dubbed the Nine Eyes program.
A cooperation between nine of the largest security operations on the planet, the joint agreement would allow C’s technological sight to penetrate every last corner of the planet. Using movie-magic to gain access to every camera, cell phone, computer, and anything else with a microchip, he’d establish a total surveillance state and be able to cut off crime instantaneously as it happens. His unsettling technological advances don’t end there, either. C essentially attempts to lo-jack Bond using SmartBlood, a nanobot that’d flow with his bloodstream and make his coordinates identifiable to a GPS. C arrives with bright monologues about the security industry moving out of the dark ages, getting faster, leaner and more efficient. Rightly, all Bond and his immediate superior M (Ralph Fiennes, taking over for Judi Dench) can hear is a death knell.
The ethical quandaries are clear, and the script manages to directly address many of them using language familiar to anyone who regularly reads the papers. When C outlines the totality of his computerized panopticon or paints a picture of an world where drones do what 007 does at a fraction of the price and risk, M stops just short of Kanye West’s timeless refrain, “No one man should have all that power.”# Some authority is too great and dangerous for any single body to wield. In a time where Big Data, wiretapping and global positioning capture the public imagination, these concerns are far from Hollywood dream-spinning. No character gets so presumptuous to actually start pontificating on the relative virtues of safety vs. personal freedom#, but the nervousness is still palpable. We’re toying with forces far beyond our control, and the men doing the toying are very rarely trustworthy.
Beyond the anxieties over metadata and Big Brother, Specture gets at more primal fears of shifting status quo and the inevitable descent into obsolescence that comes with progress. For a man with so many gadgets at his disposal, Bond lives an analog lifestyle. He beats people up to get information, shoots people using guns that he aims with his arms and eyesight, and follows leads like an old-fashioned detective. But it’s the destiny of culture to eventually forsake the old-fashioned whenever something newer, sexier, and more efficient comes along.
The most unsettling suggestion that Specture makes is that the world might be better off without men like James Bond, who obliterate city blocks with no authorization or supervision from the people he’s sworn to protect. This is still a 007 movie, which means that our dauntless hero must necessarily unearth a plot to destroy us all that only he and his traditional spy skills could detect. But the film’s lingering sense of unease sticks with the audience after they leave the theater. Spectre knows that we still need James Bond, but doesn’t rule out the possibility that we could do better, and that’s profoundly discomfiting.
Look close, and you’ll notice significant links between Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond and Christian Bale’s Batman. They’re both brutes of few words, gritty figures who hold decades of pain behind their hardened exteriors. Craig’s Bond lacks the rakish sense of fun that Roger Moore and Sean Connery used to charm moviegoers. Daniel Craig is a dark Bond for a dark time, the stolid defender of his uncompromising notion of justice that an age of foggy moralities demands. He’s a loner, probably the least personable Bond in the franchise’s history, and the impending realities of globalization no longer allow for independent operators. Conglomerates gobble up smaller outfits and impose hostile new regulations on them to monitor their behavior and ultimately shape it to overseers’ liking.
Naturally, the film ends with the bad guy bested — but for how long? — and Bond making a getaway with his rapturously beautiful paramour. But this is a pyrrhic victory, only forestalling the unstoppable. Regardless of how many men he throat-punches, Bond can’t singlehandedly undo the world’s increasing dependance on digital technologies. In his world, and far more rapidly in our own, he’s getting left behind.
Nobody needs spies when there’s nowhere to hide.
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