Spectre is fine. It’s not the worst Bond movie. It’s not the best. The plot feels complicated when you’re in the midst of it, but it’s actually pretty simple in the end. This Daniel Craig-era Bond has been a more rough-and-tumble and psychologically complex hero. Spectre continues that pattern, but it also takes it to its limit.
It seems every Bond series eventually reaches a point where the movie becomes so saturated with references to past Bond films that any sense of newness dissipates. Skyfall did an excellent job of completing Craig-Bond’s character arc and resetting the series, though I was dismayed by how hard-drinking, misogynistic, racist, and consumeristic Bond became once again in that film after deviating from that pattern in the under-appreciated Quantum of Solace. Spectre celebrates all that Bond has been (which is fun), but is burdened by the need to tie into the previous three films and to name-check whatever Bond mythology exists. Character psychology takes a back-seat to the action. Bond also isn’t quite as “cool” in this movie as he normally is, but maybe that has to do with how little hard drinking, misogyny, and racism is on display here. (Does Bond have to be a racist, misogynist, alcoholic, and consumeristic to be “cool?” Maybe.)
The most interesting thing to me about Spectre is the way the villains hope to take over the world. To get into that, I’d like to tell you a little about my high school agriculture teacher, Mr. Andrew, a good man and a great teacher whose one classroom rule continues to influence my life.
Mr. Andrew’s one classroom rule was “Do right.” It was his way of saying in two, easy-to-remember words, “You know the difference between right and wrong, you have the option to choose between them in any moment, and you are capable of choosing to do the right thing no matter how big or small it is.” It’s a good rule, because it expects much of you and believes in the power of your best inclinations.
For much of its corporate history, Google has had one rule too: “Don’t be evil.” At the time, many people heralded Google’s unofficial motto, because it seemed to stand in contrast to the practices of other tech giants who took advantage of their users. The motto should have given us pause though, because it assumes that the natural inclination of Google employees was to do evil things, or, perhaps less personally and more charitably, that the natural, unchecked action of large corporations is to take advantage of their customers. “Don’t be evil” is an excellent motto if you want to A) rationalize your company’s questionable moral decisions while B) convincing the world that nothing “evil” is going on. Unlike “Do Right,” “Don’t Be Evil” expects little people and believes even less.*
“Don’t Be Evil” would make a great tag line for Spectre and a great motto for the shadowy, villainous organization James Bond has battled off and on throughout his cinematic history which grants this latest Bond film its name. Spectre’s scheme is the same scheme that most villainous multi-national organizations have had in the past few years in movies – they want to control the world’s information and use it to manipulate people and make a lot of money or something. As with Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., Batman’s most nefarious invention in The Dark Knight, the CIA’s most powerful weapon in the Bourne franchise, and even Furious 7’s MacGuffin, Spectre wants to know where everyone is all the time and what they’re saying and doing. They go to great lengths to accomplish this. All they had to do was build a phone everyone wants to own.
Movie trends make for an inconsistent barometer of societal concerns. Sometimes screenwriters are simply being uncreative and derivative. Other times they’re tapping into something on the minds of audiences worldwide. Given Spectre’s troubled script history, I’m guessing the former is true in this case. The filmmakers needed Spectre to want something specific, and “surveillance” is shorthand for “extra-governmental conspiracy” these days. It also looks good on screen. There’s little easier or cheaper than putting a bad guy in a room full of monitors to make him look powerful and malicious.
Still, global surveillance of the kind George Orwell—who gets name-checked in Spectre—predicted in his book, 1984, has never been more doable. It’s actually already being done. The false focus of all these movies is on one person or small group of persons behind the surveillance schemes. There isn’t some organization tracking us. We’re tracking ourselves. We live in a democracy. The people are the power. We make the decisions to build and fuel surveillance systems. We have done this out of fear of our neighbors both near and far.** We don’t trust each other, so we want someone watching over everyone. Because all of this is built on an expectation that people are going to be evil, we don’t trust the watchers either. “We’re giving you this power,” we say, “just don’t be evil.” We ought to be saying, “Do right,” instead, but doing right demands more of us and forces us to expect good from ourselves and everyone else. Once again, we don’t trust people. We’re afraid of them.
A person can be good though, right? Maybe that’s what Bond has become for us – the one person who we can trust to do what’s right. Groups of people are fearful, irrational, malicious; one person can be trusting. rational, good. Bond’s final act in Spectre—and Craig’s final act as Bond, if the rumors are true—is at least a hope-fllled one. If only we could all follow Bond’s example in this one case. We can still leave the alcoholism, misogyny, racism, and consumerism behind.
*In 2015, when Google became Alphabet, the company changed its motto to “Do the right thing,” perhaps realizing for themselves all that I wrote above.
** We also want the convenience of saying “Ok, Google” and having whatever we want appear at our fingertips. We’re both greedy and suspicious.
You might also find these reivews of Spectre helpful:
1 More Film Blog
Larsen on Film
Reel World Theology