Dominated by desert tans and whites (threaded between the expected black and white of our global war on terror), Spectre (directed by Sam Mendes) offers us a Bond (Daniel Craig) who goes beyond his typical cocky roguishness. Keeping his head down and doggedly pursuing the late-M’s (Judy Dench’s) final request, this Bond is a polite (“Just one more thing, Q, please“) and puppy-eyed Romantic (“I would recognize you anywhere…”) whose human loyalty and human risks (“this is my word,” he says as he hands his gun over to a not-quite-ally) show up the state’s fetishization of global information technologies as inhuman in all the wrong ways. This Bond is waging guerrilla warfare against his government…
This film does not fray viewers’ confidence in the future of humanity, as arguably does Ex Machina, but it is structured out of the same affective landscape. What, at the end of the day, separates humans from drones and the penetrating ‘thought-power’ of proliferating digital algorithms that increasingly dictate the terms and frames of our daily lives? Is it, as the film’s antagonists keep insisting, really “old fashioned” to hold onto fleshly and neuronal capacities that appear irrevocably outstripped by digital and biometric surveillance technologies?
Perhaps the film functions as wish-fulfillment in its steady assertion of the simplicity and truth of human power. Q’s bells and whistles, which in former Bond films used to wallow in nearly masturbatory celebration of humanity’s creative genius in crafting cleverly destructive technologies, fizzle down to pyrotechnics in this film. Propeller planes, outboard motorboats, a diesel train, a rickety ski lift–these ordinary machines do join an Omega watch and the Aston Martin, but the expensive accoutrements do little more than blow flames and eject Bond into a parachute landing. Old technologies, old human ingenuity.
Even the traditional theme-music opening credit sequence, which in the past has included psychedelic animation and silhouettes in addition to a few real-body images, becomes in Spectre an ode to the beauty of flesh, with Craig’s über-fit body filling center screen and buffered by apparently naked women draped judiciously with hair and octopus tentacles. No psychedelics, no cool animation. Just a full throttled attention to human being. This attention is sustained through the film. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) answers Bond’s question in a late-night telephone call about who’s in her apartment with the quip, “It’s called life, James; you should try it sometime.” And Dr. Madeleine Swan (Léa Seydoux, recently starring in Blue is the Warmest Color and the Grand Budapest Hotel) is a three-dimensional woman, brainy and self-sufficient, teary and nostalgic, savvy about relationship boundaries, and satisfyingly positioned as vastly more than her libido, but not ashamed of the latter, either.
If only the conceit of the film had remained the vulnerable particularity of flesh against monstrously expanding global technology. In the end, the film funnels down to Cain vs. Abel, or Jacob vs. Esau, or–well, the biblical metaphors don’t quite work, but the petty jealousies and wounds of boyhood try gaspingly to supplant the scarier story that has the higher stakes.
Even so, this beautifully shot film (DP, Hoyte van Hoytema, who also shot Interstellar and Her) is a lot of fun to watch. And I, at least, left thinking that unenhanced human bodies really have become the ghosts (the spectres) of the global information machine.