Spectre – Sam Mendes is the Author of All My Pain

It’s easy to forget but James Bond is one of our weirdest enduring cultural phenomenons. Each structurally and dramatically near-identical outing is a unique snapshot of the trends of its time and their concepts of traditional masculinity, which in the end are all that make up Bond as a character. Over the past few years though the series seems to have gotten stuck in a rut, in what appears to be some sort of existential crisis.

The iteration of the plot this time around is that following a personal mission-gone-wrong left to him by the late Judi Dench and opening credits featuring softcore tentacle porn (I’m not kidding), Bond and friends are introduced to Jim Moriarty from Sherlock, mugging like a jackass having clearly been told to ‘do that thing you do on TV’ and cackling about how the double-O section is outdated and he’s firing all our heroes to replace them with a worldwide surveillance system M describes as “Orwell’s worst nightmare”, just in case we missed that he’s the villain. As this plan largely sits on the backburner for most of the film it forms a sort of B-plot, whilst Bond traipses across the globe in pursuit of a mysterious man in a Nehru jacket running a global supervillain network called Spectre. An attempt is made at giving the pair a childhood backstory, but like any character whose appeal relies on being portrayed as ceaselessly cool (see also Batman) any attempt to explicitly define Bond’s childhood feels like it undercuts him as a character.

Half of this film is pointless, but I’m not sure which half. Both villains function identically running their scheme to consolidate multiple country’s intelligence services into a single world-spanning organisation, neither really depends on the other for anything and Moriarty barely has any motivation for any of this. He seems to exist solely so Moneypenny, Q and a very bored Ralph Fiennes have something to do for the climax while Bond is elsewhere. Surprisingly Spectre doesn’t feel overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but at least a third of the script could be cut without effect.

Mendes appears to have either given up or royally screwed his second go at Bond, as almost none of his splendid direction from Skyfall returns here. After a fantastic opening chase through Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festival the rest is weirdly flat and lifeless, beginning with a fight in a helicopter that largely cuts back and forth between near-identical interior punch shots and repetitive takes of the chopper steady over the parade, before frequently cutting away from dramatic helicopter stunts you’d think you’d want to show off. It only really comes to life again a couple of times during later action sequences, with a particularly fun train punch-up, but even a night-time high-speed pursuit through the streets of Rome feels lethargic. Tonally the film is shaky as well, repeatedly undercutting its general target of a lighter, jokier vibe than its predecessor with jarring death-obsessed moments that would make Katniss Everdeen flinch.

The biggest problem I alluded to earlier though, is that I don’t think this franchise knows what to do with itself. Both Spectre and Skyfall are weirdly defensive movies, seemingly made under the assumption there is some massive cultural backlash against the franchise against which it must assert itself. Skyfall went so far as to have M literally defend the franchise in court with terrorists bursting in at the opportune moment to prove her point, along with a running theme of Bond using low-tech means to save everyone from the new guard’s fuck-ups but Spectre takes it even further. Every five minutes for its first half it has M and Moriarty pop up to say first “The double-O section is outdated, I’m closing it down muhahahaha” and then “No, we totally need the double-O section” over and over again. The public distaste for Quantum of Solace seems to have sapped all this franchise’s confidence and while Skyfall had some Oedipal thing going on and Spectre makes an effort to be The Bourne Ultimatum both these films are essentially thematic tautologies: they exist to explain why they exist.

It’s also emblematic of the way Mendes is going about storytelling here. Whereas films like Goldeneye, Casino Royale and even Quantum of Solace created worlds from which the familiar Bond tropes naturally grew Skyfall and Spectre start with those tropes and work backwards to try and justify them. The bad guy has a secret desert villain headquarters with a private torture room not because he’s someone who would do that, but just because that’s what Bond villains do (apparently), just like Bond’s new car having exhaust flamethrowers and an ejector seat, and him and the female lead falling for each other for no discernible reason. The result is that Mendes’ Bond films are just made from bits of other movies without much identity of their own; the villain and scarred baddie from You Only Live Twice, the giant mute henchman from The Spy Who Loved Me (minus anything to make him distinctive) and even the climax feels like a riff on Craig’s first entry.

Spectre is ultimately little more than a hollow shell the Bond franchise has constructed around its own insecurities, and all its insistence about how relevant and vital it is in the modern age just causes me to wonder the opposite. Casino Royale deconstructed the Bond movie almost a decade ago to great acclaim, but you can only play that card once as deconstruction only examines what’s already there without adding anything new. In this new world where the series seems to primarily exist to explain why it exists, do we really need James Bond?

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The Matrix as Transgender Metaphor

As one of the defining films of my generation The Matrix has always cast a long shadow, both in its incredible genre influence and its eternal tendency to bring absolute morons out of the woodwork declaring it to be the most intelligent and meaningful film ever made for suggesting the world isn’t real (with Inception nobly taking the baton for kids today). I have a different, more personal reading of this movie however as being fundamentally about one woman’s journey into the world, and it begins with its directors.

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The Wachowskis, under attack from a pink cephalopod

Lana Wachowski as you may know is transgender, and I see The Matrix as being a metaphor for a trans woman coming out and asserting her identity against a world which refuses to acknowledge her. The film runs on an extremely blunt ‘rebirth as your true self’ metaphor with a protagonist whose name literally means ‘new’ (I love Wachowski subtlety), and while on its own this could symbolise practically anything what strikes me about its execution is that Neo’s embrace of his identity as ‘The One’ against the world oppressing him is represented by his name.

In the extremely on-the-nose interrogation scene early on, Agent Smith describes him as having two lives with two different names. In public he is Mr Thomas Anderson, while in private he goes by Neo, a name he picked himself. Throughout the film he is only referred to by the former by representatives of authority, his boss and Smith (almost always specifically as ‘Mister’ Anderson), while his friends only ever use the name he chose himself.

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Note the outfits

On its own this could represent anything, but what clinches it for me is that Neo’s big moment of asserting his true identity as ‘the One’ by defeating an Agent is preceded by this exchange:

Agent Smith: You hear that Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability. It is the sound of your death. Goodbye, Mr. Anderson.
Neo: My name is Neo. [Smashes Smith with a train]

Of all the possible things he could have said in the face of death, he chose to assert his name.

I think it’s also worth noting the position Neo is in at the film’s end. He’s discovered who he truly is, embraced that in the face of the world’s attempt to stop him and found his own power, but the world itself has not changed. He hasn’t led a glorious revolution and upended the status quo, it’s still in place essentially unchanged, still views him as a threat and with his newfound openness about who he is will likely redouble its attempt to oppress him.

I think queer interpretations can be found in almost all the Wachowski’s works. Besides the obvious example of Bound and Sense8, Racer X’s situation of being unable to tell his family he changed his appearance and identity could could be seen as analogous to Lana having transitioned by Speed Racer’s production, but not being publicly out at the time, and a whole book could be written on the gender-switching politics of Cloud Atlas. I’ve no idea of knowing whether The Matrix was intended the way I see it, or if Lana deliberately drew on her experiences writing the film but I certainly feel there’s more textual evidence for this reading than for, say, the popular queer reading of Frozen.