Spectre Vs Skyfall: Structure And Context In Cinema

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Earlier this month we were finally delivered Spectre, the latest James Bond adventure. Featuring many of the principle creatives of 2012’s tremendous Bond entry Skyfall, it would have been a safe assumption that Spectre could at least be a solid movie, if not an all-time franchise great. But instead we got Star Trek Into Darkness 2.0, a film that not only makes major mistakes structurally but seems to completely forget or actively dismiss everything that its immediate predecessor did so successfully. While I wasn’t excited enough for Spectre beforehand for it to match the disappointment of Jurassic World or Jupiter Ascending or Tomorrowland, it was nevertheless a major letdown from 007 and company.

SPOILERS for Spectre and Skyfall follow.

On many levels, Spectre is very much the solidly mid-tier Bond film I’d hoped it would be. The action was solid, the women were gorgeous and Dave Bautista was the best lead henchman since Stamper in Tomorrow Never Dies. Where the film stumbles is in both the theory and execution behind the villain, played by Christoph Waltz. Of course when I say “stumbles” what I really mean is “shoots itself in the foot before falling off a cliff into a tank of sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their frickin’ heads.” I didn’t just make that Austin Powers reference for the hell of it by the way. I did that because Spectre‘s big twist — that Waltz’s character Franz Oberhauser is not only Bond’s adoptive brother but also his classic nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld — is, y’know, the EXACT same plot twist used in Goldmember. Not only that, but Austin Powers did this plot BETTER than it’s done in Spectre.

Skipping past the fact that “Blofeld-is-Bond’s-brother” is a dumb idea that reduces a classic supervillain to whiny child, the way the story is structured really undercuts any chance of the twist having emotional and/or dramatic impact for Bond or for the audience. The story has Bond following leads to a mysterious gathering in Italy, where he catches his first glimpse of his mysterious adversary, one who clearly knows him and who Bond clearly recognizes as well. This all happens within the first 45 minutes or so of the film, so for the entire middle section of the film we know that Bond knows who the villain is… but he never bothers to explain their connection to anyone around him (and by extension, the audience is left out in the cold as well). We don’t find out that “Oberhauser” is Bond’s pseudo-step-brother until very late in the movie… directly after which he declares that he now calls himself Blofeld.

640_spectre_villain_christoWhen you take an iconic and established figure and try to reveal something unexpected and subversive about them, it should not only be surprising but add layers to our understanding of that established figure. Perhaps the best example of this is in Empire Strikes Back, where the film takes the audience’s undiluted perception of Darth Vader as a towering villain who murdered Luke’s father and mentor and completely subverts it. But when you take a character that we’ve never met before and spend most (at least the first half) of the film playing keep-away with his identity and motivation, that means that any revelation about him is going to have less impact. When we find out Vader is Luke’s father, it is a revelation based on two films’ worth of buildup and established dynamics. In Spectre, the revelation that Oberhauser is Bond’s brother comes after 90 minutes of anonymous activity that has had no definitive context, so that personal revelation doesn’t add anything because there is nothing to add to. And then dubbing him Blofeld is even worse, because not only is it building on the same quicksand as the brother revelation but now you’re lessening the weight of Blofeld as an idea by tying it to this wet fart of a twist.

Another way of looking at this Blofeld twist is this: the filmmakers are more concerned with tricking the audience than by eliciting an emotional reaction from their protagonist. Again, Bond knows at least half of the twist within the first 45 minutes of the movie… and the other half of the twist doesn’t mean anything to him, because he’s never heard the name Blofeld before. The only reason Oberhauser’s relationship with Bond is withheld until the end of the second act, and the only reason for him to take the name Blofeld at all, is to try and one-up the audience. And honestly, that is an awful motivation in deciding plot structure, especially when it comes at the expense of the emotional context for the protagonist. Without that, the twist means nothing within the film, which means it has less or no impact outside the film as well.

The problem with this approach is that the filmmakers got it backwards. The reveal should not have been Blofeld, it should have been Oberhauser. If Bond had spent most of the film chasing the name Ernst Stavro Blofeld, without ever coming face-to-face with him, and then in the climax discovers it’s actually his long-lost brother, it would have been a much more impactful reveal. It would have used the established gravitas and weight of Blofeld (both within the metatextual context of the franchise and, more importantly, within the story itself) as a misdirect for the audience and would have been an uglier truth for Bond to confront. And having the truth revealed to Bond right at the third act when things are most critical, rather than 45 minutes into the movie when the stakes are still uncertain, would add to the resonance as well. Instead, the film withholds information from the audience about a character we have never seen before and treats his “true” identity as a twist that is rendered meaningless by the context that preceded it.

jbbr_skyfall_lodge_stills-4What makes all of this particularly infuriating is that the exact same creative team accomplished this exact sort of subversion perfectly in Skyfall. In that film, they take advantage of established concepts and tropes to set up a very out-of-character plot development in the third act. For most of Skyfall‘s running time, it is a standard 007 adventure, albeit a very well-crafted one. It has so many hallmarks of the series, filtered through the modern style of the Craig era: vehicle chases, fight scenes, a death trap with exotic animals, sex with damaged women, and a villain with a disfigurement and a remote lair. But then, after playing out three-quarters of the film like a usual Bond adventure, the third act takes a hard left turn, with a climax that is so much more personal and intimate than almost any other previous Bond film. In this sequence we see where Bond came from, and get a glimpse into the past that formed the basis for this hardened killer we know. It is a reveal, essentially, one that completely changes our perception of Bond and adds a ton of weight to the finale. But this thematic reveal wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if the entire film preceding it hadn’t been recognizable as classic Bond. By showing us what we are used to seeing in a Bond film first, Skyfall‘s finale means more to us as an audience, and it serves as the necessary catharsis for Bond himself.

It continues to boggle my mind how filmmakers can get something so right in one film and get it so exactly wrong in another. And it also makes no sense to me how producers would rather treat iconic characters as a reveal than take full advantage of the iconography to both sell the film and set up a more effective twist elsewhere in the plot. But it still happens, and films like Spectre are the end result. It is disappointing for sure, and hopefully other writers can recognize the errors in this approach and avoid it in their own work. As for James Bond, he will of course return, but let’s hope the franchise avoids pitfalls like this in the future, in the name of queen, country, and better storytelling.

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