Ghost in the Machine: Daniel Craig’s James Bond Hunts Sam Mendes’s Spectre

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James Bond (Daniel Craig) pursues almost invisible enemies.
James Bond (Daniel Craig) pursues almost invisible enemies.

‘James Bond will return…’ Barring a short period in the early 1990s, when the future of the series was up in the air thanks to legal issues, this statement has been as sure as death and taxes for more than five solid decades. Three years after the gargantuan success of Skyfall, the British super spy graces the silver screen of the blue planet with his presence once more. In the midst of some controversy about whether he still enjoys the role, Daniel Craig returns for his fourth outing as 007. Can Spectre, which is again directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes, ‘deliver the goods’ in the face of enormous expectations?

On an unofficial mission ordered by the deceased former ‘M’ (Judi Dench), James Bond (Daniel Craig) kills two terrorists intending to blow up a stadium. Chasing the assassin Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), the secret agent dispatches the criminal in the subsequent struggle inside a helicopter and takes possession of his ring adorned with an octopus logo. Back in London, the current ‘M’ (Ralph Fiennes) suspends Bond indefinitely from field duty while trying to fight off ‘C’ (Andrew Scott), the new head of the Joint Intelligence Service of the recently merged MI5 and MI6 who wants to close down the ‘00’ section and campaigns for Britain to join the global surveillance initiative ‘Nine Eyes.’

As so often, 007 ignores his boss’s orders and attends Sciarra’s funeral in Rome. From the desperado’s widow Lucia (Monica Belucci), he learns about a criminal organization called SPECTRE that the assassin was part of. Bond then infiltrates a meeting of the syndicate and identifies its leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Escaping the conference and the pursuit of a henchman named Mr. Hinx (David Bautista), he tracks down the former Quantum member Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) with the help of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). The dying villain asks him to protect his daughter Dr. Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux), who can lead him to SPECTRE. Can Bond and the girl take down the rogue organization?

‘The Dead are alive.’ Those are the first words we read on the screen right when Spectre opens. It’s no coincidence that the twenty-fourth film of the series starts with the Mexican festivities of El Día de los Muertos, the day of the dead. First of all, because Bond must be a ghost wandering among the dead if he wants to be successful in finally hunting down the phantom menace that has been besetting him since Casino Royale. Secondly, the opening sequence is an obvious nod to both Baron Samedi from Live & Let Die and the carnival in Rio de Janeiro from Moonraker. It also signals that the humor from the Roger Moore era is occasionally back in Spectre, albeit in the form of a much drier wit. This is particularly true for the interactions between Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Ben Whishaw’s ‘Q,’ who appears more comfortable, more at home with the role than he was in Skyfall.

In fact, all the locations and several of the props seem to have been carefully chosen. The Moroccan city of Tangiers harks back to Timothy Dalton’s first mission as the British agent in The Living Daylights, whereas the Alps are also a setting in George Lazenby’s only call to action, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with Blofeld serving as the super villain ruling from his Swiss mountain fortress, as well as in The Spy Who Loved Me. Likewise, we’ve also come across the chessboard in combination with the nefarious criminal before, in Sean Connery’s second appearance, From Russia With Love. Daniel Craig also wears a white suit strikingly similar to the one of the first 007, while the name ‘Oberhauser’ is already mentioned as James Bond’s temporary guardian in Ian Fleming’s short story The Hildebrand Rarity. It’s as if, with Spectre, director Sam Mendes and the writers finally wanted to tie together the several different eras of the secret agent’s literary and cinematic existence.

Perhaps the most important element that connects the current James Bond with the former ones is the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, in his various incarnations. In Spectre, he appears in the guise of Franz Oberhauser, the man who has remained in the shadows ever since Daniel Craig’s first appearance as the super spy and moves forward with punishing 007 because he had to play second fiddle to the British orphan after his father had taken him in temporarily. Christoph Waltz’s 21st-century version of the super villain, however, is a different breed than the erstwhile megalomaniac foe of Sean Connery and George Lazenby. While situated in the Moroccan desert, his organization, the eponymous SPECTRE, takes the shape of one of the modern Silicon Valley giants. Blofeld’s headquarters looks as if it were the North African equivalent of the Apple, Facebook, or Google campuses, while the master himself plays the role of a sinister Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

The whole movie tackles the issue of surveillance that has been part of the public discussions ever since Edward Snowden revealed the NSA’s and GCHQ’s mechanisms a couple of years ago. Similarly, not just the internet giants operate like a data kraken; the secret services do the same. In Spectre, James Bond and the whole double-O program are about to fall prey to the (supposedly) almighty digital campaigners led by ‘C,’ which is, quite ironically, also the regular cipher of the real-life head of the British intelligence apparatus. The ‘Nine Eyes’ he intends to establish in the film are not unlike the unholy alliance of the current genuine ‘spooks.’ 007, his boss ‘M,’ and their section are, in a way, the last guard of the Britain of old, then. Call them the ultimate protectors of the realm, if you will, but even they aren’t completely free from resisting the urge to resort to modern technology. The double-O leader, for instance, has Bond injected with so-called ‘smart blood,’ so that he can always be traced.

‘C’ sees himself as a visionary, with his killing drones and the entire online surveillance, and he has found a perfect partner in crime in Oberhauser and his syndicate, which plays the role of a perverted Silicon Valley enterprise. SPECTRE organizes the terrorist attacks that create paranoia among politicians as well as the civil society and help ‘C’ to implement his all-encompassing ideas for a global secret service of the 21st century. All the while, the organization and its evil overlord remain lurking in the shadows, just as in the old Sean Connery movies. SPECTRE lives up to its abbreviated name. It is but a ghost that has beset Daniel Craig’s 007 ever since Casino Royale, having eliminated several of the people dearest to him as if the proverbial grim reaper. The initial ‘Day of the Dead,’ then, is a reminder of everything Bond has already lost. Likewise, ‘C’ and Oberhauser (or Blofeld) have come up with a ghastly program for establishing total control over the world while operating in complete secrecy.

Spectre, as a grand metaphor for everything that happens, is also where the song “Writing’s On The Wall” by Sam Smith comes into play. While otherwise a much quieter, rather forgetful tune without the pictures from the title sequence, it appears to allude to the backdrop of the Mexican festival during the spectacular opening chase. It’s as if the song were located in a sort of twilight zone between the worlds of the living and the dead. 007 is a trespasser in each of these two universes as well. The writing on the wall does not only signal that he is considered fair game in the here and now. Somehow, he is already dead, having snuffed it several times in the Daniel Craig era. Unlike in “You Only Live Twice,” however, this Bond is catlike. He seems to possess at least nine existences and always land on his feet, which is also why he even survives Blofeld’s brutal torture with ease. The modern 007 is probably less of a gentleman and more of a superhero with special powers when it comes to taking a beating.

Such characters are often introverts and loners, and Craig’s secret agent is partially of the same mold. He frequently operates in a renegade, vigilante fashion, ignoring orders from above even more often than his predecessors have done. The James Bond of the 21st century is also a more pensive fellow. Longtime fans of the series have often complained about the lack of humor in his first three missions, but this objection has been remediated in Spectre. The typical dry wit and the one-liners are back, making this film a more traditional 007 adventure. The same is true for the Bond girl. Whereas Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall were more about the superspy licking his wounds after the death of his one true love Vesper Lynd at the end of Casino Royale, he is finally allowed to lose his heart again. In that context, Madeleine Swann is probably the updated version of Tracy, whom the secret agent marries at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but immediately loses again thanks to Blofeld.

As director Peter Hunt did in that earlier film, Sam Mendes also cast a more accomplished actress for the important love interest. Léa Seydoux and the marvelous Christoph Waltz, incidentally, share a similar acting pedigree. Both are Quentin Tarantino alumni, having risen to international fame by means of the movie Inglorious Basterds, which also shows how far the Bond series has developed over the years. The recent instalments have had budgets similar to those of the bigger blockbusters. During the Sean Connery era, the producers never hired such established names as Seydoux or the two Oscar winners Waltz and Javier Bardem (in Skyfall) as villains. Nowadays, they can easily afford to hire such actors and increase the costs, because in monetary terms, 007 has rarely been bigger. Daniel Craig is often credited with reviving what was regarded as a franchise on the downgrade. Engaging notable filmmakers such as Sam Mendes or Marc Forster to step outside their comfort zone also helps.

What Spectre shows is that the ghosts you’ve summoned eventually come back to haunt you. The political decision to forgo classic field operatives for the sake of total electronic surveillance backfires, and James Bond, the wraith called up by several pretended clairvoyants, must again step in to save the day. In contrast to his former incarnations, however, Daniel Craig’s 007 decides not to kill his devilish adversary. He proverbially waltzes off and moves away from the motto of Roger Moore’s first mission, Live & Let Die, by not employing his Licence To Kill, likely much to the chagrin of the longtime avid Bond fans. If this is, as widely speculated, Daniel Craig’s final appearance donning the tuxedo, some will probably complain as to why he must go out with a whimper instead of a bang. In light of the recent terrorist attacks in many places, maybe it’s a sign of the times. Spectre is very much that – an intriguing, if flawed post-democratic, postmodernist reconfiguration of everyone’s favorite secret agent.

Seen at Cinestar Metropolis, Frankfurt am Main, Germany on 13 November, 2015.