"With all due respect, sir, it could have been worse."
After 'Skyfall' shattered every previous record for the James Bond franchise, director Sam Mendes initially claimed that he would not return for the inevitable next Bond sequel. Eventually, the series' producers talked him into coming back after all, presumably by throwing piles of cash in his direction. Like far too many other filmmakers who've faced the challenge of following up a huge success, Mendes succumbed to the temptation of going bigger and trying to top himself. Ultimately, he couldn't achieve that goal. Perhaps he should have let somebody else take the fall?
'Spectre', Daniel Craig's fourth outing as the world's greatest secret agent, opens with the franchise's most elaborate and ambitious opening teaser sequence yet. In a very show-offy unbroken five-minute tracking shot, the camera follows Bond through the thronging streets of Mexico City during its Day of the Dead celebration, into and through a hotel, and out across the rooftops of several buildings while the parades continue below him, until he finds and eavesdrops on the mark he's trailing. Once that shot is finished, Bond causes an international incident involving an exploding building (which, strangely, nobody nearby seems to notice) and crazy helicopter acrobatics above a crowd of thousands. All in a day's work for 007.
Bond's superiors at MI-6, specifically the new M (Ralph Fiennes), aren't too pleased with the attention his antics have drawn at a most unfortunate time for the agency. An impending merger with MI-5 hanging over it, the Double-0 division is seen as an antiquated relic that faces the threat of being disbanded. Bond himself isn't overly concerned about that. When M grounds him from field work, he disobeys orders and goes off-book on a personal mission to avenge the death of the former M (Judi Dench, seen briefly in a video recording and some photographs), but he might get a little help from his friends Moneypenny and Q along the way. His investigation will lead Bond to discover an evil cabal of terrorists and criminals that secretly pulled the strings behind all of his former foes, from Le Chiffre to Silva. In a remarkable coincidence, the leader of that organization may even have ties to Bond's own past.
The Daniel Craig movies occupy a curious place in the Bond franchise. The 20 prior films, from 'Dr. No' to 'Die Another Day', had only a loose and frequently contradictory sense of continuity, even within the runs of any particular lead actor. In 2006, 'Casino Royale' officially rebooted the entire narrative to start over. Since that time, all of Craig's pictures have been much more directly connected to one another, as if they exist as an independent entity within the greater series. 'Skyfall' attempted to unite the franchise by bringing back some of the iconic elements from the earlier movies (Q, Moneypenny, Bond's classic Aston Martin, etc.). In my opinion, that film struck a perfect balance between homage to the past and moving the story forward. At its end, Bond had fully become the man we originally knew, and was ready for new adventures.
The biggest mistake 'Spectre' makes is that, rather than let Bond move on, the film merely repeats the 'Skyfall' formula, and does so with far too much focus on reverence to the series' past. The movie is overstuffed with fan-service references from start to finish. Right from the title, we know that this entry will re-introduce the terrorist sect that Sean Connery battled for several movies. And although the plot makes some attempt at misdirection, the group's leader is a character well known to Bond fans (here played by Christoph Waltz in classic hammy Bond villain mode). Winks and nods abound: the villain's tunic from 'Dr. No', an evil boardroom meeting from 'Thunderball', a skeleton costume from 'Live and Let Die', a mountaintop health clinic from 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', a henchman (Dave Bautista) who's clearly channeling Odd Job from 'Goldfinger' and Jaws from 'The Spy Who Loved Me', a brutal fistfight on a train just like 'From Russia with Love', and more. It feels like Sam Mendes is trying to remake the entire James Bond franchise all in one movie.
In addition to that, 'Spectre' also bends over backwards to link all of Craig's entries and tie them up with a neat little bow in ways that feel forced. That issue is compounded by digging even further into Bond's background and origin story to connect everything together, which only serves to demystify the character. Then he's given a new love interest (Léa Seydoux) we're supposed to believe he'd consider giving up his entire career as a spy for, in a storyline that's never particularly convincing. (A lot of publicity for the movie made hay over 51-year-old Monica Bellucci being the oldest woman cast as a "Bond Girl," but her role is a throwaway seduction for Bond at the beginning of the movie.) Disappointingly, the plot's climax comes down to a regressive girlfriend-in-danger cliché that even features a bomb with a big red countdown timer.
For all that, the fim's worst sin would have to be its truly dreadful theme song by Sam Smith. After Madonna and Jack White butchered their earlier efforts in 'Die Another Day' and 'Quantum of Solace' respectively, I didn't think the Bond producers could possibly choose an even worse song, but they've somehow found one. The credits sequence behind it is pretty cheesy as well.
With an official budget of $245 million (perhaps upwards of $300 million according to some sources), 'Spectre' is not just the most expensive Bond film to date, it's one of the most expensive motion pictures ever made at all. At 148 minutes, it's also the longest Bond movie yet. Mendes' very deliberate sense of pacing and oppressively morose tone sometimes make that length feel indulgent, and many audiences were put off by it. Although the film was certainly a big box office earner, it came up well short of the $1.1 billion 'Skyfall' haul. It's a sad reality of the film industry that a movie which grossed over $870 million could somehow be considered a disappointment, but that's the state of the business today. More importantly, fans and critics were both underwhelmed by the picture, and few felt that it lived up to its predecessor. That was of course the risk that Mendes took and the comparison he drew upon himself when he accepted the job. Nevertheless, a perception surrounded 'Spectre' that the film was a dud.
Despite some of my own criticisms listed above, I think that many complaints against the movie have been wildly overblown. Some of the more rabid Bond fans have even gone so far as to call it the worst Bond film ever, selectively choosing to forget the likes of 'A View to a Kill' or 'Die Another Day'. In truth, 'Spectre' is nowhere near that category. It's a very slick and handsome production, and Daniel Craig continues to evolve the character in interesting ways. In this one, he has the "unflappable" aspect of Bond's personality down to a science, and it's great fun to watch him command an action scene, of which the movie has many.
While I'd agree that 'Spectre' doesn't measure up to 'Skyfall' and has some big failings that are hard to overlook, I'd still put it solidly in the middle of the Bond pack, neither one of the best nor one of the worst of the franchise's many installments. I enjoyed a great many things in it. However, after this, I think it's time to set aside the fan-service and move past the dark and brooding tone of the last few movies. I'd like to see a Bond film that's just purely fun again. The character has earned that.
As the 24th official James Bond film, 'Spectre' comes to Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment, distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Fox performed all disc authoring. The standard Blu-ray edition comes packaged in a basic keepcase with a slipcover. In the United States, Best Buy stores carry an exclusive SteelBook version, which is the same disc in a nicer case. That same SteelBook may be available at different retailers in other countries.
The disc itself has a main menu that cycles through clips from the movie in an annoyingly short loop played to the "James Bond Theme" over and over again.
At least visually, 'Spectre' makes a point of trying not to be merely 'Skyfall 2'. When cinematographer Roger Deakins, who'd shot the last film, wasn't available for the follow-up, director Sam Mendes turned to Hoyte Van Hoytema ('Her', 'Interstellar'). Not only did Van Hoytema return the production to 35mm photography (as opposed to digital), his work seems to willfully set itself apart from the look of 'Skyfall' as much as possible, not to mention the other 22 Bond films before that. Viewers who were big fans of the way 'Skyfall' looked may find that disappointing, but 'Spectre' is its own thing.
The movie's photography is deliberately stylized to be a little soft and hazy, with flat contrasts and muted colors. As so many movies today move toward High Dynamic Range projection in theaters (and on the new Ultra HD home format), this is consciously a low dynamic range picture. Black levels are noticeably elevated and never particularly inky. Colors are understated with a frequent yellowish overcast to the entire image. (Notice that the background behind the opening gun barrel sequence is more beige than white.) Film grain is often visible, even prominent.
None of this is to say that the movie is poorly photographed. Mendes and Van Hoytema conjure many striking images within their chosen style. However, this Blu-ray may not qualify as typical home theater eye candy for those who expect every movie to have vibrant popping colors and scorching contrast.
The movie is presented in its theatrical 2.40:1 aspect ratio. (Technically, the picture measures closer to 2.38:1 for some reason, but the difference is too small to fret about.) Despite the stylization, the Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer has a strong sense of detail and no digital artifacts of note. Grain, when apparent, has a tightly controlled structure. Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of the look the filmmakers chose for the film, but I can't blame the disc for an artistic decision like that.
If you don't have a good subwoofer in your home theater, get yourself out and buy one right now. [Fair warning: Your spouse and neighbors may object.] The bass on this disc is insane. My sensory memory of the opening scene reverberated through my bones a full day after watching it – and that was just from the throbbing music. When the explosions hit… well, just make sure you secure anything in your home that might rattle or fall, because your whole house is going to shake.
Rocking bass is fun and all, but a good soundtrack needs more than just that, of course. For the most part, the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track delivers robust music and plenty of enveloping directional activity all through the room. However, although actual character dialogue is always perfectly clear, intelligibility of the lyrics during the terrible Sam Smith theme song is very poor. The sound mix also has a frustrating tendency to suppress sound effects (such as gunfire or car noises) during the action scenes and bury them under the much louder musical score. While that's more of a mixing decision than a disc authoring problem, it holds back some of the big action sequences from being as involving as they might have been.
Before anyone complains about the lack of a Dolby Atmos or DTS:X track on the Blu-ray, 'Spectre' was never mixed in those formats and did not play in Atmos theatrically. The film did get an immersive 12.1 channel mix for IMAX theaters, but that IMAX format is proprietary and doesn't have a comparable home version. Using the Dolby Surround Upmixer function in my A/V receiver, the early helicopter stunt matrixed extremely well to height channels, with helicopter noises panning back and forth across the top of my room. Beyond that, the height speakers rarely called much attention to themselves.
Almost all of the Bond films have arrived on Blu-ray loaded with lots of bonus features. Sadly, 'Spectre' has a paltry selection of extras. Did the studio cheap out in not wanting to produce any, or has everyone simply run out of things to say about the franchise?
Even if it's ultimately unable to live up to its own ambitions or the huge success of 'Skyfall', to which it begs direct comparison, 'Spectre' is still a pretty entertaining James Bond movie with a number of memorable sequences. It plays better on repeat viewings once you've accepted some of its limitations, which perhaps makes home video a better venue for it than the theater.
For better or worse, the Blu-ray accurately captures the movie's very stylized photographic style. Its soundtrack is also a bass lover's dream. The only real failure here is the meager selection of bonus features. Aside from that, this is a worthy purchase for Bond fans.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.