Oct 30th 2015

Spectre review: James Bond makes his mark in an age of cybersecurity

Daniel Craig’s entry into the Bond world was more than a change of face: he also brought in an abrupt about turn in style, from the fantastical to the gritty. The fourth Craig Bond, Spectre, takes us further down this road: unambiguously into a world that we all recognise. The film’s focus on cybersecurity, and more specifically the potential for the abuse of state surveillance technology, is a timely theme: Spectre has even been described as “sexily pro-Snowden”.

As an ideological stance for Bond, that most establishment of action heroes, you might argue that this merits a raised eyebrow in the best Roger Moore tradition. But a look through the 53-year history of the Bond films reveals this to be the culmination two contrasting obsessions of the series – the liberating potential of gadgetry, and the oppressive potential of bureaucracy. Spectre is an intriguing new step in how the Bond films have worked to negotiate the changing cultural perceptions of each in the 21st century.

Guns and gadgets

In the days of Sean Connery, the fantastical gadgets deployed by Bond were a key part of the films’ engagement with 1960s modernity, what Harold Wilson described as the “white heat” of the technological revolution. Here the appeal of the gadget, whether a laser watch, an attaché case concealing knives and tear gas, or an Aston Martin with ejector seat, was to extend the human agency of the protagonist, projecting the potential for action and escapism into ever more extravagant realms. Yet with the service quartermaster (or “Q”) depicted in the terms of the eccentric, avuncular British boffin, such technology always seemed somehow more personal than institutional.

Over subsequent decades, the gadget went from strength to strength, and by the 1990s it was able to merge seamlessly into new cultural excitement surrounding digital technology. But the infamous invisible car of Die Another Day (2002) proved a step too far into the fantastical for many tastes.

Ben Whishaw as the modern Q. Sony

The subsequent Craig films reacted strongly against this by dialling back to an portrayal of Bond as a blunt instrument. Gadgetry occupies an ambivalent position in this phase of the series. It is certainly not absent (see for example M’s elaborate holographic touchscreen in Quantum of Solace (2008)) but not as unabashedly celebrated either. This is particularly evident in the absence of Q in the first two films.

It was perhaps inevitable that when Q was reintroduced in Skyfall (2012) it was as a geeky 30-something with a laptop and hyper-competent hacking skills. In his first meeting with Bond, the new Q comments: “I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pyjamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.” Suddenly there was a new anxiety that a gadget may not work to extend Bond’s agency but instead supplant it (although Q concedes Bond’s continuing usefulness lies in how “every now and then a trigger has to be pulled”).

This scene encapsulates the broader technological narrative across the film. The villain Raoul Silva is a cyberterrorist with similarly impressive hacking skills, yet any notion that Q might actually be a more suitable protagonist against such a threat is ultimately rejected. Instead, Silva is defeated in a more traditional battle sequence in which Bond figuratively “pulls the trigger”.

The lone ranger. Spectre


The most recent Bond film develops this interest by reviving and re-imagining SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), the crime syndicate central to most of the 1960s Bond films. There SPECTRE was the epitome of criminal bureaucracy, an alienating corporate culture best known for feeding its failed employees to the sharks. In the context of 60s modernity, therefore, the organisation stood as the counterpoint to the liberating gadget.

But now the syndicate has evolved into something new – embroiled in a plot to create an anti-democratic surveillance state. “George Orwell’s worst nightmare,” as M puts it, or in Bondian terms a world where the gadgets have essentially taken over. In the age of surveillance, even the new intelligence chief C regards double-0 agents like Bond as antiquated.

Yet Bond’s role is inevitably privileged by the demands of cinema, which favours the visual excitement of action sequences over the abstraction of the digital. So it’s unsurprising that the surveillance with which Spectre is seemingly most concerned is that of CCTV rather than the other, less visually arresting forms of data monitoring that were more central to the Snowden revelations.

The boardroom. Sony

Spectre also features a rework of the iconic conference scene of the organisation’s elite from Thunderball (1965). But in contrast to the modernist sets of the earlier film, this takes place in an ornate, gloomy candlelit room with a more masonic feel. Curiously juxtaposed with the technological focus of the film, this perhaps engages with a contemporary paranoia that the same power elites have been in control for some considerable time and have monopolised technological advances, bending them to antiquated values.

In the face of rapid technological shifts, the “blunter” Bond films of recent years have been perpetually forced to justify the character’s continuing relevance. They often locate this in a nostalgia for a seemingly vanishing era when agents could roam the world fixing problems as relatively free individuals.

But this focus on the individual has its limits. Perhaps Spectre’s least satisfying feature is how it ultimately elects to focus less on the titular organisation and more on the personal relationship between Bond and the syndicate’s leader Franz Oberhauser.

The result here is a somewhat flat final act which fails to sustain the balance of excitement from earlier in the film. A closer adherence to anonymous, bureaucratised SPECTRE of the 1960s would, I think, have ultimately been a much stronger vehicle for the themes of the dehumanising surveillance state. Nonetheless, this is only a relatively minor weakness in a film which continues the engaging project off reworking old Bond conventions in line with contemporary headline anxieties.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Joseph Oldham is an Associate Fellow of the department, and over the last academic year (2014-15) he has led seminars on "The Hollywood Cinema" and "Basic Issues & Methods: Film Criticism". Previously he led undergraduate seminars on "Basic Issues & Methods: Film History" (2011-12).

Joseph Oldham PhD thesis, 'Serial Narratives of the Secret State in British Television Drama', was a study of the history of the spy and conspiracy genres on British television. This analysed a broad variety of programmes including Cold War spy series such as The Sandbaggers (ITV, 1978-80), classic spy novel adaptations such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 2, 1979), topical conspiracy thrillers of the 1980s such as Edge of Darkness (BBC 2, 1985) and A Very British Coup (Channel 4), and more recent 'war on terror' spy series such as Spooks (BBC, 2002-11). He situated such programmes within broader socio-political history and also used them as a lens through which to develop a new perspective on the history of British television institutions. This research was supervised by Professor Charlotte Brunsdon and funded by an AHRC Doctoral Award.

Joseph Oldham holds a BA (Hons) in Film with Television Studies (1st Class) and an MA for Research in Film and Television Studies (Distinction), both from the University of Warwick.

Browse articles by author

More Movie Reviews

Oct 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Having watched both the original and Hagai Levi’s remake, I am struck by the intensity of both and, in contrast to many reviewers of the new HBO mini-series, many who disparage it, I assert that Levi has, in fact done a sterling job of both recreating and, indeed, increasing the intensity of the original. The performances by Chastain and Isaacs are marvelous, moving, and in each episode, both hold the viewer with their immersions in the roles."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "I have questioned before whether certain works explicitly thematising traumatic events amount to a meaningful response. They could be criticised for rendering the trauma aesthetic. This has the potential, as cultural theorist Theodor Adorno warned in response to art after the Holocaust, of enabling people to derive pleasure from it, and that can be heinous. I would not wish to argue that composers, or other artists, should refrain from engaging with such events, nor that there have not been immensely successful works of this type."
Feb 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the skeleton of the ship emerges from the sand, it is a metaphor for the transience of human life, particularly poignant with war looming. Edith says to Brown, “We die and decay and don’t live on.” He counters, “From the first human hand-print on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous, so we don’t really die.” The idea that all human lives are connected through the thread of the past is at the heart of burial archaeology, which is not about treasure but unearthing relationships between the living and their memories of the dead."
Nov 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Peter Morgan’s fourth season of The Crown faces perhaps its greatest challenge so far. The 1980s was one of the most documented, catalogued, debated and scrutinised decades of the House of Windsor. Morgan will, no doubt be keenly aware of viewers using telephoto lenses to, once again, see if the program-makers “get it right”....... They do.
Feb 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Camera moves were choreographed to allow two scenes that were filmed in the same location at different times to be taken into the computer and “stitched” together as if they were one complete shot. Doing this over and over enabled the illusion of one continuous sequence. Like many films though, 1917 used a host of other visual effects techniques that were unseen. This is often regarded as the pinnacle of success in visual effects – an effect that can’t be seen versus one that is smacking you in the face with a large, wet fish."
Jan 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) has received Oscar nominations in several of the same categories as her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017). Most notably, another writing nomination for Gerwig, this time in the adapted screenplay category. However, Little Women, unlike Lady Bird, did not earn her a nomination for best director. The shortlist for that category is, for the 87th time in 92 ceremonies, all male, and some might say, all rather macho to boot."
Nov 27th 2019


Whistle-blower: Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun.
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "From October 16-27, over four hundred films were screened from 68 countries. I saw thirteen of these. The most inspiring was Varda by Agnés—and I’ll close this essay with her: Find her films, see them, cherish them. The list that follows runs from two—I can’t help but say this—clunkers to all the rest that are well-worth seeing—if you can find them."
Oct 16th 2018
........one hopes, Asia will become a bigger part of Hollywood culture, with more films featuring Asian locales and actors. Produced for just $30 million (compared to over $300 million for Disney’s “Avengers: Infinity War”), “Crazy Rich Asians” has already grossed over $200 million worldwide.
Sep 18th 2018
Yes, life is unreliable. Yes, life sometimes is unbelievable. Yes, life will bring us to our knees. And, yes, this much-criticized film will get you in the heart, but not through the manipulation it is being criticized for, but through its narrative insight that shows us how, despite all that brings us down, a story can get us to see that we must get up off our knees.
Jan 23rd 2018

The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government

Nov 27th 2017
Casablanca, which brought together the combined star-power of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, remains one of the best-loved movies ever produced in Hollywood. But the film, which hit the silver screen on November 26 1942, is more than just a love story set in Morocco.
Oct 30th 2017

The 53rd Chicago International Film festival ran 150 films from October 12-27, 2017. Directors, screenplay writers and actors attended many of the films from fifty countries.

Oct 30th 2017
The cinematic experience continues to be dominated by digitally led projects and audiences who increasingly expect more and more technical innovation. So it is refreshing when a mainstream cinema release consciously chooses to place traditional, artist-led techniques at its very heart.
Jun 8th 2017

Sofia Coppola’s triumphant win at Cannes as best director for The Beguiled is the latest in a series of notable successes for a director quietly but forcefully blazing her own tr

Feb 24th 2017

Having won five BAFTAs, including coveted awards for Best Film, Best Director (Damien Chazelle) and Best Actress (Emma Stone), La La Land is likely to

Jan 7th 2017

The blogosphere has been awash this month with reviews of Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, Silence.

Nov 16th 2016

The Crown, Netflix’s most ambitious and expensive original drama, had a reported budget of over US$100 million.
Oct 25th 2016

Violence against women in television drama has always been high.

Aug 8th 2016

Strange to say, but Donald Trump might have been a filmmaker rather than real estate magnate.