How Spectre Represents the Best and Worst of Movie Twists

By  · Published on November 6th, 2015


Columbia Pictures

Obviously this post deals with spoilers for the new James Bond movie, Spectre. Read on only if you’ve seen it or don’t care.

The reveal in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father is one of the all-time greatest twists in cinema. And it still works. No matter if you’ve been spoiled on that reveal ahead of seeing it, and no matter how many times you’ve watched the movie, the twist remains an effective piece of the story and the telling of that story. It’s a twist that is responded to on screen with Luke’s shrieking denial, and it’s a twist that is responded to off screen by the viewer, acknowledged as a total game changer.

Other great movie twists have similar twofold significance. They’re twists within and shockers for the audience. The entire audience. And those that work best are the twists that we couldn’t possibly expect. That’s not to say they can’t be predicted while watching the movie, but they’re not really tied to anything outside of the experience of watching that movie or its series. They’re not about winking to fans or playing off nostalgia, because that doesn’t really make any sense. Why make a secret out of something familiar and popular?

The big reveal in Spectre is one of those nonsensical new breed of twists that are connected to nostalgia and fandom, and just like the last time, it’s very frustrating but more so just baffling in its devise. It’s a twist almost exactly like the one in Star Trek Into Darkness, where a new villain is revealed to be a popular old villain with an alter ego. At least there the resurrected baddie is of significance to the heroes of the movie. Spectre revives an iconic villain by name just to satisfy the fans.

Christoph Waltz plays the role, long denied (or at least unconfimed) as being 007 arch-nemesis Ernst Stavros Blofeld, whose listed and actual name is Franz Oberhauser. But he is Blofeld. In the movie, he tells James Bond (Daniel Craig) that when he faked his death many years earlier, he renamed himself Blofeld, which comes from his mother’s side of the family. But because Bond isn’t aware of his own character’s literary and movie history, the name is meaningless to him. It could have been “Julius No” or “Dr. Evil” for all he’s concerned. And for all some viewers are concerned, as well.

With the reveal, Spectre finally confirms Craig’s run as Bond to be a reboot. Unless you still want to buy into the theory that Bond is a code name and then argue that Oberhauser renamed himself after a previously existing villain he was related to. Once again, it’s ridiculous for a reboot to reference something from an older incarnation of a series. Simply reusing a character is not an offense, mainly because Blofeld is part of original source canon. It’s how they use him, and how they hid their use of him without any good reason for doing so.

Movies are more likely to cash in on the nostalgic fans if they’re upfront about bringing back major characters from the past, at least if they’re going to be major characters again, not just unimportant cameos or brief references. The fans have been wanting Blofeld to return for decades, so give them what they want and be clear about it. The issue with this secret has nothing to do with how hard it is to keep such secrets in the Internet era, either. This kind of twist would have been just as annoying had it been a reveal in one of the Timothy Dalton or Pierce Brosnan 007 movies.

And it’s a type of twist that doesn’t seem to be ending with Spectre. J.J. Abrams, who made the mistake in Star Trek Into Darkness with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character revealed to be Khan despite much denial of this much presumed idea, is about to deliver another “surprise” in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Is masked villain Kylo Ren really Luke Skywalker? That’s what many people think. Regardless, there is some sort of secret regarding Skywalker, why he’s not really in trailers or posters, and the buildup can’t possibly lead to anything as satisfyingly smart and soapy as the Empire Vader surprise. A Skywalker turned to the Dark Side and wearing a mask? It’s been done.

Spectre has its own soapy twist, and it might have even been smart if it wasn’t combined with the Blofeld blunder. And if it wasn’t a cliche straight out of the Bond-parodying Austin Powers series (“did they really use a plot device from Goldmember???” asked comic book artist Rob Liefeld astutely on Twitter after simply reading a synopsis – yep!!!). Bond and Blofeld, like Powers and Dr. Evil, turn out to have been brothers, sort of. Bond was raised by Oberhauser’s father. Who liked Bond better. So the son killed the father. We recently saw a similar jealous sibling dynamic in Guardians of the Galaxy, only it wasn’t a surprise reveal. And in Thor. In fact, that kind of relationship is all over the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Still, the twist of the good guy and bad guy being related can be done well, and could have worked in Spectre without it coming off as silly in connection with the other twist. It’s the sort of common cliche that’s acceptable if executed effectively because it’s a classic storytelling trope. It’s not always as big of a shocker as the father-son reveal in the Star Wars movies, and that’s okay. It’s a plot twist that doesn’t have to be met with loud gasps, just a quiet nod of acknowledgment and approval. Like when Luke and Leia are confirmed to be brother and sister.

The reason this is normally a good kind of twist is that it affects the characters while also affecting the audience, the latter less so, and disrupts the order of the world on screen and the narrative in our minds. Had it been handled better in Spectre, it could have changed the way we recall and revisit the last three Craig-led Bond movies in an astonishingly good way, even if too reminiscent of the reveal at the end of Unbreakable. Instead, many screenwriters and director Sam Mendes manage to make the whole Craig run a convoluted mess.

It also still comes out of nowhere, however, as something the movie rumor and spoiler mill didn’t spread so widely and wildly as it did the Blofeld twist, because it’s not based in anything we should have been looking for. Without the Blofeld thing, it would have just been that Bond and this new villain turn out to be foster brothers, an idea as old as stories themselves.

Even with the Blofeld thing, had it not been treated as a secret, the foster brothers reveal would have been an interesting, if sudsy and familiar, development. Unfortunately, in Spectre the relationship reveal doesn’t really change the game in any way. From beginning to end, it never matters what the villain’s name is nor that he has a past connection to the hero. Both twists could be eliminated and you’d have the same movie.

There remains something intriguing about what Spectre is trying to do, though, or at least seems to be. Waltz’s character is essentially a human MacGuffin and therefore could be anything or anyone. He turns out to represent both the most significant and insignificant of things and ones while representing both the best and worst kinds of twists, which also turn out to feel significant without actually being so. That’s a kind of twist in and of itself, yet sadly also not one executed very well.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.