The Empty Balcony: Skyfall

I never thought I would have to write this, but, spoilers ahead. For the first time, I’m writing a review of a film that’s more for readers who have already seen it.

Skyfall, the latest Eon James Bond flick, is a bit perplexing. It’s one of the better Bond films, if not near the top of the heap. But the story is colossally idiotic. The motivations behind the actions of the film’s bad guy, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), are understandable. Current head of British MI6, M (Judi Dench), back in her days running the Hong Kong office, sold out the wily Silva, one of her agents, to the Chinese. He was tortured and horribly maimed by a botched suicide attempt. Silva blames M for what happened to him, and a murderous desire for revenge grows within him. But the plan he sets in motion makes no sense at all, and reeks of lazy screenwriting.

In Turkey, an assassin by the name of Patrice (Ola Rapace), has stolen a hard drive that has a list of the identities of all undercover agents deployed by NATO to infiltrate terrorist organizations. (Who in hell would be stupid enough to put such sensitive information into a list?) James Bond (Daniel Craig) tries and fails to capture Patrice, but after an explosion forces MI6 to flee their headquarters for underground digs, Bond tracks Patrice to Shanghai, where he kills Patrice after the assassin has carried out a hit. In Patrice’s gun case, Bond finds a poker chip that leads him to a casino in Macau, where he meets Bond Girl (there’s no point in giving a name), a woman who had been with Patrice’s target in Shanghai. She invites Bond to a romp aboard a yacht, but only if he can survive an attack by some of the casino’s goons. He does, and the yacht carries the two of them to an island that Silva has claimed. Silva captures Bond, kills Bond Girl, then is captured in turn by Bond.

Silva is taken to London, and is imprisoned in MI6’s new base. M heads off to testify at a hearing, while the computer geeks at MI6 try to break into Silva’s laptop. When they do, a computer virus is let loose that releases Silva from his cell, and opens an underground route to the site of the hearing, where Silva has planned to finally carry out his revenge. Bond tracks Silva through the tunnels, ending up in the London Underground. Silva manages to evade Bond, makes it to the hearing with some mercenaries in tow, and is foiled in a shootout by Bond.

So here’s how Silva’s master plan works. Some time in the past, after Silva has been released from a Chinese prison, he uses his peerless skills at computer programming to get filthy rich and surround himself with a personal army. He sends one of his people to steal a very sensitive hard drive. He uses the information on the hard drive to torment M a little bit, but the plan doesn’t really get set into motion until he uses his freaking laptop to blow up her office, forcing the agency to relocate to the underground tunnels. M sends Bond after Patrice, the only link MI6 has to the missing hard drive, and Silva sends Patrice out on a hit, knowing he will be captured or killed and evidence he possesses will lead MI6 to the casino in Macau, where MI6’s agent can catch a ride to Silva’s secret hideout. There, Silva allows himself to be captured, so he can be placed in a cell that happens to be mere feet from his pre-planned escape route. He waits patiently for MI6 to turn on his laptop, which releases him, and he uses his escape route to reach and finally confront his nemesis in a sloppy gunfight that is the exact opposite of the meticulous plan he used to get to her in the first place.

The plan fails any sort of real world test. Bond has to confront Patrice while he’s carrying out the hit, otherwise he doesn’t find the chip. MI6 had to move its operations underground somewhere in the city, otherwise Silva’s plan to use tunnels in his escape doesn’t work. What would have happened if they had chosen to relocate to the countryside? In addition, MI6, upon capturing Silva, had to put him in a cell in their new headquarters that was close enough to tunnel access to facilitate his escape. What if they had decided not to hold him in their headquarters, but had instead locked him up in a black site in Afghanistan? Part of Silva’s plan from the start was attacking M in the hearing room. What if the hearing was on a different day and Silva was released from his cell too soon? Would he hang out in the subway tunnels waiting? What if he ended up being released from his cell after the hearing was over? What if the tech support folks at MI6 had tried to access Silva’s laptop a little sooner, say, the minute they got their hands on the thing in Asia? What if they had kept his laptop sequestered, never giving it the opportunity to infect their network?

The sheer number of unchoreographed events that must happen in perfect order for Silva’s plan to work makes that plan impossible. But the worst offense to a viewer’s sensibility is the plan existing at all. Silva is rich, brilliant, and invisible. He has the power to manipulate world events using a laptop. He surely could have gone to Expedia and gotten a plane ticket to London, and just waited outside M’s house to shoot at her awkwardly with a handgun. It would have wasted far less of both his time and the viewer’s.

So there it is, the gigantic hurdle a viewer must ignore in order to enjoy Skyfall. Silva carries out a needlessly complicated plan just to get physically near a single person. Strangely enough, at the moment, the plan also comes to a screeching halt, as I’ve seen less chaotic gunfights in Brooklyn. You know what? That gunfight, with bullets flying around and everyone confused about what’s happening, ends up looking like the most realistic thing in this movie. How bewildering.

I managed to get past Silva’s labyrinthine pointlessness, with effort, and make it to the film’s final act, a superb Alamo-esque finale in desolate Scotland. But it was tough, I won’t lie. This film walks a fine line between being good and being unforgivably stupid, and it falls to either side and back multiple times. I’m just going to throw up my hands and give credit to director Sam Mendes for holding together a film that was begging to fly apart into a million pieces. Good job, Sam.