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Non-Review Review: Skyscraper

Hollywood never really gives up on a genre that it loves, even when it might appear that the audience has moved on.

The perpetual reinvention of the western is one example, a genre that is constantly updated in terms of style and substance to reflect the times. The western has been reinvented and reimagined countless times over the past few decades, whether by combining it with other genres or by examining its underlying assumptions. The western survives in movies like The Hateful EightThe RevenantBone Tomahawk; films that are very clearly westerns even if audiences from the genre’s peak would struggle to recognise them.

Hanging on in there.

Disaster films are another example of Hollywood’s perpetual reinvention of a genre that has fallen out of style. While by no means as ubiquitous as they once were, disaster films still pop up from time to time. The attempts to update the disaster film often take the form of hybridisation, of tying the trappings of the genre into a more marketable template. In the nineties, Independence Day cleverly wed the disaster movie to an alien invasion narrative. More recently, Patriots’ Day tied the structure and rhythms of the disaster movie into a counter-terrorism epic.

Skyscraper hits upon what might be the ultimate genre fusion for the disaster movie template. At the very least, it feels like an inevitable hybrid in the modern cinematic climate. At its core, Skyscraper essentially asks… “what if a disaster movie, but also a superhero film?

The bed Rock of a stable marriage.

This perhaps explains why Skyscraper looks so much like Die Hard, a movie that has been transformed by its own sequels into a prototypal superhero origin story. The basic plot beats of Skyscraper lean heavily into the template established by Die Hard: a (former) law enforcement official who is trying to protect his family, against a bunch of terrorists who are conducting a daring heist on a slick skyscraper. If Under Siege is “Die Hard on a boat” and Air Force One is “Die Hard on a plane”, then Skyscraper is “Die Hard in a skyscraper… again, but this time with a disaster movie vibe.”

(Of course, John McClane was more human than most modern superhero protagonists when he was introduced in Die Hard; he bled, he groaned, he messed up. Perhaps the defining sequence in Die Hard is the sequence in which McClane is forced to run barefoot across shattered glass. His pain feels real. It was only in the sequels, especially Live Free or Die Hard and A Good Day to Die Hard, that McClane truly evolved into a larger than life figure. In contrast, Dwayne Johnson offers Skyscraper a larger than life figure from the outset.)

Secure in himself.

The dynamics of the traditional disaster film are rooted in the old-fashioned ensemble. The archetypal disaster movie focuses a group of stars thrown together by chance or fate, struggling to stay afloat. Think of starry ensemble pieces like The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno. Even films with obvious pre-determined protagonists tend to flesh out their ensembles; Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman are as beloved a part of Independence Day as Will Smith, while even Patriots’ Day spends time with J.K. Simmons getting coffee and donuts.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Skyscraper is how eagerly the film rejects this element of the disaster movie template. Skyscraper focuses almost completely upon the central character, with the minimum amount of attention paid to other narrative necessities; his opponents, his family, and the macguffin that drives the plot. Skyscraper is the story of Will Ford, former FBI agent and war veteran, who finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes heist which just happens to involve massive amounts of fire consuming the largest building in the world.

Rocking his world.

In some ways, Skyscraper feels like an extension of Dwayne Johnson’s last effort at a true-blue disaster movie, the urban destruction in Rampage notwithstanding. San Andreas was a movie with a broader ensemble, more thoroughly populated with disaster movie archetypes than Skyscraper. Paul Giamatti was perhaps the best part of the movie playing the obligatory “science guy”, who spent the film isolated from Johnson. Nevertheless, San Andreas cast Johnson as a pilot in the middle of an earthquake, who stole a search and rescue helicopter to save his daughter.

Skyscraper doubles down on the rugged individualism implied in that hijacking of a search and rescue chopper for personal use in San Andreas. In Skyscraper, the eponymous burning landmark is introduced as a monument to mankind’s hubris. It was build from the same arrogant desire to “touch the sky” as “the Tower of Babel”, the opening expository news coverage assures the audience. The “pearl” at the top of the structure is little more that a hall of mirrors, which its architect describes as “Heaven.” Asked if this proclamation was “cool” or “creepy”, Ford concedes, “A little of both.”

Well, their security guy is fired.

In place of the ensemble characters who would normally populate a film like this, Skyscraper provides its heroes and villains with a world made of cardboard; which may explain how the fire burns through it so easily. Perhaps reflecting the civilian death toll anxieties that haunt modern superhero films like Batman vs. Superman or Avengers: Age of Ultron, the building is mostly empty when disaster strikes. It is little more than an obstacle course intended for a single character. Skyscraper is not a story about survivors or civilians. It is a story about a singular hero.

Skyscraper venerates Dwayne Johnson, and perhaps justifiably so. The actor has a charm and charisma that allows the movie to coast by despite its generic and formulaic plotting. Skyscaper presents Will Ford as something akin to an in-universe superhero. Repeatedly over the course of the film, his actions are broadcast to assembled crowds on massive television screens. His name is mentioned repeatedly in coverage of the events. His fans cheer as his body accomplishes physically impossible tasks.

Don’t crane your neck like that!

Ford is not a literal superhero, but he might as well be. Over the course of Skyscraper, Ford accomplishes all manner of impossible tasks that violate various laws of physics and biology. At one point, the character makes an impossible jump. At another, the character literally holds up a bridge with his bare hands. These stunts are impressive, even if the special effects occasionally veer into the uncanny. Certain shots of the character dangling like Spider-Man are awe-inspiring, but others feel unnatural and unconvincing.

Law enforcement are present, but useless. Our hero is forced to operate as a fugitive at several points in the story in order to combat a threat for which these officers are completely unprepared. Ford is forced to physically tussle with police officers at several points in the narrative, as they try to stop him from doing what he needs to do. Rescue workers spend most of the film waiting for Ford to resolve the crisis. Indeed, what little assistance the organs of state provide comes courtesy of the direction of the protagonist’s wife.

“Um. I couldn’t help noticing that you appear to have ‘bat-proofing’ your Hong Kong penthouse apartment as a priority.”

Even beyond its singular focus on Ford, Skyscraper‘s debt to the superhero genre can be acknowledged in its strong central reference to The Dark Knight. Once again, Chin Han plays a entrepreneur who barricades himself within a skyscraper in Hong Kong, only to find himself subject to outside attack. Even the macguffin in Skyscraper seems to nod towards Han’s role in The Dark Knight, all the necessary financial records and information to bring down a vast criminal enterprise.

More broadly, Skyscraper is hardly shy in its embrace of masculinity. This is a movie that features as its centerpiece Dwayne Johnson leaping from one phallic symbol (at “maximum extension”) to another as the world watches. The crowd gasp, exhaling sharply in a moment of release. Dwayne Johnson is no longer merely “franchise viagra.” Skyscraper argues that he has that literal big dick energy. The biggest possible dick.

Really big Johnson.

Skyscraper‘s engagement with masculine exertion is perhaps demonstrated in the manner in which the film chooses to introduce its antagonist, the terrorist Kores Botha. Botha is introduced attacking a maintenance worker investigating a crack in the wall. From the darkness, a big and hulking bicep reaches out and grabs the worker by the throat. With that one muscled arm, Botha squeezes the life from his victim. The way the sequence is shot emphasises Roland Møller’s physicality in a manner that establishes him as a credible macho threat to Johnson.

Skyscraper is a little too formulaic in its execution, its world a little too hollow, its storytelling a little too rote. There are a few fleeting moments of genuine spectacle with the film, and Johnson is a sturdy and anchor as a movie like this is likely to find. However, unfortunately, Skyscraper never quite reaches the heights to which it aspires.

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2 Responses

  1. Where is that damn incredibles 2 Review?!

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