Friday, 27 July 2018

Skyscraper (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) has been hired by financier Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) to assess the security of the Pearl, a super-structure that will be the tallest skyscraper in the world. However, that might have to wait as the building is taken over by terrorists, led by Kores Botha (Roland Møller), who hold the entire structure for ransom. As Will tries to figure out what exactly is going on, with his wife and children still inside the Pearl, he will have to work fast before the whole building goes up in flames.

If it weren’t for Dwayne Johnson’s natural charisma and ability to charm audiences with his mere on-screen presence, the character of Will Sawyer would be a complete blank slate. It’s another situation where he basically carries the entire film around him, something he has enough experience with to do adequately, but consider what else he’s been in this year alone, it’s obvious that he’s stuck with weak material here. Neve Campbell, in her first major production since Scream 4 back in 2011, actually does quite well even considering the limp characterisation as Will's wife Sarah. Her chemistry with Johnson makes for a natural coupling, she holds her own during the more dramatic moments, and she even gets to cut loose during some of the fight scenes. If nothing else, it’s good that her character background as an army medic serves as more than just an informed character attribute. Chin Han as the creator of the Pearl works decently here, while Roland Møller as the main terrorist works solely within his place in the narrative. As a villain, he doesn’t really register, while Hannah Quinlivan as one of his colleagues at least manages to give the role some form of personality. McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell as Will and Sarah’s kids do well enough in that space, and Noah Taylor ultimately feels wasted. Trust me, that feeling of lost potential is going to be a running theme with this one.

In its purest connections to the action-disaster genre, Rawson Marshall Thurber and co. manage to score some definite points right from the start. For one, aside from a few glaring instances, we aren’t stuck with reams of exposition about the characters or the main setting or even the inner workings of the story itself. Instead, Thurber and DOP Robert Elswit (Nightcrawler, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Suburbicon) stick to more classical foreshadowing and visual storytelling to set up the main relationships early on. From the opening scene of Will entering a hostage situation, to the aftermath, to how Will and his team have been affected since the aftermath, it shows a surprising amount of respect for the audience’s intelligence. I say “surprising” because, for a film that involves Dwayne Johnson climbing the outside of the world’s tallest building with only a rope and hands covered in duct tape, this is a rather silly film to show that brand of maturity in its storytelling. Same goes for the pacing and use of tension, both of which end up making for damn effective setpieces with Will trying to brave the fire and mass damage done to the Pearl.

Of course, all of this is in service to a story that, over the past three decades, has become very familiar to most audiences. Yep, it’s another Die Hard clone where we have a main character in the wrong place at the wrong time, while terrorists take over an entire building or structure in hopes of gaining something valuable from the person who runs it. Not only that, due to the film being set in what is described as the world’s tallest building that ends up brimming with flames, we also have similarities to The Towering Inferno to deal with here. However, even though this reveals Thurber’s rather derivative storytelling (this is his first non-comedic production and his wetness behind the ears with action plots shows here), I don’t have an immediate problem with this. Yeah, it’s getting kind of silly how many Die Hard rip-offs are in circulation right now, but this shows a certain ability with that framework. Or, basically, it’s derivative but it at least knows how to make this well-worn story work.

No, the problem comes in with just how plain this film is as a story, and it all starts with the titular building. A 240-story-tall super-structure, it contains enough outlets, residences and pastimes to essentially serve as its own society; think a more vertical version of Snowpiercer. On top of that, the building itself is inspired by a Chinese folk tale about a boy who swallows a pearl and becomes a mighty dragon that can defend his town. I bring up both of these points because the film itself fails to do so. Any inklings that the Pearl has any form of unique power structure to it seems to exist solely in plot synopses online, and the inspiration for the building’s architecture is detailed far more in an interview with production designer Jim Bessell than anywhere in the script itself. For as little exposition as we end up getting, that turns into a major negative for the film as it means that we end up getting very scarce details about the skyscraper itself. Hell, we don’t even get to see that much of it, spending far more time with the building already in crisis than any kind of stable control situation to contrast it with.
And that, ultimately, is what holds this film back: It’s a tired and worn-out story cliché that has more than enough interesting ideas surrounding it to make it into something meatier. But knowing Thurber’s rather trite storytelling approach, especially given the more egregious moments in his last film Central Intelligence, I doubt he would have been the one to do the fleshing out.

All in all, this is an admittedly serviceable action flick with far more interesting ideas poking into it that end up being largely ignored. The acting is decent, the effects work manages to make the burning building something worth being invested in watching, and the pace of the story allows for the more tense moments to sink in. However, even considering this is the latest in a long tradition of just rehashing another, far more crucial action flick, it is a far cry from being as good as it could have been, given both the pretenses concerning the titular structure and the influence for its design. It’s fun to watch in the moment, but the more I think back on it, the more I feel retroactively disappointed with what we got. If you’re gonna check this out for more of that Dwayne Johnson goodness, best to set your expectations as low as possible… but then again, if you need to do that in order to enjoy this in the first place, maybe it’s better to just leave it alone.

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