BR: Skyscraper (2018)

November 3, 2018 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Universal

Region: A

Released:  October 9, 2018

Genre:  Disaster / Action / Suspense

Synopsis: A wounded S.W.A.T. officer must rescue his wife and kids from terrorists in the world’s tallest building.

Special Features:  Audio commentary by writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber / Extended & Deleted Scenes (10:18)  with optional commentary by director Thurber / 6 Featurettes: “Dwayne Johnson: Embodying a Hero” (4:05) + “Inspiration (4:12) + “Opposing Forces” (2:34) + “Friends No More” ( 3:18) + “Kids in Action” (2:41) + “Pineapple Pitch” (1:38).




“This is stupid.” — Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) sensing something’s amiss with the building’s design (and perhaps Skyscraper’s dialogue).


It’s really tragic when a good premise and a few inventive jolts to the disaster film formula are torpedoed by lackadaisical script, but writer-director-co-producer Rawson Marshall Thurber is wholly responsible for hobbling what could’ve been a decent genre entry.

Thurber’s Towering Inferno (1974) and Die Hard (1988) hybrid starts off with a teaser in which former S.W.A.T. team member Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) confronts an angry father holding a family hostage, and sensing a moment of humility, Sawyer gives the aggressor a moment to lower the son and give up, but a bomb vest (presumably) kills the father & son, and scars Will and colleague Ben (Pablo Schreiber) for life.

Now using a titanium prosthetic for his partial left leg, Will’s brought in by Ben as a safety consultant for Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), a wealthy yet less bellicose Trumpian builder of gleaming commercial towers whose world’s tallest building in Hong Kong is nearly complete. For reasons known only to Ji, Will’s entrusted with an iPad that enables complete control of the building – no one else among Ji’s team is gifted with that power or degree of redundancy in case Will’s killed and / or the iPad is stolen.

Naturally an attempt to swipe the digital skeleton key happens within minutes after Will and Ben leave the tower, and he soon discovers brother-in-arms Ben set him up out of revenge: whereas the bomb blast ultimately gave Will a family with a loving wife and two kids, Ben has remained a bitter bachelor, seething with jealousy. The result: sacrificing Will to the henchmen of a corrupt Icelandic / South African thug named Kores Botha (Roland Moller).

After Ben’s ‘accidental’ death during a fight, Will heads for the tower to save wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and the kids when a fire erupts and heads upwards to the Sawyers’ apartment. Naturally the Hong Kong police think he’s guilty; naturally Botha’s got another team nullifying the building’s safety features off-site to neutralize an attempt to stop the fire; and naturally the police think Will’s somehow responsible for the fire, and that his determination to scale an 80+ storey construction crane to reach the 96th floor and save his family are part of a clever ruse.

Johnson’s always had great screen charisma playing the decent, wry, cheeky hero who will always transcends the worst pain or dire circumstances with brawn and sharp thinking, but he’s also slummed his way through some mediocre roles, such as the kid-friendly 3D adventure Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) and its vapid sequel Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012). To ensure a maximum PG-13 rating, Thurber’s tailored the film to be profanity-free, gore-free, nudity-free, and keep things moving no matter how preposterous.

Ludicrous acts of heroism are innate to the disaster genre, especially after Die Hard’s John McLane (Bruce Willis) jumps off the roof of the Nakatomi tower tethered to a fire hose, and lands inside an office after he swings back and shoots a glass pane to gain fast entry. Thurber ups the danger by having Will scale the crane from its exoskeleton (Where’s the inner emergency ladder?), swing a hook to crash an office window, run and leap to the already inflamed building, making the jump without any major damage, McLane-style.


“Oh, come on, man.” — Will Sawyer, feeling the burn from excessive ridiculousness.

In a later scene in which he applies duct tape to his hands, Will walks along the building’s slick exterior to reach the single most preposterous locale for accessing the building’s locking system: a panel in the centre of a whirring, egg beater-like fan that helps ventilate the massive 200 storey-ish structure.

Taking a idea from Galaxy Quest (1999), in which characters count the rhythm of intersecting blocks to reach the other side of a long walkway, Thurber has Will take a moment to count the egg beater’s cycle, and not only reach the panel unscrambled, but hastily leap back to the ledge when further flames are about to engulf the beater’s nucleus. In Galaxy Quest, the smacking blocks are meant to be ridiculous, but Thurber’s variation is played largely straight, and is endemic of his inability to find that fine line between drama, parody, and nonsense. An almost perfunctory approach to wrapping up any action sequence really hinders attempts to give it some solid gravitas, and perhaps shows a palpable lack of confidence in Thurber’s own writing & plotting.

A father rescuing his family from terrorists and plowing through outrageous circumstances in integral to the Die Hard franchise: in Live Free or Die Hard (2007), McLane rescues his daughter from cyber crooks; and in the inept & shallow sequel A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), he fights evil Russians with his ne’er do well son. Thurber’s dialogue is so dumb in spots that one feels his real concern was building elaborate sequences instead of reinforcing his genuinely compelling hero – a wounded S.W.A.T. member now carrying the extra emotional burden of not only rescuing his family, but struggling with the betrayal of close pal Ben.

In Wolfgang Peterson’s own poorly executed disaster entry Poseidon (2006), separate groups of survivors escape the doomed ballroom and New Year’s revelers and find brief haven in a huge verdant atrium, but are separated by inverted elevators and twisted walkways; in Skyscraper, Thurber has the kids, Sarah, and Will separated in a huge tiered green garden, with access to elevators and pathways obstructed by fire, flaming panels, shattering glass, and the only walkway joining two sides of the massive garden now severed.

All but three members of Team Sawyer are reunited, but to wrap up the scene, Will (Johnson), seemingly oblivious to the encroaching fire, says to his wife in the most perfunctory manner, ‘We should go now,’ because the smoke is “bad” for the son’s asthma. That leads to another heavily compacted sequence that should’ve been milked for its inherent intensity: after placing them in a surviving elevator cab, he instructs Sarah and their son on how to avoid Human Tomato Syndrome by pulling the emergency brakes at a precise time.

A further crack in the script’s logic has evil Botha telling a bruised Will to figure out a way to unlock the door to Ji’s titanium-doored home / office space and hand-deliver the film’s MacGuffin – a USB stick that can expose Botha’s network of money laundering – on the roof before he throws Will’s daughter off the tower. There’s no way for Will nor Botha to contact each other once they separate at Ji’s office, yet as per the script’s hasty leaps, Will arrives just before the daughter’s forced to fly like a bird into the super-heated wind. Why Botha didn’t leave a thug to watch over Will is very obvious: instead of being meticulously plotted with pockets of irony and luck and some brutal hand-to-hand combat, the film was structured as a brisk, fast-paced genre riff with a series of challenging yet PG-friendly obstacles involving wan characters.

Besides playing a haunted amputee and devoted father, Johnson is left to fill in the huge gaps of his otherwise compelling character; wife Sarah is the former combat nurse who received him after the opening hostage crisis, but aside from two quick fight scenes, Campbell’s character is very minor; the kids are mere pawns moved around to ultimately drive Will towards the top floor; no further info or personality details are given for master builder Ji, except he used illicit funds to finance his priapic edifice; and Mr. Pierce (Noah Taylor), Botha’s mole within Ji’s entourage, is no more than a snooty British twat. Botha himself has just one moment where the character’s vengeance feels genuine: even if he never acquires the MacGuffin, Botha’s greatest satisfaction is forcing Ji to observe his monument burn and crash into the streets directly below where the police and emergency teams have allowed thousands to congregate (and take selfies).

The grand finale takes place in the eponymous ‘pearl’ of the building, where it holds not a library, not art treasures, not a quiet space for Trumpian egotists to ponder global economic playing, but a mass of digital mirrors that pop up for no particular reason except to confound Ji’s guests – hence a slight chase and plenty of gunfire in a sequence clearly riffing the hall of mirrors in the finale of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947). It’s a fun homage, but in spite of the digital wizardry, the sequence is less effective than the spoof at the end of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), which is better cut, better shot, more amusing, and uses wholly practical effects.

Perhaps the finale and other sequences were designed for the film’s post-3D rendering, but not everything in Thurber’s otherwise pretty sound story has purpose. Some are fun – Sarah’s rapid elevator descent is slightly harrowing – but they feel trimmed to keep the film well below the 2 hour mark. The hand-to-hand choreography between Ben and Will is fine, but it’s overcut and disorienting.

Thurber also makes the same mistake as other directors of disaster films: the mass and magic of the super structure wherein the drama unfolds is given short shrift when it is in fact a character of equal importance to the hero and villain. With consultation from Adrian Smith, architect of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the emerging Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, the Pearl tower is an amazing creation; it’s a pity it doesn’t actually exist in some form (and in fact, looks better than the Burj and Jeddha phalluses). The Pearl is bisected in the middle by a series of tiered gardens within the building’s glass shell, but like most of the interiors, they’re underused. Not much info about the Nakatomi building was given at the onset of Die Hard, but we follow MacLane through the buildings innards, exterior and roof to grasp its dangerous geography; and in The Towering Inferno, modest time is spent on the buildings design, electrical system, and innards as experienced by the architect, the fire chief, and minor characters who either live or work in the mega-tower.

A post-main titles, newsreel-style montage compacts the uniqueness of the Pearl, but seeing a CGI diagram isn’t the same as sharing the wonder of the building through the eyes of the characters; neither are trips in fast moving elevators in the first third, nor the peculiar moment when Ji transforms the orb’s interior into a giant glass pane hovering above Hong Kong. We know the Pearl is tall. Show us why it’s so damn tough to navigate by having Will do some grunt-level searching, missteps, wrong turns, improvised routes, and near-misses.

For all the hype, Skyscraper feels like a medium-budgeted production with some daytime exteriors and aerial footage of Hong Kong interpolated with primary Vancouver locales, and limited studio space where a heavy degree of green screen supports the illusion of the Pearl’s inner depth. Characters enter static sets, perform their action & dialogue, and exit for the next sequence. Case in point: Botha and his team fertilizing the hallway carpet on the Sawyer’s floor, igniting it with the sprinkler system, and leaving by elevator – quick, fast, neat, but perfunctory.


Wrapping it up

After good triumphs over evil, Ji’s tells Will the Pearl will be rebuilt, which gives the film some post-9/11 resonance. The finale (naturally) mandates father & daughter reuniting with mother & son in front of TV cameras, allowing for a possible sequel, but Will Sawyer is no John McLane – he lacks his depth and wry sense of humour. In spite of appearing in Thurber’s prior comedy Central Intelligence (2016), Johnson’s denied moments and quips to make Will an endearing hero of what may be the first of a short-lived franchise from Universal, a studio with a history of less than ideal disaster entries, such as Earthquake (1974), Rollercoaster (1977), and Daylight (1996).

The big losers in this otherwise glossy production include Hong Kong. The city is underused in cheap cutaways to anxious onlookers at street level, and Asian actors are given very little to do. Chin Han (Ji) is forced to play a secretive, savvy businessman of few words; Hannah Quinlivan’s evocation of Botha’s evil right hand Xia is reliant on a peek-a-boo haircut, vacuous big eyes, and grating pout; veteran character actor Tzi ma (TV’s 24) has a blink fast and he’s gone role as the fire chief; and Byron Mann plays a less than perceptive Inspector Wu who bickers with his subordinate and only grasps Will’s innocence when multilingual Sarah manages to express in plain American English ‘Why would my husband burn down a building when his family’s inside?’ Wu only changes his stance when he’s facing a colossal Duh moment.

The irony of these weak roles is that a few scenes meant to show the Asian characters have greater thinking capacity were left on the cutting room floor. The deleted and alternate scene gallery contains material with incomplete or raw CGI effects, and although the dialogue isn’t good, the scenes give the actors a bit more material: Ji sort of explains why the building won’t collapse in spite of the vertical inferno heading towards his feet, and more interesting, there’s a longer conversation between Insp. Wu where he argues the same ‘Why would Will do all this?’ to his doubtful subordinate who seems more open to this far more logical take prior to Sarah’s subsequent blunt interaction. As it stands in the theatrical cut, Wu and his team are pretty dumb.

Steve Jablonsky’s score is fairly restrained, often functioning as a discrete (albeit repetitive) sonic motor during action scenes rather than expressing any subtext or adding a bit more depth to the film’s tepid characters. His heroic theme is fine, but also generic, reflecting the score’s safe design that doesn’t challenge audiences or transcend the script’s weaknesses.

Robert Elswit’s cinematography (Boogie Nights, Good Night, and Good Luck, Nightcrawler) is very crisp and beautifully composed. The CGI artists crafted a believable tower, and the gliding pod elevators recall the scope and futurism of the underground Krell city in Forbidden Planet (1956). Most of the CGI effects for the flaming exteriors and inferno engulfing the innards are nicely done, including a few swooping movements when Will looks down from a blasted-out window towards the smoldering danger below – images designed to create a sense of audience interaction which likely paid off in the post-rendered 3D version released in tandem in cinemas, and Blu-ray.

Universal’s disc has the standard array of special features: an audio commentary, generic making-of featurettes, plus a reel of deleted and extended scenes, of which the most interesting are the aforementioned dialogue exchanges between the Honk Kong police, and a rejected revelation that the Mr. Pierce we see in the final film isn’t a mole on Botha’s payroll, but a fake sent to infiltrate Ji’s entourage. The real Pierce lies very dead in Ben’s bathtub, seen in brief cutaways after Ben’s been shot during the fight with Will.

Some of the dramatic slivers should’ve been retained – a longer version of Will found in the rubble after the opening bomb blast and being wheeled into Emergency where he sees a wounded Ben adds to Will’s emotional trauma – whereas others are redundant, especially a cutesy Sawyer family hugfest in a park.

Very few disaster films transcend the genre’s clichés and expand the possibilities of the genre – Die Hard works because it’s a full-blown satire played very tongue-in-cheek by its authors and cast (and composer) but still delivers stunning action sequences, but it too spawned imitators and sequels which rarely held their own against its parentage. Bigger didn’t make better in DH2, but the reworking of an unproduced serial killer thriller for DH3 allowed for sharp satire and ridiculous circumstances which still propelled the heroes towards man-to-man combat with the villain.

Will Sawyer shares one important trait with John McLane that for good or bad, is inherent to the post DH-genre entries: he’s a comic book action figure. The disaster hero is capable of surviving direct contact with hard elements (fire, water, steel); he can defy gravity (being a human slingshot now & then); and yet he remains human because he’s also a dad, a husband, and a professional lawman with a strong moral centre. Will Sawyer will save his family and then attempt to apprehend Botha if possible, just as John McLane will save his wife and innocent suits & ties (and cokeheads) and apprehend Hans (Bubby) Gruber; when these reasonable goals fail, well, then gravity will claim the most morally bankrupt in both films.

Let’s see if Skyscraper 2 brings needed refinements to what could evolve into a modest franchise.



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan





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