Review: Skyscraper, Universal Pictures

Sarah Ward

Dwayne Johnson takes on the world’s tallest building, a sky-high fire and generic villains in this derivative action effort.
Review: Skyscraper, Universal Pictures

Neve Campbell and Dwayne Johnson in Skyscraper.

In Skyscraper, a tower taller than any other ever erected looms over Hong Kong, both large and literally. It ascends into the heavens to the point that its sky-high peak – a dome-shaped observatory that gives the entire structure its name, The Pearl – is actually described by the behemoth’s owner Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han, Ghost in the Shell) as heaven. It’s easy to see why; thanks to the kinds of technological advancements that futuristic buildings in action films tend to have, those wandering through seem to be walking on air, with world below beneath their feet. News reports proclaim the tower’s statistics as if they’re achievements, Zhao champions the building’s significance whenever he can, and safety and security advisor Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson, Rampage) agrees in his assessment, the last tick of approval needed before the residential upper half of the complex can open. Still, as mammoth as Skyscraper’s setting clearly is in all of its computer-generated glory, it has nothing on the film’s flesh-and-blood centrepiece.

The Pearl may cast a long shadow across Hong Kong’s cityscape, but Johnson casts a bigger one throughout his latest feature – and throughout the genre he’s crafting around his charismatic, resourceful and determined on-screen image. Whether stopping stampeding super-sized creatures (Rampage), navigating his way through video game levels (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), saving lives as well as a beach (Baywatch) or tinkering with high-speed thrills (The Fate of the Furious), the wrestler-turned-actor might as well be today’s big-screen equivalent of 1980s television character MacGyver. In short: put the star in any situation, against any adversaries or obstacles, and his protagonist will find a way out of it, often using little more than his charm, strength and ingenuity, plus whatever materials happen to be within arm’s reach.

That’s the case in Johnson’s latest effort, as written and helmed by his Central Intelligence director Rawson Marshall Thurber. The man also known as The Rock plays Sawyer as an everyman with the history and skills to handle almost anything, but with an unwavering love for his family first and foremost. Formerly charged with leading tactical rescue missions for the FBI, he’s now an aspiring freelance consultant in the corporate world after an operation blew up and lost him a leg eight years earlier. Alas, the joy at securing his first big client quickly dissipates when terrorists start a fire on the 96th floor of 240-storey structure, leaving Sawyer’s naval surgeon wife Sarah (Neve Campbell, TV’s House of Cards) and their pre-teen twins Georgia (McKenna Roberts, The Young and the Restless) and Henry (Noah Cottrell, Two to Go) stranded in the building. 

Similarities with The Towering Inferno and Die Hard aren’t something that escaped Thurber’s attention, just as they won’t escape the audience’s notice either. The flames rage, reaching higher and higher. Sawyer scrambles to find a way into the site, including defying the laws of physics. And once inside, he also endeavours to single-handedly save his family as well as Zhao, while dispatching with villainous leader Kores Botha (Roland Møller, The Commuter) and his motley crew of lackeys.

Indeed, Skyscraper couldn’t follow a more generic formula. With its happy borrowing and nodding, the film works better as a homage to better films, rather than a new disaster-meets-terrorists flick in its own right. Its set-pieces could’ve been lifted from Johnson’s own high-octane action feature history; its scant statement about class and capitalism are reminiscent of High-Rise, although in a much slighter manner; and its throwaway cops could’ve populated the entire Hong Kong-set thriller realm. What the movie lacks in originality, however, it attempts to make up for in an onslaught of stunts and spectacle. Mentions of and uses for duct tape border on over-the-top, but when Johnson is climbing cranes, hurling himself into the air 100 storeys up and willingly swinging out of a window, his feats more than catch the eye. 

Johnson emerging victorious over things – buildings, criminal plots, common sense, police investigations, gravity – that should eclipse his own size is the entire point of Skyscraper, of course. Not taking itself overly seriously is as well, though in a throwing logic out the window way, not with purposeful playfulness or rampant laughs. And yet, even the film’s hulking hero and its willingness to lean into its overblown nature can’t keep this blockbuster alight, as much as Johnson, particularly, tries. All bulk, derivation and one specifically eye-rolling use of modern-day technology, it’s lifted by its ample star power, in the type of disposable flick that’d crumble with anyone else in the lead. The Rock is surely Skyscraper’s rock, but he does at least have fine company in Campbell, whose take-charge supporting part doesn’t merely subscribe to the stock-standard supportive wife stereotype, and makes the case that she should be a much more frequent presence on our screens.

 

Rating: 2 ½ stars ★★☆

Skyscraper

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
US, 2018, 102 mins
Release date: July 12
Distributor: Universal
Rated: M

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay

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