How Skyscraper reminds us of the enduring excellence of Neve Campbell

Dwayne The Rock Johnson’s latest BDB (Big Dumb Blockbuster) is surprising for a lot of reasons, namely how enjoyable it is. For audiences who grew up in the 90s, Skyscraper also marks the mainstream return of Neve Campbell, writes Maria Lewis. 

In a decade when bubblegum pop, pierced navels and Hit Me Baby One More Time were considered important, it’s hard to understate the impact of Neve Campbell if you were a girl in the nineties. She was black coffee on a menu of Kool Aid, embodying something intangibly darker than the conventional tastes of the time. In 1996 alone she cemented herself forever as a Scream Queen, a Final Girl not to be fucked with thanks to the one-two punch of The Craft and Scream both being released in the same calendar year. On television, she was a staple of the Salinger family in Party Of Five: she of big hair, big denim and even bigger personal dramas.

Yet once the millennia hit, it seemed as if Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with Neve Campbell outside of the Scream franchise’s central heroine Sidney Prescott. The movies she choose were smaller, more specific, as she did what so many film actors have done over the past decade and branched out with more television work. Her 26 episode arc alongside another formidable leading lady and one equally as hard to pigeonhole – Robin Wright – on House Of Cards seemed to mark a change in the air, Campbell fans hoped. Even a more prominent return, they dreamed.

When the Skyscraper trailers dropped, there was a flash of surprise – Neve Campbell! In movies again! Big movies! Awesome! That excitement was followed by worry, as she’s revealed to be the wife of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s character – clearly the protagonist of the story – and mother of their children. Although great to see her face in what producers clearly hoped would be an action franchise, many of us grew up in the nineties watching Campbell headline her own franchise. Seeing Sidney Prescott delegated to the sidelines, used as a carrot to dangle and motivate the main guy, was not what any of us wanted.

Thankfully, it’s also not what we got. Neve Campbell has never been anything but exceedingly capable in whatever project she takes on: whether that’s two episodes of Grey’s Anatomy or a cameo in the cult 54. She’s Neve Capable, damn it, not only covering her own duties but frequently carrying the dead weight of cast members around her (see her charm working overtime to compensate for Matthew Perry in Three To Tango). Someone in the Skyscraper writers room leaned hard into that perception.

you could almost hear the audience breath a sigh of relief when its quickly demonstrated Campbell isn’t there for the  ‘worried wife and mother’ role

She plays Sarah Sawyer, a Naval surgeon and legit bad-ass who we learn – in an opening flashback – was the one who saved Johnson’s life on the operating table after a mission gone wrong. When the movie jumps forward a decade and they’re married, with two kids, you could almost hear the audience breath a sigh of relief when its quickly demonstrated Campbell isn’t there for the  ‘worried wife and mother’ role that’s so often a staple of BDBs. Think Die Hard’s progressive, fast-talking, feminist working woman Holly Gennero if she was combat trained and fluent in multiple languages (although it’s never explicitly stated, given that she was an executive for the Nakatomi Corporation Gennero was most definitely bilingual and probably spoke fluent Japanese).

Although the things we grew up loving about Campbell’s characters and Campbell herself – the raspy cadence, freckles, cool confidence and surprise dimples – are all there, there’s the added fierce intelligence, determination and coolness under pressure that makes Johnson’s Will Sawyer less of the main hero and more of the male co-star sharing the heroic duties. It’s rare that marital relationships in action movies are depicted as genuine partnerships, especially where the female spouse isn’t used as bait, motivation, to hinder the hero, double cross them last minute or – inevitably – be fridged.

Mr and Mrs Sawyer work together in a crisis, despite being geographically apart for majority of the film. Johnson and Campbell are totally believable in their relationship, largely because they both come across as so damn capable in real life it bleeds into the exceptional capabilities of their characters. The Rock is a huge persona, with his magnetism doing as much as his physicality on the big screen. He’s a movie star and it takes a pro to match him: Jack Black could do it in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Zac Efron couldn’t in Baywatch. Like most things, Neve Campbell definitely can.

There are some actors who play a role so well, they’re forever synonymous with that character: like Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Michael K. Williams as Omar, Lucy Lawless as Xena. Neve Campbell is Sidney Prescott and Sarah Sawyer feels like the natural evolution of that character. She even has her Scream 2 hair, Neve’s best hair, visually connecting one role to another where Sidney Prescott was at her most baller tracing creepy dudes calls, wearing a lot of dark brown leather and punching murderers in the face.

It’s not hard to even envision a world where Skyscraper is Scream 5, with Sidney overcoming her trauma to chase a medical career and eventually settling down with a Polynesian hunk in Hong Kong (look, we Scream fans want the best for her). Yet if a Skyscraper sequel does get off the ground – 2 Sky 2 Scraper – we can only hope Sarah Sawyer gets as much to do as she does in the first, with Campbell not only on some damn posters this time round but promoted as the action heroine we’ve always known she is.

The Rock is vocal about his love and appreciation of strong women, both personally and professionally. Having a strong woman like Neve Campbell shoulder-to-shoulder with him in Skyscraper doesn’t take anything away from the power of the ‘Hollywood action star’ trope. In 2018, it enhances it.