The great American critic Andrew Sarris once reflected on what he described as “the hard lesson” of film history, proposing that posterity does not subscribe to the high/low art divide. “The throwaway pictures often become the enduring classics whereas the noble projects often survive only as sure-fire cures for insomnia,” he wrote, suggesting that play-to-the-back-rows movies like Skyscraper – about an amputee (Dwayne Johnson) who rescues his family from a towering inferno – prick the public consciousness more often than lofty projects that probe the human condition.
That is not the same as saying the best films are the ones that are remembered, or that films that are remembered are the best. But, with Sarris’ “hard lesson” in mind, it’s hard not to think that The Rock’s latest SFX-slathered vehicle, choc-full of swinging from a precipice spectacle, is not precisely the kind of film that might stick around. For starters, unlike Johnson’s most recent work (the bad Rampage and the awful Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) it is consistently entertaining, and knowingly silly without being smugly self-aware.
Like the old film with the title that describes this new one’s premise, The Towering Inferno, Skyscraper – from director Rawson Marshall Thurber – is an arsonist’s pipe dream, kicking into gear when a fire starts on the world’s tallest building. Unlike the 1974 classic, this time the building’s problems are a result of terrorism rather than managerial incompetence. Skyscraper is about progress versus politics. The former is represented through a Tower of Babel-esque plan by Zhao Ling Ji (Singaporean star Chin Han) to construct a monument to human endeavour that punches through the clouds and reaches towards the heavens.
the lovey-dovey moments are mercifully few and far between – and tend to come after slabs of literally explosive spectacle
The latter involves an elaborate sabotage plan pursued by villain Kors Botha (Roland Moller) who wants to watch the world in general – and the Skyscraper in particular – burn to the ground. This bothers security consultant Will (Johnson) because his family – wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and their young kids, son Henry (Noah Cottrell) and daughter Georgia (McKenna Roberts) – are stuck in the building, caught in this wicked man’s narrative. The sentimental ‘stick together’ elements of the script, written by Thurber, are mashed into the audience’s faces like a custard pie, though the lovey-dovey moments are mercifully few and far between – and tend to come after slabs of literally explosive spectacle.
The core premise is, in effect, a science fiction concept, connecting physical space and technological advancement to utopian ideals. This terrain was explored vertically in the unwieldy High Rise and horizontally in the excellent Snowpiercer, both dystopian social allegories. The clarity of Skyscraper’s goal-based storyline manifests in basic directions, an understanding of which is shared by protagonist and audience. It is obvious at all times where Will needs to go. Up and right to get into the building, for example, then down to save one member of his family, then up again to save another etcetera. Even when Johnson doesn’t make movies based on video games, they are essentially still video games. Is there an element of his life that isn’t gamified? The actor even describes his age in video game simile; he is not in his forties but on the “fourth level.”
Thurber gives Johnson’s character an Achilles Heel in the form of a missing foot. Will, a former FBI Hostage Rescue team leader, loses it in the prologue, in very Dwayne Johnson-like circumstances. He made a mistake while dealing with a terrorist who had explosives strapped to his chest, and his mistake was that he couldn’t help but see the best in this terrible person. The idea that great physical stature can have weakness is reflected in the titular location, which after a few measly keyboard strokes is transformed into what one computer hacker from Central Casting dubs “a $6.5 billion chimney” (previously the building, according to Will, was “Fort Knox a mile in the sky”).
It starts smoking pretty soon. As does the film, punched together with narrative efficiency and sharp timing by Thurber – a skill honed in his work directing sassy comedies including We’re the Millers, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Central Intelligence. The villains in Skyscraper are cartoon and Steve Jablonsky’s score is distracting and dictatorial. But this lean feel-good genre piece has a deceptive amount of style and at least a little philosophical grunt. It’s a throwaway picture for now, and a possible enduring classic for the future.