SKYSCRAPER Review

So, you know Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, right? Of course you do. Remember his movie from three months ago? Rampage? The one about The Rock stopping a giant gorilla from destroying Chicago? Maybe you do and maybe you don’t (that could be due either to the fact you didn’t see it or because it’s pretty forgettable, but I digress). Regardless one of the news stories that broke around the time of that movie’s release was the fact Johnson had the screenwriters re-write the climax of the film that had the genetically modified George die. The way this was re-written was that George instead faked his death so as to play a trick on Johnson’s character. Classic, huh? Johnson wanted this done so that the audience wouldn’t go home on a dour note as they came to the movies and to that type of movie especially to enjoy light-hearted entertainment and not to see a CGI gorilla die. Well, that same guy who mandated the monkey didn’t die in his last movie opens his new movie with a flashback scene that features a suicide bomber blowing himself up and murdering his own wife and kids along with him so, happy movie-going! If you consider this a spoiler, I apologize, but this plot point isn’t brought up to spoil, but rather to open up the conversation about how from the word go Skyscraper essentially misses the mark it should have been shooting for the whole time. Why did it need to begin in this fashion? How was that decision going to be justified? I kept asking myself these questions as the film continued to march on even though in the first few expository scenes following that opening it became very clear as to why Johnson’s character was witness to and injured in the murder/suicide spurred by a father that included the unnecessary deaths of his wife and two young children-one boy and one girl. The movie quickly jumps forward a decade and establishes that Johnson’s Will Sawyer has since married the surgeon that saved his life that fateful night, Sarah (Neve Campbell), and that they’ve had a set of twins together-one boy and one girl. It is clear Sawyer will once again come face to face with the same predicament he faced in the opening sequence and will have to once again choose his actions very carefully in a scenario that could just as easily swing in one direction as it could another. I get it and I think most movie-goers who see more than three movies a year or have at least seen an action movie in their lifetime will get it, but the foreshadowing isn’t the issue as in all actuality the script, from writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence), is especially symmetrical and pays off each of its set-ups quite nicely. More, the issue with opening your supposed summer popcorn movie among summer popcorn movies with such a scene is the tone it implies and the precedent it sets for the rest of your movie. Due to this decision, Skyscraper never recovers from being this bleak and bloody actioner with an unnecessarily high body count when all it really had to be was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stopping a giant fire from destroying his family as well as the world’s newest and tallest building.

Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is hired as a security consultant to assess the new world's tallest building in Skyscraper.
Photo by Kimberley French - © Universal Pictures
I know what you’re thinking. Just because a movie doesn’t turn out to be what you thought or hoped it would be doesn’t automatically, or in this case-immediately, make it a bad movie. Of course it doesn’t and to be honest with you I was rather intrigued that a movie that had been marketed as this boilerplate blockbuster among boilerplate blockbusters would actually have the cajones to open in such a dark fashion, but while there was always a sense of expectation to Skyscraper there was always a more prominent hope towards that whatever it ultimately turned out to be in whatever fashion it was told or whatever package it was delivered that it was-above everything else-an entertaining thrill ride. It’s difficult to describe exactly where in the balancing of the hearty action thriller and the bleak action drama that Skyscraper fails to even out, but it unfortunately does. The entire premise leans towards the hearty action thriller as the movie is both an homage to Die Hard while never developing a villain as memorable as the incomparable Alan Rickman and his Hans Gruber yet, at other times such as those detailed in the opening paragraph, it tends to be more the bleak action thriller in the vein of something Peter Berg might shoot today if not as stealthy. Comparisons have obviously been made to 1974’s The Towering Inferno as well, but I haven’t seen more than the trailer for that movie and can’t speak to how it compares tonally or to how it goes about accomplishing the thrills set-up by the similar premise. And so, while bleak and bloody isn’t necessarily what I was hoping for out of Skyscraper it was vital to take a step back and try and evaluate if what the movie did provide in place of what I wanted it to be; was it an equally entertaining piece of popcorn fare or did it instead turn out to be something more substantial and affecting than I initially was prepared to give it credit for. In short, it comes back to that balance as it does a little bit of both, but never becomes of a single mentality that is able to both have characters that walk into a room and mow people over with semi-automatics as well as characters that are referred to as “Oz” who have built themselves a city in the sky out of nothing more than the fact they were able to do so. It is spectacle versus grim and Thurber’s film seems to constantly be in contest with itself over which field it wants to fall more in line with. What doesn’t help is that the plot itself is so thin that there is little more to engage with here other than the characters who aren’t all that engaging in the first place.

The plot is as simple as it seems it would be: former military, FBI, and all-around badass soldier/agent Will Sawyer is now an independent security consultant and was recommended by old friend Ben (Pablo Schreiber) to assess the world’s now tallest building in Hong Kong, The Pearl, as built by tech billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). And so, naturally, when Sawyer and his family are at the building one of Zhao’s enemies decides it to be the perfect time to exact revenge by burning down as much of this man-made marvel as they can until Zhao hands over the MacGuffin they want. Needless to say, it’s up to Sawyer to save his family as well as the day. From that, what are we left with? Other than Johnson playing another version of Hobbs or his character from Rampage or his character from San Andreas there isn’t much to differentiate Sawyer other than the fact he has a disability by way of having lost a leg in that opening sequence. He now has a prosthetic leg that is thankfully not used as a plot point as often as it so easily could have-only getting the character out of one jam and not a cavalcade of tense situations. Sawyer is not a man who feels sorry for himself because of this disability nor does the film paint him as someone who resents this fact or feels less capable because of said disability, but more this detail serves as little more than just that: a detail. Typically, when a character in a movie is disabled that disability is the subject of the entire film, but here-if there is any reason for this character detail other than the fact the character simply lost his leg in an unfortunate operation-it seems it is to serve as q reminder of this turning point in Sawyer’s life and not only for the lessons he learned in that experience, but what he gained from it. Sure, there are a few moments of tension pulled from this detail, but never does it feel exploitative. This is not lost on Johnson’s performance and the guy is so inherently likable there is no reason to not be engaged with the character and his plight, but to what extent it matters I couldn’t have told you the character’s name in the middle of the movie if you pressed me. I simply thought of it as watching The Rock do his thing. Schreiber is slowly becoming a more welcome presence, but his character motivation here is terrible and he’s ultimately given very little to do. I would have much rather seen Schreiber play the role of the main antagonist (and why this isn’t the case, I’m not sure), but for one reason or another Roland Møller gets this title and does absolutely nothing with an absolutely nothing character. The villain here is the definition of bland and while it’s evident there isn’t much on the page here it seems Schreiber, given his performance in Den of Thieves earlier this year, might have at least made an effort to infuse something into this archetype named Kores Botha rather than simply playing along for the paycheck. On the flip side of this coin is Campbell whose Sarah is never the damsel in distress, but rather a military surgeon who’s served multiple tours in Iraq and minored in several world languages. Sarah is given plenty to do in the majority of the major action set pieces with the collaboration between she and Johnson’s character and their efforts to rescue their children being a highlight of the picture overall.

Sarah (Neve Campbell) reunites with her husband after terrorists infiltrate the skyscraper and begin burning it to the ground.
Photo by Kimberley French - © Universal Pictures
Skyscraper is what it needs to be where it counts as the climactic action scene sees our hero wielding a samurai sword in what is essentially a fun house of mirrors. If that doesn’t intrigue you then odds are you won’t enjoy much else in the movie as this final confrontation is kind of what Skyscraper needed to be all along. What might have lent the movie to delivering a better overall impression in the slightest of ways is that of the aesthetic. This improvement might have at least made the environments in which these characters are existing and experiencing these harrowing situations in all the more frightening and tense for the audience. As it is, The Pearl is very obviously a special effect and while no one expects for Universal to build an actual Skyscraper on their lot it might have been worth the effort to test out some practical effects using models as the spectacle of it all feels cheapened by the lack of any kind of tangibility. Thurber has never been a particularly notable director, especially in his visual direction, but he’s always been able to overcome his generic looking movies due to the fact he builds up the dynamics, objectives, and personalities of his characters so well that we look past the passable looks and become either entrenched or entertained by the shenanigans at the heart of the movie. As Thurber moves more toward bigger action spectacles where the shenanigans of the movie center around large visual elements he will need to improve the grasp he has on aesthetic for despite needing to feel broad and all-encompassing Skyscraper in fact feels rather small and contained. There is a subplot concerning the local police force as highlighted by Inspector Wu (Byron Mann) and Sergeant Han (Elfina Luk) who are sitting outside The Pearl in a police van attempting to deduce the full scope of what is occurring within the building and just outside their van are crowds of people gathering to watch these events around Will Sawyer unfold as well and despite the fact they’re standing right in front of this titular building they are also given huge news screens that seem to essentially be playing the same footage we’re watching in the movie. While this isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before in movies this feels especially pointed in that it is meant to give a certain kind of sweeping sense to the film it in turn only make these events feel like they’re happening in that much more of a vacuum. It’s all about feeling after all. This goes back to the inability to nail down a tone. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why the movie doesn’t square well with either tone it seems to be going for, but more it is this inherent feeling, this gut reaction to what’s on screen that never gels in the way it should. The same for the visual prowess of the film-we know it should feel big and bombastic in ways that give those with a fear of heights an even greater fear of that reality, but it never elicits such a reaction due to the fact it all feels so staged. Skyscraper is about as deep as a birdbath, but we engage with the characters just enough and have just enough fun with the action sequences for the ride to be worth the trip.