“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree,” so begins Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn: Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.” Xanadu was an idealistic place, filled with gardens and rivers. The Pearl, the building at the center of Rawson Marshall Thurber‘s Skyscraper is one such Xanadu. Built by a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur named Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), the building is meant to be the 8th Wonder of the World. It’s a mix of the hanging gardens of Babylon and the Tower of Babel itself.
Will Sawyer (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), a former FBI agent and now amputee, is called in to inspect the building’s security. Upon his recommendation, The Pearl will be capable of supporting residents. On this trip, he brings his wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell), and two children, Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Will (Noah Cottrell). While Skyscraper, as most have described, is basically a mix of Die Hard and The Towering Inferno, it does both a little bit better in my opinion.
While it lacks a villain as formidable as Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) or the human greed of Rogers Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), Kores Botha (Roland Møller) possesses practicality, brute strength, and the sadistic nature of most action-movie baddies. Botha’s sole role is to recover a disk drive containing the names of black market and underworld profiteers. This disk is being held by Long Ji. Botha is helped by Xia (Hannah Quinlivan), your typically exotic Asian fighting woman. If there’s one major drawback of Skyscraper it’s the continuation of using Asians as cliched set pieces. This extends to the police, Inspector Wu (Byron Mann) and Sergeant Han (Elfina Luk), who are no more than shortsighted officers.
Skyscraper doesn’t confide itself in the robbery of Die Hard, nor does it question the safety of tall buildings and the morality of those who build them as The Towering Inferno postulates. What it does do well is showcase Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and put you at the edge of your seat.
The Towering Inferno, mostly leaves the viewer within the building. Being trapped in a burning building is fear enough, especially in the 70’s when there was less trust in skyscrapers. And Die Hard, until its rooftop scene is also confined to the building. Sawyer isn’t in the building when the fire begins. Instead, he has to climb a crane. Yes, you read that correctly. He has to climb a crane and jump through a broken window to get inside. The crane scene is one of the most suspenseful and scariest sequences this year. If you’re squeamish of heights then it’s really going to put you in a fit. But Sawyer does this climb, and much like the same cinematic fears that draws its roots back to Buster Keaton in Safety Last!, we squirm in our chairs and dry off our sweaty palms. And much like the crowd watching him from below, we want to not look, but we have to look anways. Take that John McClane!
All of this isn’t to say that Skyscraper is a perfect film. It is a blockbuster action film that stars The Rock. You’re going to get some exposed pecs, some science and gravity defying stunt sequences, and some dorky one-lines. Though, I think the dorky one-liners are an obvious comedic shtick that play on action movie cliches. Sawyer at one point says, “If you can’t fix it with duct tape, then you’re not using enough duct tape.” There’s a moment where you just have to have fun with Skyscraper because it’s definitely having fun with you.
And The Rock, does have this action hero stuff nailed down. He is this generation’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, but better in many respects. Schwarzenegger was rarely able to demonstrate the same breathe of emotion as The Rock. Much of that is due to their backgrounds as Schwarzenegger was typed cast as the limited vocabulary muscle bound death machine. Part of The Rock’s appeal is the empathy he demonstrates for one of his size. Even in the silliest of roles, he’s completely sincere. It’s a rare gift that he possesses. Here, his character is given greater dimension because he’s an amputee. This muscle bound man doesn’t succeed or fail in spite of his disability. Instead, as Kristen Lopez wonderfully articulates, he adapts to the situation.
As Skyscraper raises its stakes, it subtracts the fear of heights. I had wished that somehow the ending would play on this terror, but alas it concludes as a typical action-disaster film. However, even this cliche peak is done well. The ending is reminiscent of The Shadow, with its hall of mirrors (there’s a larger coincidence here as Orson Wells played The Shadow on radio and later used the image of Xanadu in Citizen Kane). As the final battle for Sawyer to save his daughter from Botha ensues, I was also remind of The Terminator. During the battle, the Sphere and its hall of mirrors becomes engulfed in flames and ravaged by gunfire. The scene becomes a molten lake expressing a technological wasteland. This 8th Wonder, now a horror scene.
And as the helicopter carrying Long Ji flies away, and he looks at his tower of Babel laid to ruin, he vows to rebuild. He vows like the speaker in “Kubla Kahn,” “I would build that dome in air/That sunny dome! those caves of ice!…For he on honey-dew hath fed, /And drunk the milk of Paradise.” While is sullen and drunken in his dream, Sawyer continues in his reality and to his awaiting family.