ON FIRE

‘Skyscraper’ Is Terrible and I Loved Every Second of It

It’s a love letter to ridiculous movies, in which the Rock leaps from a crane into a 3,500-foot-tall burning building, and an ode to the glory of bad summer blockbusters.

Our favorite summer movies are bad.

We love bad blockbusters. Real bad, dumb-dumb-dumb, patronizing special effects pornography, movies with no greater ambition than to titillate our libido for things-that-go-BOOM! and satiate our survivalist’s search for air conditioning. I speak collectively, too, on behalf of all the cinephiles, film bros, and jaded snoots who will refuse to admit that they love them.

When I think of summer, I think of sweat and sunburns, and the gross sweat stains on my shirt and the sticky aloe applied to my sunburns. I also think of Independence Day. And Armageddon. And The Day After Tomorrow. And The Mummy. Bad movies feel like summer.

You see, it’s the worst things in summertime that make the season what it is, that make us wistful for it year after year despite its abject misery. We wouldn’t have it any other way! And that’s why we, with all of our heart and all our sweat, endorse Skyscraper, the very best bad movie of this summer and one of our favorite movies this year.

Obviously there are excellent blockbusters that have been released during the summer. Top Gun, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park: All summer movies! But the bad summer movie is a genre all its own. It’s the shameless popcorn flick that’s just like, “Here’s an action star doing crazy action things and you’re going to eat it up.” Friends, here is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson climbing up and down a 3,500-foot flaming skyscraper to save his family from terrorists. It’s a bad summer movie buffet. Now feast!

You’ve got to hand it to a movie that delivers exactly what it’s selling. Skyscraper is selling a series of action sequences escalating as high as its titular structure, with the Rock as the superhuman Everyman cannon-fired into a gauntlet of dangerous obstacles and stunts. It’s Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno, with a pandering, though irrefutably palatable, hoo-rah spirit which we’ll gladly take in today’s defeatist climate.

Basically, it’s the Rock saving shit for an hour and 49 minutes. It should be no surprise that this turns out to be a very pleasant way to spend your time.

When we meet his Will Sawyer, he’s a FBI agent in the throes of a hostage negotiation that goes terribly wrong, resulting in his leg blowing off. A Navy surgeon named Sarah played by Neve Campbell (!!!) ends up treating him, and they fall in love. Lose a leg, gain a wife. Hoo-rah!

When we flash forward, Will, Sarah, their kids, and his prosthetic appendage are living in the record-setting Hong Kong high-rise the Pearl, which is about to open and has hired Will as its security consultant. But there are a bunch of cartoonish bad guys after secrets about the building that Will possesses. Before you know it, Will is misidentified as a criminal on the run, terrorists are setting fire to the Pearl, and Sarah and the kids are trapped inside.

(Campbell’s Sarah, for what it’s worth, is a badass, super-smart force in her own right, more than capable of getting herself and her kids out of danger during the film’s damsel-in-distress sequences. Hardly a leap forward as huge as the one the Rock clears in the film when it comes to how these wife and mom characters are depicted in action movies, but a welcome hop toward progress, at least.)

There’s the plot, should you be at all interested. If you’re buying a ticket for this movie, you probably aren’t. When it comes to these kinds of movies, are we ever?

The rule of thumb seems to be that summer blockbusters are required one explosion for every kernel of popcorn in the jumbo bucket. That’s a tall order, as American movie snack sizes have swelled to deadly-sin magnitudes, but a challenge which Hollywood has met admirably. Skyscraper presumes your popcorn bucket is the size of a bathtub.

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Call it the Michael Baying of summer movies, a practice that has produced diminishing returns.

It’s like that old joke about buying Playboy for the articles, used to half-heartedly justify guilty pleasures. We all know why you bought the Playboy, but at some point you really are happy that the articles are there—and, when you’re through with the other, um, business of the magazine, that they’re actually good, too. (I’m gay, so this joke never really resonated, but I’m running with it anyway.)

This is especially true of Skyscraper, a movie that already gave away its money shot, so to speak, in its marketing: The Rock, with his prosthetic leg, doing a wind sprint down a beam suspended 1,000-feet in the sky, leaping across a void multiple times the length an Olympian long jumper could clear, and making it “safely” to the other side: a 225-story high-rise engulfed in flames and swarmed with murderous terrorists.

When the climax is already ruined, the foreplay better be good, and the potential for even more thrills—multiple climaxes, if you will—in order to make the moviegoing experience worthwhile. That’s where Skyscraper both fails and succeeds.

The plot is both so depressingly simple—man must save family—and needlessly complicated—you have rudimentary knowledge of high-rise security, fire law, building code, architecture, and emergency fail-safes, right?—that any attempt at earnestly endorsing this movie risks getting said reviewer laughed out of the profession. (Bye, everyone!)

But once the Rock takes that oft-teased leap, the film sets off a flamethrower of action sequences, scorching the audience with the non-stop tension of the Rock dangling, leaping, running, evading, falling, catching, shooting, punching, and tumbling to, from, and through nearly every inch of the 225-story building. A building that, to reiterate, is on fire!

Are the relentless thrills exhilarating? Or is the sheer number of them exhausting? That we could see audiences both finding it cringe-worthy or eye-popping in equal arts speaks to the fact that, fun and wild as the film is, it is indeed still a bad movie. And maybe, too, we’ve learned to settle for that.

Producing quality mass entertainment that appeals to both our carnal desire to be dazzled, intellectual need for creativity, and emotional need to feel ain’t easy! There’s a reason that it’s been over 40 years since Steven Spielberg made Jaws and no summer blockbuster has been as good since.

Are the relentless thrills exhilarating? Or is the sheer number of them exhausting?

But even standout offerings that don’t even approach Jaws-level, like Independence Day, for example, are high art when compared to, sticking with Michael Bay, the kaleidoscopic crassness of barely stitched together special effects that was each successive Transformers movie.

Do Movies That Go Boom! have to also make you think? Not necessarily, but they should make you at least feel, or leave you in a state of wonder. And as years have gone by and spectacle has superceded script—Skyscraper embodies this shamelessly—that’s also been increasingly hard to do.  

Outlandishness is a key ingredient to a summer movie. As special effects allow everything from explosions to dinosaurs to galaxies far, far away to look more and more real, the circumstances we put these movie characters in have had to up the ante by defying the laws of earth, science, and reality. The key is to have just enough grounding in plausibility to make the cottage industry of “Could That Really Have Happened?” reactionary pieces thrive.

And thus we have: Vin Diesel driving a sports car from one Abu Dhabi building into another in Furious 7, Tom Cruise hanging off a goddamn plane in Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation (hell, Tom Cruise doing practically anything in those movies), or Bruce Willis driving a tractor trailer while being pursued by a F-35 fighter jet firing missiles at him, leaping from said truck when it crashes, landing on top of the jet, and somehow living when that explodes.

The Rock sees your Bruce Willis buffoonery and raises it with a fight scene in which he kicks ass with only one leg—the bad guy ripped off his prosthetic!—holds a bridge up with just his body weight, leaps through spinning turbines, and scales the side of a building using duct tape on his hands as grips.

There’s a fine line between outlandishness and lunacy—it exists somewhere between a dinosaur leaping away from an explosion in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and an army tank parachuting through the sky in The A-Team—and that’s the same line Skyscraper precariously tightropes. Literally! The Rock tightrope walks down a construction plank a bajillion meters from the ground in this movie. And then leaps through the sky!

It’s because the Rock never wobbles—of course not; he’s the Rock—that the movie is elevated from summer trash to summer fun, a confidence in action movie bombast that elicits the nostalgia for those aforementioned movies of the past. And thus, in Skyscraper, here’s a film that delivers to audiences exactly what’s predicted, something wholly unexpected: A bad summer movie that is also an instant classic.