The Rock’s new movie should have gotten more thrills out of high-rise design, an engineer argues.
A number of movies starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have featured the destruction of a huge building. But his new one, Skyscraper, pretty much guarantees it right in the title. In Skyscraper, The Rock plays former FBI agent Will Sawyer, who, after losing his left leg below the knee in a botched hostage rescue, now works as a high-rise security specialist. He is hired by billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) to assess the newly-finished top half of the Pearl, a 3,500-foot-tall, 240-story building in Hong Kong.
The sinuous CGI tower looks like a cross between the Shanghai Tower, a torqued skyscraper that opened in 2015, and another super-high-rise in the same city, the sphere-embellished Oriental Pearl TV tower. If the Pearl were real, it would reach considerably higher and have more floors than any existing tower. (The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world’s tallest building, is 2,700 feet high and has 163 floors.) There’s no reason a contemporary skyscraper couldn’t be this tall if someone was willing to finance it.
Shortly after The Rock finishes his security assessment of the Pearl and declares it to be safe, the action starts to unfold. A team of international mercenaries led by Kores Botha (Roland Møller) breaks in, plants incendiary chemicals, and sets the building ablaze. Meanwhile, a second team on the ground led by an unnamed female antagonist (Hannah Quinlivan) exploits the Pearl’s catastrophic oversights in IT security to gain control of the building and shut off its fire-suppression systems.
(Spoiler: All of this sabotage and destruction is revealed to be cover for the heist of an important … computer thing.)
With the Pearl in flames, The Rock must employ his knowledge of the tower to beat the bad guys and save his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and their children, whom he has inexplicably brought to stay in the tower during his security assessment.
A product of the algorithm that seems to make all Hollywood action movies, Skyscraper is mostly forgettable, punctuated by a few fun sequences. It mimics Die Hard so overtly that a comparison is warranted. Both movies feature a European villain taking control of a tall building as part of an elaborate heist, leaving the action hero to single-handedly foil the plot and save his family.
But whereas Die Hard gave us Alan Rickman as the delightfully evil Hans Gruber, Skyscraper offers two villains who lack any compelling motivation or strong character traits (and in the woman’s case, even a name). When Will Sawyer performs self-surgery, it’s a weaker version of Bruce Willis’s John McClane pulling glass out of his shredded feet. The Rock’s character understands the building’s security and fireproofing systems, but he never gets into the guts of the tower the way McClane does. In spite of its height advantage of a few thousand feet, the Pearl stands wholly in the shadow of Nakatomi Plaza.
To make the fictional building more believable, director Rawson Marshall Thurber brought on Adrian Smith, the Chicago architect who designed the Burj Khalifa, as a consultant. Despite that, Skyscraper doesn’t give enough consideration to the technical aspects of the building and its destruction.
In one scene, a piece of falling debris severs an internal pedestrian bridge, yet the two unconnected spans magically stay standing up. (This action-movie trope is a sticking point for me.) Likewise, the carbon-dioxide fire-suppression systems located around the Pearl would probably be placed in unoccupied spaces like storage and mechanical rooms, because high concentrations of the gas are fatal to human beings.
The movie makes a lot of the Pearl’s technological innovation, but this seems to consist mainly of the ability to control the entire building using touch-screens.
In fact, today’s skyscrapers offer novel possibilities for action-movie mayhem, and I wish the movie had explored them. For instance, a building of the Pearl’s height and slenderness might have what’s known as a tuned mass damper near the top. A tuned mass damper is an enormous weight that limits excessive motion caused by strong winds and earthquakes. The skyscraper Taipei 101 has one, and the heavy, suspended steel globe would be perfect for a one-of-a-kind action sequence.
(In Skyscraper, the Pearl is indeed topped by a large sphere, but it’s more like an IMAX theater that can project the outside world onto its inner face. The sphere could reasonably exist anywhere on Earth and present the same imagery, so the choice seems odd: Why would you go to Hong Kong and the top of a 3,500-foot tower to look at a projection of the city below?)
Similarly, Skyscraper could have taken us inside a double-skin façade. At many of today’s mega-towers (such as the Gherkin in London and the previously mentioned Shanghai Tower), the building’s main wall consists of two layers of glass, or skins, separated by a cavity for air circulation. This inter-wall gap would be an ideal place for a hero to creep through on his way to confront the villain. In addition, many super-tall buildings have double-deck elevators (that is, with cabs stacked one on top of the other), which would be fertile territory for an ambitious fight choreographer.
The plot of Skyscraper seems to have been constructed to avoid evoking fear about high-rise buildings. Maybe that would be too heavy for a PG-13 summer blockbuster, but the movie seems to be set in a strange alternate reality in which 9/11 never happened. As revealed in an on-screen news clip and several background shots, the Pearl is a steel building—but the uncontrolled inferno never compromises its structure, and the characters themselves don’t even discuss collapse as a possibility. Conveniently, the male villain limits his arson to the upper, unoccupied floors, bypassing any risk of a mass-casualty event.
Some recent movies, like the Avengers series and the otherwise dreadful Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have started showing us the human toll of cinematic action sequences set in dense urban areas. Not Skyscraper. The Rock is on screen to do what he does best: Play a good dad, bench-press a crane, and give us a two-hour reprieve from the real world.