“Skyscraper” was once described by its star and producer Dwayne Johnson (“Rampage”) as an “original concept movie,” a film about a man whose family is endangered by terrorists in a massive skyscraper and the physical trials he must go through in order to get them back. Clearly, this was a film that had never been done before.
Then, when the demigod formerly known as The Rock realized that most of the American viewing public had in fact seen a little indie flick by the name of “Die Hard” that — would you believe it — had that exact same premise, he was quick to rebrand the film as an “homage” to films like “Die Hard,” “The Towering Inferno” and “The Fugitive.”
Obviously, I can’t definitively say whether or not “Skyscraper” is a rip-off or an homage. All I can argue is that if it is intended as an homage, it seems to miss what made films like “Die Hard” and “The Fugitive” work in the first place, and much of it stems from The Rock playing a very Rock-esque character in a movie that needed him to be someone else.
Before the action starts, Johnson’s superhuman charisma is the duct tape that keeps “Skyscraper” from falling apart. The rest of the film isn’t bad, but apart from The Rock, the clunkiness of the exposition and foreshadowing are the most memorable parts of the movie.
A scene that introduces a sort of high-tech hall of mirrors may as well end with one of the characters saying, “Sure it doesn’t make much sense now, but just think of how bitchin’ it’s gonna look at the climax. It’s so self-seriously absurd, there’s a sense that had it been released in a different time, it may have been fodder for an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” However, released today, its shortcomings are all too visible.
“Skyscraper” comes pre-packaged with the message that the characters Johnson plays could be anyone. They’re family men who will risk life and limb to protect their loved ones. “Who wouldn’t want to be this guy?” it argues. That’s what draws so many people to these movies: It’s a chance to step into the shoes of someone who we’re told is just like us and can do something extraordinary. It’s wish fulfillment, and there’s an undeniable charm to it.
Still, while we’re encouraged to identify with The Rock, he seems reluctant to identify with the everyman he’s supposedly portraying. He plays Will Sawyer as the same unkillable, unhurtable and unstoppable machine he always plays. You know, the sort of “everyman” who can hold together an entire suspension bridge with just his bare hands and overwhelming masculinity like Captain America stopping a helicopter from lifting off. Sawyer never truly fails because “Skyscraper” seems to believe that would disrupt the illusion it’s constructing where any of us could and would do the same thing. Why would we want to watch a character who can’t punch, lift or otherwise muscle his way out of any situation?
Instead, the opposite is true. In “Die Hard,” John McClane gets the living bejeezus beaten out of him over and over again, but that doesn’t make us less likely to want to step into his shoes. We identify with him because we see that he’s funny, down-on-his-luck and very much human, which makes it all the much sweeter when he comes out on top. That humanity is what’s missing from “Skyscraper.” We can’t relate to Will Sawyer because, for all the film’s talk of family, he doesn’t seem human.
This unwillingness to show Johnson failing does more than keep us from identifying with his character, it makes it impossible for stakes to truly develop. Movies like “Die Hard,” “The Fugitive” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” thrive on hurting their characters. They push them out of their comfort zones and force them to think before they act. That’s how great suspense is generated. We have to see the characters fail, pick themselves up and try again.
Lesser “Die Hard” sequels made the same mistake as “Skyscraper,” as they gradually devolved John McClane into the kind of character who could jump a car into a helicopter and escape without a scratch. For all Johnson’s talk of homages, it’s this image and not any of the great films he mentioned that I kept recalling as his movie kept plodding forward.