Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
With Hollywood on hold, China is providing your blockbuster disaster-movie thrills

With Hollywood on hold, China is providing your blockbuster disaster-movie thrills

Photo: Rain Zheng (Screen Media)

The condemned: Skyfire (2021)

The plot: People have spent a lot of time this past year talking about the important things in life they’re missing. Being able to spend a night out with a group of close friends; visiting family and loved ones; the simple act of shaking someone’s hand and getting to know a new person. These are all invaluable and essential aspects of the human condition, and to have them on hold until we can get vaccinated and get this freaking virus under control has been really hard for a lot of folks.

But you know what I miss? Dumb shit. Asking a bartender to make me the weirdest drink they know, or mixing and matching wholly inappropriate food combinations at a buffet—these are my sources of longing. And big, dumb Hollywood spectacle? Oh god, how I miss it. One of the most enjoyable things I’ve done in the past couple of years was take the afternoon off from work so my significant other and I could go see The Meg in a theater that was completely empty save for us. I haven’t laughed that hard in ages. Show me alien invasions, exploding cities, superheroes… if there’s something big, and dumb, and expensive, chances are I’m pretty psyched to check it out. It’s not my favorite genre or anything (my cinema of choice is still what most people would describe as slow, boring stuff—looking at you, 2020’s Vitalina Varela), but it’s a fundamental part of my viewing diet, so the pandemic’s shutdown of all the regularly scheduled blockbuster spectacle has left a void inside of me.

Enter Skyfire. It opens with a pair of volcanologists studying the activity of a seemingly dormant volcano on Tianhuo Island, their young daughter in tow. Then it erupts with almost no warning, killing the mom and leaving the father and kid just barely unscathed. Cut to 20 years later: The girl, Xiao Meng Li (Kun Ling, also credited on IMDB as Hannah Quinlivan), has grown up to be a volcanologist like her mother, and (surprise, surprise) is back doing research on the very same volcano that killed her mom. Xiao and her team have just launched a state of the art tracking system for the volcano’s activity, and with good reason: Developer Jack Harris (Jason Isaacs) and his wife Qianwei (Leslie Ma) have opened up a fancy resort on the island, with its star attraction the ability to descend into an active volcano and experience first-hand the intensity of overwhelming natural splendor that could also, you know, kill you. But don’t worry, he assures a group of investors on the island; scientists have assured him it’s not set to erupt for another 150 years.

Whoops! Apparently no one told Jack he’s in a disaster movie. Soon enough, Xiao Meng’s dad, Wentao (Wang Xueqi), arrives on Tianhuo, having seen footage that convinced him that the volcano is erupting soon. While she’s less than thrilled to see her long-estranged father, she agrees: Things aren’t looking good inside the volcano. So naturally, that’s when it all goes to hell. The volcano begins to erupt, spewing lava down the sides and unleashing balls of white-hot magma into the sky, like deadly skee-balls, blasting both the resort and the island’s small village to ruins as the guests frantically flee to the boats. Xiao, her dad, and a small group of employees find themselves racing to save the villagers, make it to the beach, and get off the island before they’re steamrolled by the ever-encroaching lava. You know the drill. These people are not impressed by Netflix’s Floor Is Lava.

Over-the-top box copy: “The mountain is waking up.” Surely we can do better than this, people. Which mountain? Why was it sleeping? Is it some sort of anthropomorphic landmass, like X-Men’s Krakoa, the living island? If you want to recruit people to your “watch this movie” cause, you’ll have to work on those selling skills. But there’s another line on the cover, albeit one that has far more to do with…

The theoretically heavenly talent: For American audiences, Jason Isaacs will be the only recognizable name, as the Harry Potter star (though he’ll always be Hap from The OA to me) takes on the role of sole English-speaker and ostensible villain, even though his character continually says things like “I believe in data,” and refuses to shut down a multi-million-dollar resort based on Xiao’s hunch. Fair enough! That seems rash! Also, the second things go haywire, he’s out there racing through fireballs, trying to save a little girl he saw on one of the park’s cameras.

But the cover of the blu-ray touts another figure: “From the director of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Expendables 2.” Yes, the guy who made one of the three crappy Tomb Raider movies and the worst Expendables is on the case! Look, Simon West will always have bragging rights for having shot Con Air, one of the most ludicrously entertaining action-adventure films of the ’90s. Good on you, Mr. West! But with the sort-of exception of The Mechanic, that was also the last good movie he directed (actually, perusing his resume, its appears to be the only good movie he directed), so his name doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in 2021, or the previous two decades.

The descent: When I first heard about Skyfire, I was already months deep into the pandemic funk that had squeezed all big-budget tomfoolery out of our daily lives. But Jennifer Dong, the exec producer and obvious guiding light behind the project, said a few things in interviews that made me curious: first among them that this was China’s first attempt at a massively budgeted disaster-movie spectacle. “The China market is finally sufficiently large that it can support the making of a big-budget special effects film like this one just for the local market, yet this kind of VFX-heavy film is also something that viewers worldwide can understand and appreciate,” she said when shopping for an international distributor for the movie. She was talking about me: I am the viewer worldwide who can “understand and appreciate” the subtle nuances of a giant volcano exploding for an hour straight. Honestly, if I had hit play and it was just intimate drone footage of an actually erupting volcano, there’s a fifty-fifty chance I might have been okay with that. Did I mention I have missed big, stupid Hollywood spectacle?

The execution: Luckily, this was far superior to amateur drone footage of a volcano. Okay, that admittedly sounds like I’m really damning it with faint praise, but let me be clear: I enjoyed Skyfire! Is it a good movie? No. Is it a solidly entertaining way to pass 90 minutes? Absolutely, even the parts where a woman and her father have tearful heart-to-hearts about how he should be more understanding of her desire to climb into active volcanos, much like the way his dearly departed wife got herself killed.

Everything about this script is strictly paint by numbers when it comes to the beats of your standard-issue disaster movie. Heroine with parental issues? Check. Smug businessman antagonist? Check. Young, innocent couple struggling to survive as a symbolic testament to the power of love? Check. Big fucking volcano raining down firebombs like it’s auditioning for the role of mini-asteroid attack in Armageddon 2? SUPERCHECK. There is nothing surprising about any narrative beat in the movie, which is another way of saying that Skyfire wisely doesn’t give a shit about anything, save for the non-stop barrage of setpieces once its central metaphor starts erupting. And once it begins, it doesn’t really stop: 30 minutes into the movie, the chaos begins, and save for the aforementioned Xiao-Wentao father-daughter reconciliation (about 20 minutes from the end), it doesn’t let up on the frenetic, go-for-broke dramatics.

They’re not all winners, of course, and some of them are downright silly (see below), but the movie has a batting average of roughly one fun moment for every three attempts (fun-batted-in is a baseball thing, right?), which, when you’re delivering five setpieces every ten minutes, is a solid success rate. Here, enjoy Xiao and her colleague diving off the side of a volcano to avoid a crashing helicopter during the very start of the eruption, when all the dum-dums are still in dangerously vulnerable places, like, say, inside the volcano:

While the movie does set up a few wafer-thin character arcs, mostly it dispenses with such frivolity—or better still, uses it as cheap window dressing for the ensuing chaos. Take the subplot of research team member Zhengnan (Dou Xiao) and his love interest, resort designer Jiahui Dong (An Bai): The former is planning to propose to the latter during a romantic afternoon on the island, and naturally he picks the worst possible time to pop the question, when the magma starts flowing. Happily, West and his team decide to give these two the weirdest fucking proposal imaginable, by having Jiahui and Zhengnan dive, fully clothed, into a lake in a cave, where they proceed to do an inexplicable underwater dance, followed by Zhengnan guiding Jiahui down to where he’s somehow balanced an engagement ring atop an oyster shell, in the midst of what seems like some pretty current-heavy water. She sees it, smiles, and faster than you can say, “What the fuck was Zhengnan thinking with this plan?” the lava starts threatening them.

But for sheer action-for-action’s sake silliness, nothing comes close to the film’s midpoint setpiece. Having gotten a bunch of people out of the volcano’s observation deck and in a pair of monorails racing back to the resort, Xiao looks ahead and sees one of the two rails they’re following has been damaged, leading to the pair of cars opening their doors, mid-travel, side-by-side, in an effort to help everyone jump from one to the other and thereby get to safety. It’s not particularly well shot, but it’s competent enough work by West to convey the general mechanics of the situation—meaning, it’s ridiculous and fun and runs against basic laws of physics. Here, see for yourself.

Performance-wise, everyone is mostly fine, though I’m curious about what might have been: According to the producers, West actually shot both a Chinese- and English-language version of the movie simultaneously. Unfortunately for us, everyone involved seemed to agree the attempts by the overwhelmingly Chinese cast to speak English were dramatically inert enough to prevent this version from ever seeing the light of day. Which is too bad: I would’ve loved to hear the actor tasked with looking at a computer screen and radioing Xiao and her crew to say, “There’s something really hot behind you, moving fast… I can’t tell what it is… oh no, it’s LAVA FLOW!” with a straight face. I may have paraphrased that sentence slightly, but honestly, not by much.

There’s a bunch of other action-heavy moments, too many to list, and they keep this thing moving along at a fleet, enjoyable (if occasionally bad-CGI-infused) pace. There’s even the jeep-dangling-over-the-side-of-a-cliff scene, which seems to be de rigueur for these kinds of films ever since Spielberg’s The Lost World made it look like a sequence you could pull off, though few since have managed to do so with much elan. But even in a such a crowded field of goofy moments, bonus points should be awarded for the following: After learning the lava is headed straight for the local village, Xiao and her group realize they could buy everyone down there time by opening the dam and flooding the hillside with water to overwhelm the flow of hot stuff. Only, once they arrive at the facility with the failsafe switch, no one can reach it, thanks to the damage wrought by the volcano. Cue the remote member of the team piloting a drone—he crashes it into the facility, flipping the switch through the most hail-mary nonsense luck of the entire movie. Deadpool 2’s Domino must have been controlling it:

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Hey, this thing was a hit in China! I mean, not a monster hit, but it was No. 1 in theaters opening weekend. The secrecy around box office there means I don’t have further details, but producers are planning for a trilogy, so hopefully I don’t need to worry about this thing living in obscurity—in Asia, anyway. In the United States, there’s no reason lots of people shouldn’t check this out on streaming services; the nature of the spectacle means the subtitle issue is minimal at best (who really cares what’s being said? A volcano is erupting), and it nicely scratches the itch of anyone who, like me, is missing their regular infusion of B-/C+-grade blockbuster silliness.

Damnable commentary track or special features? Sadly, no. However, in its place, if you go to the Amazon reviews, you can see fantastic opinions like this one:

Illustration for article titled With Hollywood on hold, China is providing your blockbuster disaster-movie thrills
Screenshot: Amazon

Really, here’s the movie in a nutshell:

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.