Monday, January 11, 2021

Skyfire: A Chinese Disaster Movie from Simon West

If you are still disappointed you didn’t have a chance to invest in Jurassic Park with Sir Richard Attenborough, then maybe you can still get a piece of Jack Harris’s new resort hotel built around an active volcano. You better act fast, because this opportunity will not last long. Inevitably, hubris leads to spectacular tragedy in Simon West’s Chinese-produced Skyfire, which releases tomorrow on-demand.

When this island volcano last erupted, it was sudden and powerful. Young Li Xiao Meng barely survived, but her mother Sue Miller was consumed by the blast. Her scientist father Li Wen Tao was close enough to see it happen, but too far to save her. Twenty years later, Li has grown up to be a world class seismologist and the leader of Harris’s science advisory team. Of course, the highly leveraged developer refuses to listen to her when she warns him about the unusual readings her colleagues have detected.

Not one for alarmism, Harris sends his wife and business partner Wang Qian Wei to the volcano rim with a group of potential investors, because what could go wrong? Meanwhile, Li’s colleague Zhang Nan plans to propose to his girlfriend Dong Jia Hui, during a romantic getaway to her favorite underground swimming grotto. That sounds safe, right? Of course, everybody is in danger according to Li Wen Tao, who has seen enough to come drag his daughter off the island, whether she wants to leave or not. And then boom.

Considering the CCP’s concerted ongoing trade and soft-power campaign against Australia, it rather figures the Liverpool-born Jason Isaacs sports an over-the-top Aussie accent playing the Australian Harris. However, West deserves a lot of credit for largely curtailing the propaganda in
Skyfire. In fact, you could argue Harris isn’t even a villain, but a tragically flawed hero, given his spectacular redemption scene.

West’s experience helming big Hollywood action movies (including
Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and The Expendables 2) is further reflected in the brisk tempo and some totally professional looking special effects sequences. Skyfire is not the first big budget Chinese disaster movie (that would probably the massively flawed Aftershock), but it is the most watchable so far. Still, every time the ground shakes, we expect the characters to look up from their cable cars to see brontosauruses striding by. Similarly, during the opening and closing credits, our mind’s ear keeps hearing Adele warbling “Skyfire!”

Despite Harris being the requisite Western caricature, Isaacs manages to humanize him to a surprising extent, in some key scenes. Likewise, Leslie Ma has some nice moments of grief and regret as the flawed Wang. Li Wen Tao is also a total stock character, but it is still entertaining to watch Wang Xueqi’s curt and crusty portrayal of the salty old scientist.

On the other hand, Hannah Quinlivan can’t do much to salvage the by-the-numbers pop psychology cliches bundled into Li Xiao Meng’s persona. Ironically, Alice Rietveld probably only had a day or two of shooting, but the film replays her death scene as Li’s mother so often, she should be considered one of the main co-stars.

Frankly, the propaganda level of
Skyfire is so much less than other recent Chinese big budget productions, (like The Bravest, The Captain, and The Climbers), you have to wonder if it was recut for its American release. It is a fun amusement park ride, but consumers boycotting China due to its genocidal policies in Xinjiang and its oppression of Hong Kong, Tibet, and Mongolia will probably only have a short time to wait before it inevitably hits Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Crackle. Recommended accordingly for disaster movie fans, Skyfire releases tomorrow (1/12) on-demand.