Director: Simon West
Writers: Wei Bu (screenplay), Sidney King (screenplay)
Stars: Bee Rogers, Alice Rietveld, Xueqi Wang
Skyfire is an old school disaster movie, which we don’t get enough of these days.
I grew up on these things…the big crisis, the subplots, the melodrama, the spectacle. Movies like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno were a big part of my childhood. But all good things come to an end and the genre’s popularity waned by the late ‘70s, descending into self-parody long before Airplane! drove the final nail in the coffin. Or so it seemed.
The genre was never rendered completely extinct. There was a brief resurgence in the ‘90s and many FX-driven action epics like the Die Hard franchise were still disaster movies at heart. Other films operated under the guise of true stories (Deepwater Horizon), survival dramas (The Grey) or science-fiction (The Wandering Earth). Still-others strived for a level of realism that Irwin Allen couldn’t be bothered with, such as The Wave or Greenland.
But like the brilliantly-bonkers Dwayne Johnson vehicle, San Andreas, Skyfire has no pretense of what it really is: A big, ballsy throwback to disaster epics of yesteryear and presented without an ounce of cynicism. It’s confident enough to take its wild premise more-or-less seriously, yet still aware the audience likely won’t. As such, the film is chock-full of tropes that would be criminal not to include:
● The scientist nobody everyone ignores. In this case, it’s brilliant young geologist Li Xiao Meng (Hannah Quinlivan) who fears an island’s dormant volcano is about to wake up…violently.
● The wealthy, arrogant businessman who poo-poos her ominous warnings because it will cost him millions. That guy is Jack Harris (the always reliable Jason Isaacs), who had the audacity to build a gajillion-dollar resort on the same island, complete with a monorail that takes tourists right to the volcano’s summit.
● The tragic prologue that explains the estrangement between our protagonist and her father (Wang Xuegi), as well as her obsession with trying to predict eruptions.
● The young couple in love, who get romantic at the worst possible moment.
● The child in peril. But to Skyfire’s credit, at least that kid isn’t so obnoxiously cloying that we’d rather see her broiled alive.
● The scientist’s nerdy colleague, who provides play-by-play during the eruption.
● Many, many escapes and near misses as a handful of survivors dodge one crisis after another in an SUV, which has the durability of a tank and can jump rivers of lava while in reverse.
● A near-total disregard for plausibility, as demonstrated when the same SUV hangs perilously off a cliff just long enough for everyone to escape. Considering all the truck has been through up to that point, its demise is a sad moment.
● Despite 90 minutes of death and fiery destruction, a saccharine, heartwarming coda.
Skyfire is utterly ridiculous but massively entertaining. After briefly introducing the main characters, the story seldom stops to take a breath as it jumps from one crisis to the next. While we may question the film’s realism, the special effects are excellent, with harrowing sequences of pyroclastic clouds enveloping the island, lava bombs raining destruction and rivers of cascade lava.
And like the best disaster movies of the ‘70s, Skyfire boasts engaging characters, no matter how broadly drawn they might be. We care what happens to most of them – even the greedy businessman – which renders the action sequences far more suspenseful than if they were just volcano fodder. Though the film is Chinese, it is directed by Simon West, who’s probably best-known for Con-Air (which also has the heart of a disaster movie). While he’s helmed a lot of garbage in the interim, here he shows he hasn’t quite lost his flair for large-scale, over-the-top action.
Since disaster has been my favorite genre since the glory days of the 1970s, my appraisal might be considered overly generous. I imagine there are plenty of hopelessly cynical viewers who’ll scoff at the inherently-goofy premise and wild implausibilities. But for old school fans who feel those same qualities are part of what makes the genre endearing, Skyfire is a blast.