Midway through Skyscraper, the residents of Hong Kong stop gawking in horror at the spectacle of the world’s tallest structure engulfed in flames and stare in awe at the hulking man-beast defying all laws of physics as he climbs in, out, and all around the edifice. No real explanation is given for how these people are able to pick out the man from miles away. It’s just accepted as fact that they would be able to. And who are we to argue? Despite being cast opposite an approximately 4,000-foot-tall glass and steel behemoth that makes the Burj Khalifa look like a stave church, Skyscraper still gives Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson more matinee-idol shots from below than ever before. He’s the true Tower of Babel, the movie star who with each film gets closer to God and whose films always come tumbling down around him.
Johnson plays Will Sawyer, who used to be the best damned F.B.I. SWAT agent in all of greater Minnesota before a botched hostage situation in a wintery cabin left a child dead and him without a leg. Now an amputee of still considerable muscle mass, Sawyer has parlayed his skills into private security services on the other side of the globe, heading up the team overseeing the protection of the Pearl, an obscenely wealthy venture capitalist’s phallic totem to himself—and whose commercial spaces, penthouses, and 30-story indoor rainforest are all powered with wind energy. Much like The Towering Inferno’s Glass Tower, the Pearl is just on the verge of a grand opening for residents. And much like that Irwin Allen disaster epic, the flames soon fly.
Only this fire is set by pyro-terrorists—and ludicrously Norwegian ones, tipping the filmmakers’ eye toward the international marketplace. Skyscraper then becomes a faster-higher-stronger amalgamation of Die Hard and The Towering Inferno, with Johnson playing Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Bruce Willis all rolled up into one, and outweighing all three put together. As conceived by writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who previously directed Johnson to arguably his finest performance yet in Central Intelligence, Skyscraper is incurably square about depicting urban catastrophe, eschewing the jocularity of Willis’s wisecracks or the self-aware vulgarity of carnage maestro Roland Emmerich’s body of work. Thurber has little time—literally, as the film runs just north of an hour and a half—for mapping out the geographic details of Johnson’s escape routes.
Nor does the film pay off what seems at first to be its prime subtextual element: the very Land of the Dead notion of the high-rise building as the wealthy caste’s escape from the quickly and violently widening economic disparities at street level. At no point is the googillionaire who financed the Pearl’s construction ever critiqued for his architectural pursuits; he is, as a matter of fact, presented as a hero for funding its construction with the money of seven global crime syndicates, and then stealing their financial information to both cover his own ass and expose their felonies.
The Pearl’s self-contained ecumenicity thereby emerges as a monument to the Elon Musk-esque fantasy that the consolidation of wealth can save us all, so long as that consolidation involves the right few hands. So, at the film’s close, a promise is made to rebuild the shattered Pearl, a triumphalist boast taken at face value. Which is in sharp contrast to what Paul Newman memorably promised in The Towering Inferno’s denouement: to leave the Glass Tower in ruins as a monument to all the bullshit in the world.