‘Skyfire’ Has Big Stunts And Effects But Little Character – Review
[by Nicolás Delgadillo]
Skyfire is the latest big-budget venture from the Chinese film industry, one that takes inspiration from Dante’s Peak, Volcano, Roland Emmerich disaster flicks, and even the Jurassic Park / World franchise. There’s high hopes for the film to hit the unprecedented peaks that other Chinese blockbusters reached, like 2019’s The Wandering Earth – a science fiction epic that raked in over $700 million and became the third high-grossing non-English film in history.
But while The Wandering Earth captivated audiences with dazzling spectacle, it also managed to find room for solid emotional beats and memorable characters. Skyfire has all the proper excitement and rhythm of a popcorn disaster movie, but it’s sorely lacking in the humanity department.
Opening with a genuinely lovely animated title sequence, the film follows Xiao Meng (Hannah Quinlivan), a volcanologist working on the island of Tianhou. She’s under the employment of billionaire Jack Harris (Jason Isaacs), who has erected a luxury resort/theme park at the site of an active volcano in an obvious show of hubris. Xiao Meng has been creating a system for him that allows her to monitor the volcano’s activity up to the second, inspired by the work of her late mother. Naturally, the volcano begins to erupt, putting the entire island and everyone on it in grave danger. Xiao Meng, along with her friends and estranged father, Wentao (Wang Xueqi), must survive and find a way to safety in the midst of the predictable disaster.
Director Simon West is no novice at staging the kind of big-production action that Skyfire’s premise calls for, having made cult favorites such as Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and The Expendables 2 (to name a few). He pulls off several impressive set pieces here; the most memorable being an escape from an observation balcony that gives guests an up-close look at the inside of the volcano. Fireballs rocket through the air and tear holes through metal, and blasts of hot steam cook some unlucky people alive, while others desperately attempt to scramble to some semblance of safety. In fact, there are a good number of surprisingly gruesome deaths in this, some of which are just morbidly hilarious.
Some of the action sequences go so big that they wind up being silly (and there are several moments that the characters would simply just…not survive), but the stunts that went into them remain impressive. Frustratingly though, many of the digital effects appear unfinished and much of the green screen is glaringly obvious. This might be more forgivable if the movie wasn’t so reliant on those effects, because unfortunately, the story and its characters remain thin and ill-defined.
At only 97 minutes, Skyfire simply doesn’t dedicate enough time to trying to be anything more than what’s on the surface. There’s plenty of characters with interesting relationships to one another, but we’re never given a true feel for who they are. The actors make the most out of what little they’re given, but the potential for the human drama to match the big screen spectacle goes to waste. Take, for example, a scene involving Jack Harris rescuing a child in the chaos. It’s a moment where you see the humanity behind the egotistical billionaire, and it’s successfully touching. But the two barely get a couple of minutes together before separating, and their tearful goodbye is bizarrely given more screen time than their single scene together beforehand. A subplot involving a pair of young lovers and one of their grandparents is so rushed that it’s almost impossible to care, and any scenes dedicated to it feel like a strange detour (though we do get a pretty cool underwater sequence out of it). The emotion needed for many scenes simply isn’t there.
The film also doesn’t seem interested in any kind of actual commentary or observation about the implications of its premise. Despite borrowing many of the aesthetics of the Jurassic franchise, it fails to explore the similar themes at play, such as capitalism left unchecked or man playing God. It’s a shame that these kinds of ideas are glossed over, mainly because they could have easily been tied into one of the things the movie mostly gets right – the strained relationship between daughter and father. Xiao Meng believes that the work she’s doing is what her mother would have wanted, and that the advancements she’s making in the study of volcanoes is beneficial for the world. But Wentao has strong resentment towards his daughter working for a tycoon like Harris, especially at Tianhou, where he failed to save his wife years ago. The two returning to the site of their trauma and grief – which created the rift in their relationship to one another – is an interesting angle. Toss in moral disagreements and there’s a recipe for a compelling arc, but like the other story elements, much of these ideas are only half-baked, and take a considerable backseat to the spectacle.
The movie ends with a music video/behind-the-scenes look of the team filming many of the big action sequences, and honestly, every movie ought to do this. It sure seems like everyone involved had fun, and perhaps it just goes to show that a movie like Skyfire should be viewed as pure popcorn entertainment and not be analyzed too seriously. But the potential for the film to be even just a bit more interesting is lost to the wayside among the fire and destruction, and any chance for it to be particularly memorable gets snuffed out.