I’m telling you now that as all my movie club reviews are, this is very spoilery, so chill.
If Skyfire was a person it would be a young Tom Cruise: short, exciting, and very, very hot.
This was the Good-Bad Film Club’s first watch since before Christmas. Instead I’ve been watching good films about terrible death (Greenland, The Midnight Sky, Pieces Of A Woman) and terrible films about death (the new Blithe Spirit remake). The film club, which specialises in spot-the-victim disaster movies, seemed a bit much on top of all that misery.
But then I heard about Skyfire, a Chinese production about a South African entrepreneur who builds a theme park on an actual volcano, and really what else could we do but crank up the Zoom chat and start watching?
To be fair it is a theme park about volcanoes so there’s really nowhere else you could build it. The entrepreneur in question is Jack Harris, played by Jason Isaacs. Harris’s reasoning for the theme park kind of makes sense. If you assume the volcano is safe, as he claims to, but it looks dangerous and gives visitors a fake frisson of fear, then it’s the perfect destination for the “selfie generation”.
He talks so fast I could barely make out what he was saying, though as he only has about 20 minutes of screen time he probably has to fit a lot in.
Within that 20 minutes he has to give us his back story (he and his wife in debt up to their eyeballs), tell people in grave danger that they’re perfectly safe, stagger round his now-emptied hotel like the captain of the Titanic, and then earn his redemption.
He does this by rescuing a small girl cowering in the ash, though as she’s literally just outside his hotel, it’s not enough to be redeemed and also for him to live. His hubris at building a theme park on a LIVE VOLCANO, and then only saving an easily-saved child, means his redemption has to be a sacrifice too.
Picking her up, he carries her to the last boat out filled with wealthy tourists and investors, watching from the wooden pier as she sails away – at which point a flaming rock appears out of the sky and lands on his head, obliterating him.
Apart from Isaacs, and the long-dead mum of volcano scientist heroine Li Xiao Meng, the cast is all Chinese, and this is a Chinese production (and according to Wikipedia, intended to put Chinese disaster films on the map).
Naturally it starts with the young Xiao Meng on the island of Tianhuo with her mother, who is part of a team researching volcanos. But the volcano starts erupting, and during their escape her mum is killed. Years later Xiao Meng is a volcanologist (played by Hannah Quinlivan, very good) – and back on Tianhuo, building the Zhuque system, a massive volcano monitoring and mapping system for the island and its theme park.
Her dad Li Wentao (Wang Xueqi) is a professor specialising in volcanos too, though they’re almost estranged; he’s never come to terms with not being able to save his wife during the last eruption. Naturally when the volcano starts rumbling again he immediately travels to Tianhuo to try to get his daughter to leave; naturally she doesn’t, so neither can he.
The “mountain is venting,” says one character, and as a mum whose children often do gobsmackingly dimwitted things they then require some kind of rescue from, I know how it feels.
The volcano is soon shooting balls of fire into the sky. This is comet classic Greenland but in reverse – the flaming rock bombs are coming from inside the planet!
Stuck somewhere on the island are Jiahui (Bai An) and Zheng Nan (Shawn Dou), lovers enjoying an enchanting swim before lava cuts off their exits; Xiao Meng and her dad in a cable car heading at speed for a break in the wire; Jiahui’s granddad who lives in a local village; and back at the island monitoring station Teng Bo (Ji Lingchen), one of those solid backroom boys who never get enough credit.
Skyfire is directed by Simon West, who made the very good Con Air with Nicolas Cage and the very bad Gun Shy with Antonio Banderas. He’s done a great job here; despite the derivative storyline and the volcano tropes it’s exciting and also a whole lot of fun. While it starts off rather groan-worthy, it becomes increasingly great as it goes along. It’s almost a comfort movie as you will know exactly what is about to happen.
This is a disaster movie that – more than most – takes its ideas from those which have come before. There’s another scientist who tries to get Xiao Meng to hold her fire when she wants to let Harris know that the volcano may be waking up; and an elderly man who decides his time has come and he’s going to die in his village. Beyond Dante’s Peak, there’s a big nod to the Jurassic Park/World franchise too: Jack Harris is John Hammond, Li Xiao Meng is a cross between Dr Ellie Sattler and Claire Dearing. (Don’t worry, no one is Owen Grady.)
Li Wentau is Dr Ian Malcom, though when the rescue helicopter took off without him at the end I did wonder if he was meant to be the diplodocus from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, left wailing on the shore as a river of lava heads towards him.
The action, once the volcano explodes, is relentless, as nature “builds as it destroys”. The CGI is sometimes a little wobbly, though the constructions for the theme park, including a glass mushroom-shaped lift taking tourists down into the lava (that I would literally never get in if offered the chance) look impressive.
I also loved the score, though I love disaster movies scores generally – I get very involved when listening to them and like to imagine myself running into the gravest danger to save someone’s pet dog when in reality I’d probably be punching a nun for the last lifejacket or running over the heads of children to get the final space on the rescue helicopter.
And that ending? With grandad dying in Jiahui’s arms in the village, she, Xiao Meng and the others make it to the shore where the rescue helicopter is waiting. Wentao is stuck on the other side of the lava flow after the bridge gives way; he heads back to the HQ and grabs a motorbike, presumably, we think, trying to get to the shore. Up in the helicopter Xiao Meng sees his flare go up, but a massive, rolling grey ash cloud immediately overwhelms the spot.
Her dad has to be a goner, because rescue at this point simply isn’t feasible either in science or the peculiar world of disaster movies. And yet…
Later, safe on the rescue boat, the group watch TV reports of the disaster, and the search and rescue teams already on the island. They’ve already found one, and yes it’s her dad, dangling from a rope as he’s airlifted off the island. The flashback shows us he went back into the base and used the Zhuque system to locate an entrance hole into the tunnels they’ve built under the island. He then takes the motorbike to one of the entrances, fires his flare gun, and jumps in the hole, landing on some rock beneath as the cloud rolls over the top. (Presumably it’s a link back to the previous eruption; his wife died when the grey ash cloud enveloped her but he was in his crashed truck nearby and did not. He says earlier in the film that being only a few yards to the side can save you.)
His survival is crazy but it also makes complete sense, and in an unbelievable series of rescues and escapes from certain death (jumping between moving cable cars, reversing at speed in a truck over a mini canyon holding a river of lava, the truck hanging off the side of the mountain held on only by a rope), unlike almost everything else in this deliciously ridiculous movie, it’s a perfectly reasonable possibility. And in the end, her work saved him.
Note: the end credits have some good making-of footage and a luxurious power ballad.
The Good-Bad Film Club Rating
Let’s be magma-nimous here – Skyfire is (slightly)Bad but also (properly)Good.
Skyfire is available from various outlets including:
Watch the trailer now: