I’m not sure if I completely understand the semantics behind it ($$), but for some reason, British director Simon West (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Expendables 2, Con Air) seems to have lately pivoted his career into making action movies financed by Chinese production companies. Hey, if the films are good, I guess it doesn’t really matter where the cash comes from. But West’s first outing of this sort, Skyfire (actually released in late 2019 in China), features an almost entirely Asian cast speaking Mandarin (with a little bit of English) in a story shot in Malaysia, and it’s not exactly exceptional. (West’s next film, The Legend Hunters, is also a Chinese co-production.)
Set in the volcanic paradise of Tianhuo Island (located in the “Ring of Fire”—the world-famous Pacific Rim volcanic belt), Skyfire begins only a couple decades ago, when geologist Wentao Li (Xueqi Wang, Iron Man 3) and his young daughter Xiao Meng experience the death of his wife when the volcano suddenly erupts. Now, Xiao Meng (Hannah Quinlivan, Skyscraper) is on the same island attempting to continue research that sees her placing sensors all over the island—including inside the volcano—to better predict its next eruption, which everyone says won’t happen for well over 100 years. Only now, the island has been transformed into a resort and extreme, volcano-based theme park by British businessman Jack Harris (Jason Isaacs, Black Hawk Down, the Harry Potter films), who is on the verge of opening his park and securing the final investors to make his dream a reality—a reality that apparently includes an observation deck that lowers you right into the mouth of the volcano. Sign me up!
But thanks to Meng’s state-of-the-art eruption forecasting system, she believes that the island is on the verge of another catastrophic event, and although she’s estranged from her father, he is racing to the island because the island has already taken so much from him. So, big surprise, the volcano starts to steam and let off some preliminary bursts that send flaming rocks raining down across parts of the island, with Meng and her team left to save a tour group trapped in the previously mentioned observation deck, keep lava from flowing over a local village, and get everyone off the island in boats before utter destruction occurs.
Skyfire is about on par with 1997’s volcano-based action film Dante’s Peak in that it’s all about outrunning things that are probably impossible to outrun in real life. We get plenty of death and destruction to satiate that part of our love of disaster movies. And naturally, there are plenty of characters who are willing to sacrifice hundreds of people just to save someone they care about—a trope I will never accept and will always criticize until I’m swallowed up by lava. For some reason, the movie finds time for romance, family drama, and corporate greed storylines that are all varying degrees of unnecessary but at least give us a minute to breathe before the next action sequence (that usually involves driving away from rolling magma and hurtling fire rocks).
None of the acting in Skyfire is particularly strong, and that includes the performance of Isaacs, who is usually more reliable than he is here. It seems cliche to say he was only picking up a paycheck for being in this film, but I’m pretty sure I got a peek at said check in his inside jacket pocket at one point. Xueqi Wang is perhaps the only actor here who seems to be putting something genuine and heartfelt into his role. He knows he has been an absent parent since his wife’s death, and he has every reason to want to make it up to Meng in this crisis.
But you don’t watch a movie about an erupting volcano for the human drama, and where Skyfire excels is with its special effects. The smoke, fire and lava all look fairly convincing and very hot. Nearly every shot of the film seems filled with something that can kill you, but if you don’t care about the characters all that much, there are no stakes in a film like this. Compare Skyfire to something like the recent Greenland, which goes out of its way to capture human behavior and emotion in the face of likely death; Skyfire wasn’t built to be dissected and analyzed to this degree, but here we are. If you’re desperate and craving a disaster b-movie, I suppose you could do worse, but this is a subpar entry in the genre.
The film is currently available via VOD.
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