Disaster movies are invariably poor. The bad ones are appalling, take 2014’s Pompeii for example, and even the more respected editions like The Towering Inferno are critically underwhelming. The 2010s have not done anything to propel the genre, with trashcan blockbuster flicks like Geostorm and San Andreas leading the way. With recycled themes and predictable arcs, these movies are quantitatively fading. Cue the arrival of Skyfire, the new cataclysmic Chinese movie directed by Simon West, the man behind Con Air and the music video to Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up. A unique matchup looking to overcome the trite associated with disaster films.

Skyfire is set on the fictional island of Tianhu, a tropical paradise with one issue – an active volcano. We pick up the action 20 years in the past with Wentao Li (Wang Xueqi), a volcanologist working on the island with his wife and daughter, Li Xiao Meng (Hannah Quinlivan). The volcano suddenly erupts and Wentao’s wife is tragically killed. Skipping forward to the present day, Li is again working on the island, now a theme park owned by Australian businessman Jack Harris (Jason Isaacs). Li is attempting to complete her Mother’s work, by creating a sensor system to pre-emptively warn of increased volcanic activity. Unfortunately, the system goes live one day later than required, and we are treated to our second eruption within 30 minutes of screentime. Wentao returns to the island in an attempt to rescue his now-estranged daughter, before it is too late.

This film draws on every conceivable cliché. The estranged family attempting to reconcile under disagreeable conditions, the ruthless businessman who ignores advice on the dangers of pushing ahead with his enterprise, the orphaned child and the heroic hunk; this film has it all. Without a sniff of originality, in a genre of conventionally narrow scope, it was always important to approach this film with a realistic mindset. However, Skyfire takes the baseline disaster flick and self-assuredly does absolutely nothing interesting with it. The characters are all entirely one-dimensional, with near-unanimous blank expressions as they recite vapid, melodramatic lines.

The belligerent man who has endangered others through his own ambition is an old trope, but it still garners interest regarding their arc. Will they endure a horrible but well-earned death, will they redeem themselves with sacrifice and heroics, or will it be something in between? In the case of Jack Harris, played by the reliably villainous Isaacs, we are sold short on both fronts. The character arc is riddled with contradiction, and the confusion is only heightened when Isaac’s Australian accent intermittently strays into South African. Evidently, he and the director were equally clueless as to who he should be portraying.

Approximately 45 minutes into Skyfire, when a jet ski rider is impaled mid-air by a pin-point meteor, the realisation set in that this film is unintentionally hilarious. The lead characters, supposedly scientists, are a braindead collection of vacant morons. There are long segments where they dial up the exposition, while the characters remain in a static location. Inevitably this leads to more trouble; trouble which could easily be avoided if this plot made any god-damn sense. A nearby village, 20 years on from the first major disaster, still has no identifiable evacuation plan, and our heroes are charged with saving it from an oncoming lava wave. With the help of an invulnerable jeep and a drone the size of a spaceship, they are able to release water from a fortuitously placed dam to divert the lava flow. The nonsensical plot points build-up, but this took the cake.

The special effects do hold up, especially the volcano and its eruption. True to its name, the film contains a lot of meteoric carnage, the sky-fire if you will. Unfortunately, it looks as though the budget ran out before some of the lava scenes were shot. The magma sometimes appears comically stop-motion and detracts from any semblance of reality. The editing and cinematography are also shoddy, with clunky slow-motion sequences that render supposedly dramatic scenes farcical.

In what is effectively a re-hash of When Time Ran Out, this film offers nothing in the way of imagination or originality. Lifeless characters carry this story unimpressively into the final act, which fortunately comes around quite quickly in the 97-minute runtime. The script is anemic, the core messages superfluous and the banal story seeping with flavourless tedium and gaping plot holes. China’s attempt to stamp itself on the blockbuster map does not look promising, with a mediocre addition to an already saturated genre. Imagine Jurassic World, but the only fossil is Simon West’s once-prominent career.

Dir: Simon West

Scr: Wei Bu, Sidney King

Cast: Wang Xueqi, Hannah Quinlivan, Jason Isaacs, Shawn Dou

Prd: Chris Bremble, Jennifer Dong, John Hughes, Charles Loi, Jazz Yanzhi Jiang, Jib Polhemus, Aaron Shershow, Nancy Wu

DOP: Alan Caudillo

Country: China

Year: 2019

Runtime: 97 mins

Skyfire is available on DVD and Digital from 23rd Nov

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