Skyfire: Volcanic Park, by David Bax
It is crucial, fascinating and shocking to note that Simon West’s Skyfire, making its U.S. debut on demand this week, hit theaters in China on December 12, 2019. Assuming it was a more recent production, I spent much of the movie considering to what degree it was in poor taste to make a movie that features tour groups being incinerated by a volcano after the Whakaari eruption that killed 22 people, many of them tourists. Then again, when one character insists the deaths in the movie are not a natural disaster but manmade–because of the hubris of running profitable ventures on an active volcano–I wondered whether or not Skyfire was in some way intended as a condemnation of the companies that took people’s money to put them in harm’s way on Whakaari. So imagine my disbelief at the realization that the film was produced before those tragic events and, even weirder, initially released only three days afterward.
Twenty years after losing her mom to a volcano, Meng (Hannah Quinlivan) is now a member of the team of volcanologists working on the same island that claimed her mother’s life. She and her team are employed by Jack Harris (Jason Isaacs), a luxury real estate developer so sure the volcano won’t erupt again anytime soon that he’s built a lavish resort in its shadow. You’ll never believe what happens.
Aside from Isaacs–who, like West, is an Englishman–the core cast of Skyfire is Chinese, as is the majority of the dialogue. Often, not understanding the language being spoken can mercifully temper bad performances. Unfortunately, the actors playing the team of young and beautiful scientists persevere in their laughable stiltedness through any such potential barriers.
Let’s not give them too hard a time, though. Skyfire‘s dialogue (both in English and as translated in the subtitles) would be impossible for anyone to sell. The first act has so many variations on “God himself cannot sink this ship!” that it becomes comedic, rivaled in hilarity only by the scene where the grizzled, independent volcanologist, Tao (Wang Xueqi), compares two photos side by side on his computer and mutters ominously, “My God…” Much of the rest of it is too brainless (“You want me to be safe but I just want to feel wanted!”) to be funny.
Regardless of proximity and similarity to real life events, there’s always something ethically queasy about disaster movies, where destruction and the horrible deaths of innocent humans on a large scale is played for spectacle. It’s hard not to look at the way West stages the carnage and, on some level, think, “Cool.” When Tao provides the exposition that explains what’s become of the island where Meng’s mother died–“It’s been turned into a theme park”–how could it be seen as anything other than a tease of the fun to come?
There’s no denying, however, that–by the standards of big budget disaster flicks–Skyfire absolutely delivers on that tease. It’s no Jurassic Park, on which it’s clearly modeled, with Isaacs in the Richard Attenborough role. But it’s got huge, ridiculous adventure set-pieces against a tantalizing, gorgeous backdrop of tourism bureau-ready locations. You’ll have some fun but you’ll have to endure countless insults to your intelligence and morality along the way.