What to Watch Verdict
'Skyfire' is a molten cocktail of incendiary ammunition, out-of-bounds escapes, and the right-enough embrace of lunatic natural disaster filmmaking that puts thrillseeking excitement above all.
🌋 No dawdling, right to volcanic eruptions.
🌋 Like strapping in for a Disney attraction.
🌋 Bucks genre tropes, lives its best lava-life.
🌋 Lots of practical pyrotechnics.
🌋 Digital effects aren't always pristine.
🌋 Might be clogged with subplot drama for some.
🌋 A funloving attitude might also displease some.
Skyfire is like if you imagine Jurassic Park, but instead of dinosaurs, exotica zero’s threat is an erupting volcano. There’s a John Hammond character, but he’s Lucius Malfoy. Perhaps we glimpse an underwater mermaid-themed proposal that’s cut short by lava boiling a utopian blue-lagoon alcove. Oh, and it’s helmed by the guy behind Con Air? Western director Simon West oversees a Chinese production that so overdramatically dives into the steamiest deep-end, endangering lives thanks to billionaire schemes and a natural disaster that dwarfs Pompeii. Always with hot-and-spicy “B” movie antics at the ready.
On Tianhuo Island, reckless businessman Jack Harris (Jason Isaacs) has architected the world’s only volcano theme park. Tourists splash around modernized resort accommodations and travel via cable cars to an observation bay within the island’s rumbling belly. Part of Harris’ state-of-the-art safety coalition division, Meng Li (Hannah Quinlivan), has sworn her life to studying Tianhuo’s smokestack after her mother's on-site death decades prior. Unfortunately, on the day Harris’ potential investors are given a grand tour, Meng Li’s “paranoias” are ignored but prove themselves correct when Tianhuo activates.
Allow my cutting right to the chase, much like Skyfire, at a brisk ninetyish minutes: this movie is to Volcano as Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead is to Night Of The Living Dead. The green screens aren’t always cleanly blended, but excitement is full-throttle like the brakes have been snipped as "slow lava" is upgraded to "fast lava" (the zombie comparison). It’s not just about evading ultra-scalding flows, either. Tianhuo’s awakened beast hurls molten fireballs that rain throughout the film’s duration while scorching rivers ooze behind jeeps, barely zipping out of reach. We’ll dip a bit deeper, but in general, Skyfire takes a fast and furious approach to natural disaster cinema that demands the butteriest tubs of jumbo popcorn.
In terms of performative theatrics, I’m reminded of The Meg, in which a killer megalodon is at-times muted for cheeky relationship one-offs and extra-as-Kardashian drama. Meng Li’s not alone fighting Tianhuo since father Wentao (Xueqi Wang), a renowned volcano expert, appears hellbent on saving his daughter from his wife’s suffocating fate. I already mentioned the lovebirds Zhengnan (Shawn Dou) and Jiahui Dong (An Bai) prior, interrupted as Zhengnan plants an engagement ring (in a half-shell) at the bottom of crystal-blue waters for Jiahui to find. Harris is awarded more humanity than John “don’t kill my creations” Hammond, along with a partner, Qianwei (Xinmo Ma), who he adores unconditionally. Everyone’s fixated on someone else, as motivations lead survivors down windy paths that somehow always reconnect after death-wish acts of selflessness.
The action-horrors of Skyfire cue outrageous, often breath-robbing stunts. As the volcano emits its micro-tremors, steam vents blow park attendees into the sky while ripping holes in Harris’ “indestructible” observation dome. The chaos of scrambling bodies launched over railings into a lake of fire while smoldering boulders rain like artillery is a sight, doubled in tension when Meng Li’s crew finds themselves leaping from one rocketing sky-tram vessel to another, since only one set of cables is damaged by smoking shrapnel. There are frequent instances of white-knuckle escape drastics mixed with applause-worthy daredevil accents for no reason. Looking at you, jet-ski casualty who finds it necessary to nail a ramp not far from exit docks that leads to him taking an overheated projectile to the chest mid-trick. Why? Because that’s what audiences want to see, no sense in depriving the masses.
Maybe I’m drawn to Skyfire because it "honors" an eyebrow-raising amount of set pieces from the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World films. As Qianwei grasps onto a dangling lifeline within the back of the squad’s vehicle, itself hanging cliffside, we’re reminded of Dr. Sarah Harding hanging on for dear life inside the Fleetwood RV Mobile Lab. As Zhengnan goes pedal-to-floor in the same vehicle not long before, we’re reminded of the “Must Go Faster” chase with lava nipping at the rubber tires of his all-terrain cruiser. Oh, and what about a particular character's Fallen Kingdom fate à la the Brachiosaurus farewell? Connections aren’t merely surface-value (Jack Harris, John Hammond, “J.H.” anyone). Skyfire owes a tremendous debt to the Jurassic franchise, to a noticeably hilarious and even funnier in-context extent.
All said, Skyfire ain’t perfect. Some might not endure the cheese factor that’s dripping from Meng Li’s emotional undertakings having two parents targeted by the same volcano twenty years apart. Blue screen animated backgrounds are somewhat of an eyesore at times, clearly blocking characters from their digital surroundings. Should backward-driving automobiles clear rocky gaps with ease as lava pours into the crevasse, or bodies avoid stewing in pools temperately spiked by volcano runoff? Maybe, but the film’s intention remains to entertain no matter the logical cost, and commitment is paramount. We’re living in this world of military-grade drone helpers, three-dimensional volcano mapping technology, and indestructible volcanologists whose bodies are somehow flame, ash, and smoke resistant.
Skyfire always presents itself as the fun-loving blockbuster, often tweaking the formula with its secret liquid-hellfire sauce. Simon West creates the xXx: Return Of Xander Cage equivalent of disaster cinema. As China’s first crack at the volatile genre, one currently underrepresented stateside and internationally, it’s an exceptionally batty fight between humanity and a murder mountain, complete with an end-credits original pop song performed by Hannah Quinlivan’s husband Jay Chou, music video included. Skyfire eviscerates signifiers like “dark” and “gritty” in a wash of romantic bubbliness, Heat Miser approved peril, and mile-a-minute getaways from a monster that spreads its devastation farther than an expansive tropical paradise can contain. Science be damned; this is the type of January distraction our screens deserve.
Skyfire will be available on VOD on January 12, 2021.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.