Disaster movies occupy a small but bombastic niche of filmmaking. They’re big on spectacle, small on plot, and medium on characterisation in the case of the best ones. When it comes to the science of whatever disaster they are portraying, they are usually either accurate to a point, or seemingly completely unresearched. Skyfire, the first blockbuster budgeted disaster movie from China, is one of these movies, and a fun example of one, too.
In case you are wondering from my tone so far: yes, I love these movies. Even the bad ones, as in my experience disaster movies, are the ones that circle from bad” to “so bad they are good” most reliably. Skyfire is definitely one of these movies, too.
The film opens with a woman and her young daughter planting sensors around an active volcano. It is the woman’s dream to be able to monitor all aspects of the volcano to learn from it. Of course, this is the moment it erupts. The woman’s husband, Wentao (Wang Xueqi) is at base camp and races to their remote location, but while his daughter is saved, his wife is enveloped in a pyroclastic cloud and dies. A decade or so later, Wentao is retired from the field and teaching. His daughter Xiao Meng (Hannah Quinlivan) is a vulcanologist in her own right, finishing her mother’s work of planting thousands of sensors around the same volcanic island her mother died on.
If you are wondering if father and daughter are estranged, yes, of course, they are. If you are wondering if a grandstanding billionaire has built a resort on the island, luring tourists to stay in the shadow of an active volcano in an act of reckless hubris, yes, of course, that has happened too. Also, once all of these people are on the island together, the volcano erupts, because of course, it does.
Skyfire wastes no time in getting right to the action. At only 97 minutes, it doesn’t have time to, so all the major characters are brought to the island as fast as possible. The billionaire to pitch to investors (because he’s broke, in a subplot that goes nowhere) and the father to check on his daughter (because he looks at a photo of the island and realizes it’s primed to blow). Once they are all there, lava starts flowing.
There’s a great line from Wentao at the beginning of the film that nature neither loves nor hates, that it simply creates as it destroys. I ended up thinking about this line a lot while watching the movie because there are plenty of scenes where the volcano seems to be targeting people specifically, including one random tourist who tries to escape on a jetski only to have a lava bomb land in the water and launch him into the air, and then he is struck centre mass by a second lava bomb before he hits the water again.
Don’t get me wrong though, that’s awesome. This movie doesn’t make any sense. The science seems to be only basically researched –perhaps by watching other volcano movies– but it’s the kind of movie that you will have a good time if you can sit back and enjoy the spectacle. If you get caught up on characters wearing synthetic clothes into the caldera of a volcano, well, maybe not so much. One needs only to look at director Simon West’s other hit films (Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or The Expendables 2) to get an idea what I am talking about.
If I have one complaint about the version of this movie that I have seen, it is that the audio is dubbed. Being a Chinese film, it is acted in Chinese languages and English, but for consistency’s sake, everyone seems to be dubbed even when they are speaking English. I would much rather have read subtitles.
So there it is. Skyfire is a good example of the big-budget disaster movie. It doesn’t make any sense, the characters are all hot, and it’s fun. What more do you need?
Skyfire is streaming as part of the Victoria Film Festival for residents of British Columbia through February 14th.