‘Skyfire’ Review: It’s Raining Magma in This Cheerfully Cheesy Chinese Disaster Movie Set on a Volcanic Island

Richard Kuipers
·4 min read

It’s no great leap forward in filmmaking, but the big-budget disaster movie “Skyfire” does prove that China is now capable of producing its own brand of utterly preposterous and enjoyably trashy popcorn entertainment for a global audience. This thrill-packed tale about an angry volcano wreaking havoc on thinly written characters at a luxury island resort plays like a souped-up and much better remake of Irwin Allen’s 1980 turkey “When Time Ran Out.” Starring a predominantly Chinese cast and energetically directed by British action specialist Simon West (“Con Air,” “The Expendables 2”), “Skyfire” did OK without setting the Chinese box-office alight in December 2019 release. It should be a hot number with action fans when launched on VOD in North America by Screen Media on Jan. 12.

While several recent Chinese productions including “The Wandering Earth,” “The Captain” and “The Bravest” have depicted large-scale calamities, none have embraced the tried-and-true disaster movie format with the unashamed reverence and gusto of “Skyfire.” Another big difference is the almost complete absence of patriotic messaging and nationalism woven into those films. No countries are named and no military personnel or government officials are visible on this island or at command centers elsewhere. When rescue crews finally arrive, they’re from an insurance company. Chinese authorities much prefer the term “rescue film” to “disaster movie” but there can be no doubting “Skyfire” firmly fits the latter description.

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Also noteworthy is the friendly treatment of Jack Harris, the western “villain” played by Jason Isaacs. A standard-issue property developer who ignores safety warnings in the pursuit of profits, Harris undergoes a transformation that renders him sympathetic and even heroic before he gets the comeuppance that genre rules dictate.

Running a trim 93 minutes, “Skyfire” takes just three and a half minutes to whip through a prologue that many other disaster movies would pad out to half an hour. While conducting research on the island of Tianhuo, scientist Li Wentao (Wang Xueqi) is unable to rescue his geologist wife Sue Miller (Alice Rietveld) during a sudden volcanic eruption. Also witnessing Sue’s death is the couple’s young daughter, Xiao Meng (Beeland Rogers).

Twenty years later, Xiao Meng (Hannah Quinlivan, fine in a largely thankless role) is a vulcanologist who’s developed a high-tech system to predict activity on the very same volcano that killed her mother. Since then, Tianhuo has been turned into a flashy, Club Med-style holiday destination by entrepreneur Jack Harris and glamorous wife Qianwei (Ma Xinmo). It’s hard to work out Harris’ nationality. In the same sentence his speech can veer from unmistakably South African to the strong Aussie twang Isaacs adopted in “Red Dog: True Blue.”

That’s just about the only mystery generated by the ultra-formulaic screenplay by Sidney King (“Pearl Diver,” 2004) and first-time feature writer Wei Bu. But to the credit of King, Wei and director West there is no pretense of creating anything other than a straightforward thrill ride with no big messages. The tale moves into high gear and never stops once Harris ignores Xiao Meng’s warning about ominous rumblings and Li Wentao rushes to the island by helicopter and urges his now-estranged daughter to leave immediately.

CGI and green screen work are mostly impressive, with just a few wobbly moments as rivers of lava pour into populated areas and lumps of magma rain down like mega versions of incendiary weapons hurled from catapults in “Game of Thrones.” After wavering fortunes with recent films such as “Wild Card” and “Stratton,” director West shows he’s still got the chops to execute terrific set pieces, such as passengers leaping from one speeding cable car to another and a jeep dangling from a cliff face in the mouth of the fiery furnace.

Rare moments of quiet are occupied by routine dramas affecting stock characters. Taiwanese-Australian actress Quinlivan and respected Chinese veteran Wang Xueqi (“Bodyguards and Assassins”) bring enough commitment to make the father-daughter conflict play out satisfactorily. Less successful is the obligatory romance. Science team member Zheng Nan (Shawn Dou, “Under the Hawthorn Tree”) and resort designer Jiahui (Bai An) are a bland couple whose pre-disaster moments together include a super-cheesy underwater scene in which Zheng presents an engagement ring to his sweetheart.

Despite its unremarkable characters and some risible dialogue — “Don’t be scared, Daddy is here” — Cinematographer Alan Caudillo’s glossy visuals and composer Pinar Toprak’s (“Captain Marvel”) lush orchestral score are right on point for such cinematic shenanigans.

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