Film & TV

Skyscraper and Eighth Grade Go High and Low into Fake Sophistication

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in Skyscraper (Universal Pictures)
And both escape into narcissism.

S

kyscraper can’t be called “escapism” — that word implies leaving some state of reality and consciousness whereas Skyscraper requires a willing immersion into nonsense. That is the current state of popular entertainment. So when the media (including the trade press) try to justify and excuse the latest action film from Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) as escapism, they are committing a form of political deceit by refusing to recognize that Skyscraper gives in to irresponsible mindlessness. In short, it’s bull.

The bigger Johnson’s action projects become (Skyscraper cost $120 million), the further he escapes from the ethnic promise of his first film work and disappears into nonentity rubbish. From Rampage to Skyscraper (both titles are generic), Johnson is like an ethnically bland Obama on steroids — a beige cliché. This time he is American security consultant Will Sawyer, hired to protect The Pearl, the “world’s safest super-tall structure,” by its Hong Kong developer (Chin Han). Eventually, Sawyer’s generic wife (Neve Campbell) and their two generic kids are endangered by a Towering Inferno–type fire (240 floors up) and threatened by assault from the developer’s enemies, who force Sawyer into preposterous, derring-do stunts. (Making Sawyer a former FBI operative seems like miscalculated heroism right now; imagine James Comey leaping through the air with the greatest of ease.)

Skyscraper’s writer-director, Rawson Marshall Thurber, will go down in history for the moment in his directorial debut Dodge Ball (2004) when Rip Torn warned, “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.” That idea is wittier than any of the CGI aerial tricks here. The dumbed-down gimmick of Sawyer (an amputee with a prosthetic leg and superhuman handgrip) swinging through glass windows and demolishing bad-guys is insultingly unoriginal. Die Hard was so Eighties, Nineties, and early Aughts that no Millennial surprises are left.

The constant threat of fire and death is just dumb.

Brad Bird brought visual panache to Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol’s truly fantastic — and believable — use of space and height dynamics. (The implied depth and visual expanse were more exciting than any of the animation in Bird’s Incredibles 2.) This is a special skill that an efficient, rather than serviceable, screenplay prepares for, launching the imagination of a gifted director as he endeavors to fulfill it. Thurber lacks such skill, whether or not Marvel Comics dupes and TV-bingers can tell the difference. Skyscraper is the lowest form of video-game/cinematic slapstick — a craft that is also in decline. (Compare the kinetics of Walter Hill’s The Driver to Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver.)

An escapist spectacle that depends on an amputee’s trapeze act is inherently cynical, which pushes The Rock’s stunts beyond goofy and into ugly. The constant threat of fire and death is just dumb. This escape from reality is what political pundits call “diversion.” But it’s also idiotic. Films such as Skyscraper train audiences to be sophisticates of cynicism, the last thing we need right now.

*    *    *

Eighth Grade (A24 Films)

False sophistication defines the new indie tragic-comedy Eighth Grade, about 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher), facing her transition into high school. She posts her own podcast series in which she dispenses adolescent advice into the cyberspace void. This gimmick typifies Kayla as a Millennial kid. The only child of a divorced dad (Josh Hamilton), she looks to social media as her primary source of personal contact. She spackles her pimples with makeup and then holds forth on inane teen subjects (“Being Yourself,” “How to Be Confident”) using a pitchman’s voice of phony solicitude that is exposed by teenaged ums, ands, and you knows.

Writer-director Bo Burnham, who is 28 years old, expects viewers to both identify with Kayla and feel superior to her. It’s indie-movie self-pity, served-up with obvious, preening social criticism. The Apple-Pixar-Marvel era pressures adolescence even while alienating it, and wannabe-viral star Kayla personifies this condition. Kayla’s acne scars, hunched-over, stoop-shouldered posture, pudgy figure in a bathing suit, and on-the-verge-of-tears pouting extend her suffering. (Todd Solondz, where are you?) When she nervously throws down her cellphone, the glass screen cracks — it’s the ultimate tragedy, meant to be a profoundly sad image of a ruined identity.

Burnham’s own false sophistication is apparent in his Kubrick-style pull-backs, coded detachment, and the shrill pop noise in Kayla’s earbuds that show off his emphasis on the casual dehumanization of youth. (What would Parkland puppet David Hogg think of the school-shooter drill? It’s made “ironic,” the same way Boomer filmmakers used to satirize duck-and-cover drills.)

Like The Rock’s Will Sawyer, the Kayla characterization is contrived to satisfy the low expectations of non-demanding filmgoers, but with this specification: Eighth Grade targets the market demographic sought by advertisers and media as a way to reinforce their own significance. (Those fans of TV’s Freaks and Geeks.) Burnham’s appeal to their narcissism includes the awkward karaoke Kayla does at a popular girl’s birthday party (she’s invited by the girl’s mother), which deprives us of seeing even her introverted joy.

Showing all this pathos would require John Hughes’s humorous mediation. Instead, Kayla’s story demonstrates how hipsters instruct themselves on mores, society, psychology, politics, empathy, and their personal sense of superiority. In the closest-to-clever scene, Kayla is mentored by older high-schoolers and sits among them hanging out at the mall. Their babbling is like TV-anchor chatter, but it’s not clear whether Burnham understands that this adolescent fake sophistication is, essentially, a form of escapism.

Eighth Grade should, ideally, be an important artifact of Millennial consciousness, 13 being the age when ideas about social conduct and exchange are first formulated and acted upon — evident in that willful snarkiness that swamps the Internet where juvenile mentalities rule. Alarmingly, the eighth grade might be when this anti-social egotism begins.

Armond White — Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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