Fans of absurd architecture, over-the-top action, and wrestling-stars-turned-beloved-actors are in for a treat this summer thanks to the recently-announced film Skyscraper. The movie’s central character is “The Pearl,” an imagined 1,067-meter-tall skyscraper in Hong Kong—although apparently some guy named “Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson” also plays a pretty big role with his character Will Sawyer, a former FBI Hostage Rescue operative who lost a leg in the line of duty and now reviews building security for a living.
The plot, as revealed in the trailer and a single-paragraph synopsis on the official website, sees Will Sawyer criticizing the security of the “vertical city” billed as the tallest, most advanced, and safest building in the world. His concerns are immediately shown to be well-founded, as a group of (what are presumably) terrorists set fire to the 96th floor of the building, trapping Sawyer’s family and somehow framing Sawyer for the whole thing. As a result, Sawyer must save his family while running from the law, with the trailer showing a climactic leap from an adjacent crane (we can only assume that Dwayne Johnson doesn’t fit into a ventilation duct). The film has come in for some good-natured ribbing already, with internet jokesters questioning how a 260-pound amputee makes a 15-meter jump off the end of a crane. But of course, closer inspection reveals that these concerns are just the start of the entertaining wackiness of this movie.
To the eyes of an architect, the most obviously bizarre feature of the movie is The Pearl itself, a building that looks like the structures of Tomorrowland interpreted by Alien designer HR Giger. While most of the world’s current tallest buildings are models of structural clarity, The Pearl squirms skyward, culminating in an awkwardly-perched sphere. At first we thought that perhaps the sphere might contain some sort of mass damper system, of the kind used on similar top-heavy skyscrapers such as the Shanghai Tower, but on closer inspection of an elevation shown in the trailer, we see it apparently hosts corporate offices and a restaurant. Let’s hope diners can keep their food down with all that swaying.
That’s not to say that no thought has gone into the design at all, though. Also shown on that elevation are not one, but two feng-shui-friendly holes in the building. Such gaps in the structure follow Hong Kong’s unique design customs, suggesting that the designers did appreciate the context they were building in, even if they are also adding to their structural engineer’s misery. To top it all off, it seems that while the base of the building does make contact with the southern tip of the Kowloon Peninsula (so long to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, it seems) the main part of the structure is built over what is currently Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour—not the ideal foundation for what might already have been humanity’s greatest feat of structural engineering.
Alongside the design of the building, there are plenty of other oddities that you might expect from this genre of film (yo Hollywood, for the last time, skyscraper windows don’t shatter like that). But there’s also an issue that architects may want to take more seriously. Because, while plenty of movies in the past, from Die Hard to Entrapment, have placed skyscrapers at the center of the action, few have made the skyscraper an unambiguous source of danger as this movie does. To quote the central character Will Sawyer’s words in the trailer: “Not only have you brought them all indoors, but you’ve trapped them 240 floors in the air. Noone really knows what would happen if things go wrong.”
That’s a great setup for a movie, but it betrays a certain Black Mirror-like fear of the future—a sense that even though we can create things that might once have been considered science fiction, we may not have thought things all the way through. In the real world, though, if a skyscraper of this size were to be built, there would be a whole team of people who know exactly what would happen if things went wrong—because architects, engineers, and the whole army of consultants and experts that they work with do not undertake kilometer-tall buildings without putting considerable thought into them.
Of course, the two-and-a-half-minute trailer doesn’t reveal much about exactly how things go wrong in Skyscraper, so for now it’s tough to say precisely what the writers haven’t considered. Until this summer at least, all we can say is that we hope the film turns out to be exactly the kind of overblown, dramatic fun that it looks like in the trailer—and that if you’re an architect, perhaps you should take a second to ensure your friends don’t leave the theater honestly believing that tall buildings aren’t safe.