The Pearl, the fictional skyscraper and world’s tallest building, is not just the setting of much of the action—and light drama—of the film Skyscraper (dir. Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2018). Importantly, it is a construction that directly relies on the film’s genre forebearers, a symbolic edifice, making architectural and visual the pastiche that is the film itself.
Briefly, Skyscraper centers on Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) and his family, as they combat terrorist (who are really thieves) both inside and outside the about-to-open 225-story Pearl skyscraper, which dominates the Honk Kong skyline. The Pearl, built by Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) can’t open until Sawyer gives his risk-assestment report—while he has been assessing the building, he and his family have been the building’s only residents on the 98th floor (the commercial floors below have already opened). A group of terrorists (via an inside man, of course) set fire to the middle of the building, shut off the fire-supression system via an offsite location (and Sawyer’s access device) and use the fire’s uward spread to try to get to Zhao’s data and money. Meanwhile, Sawyer must make his was back into the building above the fire while his wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell) tries to get their children below it. After a series of fairly predicatable events, Sawyer confronts the lead terrorist in spherical Pearl at the building’s top, using its imaging technology to trick him, saving the day.
Somewhat obviously, the movie is Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan) meets The Towering Inferno (dir. John Guillermin, 1974). But more than just mashing those plots together, Skyscraper is constructed around a fictional tower that appears in nearly ever scene, and which both symbolizes the joint Chinese-American market that it is obviously meant to satisfy, along with a plot that hinges on the interplay of its American and Chinese stars. From its opening scenes on, Skyscraper and The Pearl rely on the mutually-reinforcing dyad of Zhao and Sawyer, with the building itself built of that necessity.
Constructing The Pearl
The main body of the film (after a character-driven opening during which Sawyer is caught in an explosion he fails to prevent, costing him a leg) opens showing the construction of The Pearl in a glossy cable-news profile, with a timelapse of its construction and integration into the Hong Kong syline as well as the tourist-oriented commercial world of the film. This sequence establishes both the location as well as the internal details that will be prominently featured later in the film—the base of The Pearl sits directly on Victoria Harbor, with an internal structure filled with multi-story voids, which we later see will be spaces for wind turbines and a huge artium garden space.
Once it stands complete, its geography is quite well established, on the southern tip of Tsim Sha Tsui (尖沙咀, or TST) peninsula in southern Kowloon. It is set between the tallest building in Hong Kong, The International Commerce Centre (環球貿易廣場 , or ICC, rising 1,588’), to its north-west [on the right in the still below] and Tower 2 of the International Finance Centre (國際金融中心二期, or 2IFC, rising 1,326’), to its south-west [across the bay, on the left in the still below]. Just south of The Pearl is the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (香港會議展覽中心), with its distinctive layered, curved roof [also left in the still below].
Much later in the film, this location is made even clearer when Inspector Wu (Byron Mann) helpfully circles The Pearl on a screen—essentially for the audience’s benefit—as he lays out possible escape routes by parachute from the top of The Pearl:
The opening promotional video also makes clear the layout of many of the floors on which the film will later set its action, as well as some of key locations and their mechanics—the wind turbines, an interior elevator, the sphrerical pearl at the top of the spire, etc.
All while also laying out the groupings of levels and which floors are open at the start of the film—the upper half is mostly closed, pending Sawyer’s final sign-off.
The Keys to The Pearl
The plot of Skyscraper hinges on Sawyer’s role in signing off on the safety of the top floors The Pearl, allowing it to open in full, fulfilling Zhao’s vision. He is given a MacGuffin access tablet early on that is paired to a facial scan, and which much fall into the hands of the terrorists to effect their plan. Thus his biometrics are made a unique way to access the building, which will later be extended to the rest of his body as he propels his way through the rest of the film.
His analysis of the safety of the tower provides a walkthrough of the systems that will soon be manipulated by the terrorist/thieves, and specifies an offsite control location, which in the film is the only other place that can manipulate the tower’s systems.
This early tour culminates with the myterious spherical Pearl at the top of the tower, which Zhao reveals to Sawyer contains a hall of mirrors—in the style of The Man with the Golden Gun (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1974) or John Wick, Chapter 2 (dir. Chad Stahelski, 2017)—and that via exterior cameras can project a seemless view of Honk Kong city-scape.
Until Zhao leaves Sawyer alone in wonder, the man in the sky.
Man in the Sky
Sawyer’s precarity above the Hong Kong skyline is a central motif in the film, and was part of the film’s marketing, including its theatrical posters.
This is in part because Skyscaper keeps Swayer outside of The Pearl for the early part of the action, with the plot forcing his wife and children to try to hide from the terrorists who set fire to the building’s middle floors, as Sawyer races across the city to reach them.
The fire spreads upward as the film progresses, with the fire supression system disabled by the baddies who have Sawyer’s device and are able to bring it to the offsite location, which sports a lovely horizonal display of The Pearl for monitoring purposes.
In communication with his wife, Sawyer realizes he must enter the building above the fire, and does so in the film’s main set-piece, ultimately launching himself from an impossible 100+ story tall free-standing crane into a window he has broken out for just such a purpose.
His climactic jump staged in slow motion, with the iconic Tower 2 of the International Finance Center as background [center of frame, with the illuminated roof], which Western audiences might recognize as the tower from which Batman glides through Hong Kong in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008).
The scene closes on a final slow-motion sequence, with Sawyer’s massive body back-lit as he flings himself through the broken window, visually harkening back to John McClane’s re-entry into Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. Though where McClane curls into the fetal position and slams through partially-shattered glass, the scene in Skyscraper plays up Sawyer’s superhuman and ultimately superheroic qualities.
The rest of the film features familiar beats, with a wide variety of shots of The Pearl, including many mediated on screen, displays, phones, etc. But to close, I note the visual markers provided for viewers to help them track the upward progress of the fire and the increasingly reduced paths for our heroes to elude the villains and/or leave The Pearl unscathed. For example, a huge many-storied garden antrium (with waterfall and pedistrian bridge) is established as Sawyer takes an elevator through the space early in the film, so that we will recognize the central bridge later, which the family must traverse.
Wind turbines in the upper portion of the tower constantly turn, as the elevator passes near them, and then challenge Sawyer, who must pass between their blades—twice, even—just before flames engulf them.
And finally, once the flames reach the spherical peral, Sawyer must save his daughter from the lead terrorist, Kores Botha (Roland Møller), using the imaging technology and ultimately the partially-destroyed floor to save the day.
Sarah Sawyer reboots the fire-supression system, and the film closes on the top of The Pearl now saved from the fire, the pearl at its tip ensconced in smoke.