Credit where credit's due: Skyscraper delivers what it promises. Admittedly, this is because the only thing it promises is green-screened shots of Dwayne Johnson precariously hanging off the edge of things as CGI fire dances in the background. But it is damn good CGI fire, the best incarnation of this sort of VFX work since the magnificent infernos of 2016's Deepwater Horizon. There is not, I need hardly mention, any sort of decent narrative justification for this particular CGI fire, but if we are to have shitty popcorn movies, at least they can be sufficiently glitzy and gaudy to be enjoyably distracting.

Beyond well-rendered pixels and pectorals, Skyscraper is a pretty joyless slog, falling in the "cloying sentiment" half of Johnson's filmography instead of the much more pleasurable "upbeat camp" half. It is exactly the hybridisation of The Towering Inferno and Die Hard that it looks like, with the unexpected addition of the "locked outside of the computer system" scenes from Jurassic Park. It's the story of former FBI agent Will Sawyer (Johnson), who miscalculated in a hostage situation ten years ago, leading to the loss of his leg. But it's okay, because that's how he met ex-military doctor Sarah (Neve Campbell), with whom he now has two lovely children, Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell). He also has a small business doing risk assessment, and his former colleague Ben (Pablo Schreiber) has pulled strings with his new boss Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) to get Will the job giving the final once-over to Zhao's record-setting skyscraper, the Pearl, a 3000-foot spire rising out of the center of Hong Kong. Ben's up to no good, though: he's arranged this all so that Will will end up receiving a biometrically-encoded tablet that gives him absolute control over the Pearl's elaborate high-tech security systems, and then end up losing the tablet to a team of cyberterrorists led by Xia (Hannah Quinlivan). And she's doing this to enable a team of much more old-fashioned terrorists led by Kores Botha (Roland MΓΈller), who are using waterproof fire to set the 96th floor of the Pearl ablaze. And once Xia cracks the tablet, that fire is most certainly not going to remain confined to the 96th. Meanwhile, Sarah and the kids are on, like, the 97th floor, and Will is on the run from the cops.

That's all the first half. The second half is where we get our Die Hard, though with a twist: since Sarah has military training herself, she has more than enough skill to keep herself and the children alive, and at a certain point, she escapes to match wits with police inspector Wu (Byron Mann), who remains somewhat convinced that Will is involved with the terrorists, though he concedes that it would make no sense, if that were the case, for Will to have gone to such extraordinary lengths to break into the flaming skyscraper.

It's a pretty awful script that writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber has put together for us, but this is the first movie he's ever made that's not a comedy, so a little stiffness is... no, no, it's really stiff. For one thing, it's hard to imagine a film that sets up more first act guns to fire in the third, and they all get fired, including ones that would surely have been better remaining on the wall. The ostensibly cute moment that lets us see the rhythm of the Sawyer marriage finds Sarah forcing Will to fix her phone by turning it off then back on again, and this is made a big enough deal that it's pretty clear that something will get turned off then back on again as part of the climax, and, I mean, the film is titled Skyscraper... So stuff like that, and about literally everything: the first 30 minutes of the 102-minute feature seem to have been constructed entirely of seeds for later plot points, and it's still doing it well into the second act, though generally for things that will pay off within ten or so minutes of having been set up.

This is a fatal flaw. Given its insistent refusal on ever doing anything original, Skyscraper is already a bit boring and predictable; when that's compounded by the screenplay constantly waving its plot points in front of the viewer and asking if we get it yet, the film basically feels like it has already been watched, digested, and forgotten before we ever get around to it. Everything feels foreordained in the most grim, perfunctory way, with no sense of surprise or amazement even once. Obviously, we know before the film even starts that neither Will nor Sarah nor their children will lose, that's not how popcorn movies work. But the film still does have an obligation to keep us guessing and to present action sequences that suggest, in the moment, that life and death hang in the balance. Skyscraper's set-pieces all include their eventual outcome baked into the start, like a poorly-designed video game. There's one good bit, when Sarah has to cross on a narrow board to rescue Noah and then cross back, while Will holds the skyscraper together by pulling very hard on two chains. Otherwise, the action is just boring, and what on earth is the point of that?

Anyway, the whole thing is very dull and useless, though not entirely without compensations. The CGI work is great, and so is the dramatic red lighting that gives everything the aura of an apocalyptic hellscape, courtesy of slumming master cinematographer Robert Elswit. The scenes between Campbell and Mann are surprisingly good, offering a human-scale counterpoint to the rest of the film and engendering the best acting in the film - their antagonistic sparring is spiky in all the best ways. And it's pretty short,Β  the one characteristic a modern popcorn movie needs to remain somewhat on my good side. Ironically, it's possible that Skyscraper would have been better if it was longer: some more time at the beginning to let us appreciate the building in all it splendor might have given the later scenes any kind of context, rather than the Pearl just being that place that catches on fire almost as soon as we go inside of it. But still not very good - the best-case scenario for this material is a derivative, dumb exercise in watching Johnson flex, and it turns out the worst-case scenario is much the same.