15:10 - 29th July 2013, by Calum Waddell

The Tower

So, who doesn't love a good disaster movie?

From the likes of Airport (1970) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972) to the recent rash of Oriental accidents depicted in Tidal Wave (2009) and Aftershock (2010), the genre - much like that pesky summer downpour - never resists the chance to return. The latest in this endurable trend, then, comes from South Korea, and is an obvious homage to the famous blockbuster The Towering Inferno (1974). Much like its Hollywood counterpart, Tower - which is directed by Kim Ji-hoon (who last helmed the thematically similar Sector 7) - features a large skyscraper succumbing to the forces of fire and does its utmost to capture the resulting carnage. Unlike The Towering Inferno, though, this time the catalyst behind the catastrophe veers into action movie territory: a passing helicopter on Christmas Eve, spraying fake snow on the parties below, loses control of itself and crashes into the building. Whilst this is a convenience to the film's generic necessity, it would doubtlessly have been far more beneficial - and believable - to just have someone's still-lit cigarette inflame some material in the laundry section or something...

Putting aside this lapse into farce, however, and The Tower actually has quite a lot to offer in the suspense stakes. Careful not to hurry along his spectacle, director Ji-woon takes the first half hour of the feature and dedicates it entirely to exposition. We meet the single father Dae-ho (Kim Sang-kyung) and his cute little daughter Hana (Mina Cho). Dae-ho is the building manager on this new residential block, and, making sure we are alert to the horrors about to unfold, he also discovers that the water pipes are broken, and, in the event of a fire, there will be no liquid to quench the flames. We also meet the object of Dae-ho's affections, the gorgeous Yoon-hee (Son Ye-jin), who is also his co-worker and someone he becomes preposterously shy around. In addition, The Tower introduces us to a group of local firemen who are defined by their team spirit, love of playing jokes on one another, and innate philanthropy. In true Hollywood form, this is all devised so that we will actually care what happens to them when they are plunged into danger later on in the film.

As with its forbearers, The Tower more or less succeeds based on its set pieces and, thankfully, there is a lot to like here. In one especially ghoulish twist, we get to witness a group of clients with their screaming faces stuck against the melting metal of an elevator. The floor, meanwhile, turns to goo and burns into their shoes. This is the sort of verisimilitude that has been missing from the disaster genre for far too long - but, in amongst this, there is the usual CGI mash-up excess, with fire-balls and explosions galore. Ultimately in this genre, as evidenced by the aforementioned elevator sequence, it is the little things that count, and those things will leave a suitably icky impression. That said, those seeking big thrills will no doubt delight at the moments of macabre mayhem where landings break and smash, people plummet from the skyscraper as the bright lights of Seoul stare onward, and doors and windows smash into smithereens. One armchair-grabbing moment of inspiration has a group of survivors swinging themselves from a barely mobile outside fire platform back into the hotel itself. This would not go amiss from an Indiana Jones or James Bond feature, but it nonetheless serves its purpose and gives The Tower an intensity comparable to the cream of its contemporaries.

Yet, there is the nagging feeling throughout all of this that something is amiss. This, after all, is a Korean production, and if one thing has charmed us to the country's cinema it is, surely, the unpredictable veneer - the sense that nothing is going to go quite as planned. The disappointing thing with The Tower, then, is that there are no great surprises. The horrid manager of the establishment is punished for his selfishness in true Steven Spielberg form, plummeting to a perilous end, and the good people are, well, very good indeed. They will still be, almost without exception, in one piece at the finale and maybe even with a better perspective on life. It is frustrating because The Tower has all of the benchmarks to be something more than the sum of its parts but, instead of pulling the rug out from under our feet once in a while, it instead plays to its formula and, in doing so, remains painstakingly predictable.

However, with smashing special effects and a dedicated cast, The Tower is a worthwhile disaster romp. Even the early sequences of build-up are not unwelcome and that can, predominantly, be put down to the efforts of a very likeable cast and some thoughtful characterisation. There is nothing fundamentally disastrous about The Tower, certainly, and it is an easy and enjoyable watch but, when push comes to shove, it is just a little bit too aspirational to the by-the-numbers modus operandi of Hollywood than it has any right to be. A towering miscalculation, considering the occasional invention on offer.

The Towering Inferno Korean-style, and with little in the way of freshness or disparity. That said, there is enough deliriously enjoyable devastation on display to make The Tower worthwhile.
SCORE: 3/5
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