Irwin Allen’s Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno set the standard for disaster movies of the 70s, with some of the tropes of his films still surviving to this day, but it looks like South Korean director Kim Ji-hoon has taken up the mantle with this epic disaster film The Tower (aka Ta-weo). He may have been inspired by 1974’s Towering Inferno but I think it is a superior movie, and he doesn’t even have the star-studded American cast that Irwin Allen had.
The key to a successful disaster movie is in the characters, and not as many would think in the special effects, sure people paid their five bucks to see explosions, fire and people in peril but if you don’t actually care about those people then the film fails. This is why movies like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 don’t work because at no point do we give a damn if the protagonist lives or dies.
The Tower spends the perfect amount of time setting up our soon to be endangered characters; there is Lee Dae-ho (Sang-kyung Kim) a single dad who is one of the buildings many managers with his job dealing with building maintenance, we have his daughter the spunky and precocious Ha-na who would like to see her dad get attached, in the running for that position is Seo Yoon-hee (Ye-jin Son) the buildings restaurant manager who clearly likes the handsome but shy Dae-ho. Also on board for this night of fun is a maid trying to earn enough money for her son’s tuition, a comic-relief cook trying to propose to the girl of his dreams, and the fire chief (Sung-kee Ahn) who gave up his first Christmas off with his wife to battle this blaze. With that kind of back story his chances of making it out of this movie alive are decidedly low.
The film also has a good amount of characters to boo and hiss at; there is the building’s owner Mr. Jo who orders helicopters towing snow machines to give his guests a “White Christmas” even after being told the winds are too high, there is Mr. Cha, the Tower Sky’s safety section head who ignores Dae-ho’s concerns about the water-sprinklers not functioning due to frozen pipes, and then there is the Mayor who diverts rescue teams away from people in immediate danger so that they can instead rescue the rich and powerful.
Things go bad rather quickly when the feared high winds sends a helicopter careening into one of twin towers of the 120 story structure – its aviation fuel causes an insane conflagration that the firefighters have almost no chance of putting out – and those trapped inside have very little chance of getting out. Back in the day Irwin Allen and company had to do much of this type of action with practical effects, while now with the aid of CGI effects you can get an even more dramatic fire and stunts without as much chance of injuring a stuntman. Now fire and water are two elements that CGI has often had trouble duplicating in the past – often looking very cartoony – but director Kim Ji-hoon spent two years on the post-production effects to insure it all looks great. There is still quite a lot of practical effects on display in The Tower but the blend of them with their CGI counterparts all work well together.
With tensions mounting as the fire spreads floor by floor things look bad for our group of survivors, and just as things couldn’t possibly get worse it’s discovered that the fire from the crash has caused structural weakness and that the tower is starting to lean towards its twin. Of course if the one tower topples over into the other one the two of them will then crash across a large portion of the city, so the only option is a controlled demolition of the burning skyscraper, and a death sentence to those inside.
As a disaster film this hit all the right notes – characters we care about in peril narrowly escaping ghastly deaths numerous time, heroes risking all to save as many as they can, and idiots who get their just deserts and die horribly – and the movie does trot out almost every cliché of the genre – even borrowing a few from other genre movies – but the end result is a taught thrillride. There is an especially tense scene where a group of survivors try to cross the Sky Bridge – which is a glass walkway between the two towers – and that we’ve seen this in movies, where it’s either a rickety bridge or thin ice, but clichéd as it may be it’s still damn effective, and works great here.
Now this is far from a perfect film – some moments of comedy don’t always work and are often oddly placed – and there some characters that just a bit too cartoony to be believable, but those few missteps aside I really felt for those survivors as they scrambled for their lives, I did actually tear up towards the end, and that is not something that happens often to me with these kinds of films. Kim Ji-hoon has made an excellent entry in the disaster film genre and I highly recommend checking it out.