Dwayne Johnson returns in another action film this year with Skyscraper. Playing a security expert who must save his family when dastardly bad guys do something dastardly with a skyscraper, Johnson joins a long line of movie actors starring beside tall buildings.
Skyscrapers appear in movies to represent our hierarchical nature, as in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis or in 2015’s High-Rise, which stars Tom Hiddleston. The wealthy and powerful characters always live at the top. High-rise buildings also represent loneliness. Lonely Scarlett Johansson gazes over the city of Tokyo from her hotel window in 2003’s Lost in Translation. Luckily, Bill Murray shows up.
Yet, if you’ve ever been at the top of a skyscraper, you understand why these tall buildings show up more often in certain types of movie genres. Tall buildings are perfect for comedies and action films.
Harold Lloyd stars in Safety Last! (1923), a comedy from the silent days. If you’ve ever watched a compilation of great silent-film scenes, then you’ve seen Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock on the outside a tall building. The tall building was only 12 stories, but filming from that height made audiences gasp. Comedies take advantage of the fear of heights. If someone is in a tall building, you can expect at some point in the movie that someone has to cling to a ledge outside a window.
Action films like this too. Tom Cruise took it a bit higher than Lloyd in 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. He hangs 1,700 feet above the ground to the side of the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai. The view is terrifying. John McClane (Bruce Willis) spends time inside and outside of skyscraper Nakatomi Plaza in 1988’s Die Hard. The part of Nakatomi Plaza was played by Los Angeles’ Fox Plaza. This building has its fans; in the season finale of Brooklyn Nine-Nine a wedding cake shaped as Nakatomi Plaza makes an appearance.
Real skyscrapers sometimes appear as themselves. The best supporting performance as a building in a movie belongs to the Empire State Building. An Affair to Remember (1957), starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, had the building play an important plot point (it was a remake of 1939’s Love Affair). Sleepless in Seattle (1993) references the romantic film and uses the Empire State Building to build to a happy conclusion. Another famous romance culminates with our heroine, played by Fay Wray, at the top of the building with a giant ape. King Kong’s (1933) love story didn’t end so happily for the hairy hero.
Sometimes, all we need is a tall building to give us a location for a disaster movie. Dwayne Johnson’s Skyscraper won’t have anything on 1974’s classic The Towering Inferno.