The blazing fire and other threats in “The Tower”, the last major South Korean film of this year, certainly look dangerous. They are the best part of this disaster film which is about a big fire incident at a towering building looming over the modest skyline of Seoul, and the special effects of the film are done well enough to make us accept a fictional 108-story twin skyscraper built next to the 63 building, the tallest building in Seoul at present(it’s a 63-story building, by the way).
But I must say what are destroyed or threatened on the screen are pretty mediocre to say the least. Although there are many notable differences, “The Tower” is an apparent rip-off of “The Towering Inferno”(1974), a classic disaster movie which still can manage to scare and thrill me like it did when I watched it on TV as a 9-year-old boy, and this is not even a good rip-off. I know “The Towering Inferno” is corny at times, but “The Tower” is far cornier than its template even with good action scenes which fortunately saved me from its lousy screenplay filled with a bunch of cardboard characters I did not care about much.
The story follows a typical premise of the disaster film. First, we are introduced to many, many people who are surely going to have a fiery night to remember. We have a widower dad with his cute little daughter, a restaurant manager he likes, an aging couple in their tentative courtship, a rich pastor with his devout church members, a bumbling cook and his girlfriend, an arrogant company CEO who built the building, a haughty rich lady, a hard-working middle-aged cleaning woman and her son, a pregnant lady, a pet dog, and, of course, a fire chief who finally gets a precious chance to spend Christmas with his long-suffering but understanding wife – and he is usually accompanied by the stock supporting characters from “Backdraft”(1991) and other films about firemen.
And then we get the omens of the disaster to come. While everyone is behaving like they are in a disposable third-rate sitcom where everyone is smiling and looks happy amid cheap laughs, Dae-ho(Kim Sang-kyeong), who works at the security department, finds a very serious problem inside the building. The sprinkler system in the building does not work at all above the 60th floor due to a recent modification, and he naturally expresses his concern to his direct boss, but, not so surprisingly, his boss ignores this because their boss, President Cho(Cha In-pyo), is going to have a big party at the observatory in the evening. It is Christmas Eve, and President Cho(please don’t confuse me with this jerk) has an ambitious plan to surprise everyone at the party, and he does not want anything to ruin the evening which will be the most memorable moment of his career. Well, you will not need even a second to guess that he will get his wish – not in the way he wants.
The terrible accident eventually happens at the building thanks to his reckless plan, and the fire caused by that accident quickly spreads around the higher part of the building due to the aforementioned malfunction of the sprinkler system, and we see many panicked people running for elevators for their survival. Unfortunately, many of them do not seem to have watched “The Towering Inferno”, so, again, we get a horrible moment involving an elevator stuck in a floor on fire.
The fire chief, played by Seol Kyeong-gu, quickly goes to the building with his men in spite of his promise to his wife, and he and others try to take care of situation as much as they can while the people stuck in the building try to find a way to get out of the building. Dae-ho desperately looks for his little daughter, and he is relieved to find that his daughter is fortunately with Yoon-hee(Son Ye-jin) and others who manage to survive during the first strike of the fire, which keeps cornering them from below.
Although we can clearly see that it is CGI, the fire in the movie is an effective adversary to the characters in the movie which thankfully distracts us from the cornball story in many cases, and the actors, nearly all of whom are wasted due to their one-dimensional characters and bad dialogues, convincingly look scared or terrified in front of these special effects at least. The movie is sometimes a little more creative than I expected; although exploding big water tanks is unmistakably borrowed from “The Towering Inferno”, it provides the other types of dangers besides fire including crumbling floors or crashing elevator.
But, despite all the fiery and smoky sights it has, the movie still looks pretty bland especially when it is compared to “The Towering Inferno”, which feels far less cheesy than this film. Like some bad South Korean films, the movie is so determined to give us heartwarming or tearful or comic moments that I cringed whenever it clumsily tried silly comedy or teary melodrama regardless of whether there was fire or not. It is always difficult to watch good actors incarcerated in a bad screenplay, and I personally felt really sorry for a young little child actress Cho Min-ah, whose main jobs in the film are 1) being a precocious cute little girl and 2) crying very hard when the situation is grim and desperate for her and others around her.
The director Kim Ji-hoon, who was responsible for “Sector 7″(2011), one of the worst South Korean films of 2011, previously made “May 18″(2007), which was about the Gwang-ju Democratization Movement in 1980. I sarcastically called that movie “a disaster film” because of its flawed and unsatisfying handling of various two-dimensional characters manipulated around its big historical canvass, and now he really made a disaster film in a very similar fashion, and I don’t like that much. Though he made a little better and more competent film than that atrocious “Sector 7” in this time, the fire on the screen could have been presented effectively if he had discarded shaky camerawork and choppy editing. I am not against this busy approach, but the problem is that it does not serve its story much; I could not follow the story well, and I was sometimes confused about who died or who got hurt.
Disaster films do not need to be great, but “The Tower” is disappointing on the whole though it has some entertainment values to satisfy the South Korean audiences who pay 8000 won(around $7) merely for fire and actions. Whenever the suspense is established with approaching dangers, the movie ruins its pace and tension for dealing with its ‘human dramatic’ elements which do not work at all, and I frequently found it tedious. As a matter of the fact, the movie is so occupied with squeezing tears from the characters and us that it does not seem to realize during one scene that there are a little more than 3 minutes available for its characters. I wonder – did the movie try to extinguish the fire with tears from us?
Sidenote: There are many other things not so fresh in the movie, and one of them is the score, which is a blatant rip-off of Hans Zimmer’ “As Good As It Gets”(1997), John Powell’s “United 93″(2006), and Craig Armstrong’s “World Trade Center”(2006). Considering how the movie ends, the imitation of the last one seems to be a fitting choice.