Karl Marx said that history repeats as tragedy and then as farce, but in popular culture, the cycle doesn’t stop there. Culture is how we metabolize history, breaking it down into smaller, more digestible chunks until all that’s left is soft, sweet pap. That’s how you end up with Thomas Kinkade paintings of a rosy-cheeked Jesus strolling through a Gethsemane that looks like a melted crayon box, and it’s how you get movies like Skyscraper, which regurgitates the collective horror of 9/11 and finger-paints with the upchuck.
The entertainment industry’s first response to the attack on the World Trade Center was to pretend it never existed—the twin towers were removed from 2002’s Spider-Man, and the following year’s Men in Black II resituated its entire climax to eliminate the sight of them—but in the years that followed, Hollywood found other ways to channel the indelible images of their destruction. By the time Avatar detonated the towering Hometree and showered its worshipers with ash, the practice had become widespread enough to barely draw notice, and in the years since, we’ve become inured to, and arguably inoculated against, the sight of buildings bloodlessly smashed to smoldering bits, the casualties of their devastation implied but never dwelt upon.
For all that they exploited the atrocities of that day to give their world-shaking threats a little extra oomph, the movies kept 9/11 at a degree of remove: It was aliens, or giant robots—or, why not, giant alien robots—tearing holes in the world, not humans in the grip of an obscene ideology. But Skyscraper doesn’t even try to cover its tracks. The villains who trap Dwayne Johnson’s family in the world’s tallest building aren’t terrorists, just crooks associated with a shadowy international crime syndicate, but once it’s in motion, their plan starts to seem extremely familiar. Rather than attacking the base of the Pearl, an under-construction monument to utopian capitalism that, when completed, will be the world’s tallest building by several orders of magnitude, they target its upper floors, starting a fire midway up and disabling its anti-fire measures to turn the building into what one henchman proudly calls “a $6.5 billion chimney.” The fire starts on the 95th floor. The first plane hit the WTC’s North Tower on the 95th.
As at the World Trade Center, the elevators and stairwells leading to the floors above are rendered useless. But these bad guys didn’t reckon with the Rock, or with the 100-story crane conveniently left standing just to the Pearl’s side. Its elevator is unavailable as well, but Johnson isn’t about to let that stop him. He simply scales its tower until he’s above the fire line, uses the crane’s hook to smash a hole in the building’s side, and then jumps, with no guarantee he’ll be able to make his way out. Johnson’s character, Will Sawyer, is established as a former Marine and FBI hostage negotiator in the film’s opening scene, which evokes the specter of terrorism by sending him up against a suicide bomber—he makes a terrible judgment, and the result hobbles him both literally and figuratively—but his behavior parallels that of the first responders who charged into the WTC, and in many cases, never emerged.
The difference is that Will isn’t risking his own life out of a sense of duty or altruism. He’s there to save his wife, played by Neve Campbell, who served as a combat medic in Afghanistan, and their two children. The future couple met when he was brought into the emergency room after the blast that took his lower leg, and so both their marriage and their offspring are byproducts of his trauma—a trauma he ends up re-experiencing, in gaggingly on-the-nose fashion, as he comes to their rescue. The results, naturally, are happier this time, and they are for the audience, too. The producers appear to have heard Mark Wahlberg’s claim that he could have prevented 9/11 less as an insensitive gaffe than as an elevator pitch. Like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, which contrived a victorious ending to a movie about a notorious defeat, Skyscraper allows us to live through a version of 9/11 in which only the perpetrators perish, and even the building is left standing. Its images of a collapsing superstructure aren’t nearly as evocative as, say, the bombed-out landscape of 2005’s War of the Worlds: There’s no feeling to it, and no respect, just the literal-minded recapitulation of a national tragedy in the form of a popcorn movie. History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, and if you wait long enough, as kitsch.
Skyscraper’s lackluster opening-weekend box office might be taken as a sign that 9/11 imagery has grown dull with overuse. When far-right intellectuals needed a still-potent metaphor to deploy in service of justifying support for Trump in the 2016 election, they turned to Flight 93 instead. Skyscraper is like the last stage of a national trauma, the weakened form it takes before it passes out of the body politic for good. When the Pearl’s tech-mogul creator is asked what he wants to do after the attack, he simply answers, “Rebuild.” The dust of the attack hasn’t even settled yet, but it’s never too soon to look to the future, especially if it allows you to move away from the past.