Man on a Ledge - review
The height of suspense: Hollywood's love affair with the skyscraper
Nine of the world's 10 tallest buildings are now in Asia – and Hollywood wants to jump off all of them
Aerial shots over Manhattan's forest of skyscrapers. Yellow cabs crawling like ants through the city grid. The hero stands on a ledge 20 floors up, provoking a street theatre of police cordons, firetrucks, news crews and onlookers. Meanwhile, in a top-floor office, a corporate villain admires an architectural model of another shiny skyscraper. Elsewhere, an acrobatic thief hangs precariously in an elevator shaft, dropping a spanner that goes clanging down innumerable storeys to the ground. The ominous ping of an approaching elevator spells danger. The hero and villain finally meet for a climactic rooftop showdown.
- Man on a Ledge
- Production year: 2012
- Country: USA
- Runtime: 102 mins
- Directors: Asger Leth
- Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Sam Worthington
These scenes could be from a hundred Hollywood movies or more, but in fact they're from just one: Man on a Ledge, an enjoyably silly new thriller that at least sets out its stall in the title. You can guess most of its plot from those generic snippets, but Man on a Ledge is just the latest piece of proof that movies love skyscrapers and skyscrapers love movies. They always have. In fact, they're practically twins. The exact date of birth could be disputed, but it's safe to say that while rising land prices and advances in steel were pushing buildings upwards in Chicago and New York at the end of the 19th century, inventors like Edison and the Lumière brothers were realising they might be on to something with their moving-picture machines.
Where would the movies be without the thrilling cinematic images tall buildings provide, both inside and out? The alone is estimated to have featured in more than 250 movies. Then there's their crashingly unsubtle metaphorical value. It doesn't take a genius to fathom the symbolism at work with, say, the diminutive Tom Cruise scaling the world's tallest building in the latest Mission: Impossible, or a rampant King Kong roaring from the top of the Empire State Building; or San Francisco's TransAmerica tower looming priapically in the background of Basic Instinct as Michael Douglas gets into a lather over Sharon Stone. For most of the 20th century, it was simple: the home of the movies and the home of the skyscraper were the same place. These two distinctly masculine enterprises worked together to broadcast America's virility to the world. But the marriage now has complications. In metaphorical terms, the attacks of 9/11 hit the US where it hurt, and the current financial crisis hasn't helped.
Where the skyscrapers have gone, the movies have had to follow – and nine of the world's 10 tallest buildings are now in Asia. That recent Mission: Impossible benefited greatly from the use of Dubai's 163-storey Burj Khalifa (over $500m at the box office and counting). Dubai hasn't done badly out of it either. When the Burj Khalifa opened two years ago, the emirate had an image problem, what with its economic and architectural bubble bursting. But Mission: Impossible seems to have fixed that. According to the movie's producers, the first time they visited Dubai, they said: "We have to come back here and shoot a movie." But Dubai was also a hefty financial backer of the film, and using the Burj as a major location appears to have been a condition. So the building, designed by US architects SOM, not only featured in loving closeups, inside and out, but Dubai also got to hold the world premiere of this "local" film – bringing Cruise, celebrity special guests and the world's media to the Dubai film festival last month.
Whenever a new Asian skyscraper is completed, it seems, Hollywood rushes to get there and jump off it. In the preceding Mission: Impossible, Cruise also leapt off a tall building, this time in Shanghai. Before that, in an indication of how quickly the gimmick can date, we had Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in 1999's Entrapment, dangling off Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers, then enjoying a brief reign as the world's tallest buildings. You could say the process of America's corporate emasculation began as far back as 1988, with Die Hard (surely a high-point in skyscraper movies): although set in Los Angeles, the film decided to rename its hijacked building the Nakatomi Plaza and make it Japanese-owned (in fact, it was the city's Fox Plaza).
As Die Hard reminds us, skyscrapers are movie shorthand for "faceless corporation", usually going hand in hand with overbearing evil and phallic overcompensation. Man on a Ledge is no different: predictably, the ledge he's on is owned by the chief baddie, the one with a model of a skyscraper (his next one). For good symbolic measure, he also smokes a huge cigar. Yet, for all that they celebrate the manly tumescence of tall architecture, such movies are invariably on the side of the little man (and we're not just talking about Cruise here). The juxtaposition of a lone individual and a gigantic edifice often tells you all you need to know about a movie's intentions.
In the silent era, skyscrapers were something of a fad. There's the much-imitated image of Harold Lloyd hanging off that clock 10 storeys up in 1923's Safety Last! Lloyd made a string of high-rise movies, such as High and Dizzy, Look Out Below and Never Weaken. In most, his little man rises to the summit, overcoming the emasculating forces of urban life. His myriad successors have done the same. In 2008's Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, in which French tightrope walker Philippe Petit conquers the Twin Towers, the little-man thrill is the same, albeit enhanced by such an emotionally loaded location.
Which brings us to the other thing that's changed about skyscrapers. The destruction of the Twin Towers was the final nail in the coffin for America's skyscraper-and-movie marriage. In the immediate aftermath, the towers were digitally removed from up-and-coming movies like Spider-Man, whose scenes of the superhero swinging between skyscrapers suddenly looked very out of date; and now they have to be digitally reinserted into New York movies that are set in the past.
In 2004, the architect Rem Koolhaas wrote: "The skyscraper has become less interesting in inverse proportion to its success. It has not been refined, but corrupted; the promise it once held … has been negated by repetitive banality." You could say the same thing about Hollywood. Just as the high-rise has nowhere to go except upwards, so movies like Man on a Ledge find themselves stuck on a familiar narrative track, running from street level up to the inevitable rooftop showdown.
In the 1960s and 70s, architectural groups like the metabolists and Archigram proposed alternatives to the boom in towers, while Britain's Leslie Martin and Lionel March argued that they don't solve urban density problems. Koolhaas, who was a screenwriter before becoming an architect, presented his own anti-skyscraper in the form of Beijing's CCTV television headquarters, which effectively folds a tower in half and brings it back down to the ground.
If there is a crisis, both industries are in denial. The genre-movie production line churns on, and the skyscrapers keep going up. There are a few more security measures beneath the skin of the Freedom Tower, which stands where the Twin Towers once stood, but externally its generic-looking design says: "Nothing's changed." Upcoming movies like the rebooted Spider-Man also seek to reassert the primacy of the New York skyline in the face of all this competition: Norman Foster's Hearst Tower is a key location in the movie.
And some of that competition is now coming from London, thanks to its belated stab at high-rise kudos with the Shard. Looming large over the city, Renzo Piano's 87-storey tower seems destined to figure in the new era of "more commercial" British movies the government is calling for. According to the Shard's marketing agent, they've been receiving filming requests at the rate of about one a week. So far they've turned them all down, they say, but you can just picture Colin Firth struggling to express himself to Keira Knightley in its lift, or Daniel Craig and Tom Cruise fighting it out on the rooftop to see who gets to use it first, James Bond or Mission: Impossible. Meanwhile, back in real life, details of the next 007 novel have just been released. It's set in Dubai.