It may have nothing to do with the fantastical creations of George Lucas, but in terms of achieving blockbuster-sized thrills, Skywalkers: A Love Story succeeds on a level where so many Hollywood productions fail.  Following the trials and tribulations in love and play of a Russian influencer couple who have dedicated their life to illegally scaling the world’s largest skyscrapers, its immersive cinematography places us in nail-biting heights right alongside them. Following in the footsteps of the rousing Man on Wire and Free Solo, with a bit of Mission: Impossible-like espionage thrown in, the footage is about as thrilling and vertigo-inducing as one could imagine. Like another Netflix release––last year’s The Deepest Breath, which captured the story of free divers plumbing the depths of the ocean––Jeff Zimbalist and Maria Bukhonina’s new documentary attempts to elucidate the thought process behind these daredevil theatrics. Yet it ends up doing more to glorify and celebrate their life-threatening, thrill-seeking actions than interrogate the complexity of why they have devoted their existence to an insane diversion that has seen many of their friends fall to their deaths.

Growing up in a circus family of fierce go-getters, Angela Nikolau has found a calling in the sport of “rooftopping,” which hit a fever pitch in Russia around the mid-to-late 2010s, wherein influencers scale whatever massive structures they found themselves near––the bigger, the better. As important as the physical results, arguably more vital in this social-media age is how it’s captured for dissemination. Through selfie sticks and drones do we see the rooftoppers against gorgeous, sun-setting vistas. Nikolau finds a whole new arena of success when she answers a call from fellow rooftopper Vanya Kuznetsov about a mission in which he needs a female companion. Sharing a mutual bond for death-defying acts, they soon form a romantic connection, which of course ups the capacity for those precious likes. 

Though starting with Nikolau’s perspective, Zimbalist and Bukhonina introduce an interesting structural gamble, weaving in Kuznetsov’s POV––particularly when their relationship begins to be tested during the pandemic. When their usual sponsors can no longer pay for air travel to scale the latest heights around the world, the attractive, more artistic-minded Nikolau becomes the breadwinner. But she must succumb to doing more standard sponsored content all day, leaving the homebound Kuznetsov frustrated he can’t do what he loves most. Oscillating between their two subjects, the directors certainly get intimate footage of their struggles, leading one to ponder if this kind of access is only offered by the subjects to further amplify their influencer clout upon the film’s release. Yet their ego-driven decisions aren’t explored with much depth, nor are their sponsor relationships. (What is the thought process and culpability of companies sponsoring someone in an illegal field where the rate of fatality is quite high?) Even less considered is the Darwin Award-esque pursuit they find themselves driven toward. We see actual footage of their acquaintances falling to their demise, yet––aside from trepidation in preparation and while doing the act––it’s rather brushed-over.

In a bifurcated structure, the second half focuses solely on their mission to climb the still-under-construction Merdeka 118 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the second-tallest building in the world, only behind the Ethan Hunt-conquered Burj Khalifa. With the high stakes set, the film begins a weeks-long countdown to the event and the rather impossible risks to beat security and scale their highest climb yet. It’s an impressive set-piece with a breathtaking pay-off, but as the end credits roll and we see a best-of gallery of all of their death-defying accomplishments, there’s the lingering sense that scrolling their Instagram feeds would provide a similar sense of thrills in a much shorter investment.

Skywalkers: A Love Story premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Netflix.

Grade: C+

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