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Skywalkers: A Love Story Film Review

A couple kisses while holding on to a very high construction tower in China A woman does acrobatics on a dangerously high building in China in the film Skywalkers: A Love Story

The rooftopping documentary Skywalkers: A Love Story is full of death-defying imagery – but fails to provide any emotional hook.

Directors: Jeff Zimbalist & Maria Bukhonina
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 100′
Sundance Screening: June 7, 2024
Release Date: July 24, 2024 globally on Netflix

Skywalkers: A Love Story begins on 18th December 2022, the day of the World Cup final between Argentina and France. The city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is hooked. Meanwhile, two Russians are embarking on an extraordinary feat. Angela Nikolau and Vanya Beerkus have snuck into Merdeka 118, the world’s second tallest structure and likely the last super skyscraper ever built. Once they reach the top, they plan to perform a dangerous stunt.

The pair are risking their lives and their freedom to achieve this, with the threat of massive prison sentences if caught. And when construction workers arrive, they have to hide in a tiny crevice to avoid detection. Why go to all this trouble? As it turns out, one of the reasons is to save their relationship.

Angela and Vanya are ‘rooftoppers,’ people who climb to the unsecure tops of buildings and take photos or videos for social media (though Angela prefers the term ‘skywalkers,’ hence the title). He was introduced to this activity by hanging out with other youths. She grew up in a circus – her parents were acrobats, though her father left when she was young and her mother became depressed, leaving her grandmother to raise her. One of the few women in his community, Angela made a name for herself by demonstrating a previously unseen amount of creativity and artistry in the field. She also adopted a rule – “never depend on anyone but myself.” However, that independence is tested when Vanya asks her to join him on a mission in China.

They quickly become a team of climbers-for-hire, hopping between continents and earning sponsorship deals whilst falling in love. Then things change. Their bond becomes fraught, testy, and argumentative. What’s more, world events hit them hard. The COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the subsequent Russian censorship of Facebook and Instagram. All of it affects their income and worsens personal tensions. So this ascent up Merdeka 118 is also their last chance to stop the end of their love.

A documentary seven years in the making, Skywalkers: A Love Story comes to us from director Jeff Zimbalist. A former rooftopper in his youth, Zimbalist has since made a host of sports movies including Pelé: Birth of a Legend and the brilliant documentary The Two Escobars (both with his brother Michael). Now, with co-director Maria Bukhonina, he has taken an intriguing premise and designed it to be like a heist thriller, with the tension ratcheting up as Angela and Vanya begin to plan and then undertake this mega stunt on a megatall structure.

A woman does acrobatics on a dangerously high building in China in the film Skywalkers: A Love Story
Skywalkers: A Love Story (XYZ Films / 2024 Sundance Film Festival London)

Acrophobics beware. Zimbalist takes us high up into the sky through first-person GoPro footage and drone shots, partly provided by Angela and Vanya. It enhances the sense of vertigo and the isometry of the cities below, as well as presenting proof (if proof were ever needed) of the dangers related to the crazy world of rooftopping. There are no harnesses involved, no protection provided. One slip, and you plummet to your doom. No wonder Angela is scared by some of these stunts. As she reasons to herself though: “Our full potential is on the other side of fear.”

Skywalkers is one of those stories about people driven by a compulsion to do something extreme because of ambition and adventure. When it places us in Angela and Vanya’s environment and surrounds us with the wondrous visuals, it works well. But the film never truly delves into the psyche behind their efforts, unlike the more staggering and emotional The Deepest Breath (another extreme sports documentary that Netflix bought at Sundance). So once it starts highlighting online followers, likes and NFTs, it never quite disavows the notion that all this is just for show. Nor does the film delve into the relationship when it begins to break down, or the mortality associated with rooftopping. When Angela finds out her former crew have all fallen to their deaths one by one, it never registers because the film quickly moves on.

However, the biggest problem with Skywalkers is that it feels so structured and stagy that any personal edge doesn’t connect. The documentary genre has always dangled on the edge between reality and fabrication in some form, but this feels particularly superficial and overexplanatory. The film is admittedly well-shot, full of death-defying imagery that will amaze most audiences. But the subtitle of Zimbalist’s film – A Love Story – implies an emotional hook that never arrives.

Skywalkers: A Love Story was screened at the Sundance Film Festival London, taking place on 6-9 June, 2024 at the Picturehouse Central in London. The film will be released globally on Netflix on July 24, 2024. Read all of our Sundance reviews!

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