Forbidden Worlds Film Festival: ‘Cliffhanger,’ Sylvester Stallone and Realism

Cliffhanger Essay - 1993 Renny Harlin Movie Film

This Cliffhanger essay contains spoilers. Renny Harlin’s 1993 film features Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow and Michael Rooker. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.


At the center of Forbidden Worlds Film Festival 2023 lies a simple observation about the cinematic experience: aren’t things much better when we film and record real things that exist in three-dimensional spaces? The festival, which takes place over a sunny weekend in Bristol, prioritizes schlocky 80s horror, Hong Kong martial arts films and 90s Hollywood blockbusters. What links all of these films is that their sense of spectacle is derived from reality: real stunt people jumping out of real things, real craftspeople building real models and figures, actors acting against props that are physically there in front of them, filmed originally on a strip of 35mm film that had to loaded and unloaded into the camera, before being developed and then physically shipped around the world. 

I’m wary of pretending that #ThingsWereBetterThen. Yet, as a festival, Forbidden Worlds provides an evocative example of what we, as an audience, have lost since the industry-wide shift to digital. Effects and stunts that once had to be performed by real people are now relegated to the digital world, and whilst this is not to denigrate the excellent work of (non-unionized) VFX artists, the fact that CGI is now the ground zero of special effects and not an addendum is, frankly, a tragedy.

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That relationship to the real is in the nightmare contraptions that populate Return to Oz (1985), the stop-motion and live-action integration of Dolls (1987), the jaw-dropping skillsets in Super Cop (1992), along withThe Way of the Dragon (1972), and, of course, the still-revolutionary work on display in King Kong (1933), though the real auteurship belongs to special effects supervisor Willis O’Brien. All of these films shot real objects that existed, once upon a time.

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Nowhere is this philosophy more apparent than in Forbidden Worlds’ decision to screen Cliffhanger (1993) — directed by class-A huckster Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, 1990; Deep Blue Sea, 1999) — and with a script by Michael France and star Sly Stallone. Made just at the tail end of Stallone’s box-office stardom, Cliffhanger is emblematic of a specific kind of big-budget Hollywood blockbuster that was very much in vogue at the time: dumb, full of testosterone and British villains. It is essentially Die Hardon-a-mountain, where John Lithgow’s scenery-chewing villain, Eric Qualen, steals millions from the U.S. treasury and, having survived a plane crash with his gang, forces Stallone’s grief-stricken park ranger, Gabe Walker, to help find the money, strewn amongst mountain wreckage.

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Cliffhanger Essay - 1993 Renny Harlin Movie Film

Cliffhanger wasn’t exactly trashed upon its release, but neither did it win over critics, despite a premiere slot at Cannes. Most contemporary reviews are middling, some are terrible and few are effusively positive. Even those which lean positive about Cliffhanger criticize its weak script and characters; positivity rests mostly on its sense of spectacle and visual extravagance .

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What I would give for more films with Cliffhanger’s sense of scale and spectacle. The opening scene — blown up on a giant IMAX at Forbidden Worlds — is genuinely vertigo-inducing, as the camera climbs up over what is meant to be the Rockies (Cliffhanger was shot in Italy’s Dolomites). Two figures are stranded atop — Gabe’s best friend and his rookie-climber girlfriend. Stallone’s protagonist has to rescue them, but he’s unable to save the girl. The next set piece, years down the line, establishes the heist; the bad guy somehow gets a zip line between two moving planes, then rappels across. Supposedly, this sequence holds a record for the longest mid-air zip attempt. Later set-pieces in Cliffhanger have helicopters falling down the sides of mountains, with actors hanging by their fingernails. Every shot looks real. How did the actors get there? How did everybody survive unscathed? 

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Cliffhanger Essay - 1993 Renny Harlin Movie Film

As Harlin continually repeats in Forbidden Worlds’ brilliant 15-minute-plus Cliffhanger introduction, everything was done “for real” and nobody was hurt, miraculously, even when bad weather moved in on the Dolomites, giving the cast and crew barely 20 minutes to pack down and helicopter down into the valley to safety.

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Harlin’s story speaks to the skill and efficiency of Cliffhanger’s crew, not just the top-line people like the cinematographer or assistant directors, but also the less glamorous work that goes into light rigging, grips and the runners, and especially the helicopter pilots tasked with bringing people off the mountain. All of these jobs still exist today, but let’s be real: if Cliffhanger were remade in 2023, the jaw-dropping location shots would mostly be CGI’d, and the stunt work would be done on a green screen sound stage. Minor issues with the lighting could be fixed in post-production.

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Cliffhanger Essay - 1993 Renny Harlin Movie Film

There’s a certain tangibility to the process of building something, executing it and knowing that there’s little space to repeat such a routine, all of which gets lost in the digital era. That tangibility is also vital for the filmmakers’ sense of ownership over the work: on a philosophical level, it strikes at the heart of the reasons why the WGA are striking, as well as the director and actors guilds. One of the key sticking points and major challenges facing the film industry is the encroaching presence of AI in film, be it writing scripts, deepfaking performances or unimaginable mutations. The shift to a digital era has made our relationship to our work so much less visible (I can count on one hand the amount of my work as a writer that has appeared in print). It’s harder to feel the effect of that work — the satisfaction of it — when it doesn’t “exist” in real space.

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At the time these industry changes started happening, they were barely perceptible. The only film to use any digital effects in the Forbidden Worlds lineup is Starship Troopers (1997) — a mixture of animatronic, prosthetic and digital work, mixing and matching the tools for the shot and the scale. Somehow, over the years, we’ve separated out the grit and grind of good special effects work — be they stunts, models, prosthetics or even CGI — into the unholy, all-suffocating space of the green screen, and amputated the artistry that creates this ever-so special movie magic.

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Cliffhanger Essay - 1993 Renny Harlin Movie Film

Perhaps this comes down to a wider societal disrespect for creative work that has partly emerged with the internet. Sure, anybody can become a writer, a musician, a filmmaker today. But very few can make a living from it unless you subsume yourself to the content machine, leaving the personal stuff for yourself and only yourself. The creative, problem-solving labor that comes into dressing an on-location set, cheating angles for the viewer’s benefit or laying down a dolly track on uneven ground is still present in modern filmmaking, but it’s in conflict with the “we’ll fix it in post” attitudes of many a production philosophy.

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The VFX houses are one of the last non-unionized workforces in Los Angeles, which is precisely why Hollywood has come to be so over-reliant on CGI, because it lacks the protections and stringency that come with unionization. Break the bond of solidarity that comes with unionization and you also break the bond with the work produced. Safety also suffers, and whilst Hollywood has its fair share of tragic stories of set deaths, they are nearly always more commonplace when producers and the credit card holders are looking to cut corners. Divorce the workers from their production and the quality of everything suffers (not least the workers).

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Cliffhanger Essay - 1993 Renny Harlin Movie Film

That real, physical relationship with the work, though, brings us straight back to Cliffhanger. I’ve no idea how punishing or difficult the shoot was: it certainly wasn’t easy. But the real-ness of it — expressed in the exquisite stunt work, imaginative cinematography and grunting one-liners from Stallone and company — gives the film an energy beyond its means, an energy Cliffhanger frankly doesn’t deserve on paper. But paper isn’t film. Film is film!

Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.

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