A taut, tense, well-mounted disaster-in-the-sky epic
Half a century ago, cinema goers could buy a ticket, grab some popcorn and a soft drink of their choice on their way into a sticky-floored movie theater, and sit down to immerse themselves in the first star-packed disaster film, Airport, of the decade. With a central plot involving a suitcase bomber, a damaged plan, and a seemingly impossible attempt to safely re-land the plane, all with the best visual effects a Hollywood studio could buy, Airport became a massive box-office hit, spawning several sequels across the decade, each one crammed with rising and falling starts of the era, until finally lapsing into justifiable parody just a decade later with Airplane!
That, of course, wasn’t the end of the disaster-in-the-sky sub-genre. While studios moved away from the sub-genre in the ensuing decades, it saw a minor resurgence in the 1990s in with Passenger 57 and Turbulence (among others), before fading into the background again. The events surrounding 9/11 brought the airplane-set United 93 to the big-screen, though moviegoers who stayed away were justified in their decision to avoid reliving a true-life, real-world trauma so soon after 9/11. Like practically every genre and sub-genre, the disaster-on-a-plane was bound to make an eventual comeback, if not in the United States then elsewhere where the tropes, traditions, and conventions of the sub-genre still felt fresh or could be refashioned to better reflect the countries and cultures where they were made.
That brief cinematic history lesson, in turn, leads to South Korean filmmaker Han Jae-rim’s (The King, The Face Reader, The Show Must Go On) latest film, Emergency Declaration (Bisang Seoneon), a sincere, irony-free throwback to those ’70s films mixed with a healthy dose of feel-good nationalism and a self-sacrificing culture. It’s also packed with incident, some of squarely dramatic, some of it obviously melodramatic, typical of the sub-genre, giving each member of its top-flight cast individual and collective moments to deliver sober, bombast-free performances in line with Han’s thematic concerns and intentions.
It all kicks off with the seemingly random convergence of multiple characters at the Seoul International Airport, beginning, but not ending with Jae-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun), a confidence-shattered ex-pilot with a newfound fear of flying, and his sky, introspective preteen daughter, Soo-min (Kim Bo-min). While the nervous Jae-hyuk, newly fearful of flying, plays overprotective dad to his daughter, an eccentric young man, Jin-seok (Si-wan Yim), wanders around the airport, awkwardly trying to engage other travelers, including Jae-hyuk and Soo-min, in small talk, before ominously asking an airline clerk for a one-way ticket on the fullest flight available.
Han leaves little doubt about Jin-seok or his intentions. Early on, Soo-min spots him adjusting a bloody bandage under his arm pit in the men’s bathroom (the women’s room is full). A former microbiologist and ex-pharmaceutical employee, Jin-seok is a man with a plan. Unfortunately, that plan includes releasing a re-engineered virus into the airplane once it’s in flight simply to watch everyone die. Jin-seok seems to be motivated less by revenge against the pharmaceutical company who fired him than general misanthropy and a dangerously misguided sense of entitlement.
Regardless of his thinly motivated rationale, Jin-seok succeeds in releasing the Ebola-like airborne virus, eventually causing a panic on the plane when several people become ill and die, and in a parallel development, the on-the-ground political and law enforcement actors who attempt to find a solution that saves the maximum number of passengers and crew possible. Emergency Declaration jumps between the cramped confines of the plane itself, In-ho (Song Kang-ho), a sergeant with the local police department who takes the lead on investigating the bio-terrorist, his aims, and his background, and Sook-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), a steadfast, take-charge government minister who ultimately risks her political career to do what she considers the right thing.
Even at two hours and twenty minutes, Emergency Declaration often feels like it could have benefited from a longer running time or better yet, the miniseries treatment. Where some characters barely get a line of backstory, others get a few and yet most feel underwritten, their individual fates lacking substance or weight beyond the superficial needs of the story. That’s typical, though, of the disaster genre where plot comes first and character almost always last, forcing the performers to add self-conscious gravitas when the next obstacle thrown into the path of the passengers and crew borders on the ludicrous or absurd.
Still, despite its character-related and subplot-heavy issues, Emergency Declaration succeeds in delivering on its promise to keep audiences minimally engaged while the onscreen characters attempt to survive a bio-terror attack in the first instance and callous, cruel governments (e.g., the U.S., Japan) in the second. As, however, an ode to the resiliency of South Korea and its people, and a plea for international cooperation and communal action along with a series of consistently engaging, well-choreographed set pieces, it’s hard to go wrong with Emergency Declaration as a go-to entry for disaster genre fans eager for something familiar, if (slightly) different.
Emergency Declaration can be currently seen in North America movie theaters with VOD and streaming options to follow in the near future.