‘Emergency Declaration’ Goes From Gripping to Exhausting with a Bloated Runtime | Review
When it comes to disasters, I think we can all agree one of the most harrowing nightmares is an attack on a plane. With nowhere to run and trapped in a small enclosed space with upwards of a hundred people, it is a breeding ground for terror and panic. This is the setting the writer/director Han Jae-rim sets his disaster film Emergency Declaration in. For about 75% of its run, the film is a gripping examination of human nature when caught in the jaws of fight or flight. A biochemical attack on a plane turns the passengers against each other as the officials on the ground rush to desperately find a solution for the victims. The other quarter of the film is dedicated to melodrama, shots that drag on far too long, and a plethora of moments that are unintentionally comedic, especially in the final moments of the film when the story should land the hardest.
Despite its faults, there is a lot to love about Emergency Declaration, mainly that praise goes to a star-studded cast of performers. Anyone even remotely familiar with South Korean acting stars will recognize the likes of Lee Byung-hun and Song Kang-ho, the latter reaching international fame for his roles in both Parasite and Snowpiercer. The film also casts singer/actor Im Si-wan from ZE:A as its villain, Jin-seok, though it’s effective compared to Lee and Song. On the whole, Lee and Song hold up the film in its most dramatic and thrilling moments. Song plays detective In-ho, who desperately hunts for the terrorist on the flight, knowing that his wife is also on the same flight.
Lee plays Jae-hyuk, a passenger on the flight with his daughter, Soo-min, looking to move to Hawaii for a better life. Jae-hyuk is by far the most complex character of the film and perhaps in less experienced hands, the character could have been hammed up, but Lee navigates Jae-hyuk’s complicated backstory well and plays a devoted father with much conviction.
The pitfalls of the film come as it reveals its hand far too early. Though the plot will try to convince you that no one thought Im’s Jin-seok was a threat, it doesn’t take a genius to look at a sweaty, pale guy with shifty eyes at an airport asking how full each flight is to spot a potential red flag. There is never a twist or a development that makes Jin-seok anything other than a man who is clearly mentally ill and painfully one-dimensional. Though the movie doesn’t lean too far into it, it does lean on demonizing mental illness and subjecting Jin-seok to the role of a madman who just wants to watch the world burn.
While it takes us mere seconds to figure out who the villain is and get a general idea of what he intends, it takes the film far longer. This undercuts the suspense greatly, though Song’s In-ho is quite skilled at making his character seem incredibly competent even if we see the answers right in front of him. His hunt for clues and the eventual revelation of what is going to be released on the plane – an engineered virus – is one of the high points of Emergency Declaration.
The problem comes when the movie grabs at a bit too much. This is the case both in terms of the plot but also in terms of the filming. There is one very long sequence where we watch as the passenger plane takes a nose dive and everyone is thrown about in the plane. In a shorter scene, this image is fittingly terrifying, and your imagination can fill in the blanks. But Han lingers far too long on this moment, spinning the camera around, showing us flight attendants hitting the top of the plane several times, lingering on slow shots of looks of anguish. Instead of instilling terror, it becomes almost humorous, a parody of what might happen in a real situation like this.
Good suspense builds and builds, letting your imagination run wild, and keeping you on the edge of your seat. In Emergency Declaration, there are few scenes that truly hold up in that respect. It doesn’t ever feel like this entire plane of people is going to die, simply because there are too many main characters on the plane. Without this uncertainty, you’re left merely wondering how these people will be saved and not if they will be. As the story spirals, the film feels immensely bloated. You could have easily cut 40 minutes out of this movie and had a tighter, more succinct story. Instead, it tries to make social commentary and teach lessons while also attempting to deliver thrills.
With so much holding it down, it feels impossible for Emergency Declaration to take flight, and it lives in the shadow of disaster films that capitalize on the hallmarks of its genre, rather than trying to do too much at the same time. For fans of Lee Byung-hun and Song Kang-ho, this is a can’t miss performance. For those who aren’t, you can miss this and get a connecting flight to any other disaster film.