After being dormant for the 80s, and most of the 90s... the disaster movie genre came back with a vengeance. Yet, it came back in a slightly different format as before. Instead of big screen spectacles, the disaster movie returned as 2-night made-for-TV specials. This change in format brings about certain issues. 1) The movie has to be a lot longer (to fill a 4 hour time slot over 2 nights, this movie is almost 2 hours 50 minutes long). 2) There are going to be commercial breaks, not to mention the long break when the movie has to stop for the night, to be started again either the next night, or (worse yet) the next week. 3) The TV movie budget does not equal a major theatrical movie's budget. Aftershock brings an interesting premise to the table "What if New York City gets hit with the big one?" Sadly, the limitations of the made-for-TV format seem to keep this movie from rising to true disaster movie glory.
Take it step by step for us...how does the movie being 3 hours long hurt it?
Quite simply, there's so much time to tell stories, they can't decide whose stories to focus on. So, they tell us everybody's story. Not literally, but there are at least EIGHT fully developed subplots in this movie. You have *AHEM* the mayor and his fight with the fire chief, the mayor and the fight with his trying to become independent daughter, the fire chief and the fight with his daughter and the broken marriage, the mayor's daughter and the sorta creepy defendant, the mayor's mother and the "semi-thug" in the church, the young unorganized independant woman who comes from money but wants to be a dancer even after her house blows up (nice scene, utterly ignored after it happens), the lost Russian taxi driver, AND FINALLY the random family from California who just moved to New York with the over-protective mother who blames herself for crippling her son while the father is always away on business trips so the marriage seems to be falling apart but not really. I think that about covers it.
When the city starts shaking nearly 40 minutes into the movie, you almost hope a few of those people bite it so the movie starts to congeal...sadly, it doesn't happen. So after the 8 minute long earthquake. You heard me. 8 minutes. You still have all the subplots (and they all stay very separate), plus everything the quake is going to add in to deal with. I was hoping the stories would somehow weave together (like everyone ended up in the same spot), and at times it appeared that might be happening, but it does not. So you still have to keep those eight stories straight.
So, how's the quake?
Lame. Really lame. Here's where the budget really hurts the movie. For one thing, I don't know much about architecture in New York, but I'm going to guess that the Guggenheim Museum and City Hall (at least I think it's City Hall) are both built well enough to handle the shaking that goes on, despite the fact they both fall within seconds of the start of the quake. A majority of the quake time is spent following our dancer (played by Jennifer Garner), and the Russian taxi driver (played by a guy who may have seen Russia on a map once if his accent is any indication). Sadly, the footage just isn't interesting, because it's all shaky cams and people falling over each other randomly. What's supposed to be the big money shot in this montage is the scene of the Statue of Liberty falling over. Yet, this scene lacks something, and it ends up not making much of a mark.
It literally seems every building in New York except the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the World Trade Center towers (remember kids, pre-9/11 movie here) are either completely leveled, or damaged beyond repair.
This scene does give 4 solid laughs. 1) Jennifer Garner, in the cab...being tossed around like a rag doll yells out "What's happening?" Ummmm...the ground is shaking, and everything is falling around you, could it be the St. Patrick's Day parade? Well, maybe. 2) A rock misses two people by at least 3 feet, yet both people are thrown through a plate glass window. 3) Someone is apparently killed by a 5-gallon bottle of water that falls near them. 4) A policeman drives a car straight into a building after the shaking stops.
What happens next?
Two hours of the most predictable storytelling you could ever imagine. The only subplot that remains interesting is the mayor's daughter rides the quake out in the subway with the creepy defendant guy (who has invited her to a celebratory lunch). When the subway derails, about 7 survivors make a small party who try and find their way out. This again, comes straight from the disaster movie play book, but is way more interesting than anything happening on the surface. Sadly, even as this story progresses, you can tell five miles away where it is going. If I were going to, say, re-cut this as a 90 minute movie...this is the story I would focus on, as it definitely has the most potential for drama. Heck, even the aftershocks don't really add a whole lot of drama, and they are what the movie was named after!
I do have to make mention of one really sore spot that stuck out to me. After a while of watching the New York infrastructure (such as it it at this time just after the quake) struggling to pull things together. Out of nowhere a FEMA truck shows up, and the FEMA workers come out of their vehicles and strike dramatic poses, set to dramatic music. You even see shots of New York cops looking up to these FEMA workers as knights in shining armor. Almost like superheroes there to save the day. I honestly expected to see the ground start to heal itself. Maybe I'm looking at the film too much with post-Katrina glasses on, but this depiction was almost comical.
Sounds like it's not really worth the effort.
Really, it isn't. The cast is good for a TV movie...you have Tom Skerritt (who seemingly becomes a fixture in these movies), Sharon Lawrence during the height of NYPD Blue, Jennifer Garner before Alias, Charles S. Dutton as the mayor, and Cicely Tyson as his mother. It's a pretty solid main cast that just doesn't have much to do but look frustrated / sad / lost for 3 hours. There's just not enough action for a disaster movie to keep you interested. The story is a cluttered pack of cliches that ends up tied in a nice little package. A very disappointing movie. I give it a D overall.
Next time, I'm going to step away from the movies a bit, and look at a board game I think people who like disaster movies would enjoy. The Downfall of Pompeii by Mayfair Games is about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. It's going to be a lot of fun.
Just to finish off this review with something a little different:
The top 3 dumbest things said in Aftershock: Earthquake in New York
3. "What's happening?" - Diane Agostini (Jennifer Garner) when the quake starts
2. "Maybe it was a nuclear attack!" - random person on the Subway. Don't you think if it were a nuke...yeah, I thought so.
1. "In Russia we have many crisis like this, only different." - Nicholai Karvovsky (Fred Weller) to Diane in the shelter...one of the most mind-numbing lines of dialogue I have ever heard in a movie. Said with one of the worst Russian accents I have ever heard.