Written by: Guillermo Amoedo, Nicolás López, and Eli Roth
Directed by: Nicolás López
Starring: Eli Roth, Ariel Levy, and Nicolás Martínez
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The only thing more terrifying than Mother Nature is human nature.
You have to hand it to Eli Roth: not only is he hell bent on transforming exotic corners of the globe into nightmarish propositions with his directorial efforts, but he’s also taken to doing the same by shepherding other folks' projects into production. Case in point: Aftershock, a disaster film produced and written alongside director Nicolas Lopez that does for Chile what Hostel did for Eastern Europe, as both have been cemented as terrifying locales where young, oblivious folks go to die. It’s a good thing Roth has filmmaking to fall back on because he’d be a pretty terrible travel agent.
In this case, he’s also chosen to act as the film’s ostensible lead, Gringo, a dull American business goon vacationing with a group of native friends. Much like Hostel, the first half-hour of this film is dedicated to watching these bros take in the sights and chase women, only they all seem to be older than the college kids in Roth’s debut, so their behavior seems a little bit more inexcusable and creepy (at one point, Selena Gomez cameos apropos of nothing to be hit on by Roth, who strikes out gloriously). One of the girls they encounter is a wild-child being chaperoned by her disapproving sister, who is of course presented as a buzz-killing shrew when she’s actually the voice of reason. Taking time to develop characters is admirable, but when most of them border on insufferable, it’s tough not to root for the inevitable earthquake.
But even that would be okay if the film were wise enough to indulge some black-hearted slasher-flick sensibilities and just let the audience delight in watching these awful motherfuckers die. At first, that’s exactly what it does, and it feels like the perfect payoff to having to endure this sort of company. When the earthquake first strikes, everyone’s confined in a nightclub and one of the guys loses a hand and watches on in horror as it gets kicked around out of his reach. It’s a moment that feels like it’s played for laughs in conjunction with the sheer chaos of the moment, with structures collapsing and crushing hapless, largely unsuspecting victims. Operating with the same verve as a turbo-charged installment of a Final Destination disaster, it’s oddly entertaining, gore-laden spectacle, kind of like a gorier, grimier update of Earthquake.
Once the bloody, battered survivors emerge from the nightclub, however, the film hits a staggering tonal shift: suddenly, Lopez and company expect audiences to actually care about this unbearable cast of characters. I suppose it speaks to the nature of the world—here are these outrageous, shit-talking posers suddenly humbled by nature’s wrath, reduced to tears and weepy realizations that they’re complete fuck-ups. Lopez’s aim is interesting, as the earthquake becomes something of a symbolic shake-up in their lives, with each character confronting their shortcomings (some in the most on-the-nose manner possible) in order to survive, yet the jarring tonal shift renders it a bit ineffective. (Roth’s decision to cast himself also comes back to haunt him—he’s passable as a boring, out-of-his-element bro but not so much as a desperate disaster survivor appealing for sympathy from ruthless, escaped convicts.)
Speaking of shifts, the last third of the film is essentially a street-level survival thriller, with the dwindling survivors running from a pack of criminal marauders, a conceit that almost makes the cast more likeable by default. This turn of events reminding viewers that human nature can be just as destructive as Mother Nature also feels obvious enough, and it’s also undermined by the one-dimensional dimensional characters all around. The villains are the cartoonish sort found in most films of this ilk: savage brutes who are there only as roadblocks rather than real characters, with their victims serving a similar role as disposable fodder. At this point, Aftershock again feels informed by slasher movies: characters are dispatched in grisly fashion (from gunshots to immolation), and there’s even a climactic twist to give the illusion that Aftershock has been this sort of wild ride the entire time.
Of course, it has been something of a rollercoaster, oscillating between tones and ambition throughout. Initially seemingly content to be a dopey, gore-soaked black comedy, it morphs into a bleak thriller with occasional grasps at introspection and social commentary. Such concerns are only surface-level, though, with the underlying, historical tragedy (Chile was actually rocked by a devastating earthquake two years earlier) serving more as inspiration rather than a focal point—it’s not a subject so much as it’s a grimly poignant theater for unhinged violence and whiplash-inducing mood swings. One minute, you’re laughing at a guy’s desperate attempt to reclaim his hand, the next you’re watching on in horror as his friends try to wade through a crush of humanity to get him to a nearby hospital before he bleeds to death. Aftershock works better in the former mode, when it sporadically yields to the reckless abandon of a slick, frenetic exercise in Grand Guignol schlock. Unlike Roth, Lopez hasn’t quite figured out how to balance the demands of both, but there’s enough here to convince me to keep an eye on his future efforts. Rent it!
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