PLOT: When a massive Chilean earthquake traps a throng of tourists in an underground nightclub, a harrowing nightmare of chaos, extreme violence and ultimate survival ensues.
REVIEW: Earthquakes are f*cking terrifying. As a native Californian, I can attest, particularly having lived through the infamous rumble of '89 (my mom was at Game 3 of A's-Giants World Series). As it happens, such a grand-scale natural disaster springboards the harrowing action of Nicholas Lopez's otherwise stoic chiller AFTERSHOCK, a flick he directed from a script co-penned with Guillermo Amoedo and star Eli Roth. I say harrowing because, yes, it's sole purpose seems to be to - through an escalating series of brutality - make you squirm, twitch and fidget in your seat. For the uninitiated it's sure to work, but for hardened-horror heads, not likely. Sure it has shades of intense, visceral filmmaking, but in the end there is too little at stake and too many unlikable characters to even care what really transpires. Outside of emphasizing that earthquakes are indeed scary, and that you may never ever want to go to Chile, there really seems to be no actual point to the movie whatsoever.
In what tonally kicks-off as a spring-break frat-comedy, we meet Gringo (Roth) and his two hedonistic running mates, Pollo (Nicolas Martinez) and Ariel (Ariel Levy), as they ready to tear up the booming Chilean nightlife. You see, Pollo's father is a high-ranking dignitary who pulls every string imaginable for his son. Carte blanche shite. Private jets. Caviar. Sadly, not a whole lot transpires in the first 30 or 40 minutes outside of "getting to know" our characters: sophomoric bantering, heavy drinking, constantly trying to slither into a girl's panties, and of course sightseeing the beautiful cityscape (the shots of Chile are truly inspiring). It's during this setup period that we're supposed to invest emotion into the main characters, eventually caring enough to feel devastated when all hell breaks loose later in the film. Problem is, the likeability factor is poorly executed. No matter how human or awkward Gringo is presented as (embarrassing himself while hitting on a broad), it's not enough to fully engage anyone but the trendy douche-bag populace he represents (while Ariel is a bit more sympathetic, Pollo is even worse than Gringo). Part of it is on the page, part of it is casting, but any semblance of emotional character-connection is problematically devoid here. At least for me.
Along the way, our young playboys link up with a Hungarian cutie named Monica (Andrea Osvart) and a couple of her pals. Unfortunately, just as a real cord is struck between parties, a catastrophic quake interrupts them at a popping underground nightclub rave. But that's just the tip of the nightmarish iceberg. As the underground structure implodes, most avenues of escape become blocked off, and a hysterical mad-dash to reach the surface results in even greater death and destruction. Worse yet, the local prisons have also been devastated during the rumble, and now the most dangerous criminals in the city indulge in violent looting, raping and pillaging in the streets. The same streets our "heroes" fight their way to the surface to find. In that regard, it's interesting to see unlikable characters (our heroes) intersect with even more deplorable ones, but again, it's hard to emote over anything that occurs to said individuals when you really don't mind what happens to them in the end.
By the film's final third, we inevitably degenerate to well mowed Eli Roth territory; that of extreme graphic torture. Again, for those not yet desensitized to onscreen carnage, this will certainly offend in the best way possible. But for us horror heads, who've seen this kind of stuff way too often, especially in the last decade, it won't resonate as deeply. Yes, there's a very disturbing rape scene that I'd rather not rehash, but to me it read more as random and tasteless gratuity than an organic, character driven plot point. It's so out of nowhere, which might otherwise be praised as unpredictable, but because it's only visually vexing and not emotionally, what the hell does it even matter? Even the final shot of the film reinforces its nihilistic nature. It's the kind of downer ending I usually love in horror films, but here, because of the emotional detachment leading up to that point, it really calls into question why this movie was even made in the first place. Trust me, I detest preachy message movies as much as the next guy, but there has to be some level of stakes for the characters, and therefore the viewer, to be taken seriously. Sadly, this is not the case with AFTERSHOCK.
That said, I didn't wholly dislike the flick. In hindsight, had I not known at all what the flick is about going in (tough to achieve given the title), I think the sudden shift in tone from fish-out-of-water comedy to all-out hellish destruction would have been more effective. And as unlikable as the characters prove to ultimately be, the first half of the flick is where director Lopez succeeds the most. No surprise there, as his three prior features were all well steeped in the comedy genre, with AFTERSHOCK being his first real foray into the world of terror. Unfortunately, like most horror flicks, the second half is where Lopez has trouble. Script issues and casting choices are part of the problem, but so too is the low-lit, hard to identify direction the last 20 minutes or so. In the end, an unsatisfying down note culminates in an emotionally vacant "so-what" moment.