Saturday, May 11, 2013

Aftershock Reviewed

A Heather Buckley Joint

Eli Roth’s projects work within a certain framework. Young, beautiful, privileged party people, having a great time, only to be interrupted by almost fantastically horrible life events. Flesh-eating bacteria. Torture chambers times two. They suffer and scream. They wind up bloody, watching their loved ones die in front of them. These same themes are also explored within Aftershock, a film that he stars in, co-wrote and produced. Though I would not even call it a movie, maybe an exercise; a very tertiary level exploration of what happens when it all goes very wrong.

The first 20 minutes of the movie focuses on the obnoxious “Gringo” (Roth), with his equally unsympathetic companions Ariel (Ariel Levy) and Pollo (Nicolas Martinez) as they adventure through Chile. We follow the group though the wine orchards, and then onto two giant techno parties Pollo is able to get them into through his contacts and influence. As events and expositions unfold, we learn that “Gringo” has a daughter and is a divorcee, which is as much character development as he gets. These guys try to pick up hot chicks at the dance clubs, until, about thirty minutes into the movie, the ground shakes. The club starts to fall apart. Club-goers are crushed, and, in one instance, impaled on glass shards. 

Our heroes escape the club with the only serious injury being the severing of Ariel's hand, which is being kept in the purse of one of the ladies they were chatting up before everything went to shit. Two of the girls are smoking hot. The third has short hair, and therefore is written to be the do-gooder outcast. Not that it matters at this point; everyone character is  pretty much interchangeable.

To save Mr. Handless, Pollo tries to get his injured friend help, at a hospital next to a graveyard, which gives us another obvious effects set-piece. The group is stalked by criminals since the prison has been destroyed and the group is attacked by panicked Chilean citizens trying to protect their own, now that their world is almost over. Right.

The episodic and terribly predictable nature of Aftershock is at best a dim sketch of the emotional impact the actual event director Nicolas Lopez lived through. Even Roth, during the round table, recounted tales of woe and fear folks faced. None of that genuine terror and tragedy is here. No real characterizations here. More like an early 90’s TV-movie cast—though, the fault does not lie with the cast (save Roth who is an acting eyesore so far in all of his roles). The piece is barely written. The intent of this exploration, if you ask Roth (and we did), was to show how fragile life is. Well he showed an earthquake, blood and crocodile tears. Oh.. and hot chicks.

To depict how fragile life is you need real characters who have real things to lose, with histories and dreams that you tear apart. Showing one phone conversation with a daughter does not establish anything. It gives the illusion of character development without having to really carve out real characters based on real world insights. You need actual insights into the world of how certain people mourn and fight through impossible situations. The stress and break-down. How people band together. The loneliness of tragedy. But here, it is played and shot very slickly and shallowly. It isn't stylized enough, nor viscerally rough enough to deliver nasty exploitation thrills. It also lacks the humor and gore to move it even into diverting splatstick. As Johnny Rotten has said, “No fun.”

When you create characters as mere kill-fodder, then, at the very least, your kills should be more extravagant, or your style should give the audience something to become engaged with. Take the 80’s slasher features: Dumb characters, but the monsters were joyful. The kills would be the crescendo, one franchise trying to out-do the other  (censors permitting) with body count and gory escalation— especially in overseas markets like Italy, where filmmakers saw an opening to take it over the top. I am sure Roth has watched these films and absorbed every scene of animal torture and eye gouging—just as we have dear horror reader— but the lessons are not coming through in his script. One sees the pose, but never goes deeper and critically looks at why these things work and what is really going on. Director Nicolas Lopez’s background is in romantic comedies, a genre dependent upon the connections between the characters. There is little evidence of any of that commitment to characterization here. One might blame focus on the action and special effects for their distraction, but that is all quite tepid too. 

In the end, Roth's work lacks both substance and style. He is too glib to make the fear and pain emotionally credible, either through building characters compelling enough to make their grisly fates truly unbearable, or through the visual panache than can reach the emotions through sheer grasp and manipulation of the medium.

So should you see Aftershock?  I wanted to leave the screening after an epic 18 minutes. The tedious vanity of the club scenes almost broke me, but I stayed. I stayed so I could give you my judgment, my dear readers. Stay away from this one. Aftershock is weak.

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