'Emergency Declaration' review: Nerve-wracking, thought-provoking disaster film

Korean superstars Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun are characters racing against time to save their loved ones after a virus outbreak on board an aircraft

Published: 23rd September 2022 10:34 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd September 2022 10:34 AM   |  A+A-

Emergency Declaration

A still from the trailer of the movie 'Emergency Declaration'

Express News Service

Isn’t it frustrating when an antagonist sometimes doesn’t reveal his motive? I don’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing. Take The Dark Knight, for example. Remember the Michael Caine line about some men wanting to watch the world burn?

How you can’t buy, bully, reason or negotiate with them? Remember how the Joker became a litmus test of sorts—to measure the character of everyone who was part of his little ‘experiment’? Im Si-wan, the antagonist in Korea’s latest disaster movie, Emergency Declaration, treads similar lines.

After the 50-min mark, something happens that, suffice to say, doesn’t necessarily require him to be an active participant because by then, the damage becomes difficult to undo. His little ‘experiment’ is doing everything for him inside a Korean flight bound for Hawaii.

A bio-terrorist with a quiet disposition, Si-wan generates enough menace and creepiness to make us want to punch him in the face, right from the opening scene of him at an airport counter making enquiries about the flight that later becomes the film’s prime focus.

Be warned that this is not an ideal movie to watch when one is under the weather. Let me tell you why. Had Emergency Declaration been released during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it would’ve been an extremely distressing experience.

Even now, when the situation has improved after two years of panic, Emergency Declaration turned out to be quite a terrifying experience for me, considering that the entire movie is about characters impacted by an unknown virus wreaking havoc, not just on the air but also on the ground. It’s not confined entirely to an airframe. That would’ve been a challenge with the 140-min runtime.

Fortunately, it spends a significant part of it on the ground where we have: Song Kang-ho (“Memories of Murder,” “Parasite”) as a detective trying to get to the bottom of the mystery; and a strong-willed female politician (Jeon Do-yeon) trying, just like Kang-ho, to set things right even if it means making certain extreme sacrifices.

Emergency Declaration boasts of a strong hook. The first twenty minutes had enough going on to get me invested. Different revelations occur concurrently: a little girl seeing a young man making a bloody dent in his armpit to insert a peculiar capsule, a viral video of a man revealing his attack plan, and a detective making a shocking discovery inside an apartment.

The film then assumes the mood of an engrossing procedural before amping up the adrenaline. Things also get interesting owing to the presence of Lee Byung-hun (“A Bittersweet Life,” “Squid Game”) as a passenger, revealed later to be a former pilot with a fear of flying. He has a dark past tied to the co-pilot (Kim Nam-gil) of the same flight, which explains his fear of aeroplanes. He also has a daughter with eczema, a complication that adds to the mounting tension once the virus breaks out. 

Emergency Declaration becomes quite the intense rollercoaster ride as the situation escalates rapidly after one passenger contracts symptoms and dies. And there’s more on the way. The film rides high on panic and chaos, staged expertly by director Han Jae-rim. Who is immune? Who is not? Does the virus function with the same haste on the second person as it did on the first? Is there an antidote? 

It is replete with many palpably nerve-wracking moments that made me go, ‘Oh s***!’ These include an Inception-style rotation moment, a mini vehicle chase, and an impossible landing situation in the third act. And the actors rise to the challenge. The strategic placement of Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun in the film evokes the casting of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in the 1974 disaster hit, The Towering Inferno. 

One of the film’s impressive qualities is that the characters don’t behave as though they do in many of the cliche-ridden Hollywood disaster movies. They are regular folks who occasionally get clumsy. On the ground, the detective is racing against time to find out if an antivirus exists or not.

Meanwhile, in the skies, the ex-pilot is reluctantly pondering the possibility of taking over the cockpit. And there is the minister trying to deal with the complicated dilemma of two concerned nations refusing to permit landing on their soil. 

I must return to The Dark Knight because Emergency Declaration asks nearly the same thought-provoking questions. What do people do when in the grip of extreme chaos? How do they push themselves and each other? How do they debate who lives and who doesn’t? 

And what about the film’s visceral impact? You know a disaster drama of this variety has caught hold of you when you start reaching for your sanitiser a few times. Oh, and it might even compel you to wear your mask at all times.

Film: Emergency Declaration
Director: Han Jae-rim
Cast:  Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Jeon Do-yeon, Kim Nam-gil
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Rating: 4/5


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