review aftershock

Sometimes, despite your best intentions, you’ll walk into a movie with negative preconceptions instead of an open mind. It happens to the best of us, and while I can honestly say it’s an extreme rarity for me personally I’m still more than a little ashamed on the occasions where it happens.

The most recent example, and probably the first since the Robin Williams/John Travolta travesty Old Dogs, is a new disaster thriller co-written/produced by and starring Eli Roth. His films have never done much for me, his acting even in small roles seemed on par with Quentin Tarantino’s and to make matters worse I’d heard few positive things about the movie. In fact, the most common term used to describe it was “rapey.” So yeah, my expectations were fairly low.

But then something wonderful happened. I was happily proven wrong.

Roth plays an American nicknamed Gringo who’s visiting Chile with his friend Ariel (Ariel Levy) and his friend Pollo (Nicolás Martínez). Gringo is a single father with a daughter back home, but for now the three guys are taking in the sights and trolling for ladies. While the portly Pollo has them falling at his feet and Ariel ignores them as he pines for his newly exed girlfriend, Gringo is revealed to be an utter failure lacking even the slightest degree of game. They meet and unexpectedly hit it off with a trio of women including Kylie (Lorenza Izzo), Irina (Natasha Yarovenko) and Kylie’s older step-sister/wet blanket Monica (Andrea Osvárt), and the group decides to spend a couple days together in the coastal town of Valparaiso.

But as they party the night away in a crowded nightclub an earthquake strikes the region devastating buildings, cutting off transportation and killing or maiming hundreds of people. Their vacation turns into a desperate race for survival, and it only gets worse when they discover a nearby prison has partially collapsed allowing dozens of murderers, rapists and thieves to spill out into the streets. Oh, did I mention the tsunami sirens are going off too?

Co-writer/director Nicolás López‘s fifth feature film takes a noticeable turn from his previous comedies into an incredibly violent, extremely gory and decidedly dark place, but that doesn’t mean he’s left the laughs behind. The film’s first half is surprisingly funny thanks to some sharp writing and performances from the three lead actors. Yes, even Roth. He plays completely against expectation and delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Once the quake hits though the tone shifts like tectonic plates as people start dropping left and right, often in the most painful and gory ways possible. Escaping the deathtrap of a club is challenge one, but once they reach the streets they realize they’re no closer to safety. One of the script’s strengths is its desire to subvert the norm when it comes to character survival odds. If you’ve seen enough of these movies you have a sense of who’ll die and when, but you’re bound to lose that game here.

While Roth’s performance and the roulette wheel of death go against the grain other aspects of the film are a bit more conventional. The most egregious are the purely stereotypical bad guys whose relentless quest for non-consensual sex leads to one of the film’s tougher scenes, but a few other story elements also fall into place exactly as you’d expect. The film also seems unsure if it wants to be a disaster pic or a horror film as the threat shifts too easily and quickly from quake to murderous thugs. The natural disaster is essentially forgotten until the script decides someone needs to be conveniently pinned from an aftershock for story purposes.

While the characters, gore effects and defied expectations lift the film up it’s weighed down in other areas. The tone is generally successful in balancing the laughs and the drama, but it loses its grip too frequently. Some deaths played for shock and comedy bleed over into ones we’re actually meant to care about resulting in a deflated emotional response. Also, while the gore works quite well the film suffers a bit during its sparse attempts at digital effects.

Still, Aftershock surprises as one of the better disaster movies to hit theaters in recent years. It takes its time setting up the characters and conflicts necessary for viewers to give a damn once the quake strikes, and what follows is a film where no character is safe and no gag is too extreme. It’s uncomfortable fun that will leave you smiling even when you know you shouldn’t.

The Upside: Fun sense of humor throughout; plenty of gore; characters to actually care about; some surprises

The Downside: Goes for cheap reactions at times; some effects feel rushed; oddly misplaced church subplot; efforts to make some deaths funny diminish effects of others

On the Side: Eli Roth and Nicolas Lopez are hoping to churn out more genre films under the “Chilewood” banner.

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