Stage & Screen

Emergency Declaration: A Post-Covid Era Plane Thriller

Director Han Jae-rim and a talented cast tell the story of a plane flight gone horribly wrong.
Lee Byung-hun as Jae-hyuk in 'Emergency Declaration'. Photo: Well Go USA.
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Emergency Declaration: A Post-Covid Era Plane Thriller
This review contains mild spoilers.

The aeroplane is the perfect location for any thriller movie: a captive crowd are thousands of miles up in the air, no terror threat can go anywhere and the likelihood of one bad thing snowballing into another is probably much higher than normal. In some senses, this is Emergency Declaration down to its bare bones. One thing goes catastrophically wrong, and things on the plane get worse and worse (though with good reason) while chaos ensues on the ground.

The movie kicks off by telling the audience that an emergency declaration is made by the pilot of an aircraft when it cannot fly safely due to a lack of fuel or other problems, and that in such an extreme case, 'all else ceases and the plane's needs supplant any other order'.

Director Han does a great job of quickly building up nervous suspense in the first twenty minutes of the movie. We know quickly that something is afoot with one of the passengers who probably should not be slicing himself open under the arm in the bathroom (Yim Si-wan), nor asking for passenger counts on departing flights. We're introduced to the father (Korean acting legend Lee Byung-hun) who cares deeply for his daughter, who herself might get in trouble further along in the movie for being the same bathroom as the said man who was slicing himself open. We meet the detective (Song Kang-ho) whose wife is also taking the same fate flight as all the other aforementioned characters, and with this the film slowly unfolds.

The director does not try to hide that something is going to go terribly wrong: he revels in it, and much is initially left to the audience's imagination when it comes to discovering exactly what it is that will cause terror to the passengers further down the line. As we might expect, when forces on the ground actually find out that someone with sinister motives is on the plane, it comes just as the plane leaves the runway.

Song Kang-ho as Detective In-ho. Photo: Well Go USA.

Emergency Declaration is shot in a documentary style throughout, with blurred, occasionally obscured shots peppering the movie as though the camera crew shouldn't quite be there, or as if they've just stumbled upon this storyline whilst browsing around Incheon International Airport. It works fantastically when it comes to setting the tone, as the true-to-life manner it invokes helps to reinforce the sense of unease built up step-by-step for the audience. There are (slightly horrifying) moments when you feel like you're watching a real-life disaster unfold in front of you, and the film's eerie, sparse soundtrack just adds to this feeling. The colouring also works hand in hand with the above; palette of the movie is muted throughout, save for the moments when red emergency lights boldly pop out against the murky and pallid colours. So far, so good.

When it comes to the characters, director Han leaning into expected stereotypes initially works: the unhinged manner of the terrorist contrasts with the father who just wants to keep his daughter safe, and the emotional connection between the detective and his wife adds weight to the the detective's disgusting discovery at the beginning of the film. However, it is in the moments the film leans too hard into the same stereotypes of the genre that the momentum built up at the beginning of the movie occasionally falters. Of course Lee Byung-hun's heroic father character is also an ex-pliot with some trauma under his hardened exterior, of course he clocks and suspects the bad guy before everyone else and of course almost every potential saving grace for the passengers goes wrong until, in order to give the audience a relatively happy ending, it doesn't.

Im Si-wan as Jin-seok. Photo: Well Go USA.

These moments are a shame as the movie has some genuinely fun twists - especially in its first half - that have you tearing at your hair wondering what will happen. However, once the main mystery of how the passengers could be saved (at least from the immediate terror on board) is solved, every additional inconvenience sometimes feels like another step more than the movie actually needs to be great. Yet, perhaps director Han just-about plays his cards right with this narrative, as by the time all the bad events start over-snowballing we're at least invested enough in Lee Byung-hun's dad and Song Kang-ho's detective to want to see if all the passengers will make it out alive.

Furthermore, great cinematographic decisions shine in the movie. Whilst we have seen dynamic camera-on-outside-of-plane shots in Top Gun: Maverick this summer that emphasise the exhilaration and thrill of being in the air, here the same shots are turned on its head and instead come across as utterly terrifying for the captive and panicked passengers within.

Kim So-jin as Hee-jin. Photo: Well Go USA

Emergency Declaration hits the concept of the 'aeroplane disaster movie' on its head, and not enough can be said for the opening twenty minutes of the movie that completely sucks in the audience in by not holding back in foreshadowing the disaster to come. It is one of the most claustrophobic films in Han Jae-rim's filmography, and at the very least that makes the movie an interesting watch. Some might find it hits the whole 'virus circulating on a plane' narrative too close to home after the pandemic, and the ending might have had more of an emotional punch were it not wrapped up quite so neatly. However, all the cast do an enthralling job throughout, and alongside the film's cinematography and stylistic choices, ground this thriller-disaster in its focus on the human experience of such events.

Emergency Declaration is out in South Korea, and hits cinemas in the US on the 12th August.
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