It must be television. A major earthquake shakes Gotham to its skivvies, burying entire boroughs under rubble. The stench of death is everywhere. Under normal circumstances, panic-stricken people would be slapping one another upside the head and babbling incoherently. But in the roundly insipid “Aftershock: Earthquake in New York,” the conditions are perfect for love to blossom and heroism to sprout quickly into a cottage industry.
In fact, “Aftershock” (the real shock is that someone actually decided to finance it) is less about a temblor, more about the chance to present New Yorkers, Chamber of Commerce-like, as more likely to bond than loot in the face of disaster. The movie itself is a mope opera that follows such a well-trod crisis path that viewers can set their watches by the next catastrophe.
During roughly the first 40 minutes of the adaptation of the Chuck Scarborough novel, the protagonists are presented as sympathetic and relatable folks. Then the quake hits, lasting a mind-numbing 15 minutes and shown from every possible perspective and angle. The final three hours or so focus on the unflagging goodness of people saving people, the boundless spirit of ordinary joes rising up in times of disaster, the wondrous spectacle of survivors overcoming life-threatening wounds without the assistance of personal injury lawyers.
It’s a time-tested formula. It is also a hopelessly hackneyed one that “Aftershock” flogs to absurd excess. Too bad, because the film sports some talented players: Charles S. Dutton, Tom Skerritt, Cicely Tyson and Sharon Lawrence in particular. And the special/visual effects wizardry of Tom Storvick and Lee Wilson is sharp and impactful without being at all obtrusive. Points also go out to helmer Mikael Salomon on that score.
Alas, then there is the story, which would be a hoot were it not so unapologetically earnest. As buildings crumble and sway, subways collapse, boats capsize and pastrami sandwiches tumble tragically to the sawdust floor, the protagonists emerge. They include a can-do fire chief (Skerritt), a stoic mayor (the magnificent Dutton), the mayor’s yuppie attorney daughter (Lisa Nicole Carson), the attorney’s enigmatic client (J. R. Bourne), a young dancer (Jennifer Garner), a ditzy Russian emigre cab driver (Frederick Weller), a high-strung young mother (Lawrence) and her resourceful young son (Michal Suchanek).
Before the four hours come to a merciless conclusion, all but one of these people will have done something reasonably courageous in the face of insurmountable odds, incessant aftershocks and toppling landmarks. And the lone individual who does nothing heroic will finally lose his mind in a hostile frenzy, disoriented perhaps by the sheer numbers of caring people around him.
“Aftershock” manages to fill two nights of primetime while only rarely lapsing into genuineness. If a huge shaker on this order ever really struck New York City, one suspects the romance that sparks between the cabbie and the dancer would be happening in the afterlife, not on what used to be Amsterdam Avenue. Good thing sweeps has none of those pesky truth-in-advertising rules.
Tech credits are pretty flawless straight down the line.