Was Aftershock just an elaborate ruse by writer-producer-star Eli Roth to justify an extended vacation to Chile? Probably not, but Roth and pals spend so much of this gruesome earthquake flick’s first half partying, drinking, dancing, hanging out with hot chicks, and dancing and drinking some more that you have to wonder. Especially since these scenes have little narrative clarity to them — they’ve been cut so haphazardly that they look like someone’s crappy party videos tossed in a virtual Cuisinart. Maybe that’s the point, since the film eventually tosses its characters into a more gory Cuisinart of sorts.
The cause of said gore is a devastating earthquake modeled somewhat on the one that hit Chile in 2010, which set off a bunch of aftershocks and left more than 500 people dead. After a significant section of the film that sets up the film’s main characters, Aftershock leaves our hedonistic bros and a gaggle of hotties they’re macking on trapped in an underground nightclub. We all know that disaster movies often spend an extra bit of time with setup. It’s a way of establishing character relationships amid the falsely comforting cocoon of the mundane — so that everything is that much more jarring, tragic, and/or cathartic when the ship capsizes, or the building catches fire, or the plane plummets, or the zombies invade.
This time, however, more time spent with these people doesn’t result in better, or deeper, development. Certainly, there’s nothing particularly original about any of it: Roth plays a slightly hapless American lawyer (nicknamed “the Gringo”) vacationing in Chile with his buds Ariel (Ariel Levy) and Pollo (Nicolas Martinez). Pollo’s dad is loaded and he has wealth issues; Ariel is in the midst of a bad breakup and is constantly checking his phone; whereas the Gringo is just trying to get laid and doing a terrible job of it. (At one point, he hits on Selena Gomez; the expression on her face suggests that she’s just as confused by her cameo in this film as the audience is.) Along the way, they meet sweet-hearted Russian model Irina (Natasha Yarovenko), party fiend Kylie (Lorena Izzo), and her overprotective sister Monica (Andre Osvart, who has “final girl” written all over her because she’s serious, has short hair, and isn’t dressed like a hooker).
The problem, however, isn’t unoriginality, but incompetence. The film was written by Roth, director Nicolas Lopez, and Guillermo Amoedo, and they never find a way to make these characters’ interactions seem in any way organic or alive. (The clunky English doesn’t help; presumably Roth was supposed to help with that, but nobody seems to have told Lopez and Amoedo that Eli Roth movies have atrocious dialogue.) Still, one could (sort of) overlook this kind of rote, unnatural underlining if it paid off in some way once the earthquake came. But this is where Aftershock goes from being merely lousy to stupendously, lifeforce-suppressingly awful. Taking a cue from Roth’s own controversial films, Lopez wants to disturb us. So he ups the carnage and the cynicism. At one point, we see a group of the wounded trying to make their way via cable car to a hospital atop a cliff. Of course, something goes wrong, and we’re treated to a scene of supposed suspense, as we watch the dying, whimpering passengers in their car intercut with the car’s cables fraying. Back and forth the camera goes, smugly convinced that it’s upping the tension and shocking the audience with its willingness to go there. But the scene is so badly edited — so poorly paced and timed — that it doesn’t make any kind of impact.
Of course, horror and exploitation films have a fine tradition of rubbing our noses in such depravity, and clearly Aftershock wants to give us such an experience — to cut through our jaded sensibilities. Thus, Lopez makes sure to give us lots of dead children and babies and other bits of outrage along the route. This isn’t the kind of movie where a character who’s a bit too wild might later be threatened with rape and learn her lesson; this is the kind of movie where a character who’s a bit too wild will actually be raped, and then shot. And this is the kind of film where a character who’s haunted by the fact that she once had an abortion might be trapped underground in a room full of baby corpses. If all this sounds outrageous, and extreme … don’t worry, it’s not. Provocation coupled with ineptitude doesn’t reveal the ugliness of humanity; it simply reveals the ugliness of the filmmakers themselves.