It may sound surreal to speak of a blockbuster-style disaster film like Emergency Declaration as a routine picture involving a deadly virus. Yet there’s also some catharsis in its staging where an outbreak happens on a plane, and a vaccine is found before it lands. For as dangerous, chaotic, and intense as this film is, there’s perhaps a twinge of hope in its made-to-order thrills that come with this familiar genre.
Song Kang-ho plays the devoted detective Gu In-ho, trying to track down a killer who has been murdered with a rare virus. That murderer has already boarded a plane leaving South Korea and plans to unleash this virus on the passengers. After delivering some creepy threats, it isn’t long before one of the passengers has an eyeball explode, and the whole plane erupts into terror. While the crew and passengers struggle to handle this terrorist and keep those aboard safe from the virus, South Korean law enforcement and political officials scramble to track the cure and convince the government to allow the plane to land.
The premise itself is rather thin. The intentions of the virus-holder are fairly basic as a mix of organizational corruption and disillusionment with the world. His “let the world burn” mentality makes him a threat who can’t be reasoned with, which is fine, although it makes for a rather simplistic instigator of the inciting incident. That’s fine, though, as too many other characters crowd the screen. There’s a former pilot who is nervous about the flight but forced to take control when the pilot falls ill, drawing obvious relations to Airplane and Zero Hour. There are family members aboard the plane who try to contact their loved ones and make tearful goodbyes fearing they won’t make it, drawing from the tragedy of United 93. There are a few dashes of political corruption, a daring car chase, and a nail-biter moment when one character volunteers to become sick and test the vaccine.
For as stock as this type of film sounds, it mostly delivers on what it promises. The scenes of the flight going awry are intense with the shifting gravity of the plane itself and the bickering among passengers praying not to come down with the virus. One scene involves the plane attempting to make a landing in Japan, leading to the Japanese military firing warning shots and culminating in a game of chicken between the jet and the jet fighter. I also dug the car chase for a potential suspect that did not go according to plan. Most of the dialogue is par for the course as characters spend so much time discussing exposition and who is where at any given moment. I’m so torn about whether there should’ve been more time to get to know the characters but, then again, the film is already 2.5 hours long and has a massive ensemble cast that includes Lee Byung-hun, Jeon Do-yeon, Kim Nam-gil, Im Si-wan, Kim So-jin, Park Hae-joon, and so many more.
Despite feeling like a routine exercise in disasters of the plane and virus variety, Emergency Declaration is a passable dose of high-flying thrills that moves fast enough to work. There’s nothing all that groundbreaking here, and you can probably connect the dots if you’re seasoned in these types of films to recognize all the tropes at play. You could practically turn it into a drinking game without how many conventions are thrown into the mix. The film is perhaps more admirable because it holds together after being released so close to the Covid-19 pandemic. As so many aims for a sense of normalcy after the pandemic lockdowns, something as routine as Emergency Declaration has a weirdly comforting motif of going back to business as usual for films involving planes, international problems, and deadly viruses. At least in this film the plane lands, an outbreak is prevented, and the corporate stooges are held accountable for their actions that led to this happening. Someone is probably going to take a bit of wish-fulfillment pleasure out of that type of film.