If I were put in charge of a film school, the first thing I would do is build a set — the cockpit and cabin of a modern airliner — and order all directing students to make a film that takes place aboard the plane. It’s my belief that creativity works best within constraints, and this seems as good a test as any to see what someone can do with a single location.
Case-in-point Korean adrenaline rush “Emergency Declaration” begins at the airport, where a nervous young man buys a ticket aboard the most crowded flight he can find: KI501 to Honolulu. In the bathroom, the suspicious-looking traveler, Ryu Jin-seok (Yim Si-wan), slices a hole under his arm and hides a capsule containing a fast-acting and incredibly contagious virus inside. From this point on, Jin-seok becomes a walking biological weapon, leaving the cops on the ground (led by “Parasite” star Song Kang-ho as Sgt. Koo) scrambling to find a solution while his fellow passengers start coughing up blood and collapsing in the aisles.
Believe it or not, “Emergency Declaration” was conceived before the pandemic, but it’s just about the most thrilling way a film can capitalize on our fears — of the virus, of flying, of governments making a problem worse — without directly exploiting the international nightmare we’ve all been living lately. For two and a half hours, writer-director Han Jae-rim ratchets up the anxiety, throwing one obstacle after another at the passengers on board KI501. What should they do when American authorities refuse to let them land in Honolulu? How to keep flying after both pilots die?
In some ways, the movie anticipates problems many of us faced when confronted with the real thing, like how much masks help in situations like these, or the business of the plane being turned away from foreign ports where fear of contagion trumped concerns for infected travelers. In others, it sells a fantasy alternate reality where the antidote to a virus can be found and delivered before the closing credits.
“Emergency Declaration” debuted as a midnight selection at the Cannes Film Festival a full year before opening in U.S. theaters, and seeing it there, surrounded by an audience of jittery masked cinephiles tentatively venturing back out into public gatherings, made the experience doubly nerve-racking. (Watching a bioterrorism thriller on streaming is one thing, but doing so in a room full of people who could infect you is another matter entirely.)
Plot-wise, the film has a lot in common with Korean blockbuster “Train to Busan,” about a zombie outbreak that turns a standard commute into a high-speed death trap. In both cases, the far-fetched science-fiction premise (this one considerably more plausible) serves as a chance to see how different personalities react to such a challenge — like the ex-pilot with a fear of flying (Lee Byung-hun) escorting his daughter to Honolulu for medical treatments, or those sending and receiving updates by cellphone throughout the trip.
Airline disaster movies are nothing new (they’ve been around long enough to inspire a Zucker brothers spoof more than 40 years ago), but when you have creative minds working to reconfigure the details in original ways, they never get old. Han makes things more interesting still by dispatching the unusually young villain early on. The culprit, Jin-seok, looks like a member of a K-pop boy band in a business suit (as played by ZE:A singer Yim, that’s almost exactly what he is): an eerily innocent-looking face with an indecipherable half-smile, à la Paul Dano in “Prisoners,” rather than your usual evil mastermind. Because Jin-seok infects himself, he’s among the first to die. “You think I boarded this plane planning to live?” he says, mocking the horrified passengers.
The outbreak claims dozens of casualties, and nearly everyone is infected by the end, as the plane faces an onslaught of other challenges: autopilot malfunctions, actual pilot mortalities, a steep plunge that sends unbuckled travelers bouncing against the ceiling, a desperate landing attempt in Japan that is met with missiles fired by Air Force jets, and so on. Han and his editors double up during the most intense scenes, crosscutting between dire situations for maximum effect. With all the shocks it has in store, “Emergency Declaration” plays like an entire season of “24” compressed to (jumbo) feature length, and only the all-too-convenient antidote rings egregiously false.
Outrageousness comes with the territory in midair disaster movies, and Han doesn’t seem to mind audiences laughing at how far he pushes things — even though the press notes are full of high-minded talk of how “realistic” the film is supposed to be. Sure, the production design is convincing and the actors play it straight, but as the challenges escalate, eyes will roll. But inviting us in on the joke is a good strategy for engagement, and when audiences see this movie as a group, they erupt into applause after each set-piece.
From a storytelling perspective, seeing what Han can do with the interior of a plane — and a whole lot of CGI — is downright inspirational. If you had an airplane set as slick as this one to work with, I’d wager that pretty much any (contemporary) genre could be told at 35,000 feet. Cracking my hypothetical film-school assignment is just a matter of inventively thinking inside the box, for a change.