Aftershock: Earthquake in New York (1999)
Directed by: Mikael Salomon
Starring: Tom Skerritt, Charles S. Dutton, Sharon Lawrence, Lisa Nicole Carson, Jennifer Garner, Erika Eleniak-Goglia
Choosing New York as the epicenter of a major earthquake isn’t exactly an obvious choice, as The Big Apple isn’t particularly known for being located in an earthquake zone. Googling the subject, it turns out there are indeed some fault lines beneath the city that might pose a bigger threat than previously thought. I don’t know if the makers of this made-for-tv movie (originally aired as a two-part miniseries) had an unexpectecly deep knowledge of geology, but I suspect they really didn’t care. You see, the quake that devastates New York is first and foremost not a physical event – it is an opportunity for the people affected by it to learn valuable life lessons and get closer to each other. Oh yeah, it’s a Hallmark production.
As usual, we’re introduced to a bunch of characters who we will follow through the crisis: there’s the fire department chief (Tom Skerritt) who has recently resigned to protest the cutbacks proposed by the mayor (Charles S. Dutton), who in turn is none too fond of the fire chief; there’s the mayor’s daughter (Lisa Nicole Carson), a successful defense attorney, and her client, a somewhat creepy accountant (JR Bourne) accused of having murdered his disabled wife; there’s also the mayor’s old mother (Cicely Tyson) who gives a young street kid called No-Name (Ray J) work at her church; there’s a young ballet dancer (Jennifer Garner) and her rich father (Mitch Ryan); there’s a Russian immigrant (Fred Weller) working as a taxi driver; and there’s a Californian family (Sharon Lawrence playing the mother) who has recently moved to N.Y. after the son was injured in a car accident. Oh, and there’s also ex-Playmate Erika Eleniak as a TV news reporter who doesn’t get out of her helicopter for the entire movie. Oodles of people to keep track of!
When the quake strikes, some 40 minutes into the movie, the fire chief has just dropped his daughter off at school, the lawyer has stepped into the subway accompanied by the accountant who now exhibits some stalker tendencies, the dancer has just had lunch with daddy and is now riding in the cab driven by the Russian guy. We’ve also been introduced to the emotional problems afflicting the Californian family, which is falling apart because of mom’s massive guilt about her son’s disability (a light limp).
While the quake itself doesn’t really convince me – there’s a whole lotta shaking going on but it just doesn’t feel very real – the movie does quite a nice job when it comes to showing us the aftermath. The post-quake sets look really good, and the CGI shots are nicely done. The work of the art department is actually the best part of the movie.
As for the plot, aside from the usual struggle to escape and survive, the script lays it on really thick when it comes to the touchy-feely stuff. Apart from the few named characters that actually kick it – the dancer’s old dad, the mayor’s old mother and, somewhat unexpectedly, the fire chief’s teenage daughter – this quake seems to be a win-win situation for everyone. The fire chief and the mayor put their differences aside, the chief gets his job back and they become close friends. The dancer does lose her dad (and his wallet) but in return she gets to be prima ballerina, and falls in love with the Russian cabbie. The street thug formerly known as No-Name emerges from the ruins of the church with a new sense of self-worth, and now goes under the name of Clayton, in honor of the mayor’s mother. We’re never told if the mayor’s daughter got that hot new job (she probably did), but more important is that the creepy accountant is killed. (The high realism of this piece is revealed when the accountant, just a couple of hours after having been acquitted of all murder charges, tries to kill a fellow quake victim while trapped in the subway tunnels and then attempts to strangle his own lawyer as they work their way out of the tunnels. How could this guy keep it together for the duration of the trial?)
Most of all, we’re supposed to feel for the guilt-ridden mother, whose son doesn’t even trust her enough to buy the new Pelé video for him. He wants daddy to do it. (Presumably, he feels mom would screw up the trip to the store and cause him to limp on the other leg as well.) Luckily, all mom needs for the healing to begin is a random stranger saying “I trust you” after an earthquake turns Manhattan into a heap of gravel. That boost to her self-confidence turns her from nervous wreck into a tigress, clawing her way past the firemen to scale the walls of a crumbling school building and save her trapped son – who now has regained enough faith in his mother to forget about his supposedly crippling limp and jump across a gaping chasm into her arms.
Having just seen Sharon Lawrence as the impossibly annoying nuclear plant manager in Atomic Twister, I can’t muster much sympathy for her character in this one either. I guess I’m just not a Sharon Lawrence fan. Elsewhere, Tom Skerritt and Charles S. Dutton both do fine jobs playing the fire chief and the mayor, respectively. Jennifer Garner doesn’t really make that much of an impression as the dancer. Fred Weller, on the other hand, ought to get some kind of reward for the outlandish accent he uses to portray the Russian cabbie.
For a made-for-tv movie, this one boasts decent production values and an above-average cast. But the soapy, soppy, daytime-tv quality of the human drama detracts a bit from an otherwise a decent TV-disaster. It’s also too bloated: there are too many storylines battling for screen time, and it happens more than once that I’ve almost managed to forget about some of the characters when we suddenly cut back to them. At 140 minutes this movie is too long, even if the dvd version apparently has been edited down somewhat from the broadcast version.