I have no doubt that when Dimension kicks into overdrive to sell you “Aftershock” sometime in 2013, you’re going to see Eli Roth’s name used a whole lot. I understand it, too. Roth has been enormously good at turning his name into a brand, something that a certain group of young filmmakers have developed as an important skill set in the 21st century. After all, he’s served as “Eli Roth presents” on several films, and he’s part of the new Vegas venture, The Goretorium, which is a year-round horror-themed experience. The last feature film that Eli directed was in 2004, though, so when you see critics and marketing that will fall over themselves to heap both the flaws and the merits of “Aftershock” at his feet, that’s because the branding worked, not because he’s genuinely the key architect of this particular movie.
This is very much a collaboration, though, between Eli and Nicolas Lopez, a Chilean filmmaker who has had a fascinating career of ups and downs so far. His first film in 2004, “Promedio Rojo,” is a rowdy teenage sex comedy, brash and funny and raw, and it got him some international attention. That led to the production of “Santos,” his second film, which is a big sprawling glorious mess of a film, a narrative that ran away from him, filled with all sorts of big imagination. It was much too expensive for the sort of specialty niche film that it was, and it set him back a bit. It consumed four full years of his life, and I think it’s not the film he set out to make.
The response seemed to push him to figure out what he wanted to do and how he wanted to define himself. He ended up making a few small films in Chile, movies that reflect his real life, his experience of his home country. He got tired of the third-world-only face of Latin America as far as Hollywood is concerned, and he’s been part of a new wave of Chilean films that feel like they could be set here if not for the language. “Fuck My Life” is a brash young man’s comedy starring Ariel Levy and Nicolas Martinez, and the success of it in 2010 led quickly to the 2011 sequel “Fuck My Wedding.” They play Javier and Walter, the comic leads of the films, and they’re getting ready to make “Fuck My Family,” the wrap-up of the trilogy.
If you’ve seen those films, then the first forty minutes or so of “Aftershock” is going to feel familiar, almost like you’re watching one of those. Levy stars as Ariel, a guy who can’t get over his most recent girlfriend, no matter who he’s talking to. Even as beautiful women pitch woo at him, he’s still hung up on the one who got away. Martinez plays Pollo, a rich kid whose dad owns hotels and bars and planes and who can pretty much spend his days and nights in pursuit of the best parties in the coolest places. He and Ariel are playing tour guide to Gringo (Eli Roth), a nice guy who is out of his depths in the sweaty flesh pit dance clubs of Chile. He’s the guy who wears the khaki pants and the blue work shirt to the club, the guy who’s got no game, who can’t close it with the girls they end up traveling with for a few days during the film. Monica (Andrea Osvart) has a complicated relationship with her half-sister Kylie (Lorenza Izzo), and their friend Irina (Natasha Yarovenko) is the balancing force between them until they run into the guys, shifting the dynamics in both groups in interesting ways. The writing is sharp in the way it makes it seem like all of these relationships are going to be important and play out over the course of the film…
… because that pretty much goes out the window when the earthquake hits and then they spend the rest of the movie dealing with the end of the world. Things get awful very very quickly, and there’s pretty much nothing else from that point to the end of the movie. It’s just a struggle to survive as Chile implodes around the characters. The film has some big gore gags, and some serious laughs built into those moments. I think it’s intentionally very funny at times, and it builds to a really grim but funny punchline that I like a lot. I think Lopez has a flair for staging his nastiest gags, and I laughed through a lot of it.
There is a major misstep at one point, though, and I think the decision to cross the line from threat to sexual assault makes it hard to have the sort of fun that it feels like the rest of the movie is having. I’ve written about this before to fairly heated debate, and this is a case where I have to take a full half-grade off my final letter grade just because I feel like it’s such a huge shift in tone from the material before and after that scene. I like “Aftershock,” and I think if they toned down one scene and made something way less explicit, they could automatically make the film easier to like and recommend. That’s my personal issue, though, so it may not bother you the same way.
For the most part, I think Lopez has a good eye for the big gags, he’s got a fiendish sense of how to turn the screws on his characters, and when it comes time to land the big punchline, I think he pulls it off with aplomb. He continues to impress as a filmmaker who has a rowdy, rude, but very real sense of how people behave, and even if “Aftershock” is a goof, a big old slice of exploitation cheese, it’s very well made, and I think it is a confident effort at an international crossover hit. I’ll be curious to see how Dimension sells it.
And for those who are curious, Selena Gomez is onscreen for about 45 total seconds. That’s it.
“Aftershock” will most likely arrive in theaters sometime in 2013.