There is something about apocalyptic nightmares that makes disaster movies quite popular at the box office. Add to that the fact that “Ashfall”, the new film from the directors that made the surveillance thriller “Cold Eyes” and the heart-warming romantic comedy “Castaway on the Moon” separately, finally brings together on the screen superstars Lee Byung-hun and Ha Jung-woo for the first time, and you have a sure-shot recipe for a box office success and expectations were naturally high. But questions about just how good the film could actually be have been raised since the first promotional trailers were released. That still didn’t stop the movie from becoming a runaway financial success, one of the highest grossing films last year.
As the world’s eyes are glued to the televisions for the impending denuclearisation of North Korea, a massive earthquake rocks the Korean peninsula. As it turns out, Mt. Baekdu, the volcano straddling the border between North Korea and China that has been dormant since 1903, has erupted, an event which geologist Kang Bong-rae aka Robert Kang (Ma Dong-soo aka Don Lee) has been predicting for a few years. He also predicts that the volcano will erupt two more times and the third is going to be the worst, causing unprecedented damage to the entire peninsula until something is done about it. He is quickly drafted in by the President’s secretary Jeon Yoo-kyung (Jeon Hye-jin) to advise and assist the government.
His completely scientific, wholly plausible plan involves detonating a nuclear warhead in one of the strategically placed mines around Baekdu to release the pressure of the plates, which would stop Baekdu from erupting. Except, South Korea doesn’t have any nuclear weaponry. But they are in luck, because North Korea has all their remaining nuclear warheads (so conveniently) huddled up in a secret location for surrendering to America. Enter military Captain In-chang (Ha Jung-woo), a soon-to-be father who is drafted in to extract the core from the warheads from the secret location and take it along with a team of nuclear experts to the designated mine. He is to be helped in this endeavour by Ri Joon-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun), a North Korean soldier who has turned and knows the location of the secret bunker. Unknown to the team, Ri has plans of his own with the nuclear device. In-chang’s pregnant wife Ji-yeong (Bae Suzy), meanwhile, starts on a journey across Seoul to the port where American safety awaits.
“Convenient”- that is a word that often pops up in the viewer’s mind when watching “Ashfall”. The script is laden with too many convenient plot devices that leave the viewers laughing out loud in frustration at times, like the convenient strategic locations of the mines under Baekdu, the convenient gathering of the nuclear warheads within arm’s reach, Ri Joon-pyeong’s prison being so conveniently empty that In-chang and his team can practically waltz straight into the maximum security facility without any issues, among others. The problematic script often doesn’t know if it wants to be a disaster movie, a heist movie or a road trip film, filling the narrative up with too many, mostly unnecessary, plot twists that don’t really amount to a lot. This also hampers the film’s runtime vastly, which runs just over 2 hours and feels like losing at least 15-20 minutes of it could have actually made the film work a lot better.
Every genre cliche is also thrown in heavy-handedly; just as you think that this is finally one Korean disaster film that doesn’t have a cute kid you root for, the film introduces one in its final lap. The comedic moments are laughably bad and fall ever so flat. The movie does have some wonderful tense moments though, of which the Mexican standoff in the little ash-covered village near Baekdu is particularly well-done, but they do feel too few and far in between.
But that is not to say the film is a complete, well, disaster. The film has strong production values it can boast of. A lot of the set-pieces are truly spectacular and deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. These scenes are helped by visually beautiful and natural-looking CGI work which, when coupled with the detailed production design, particularly as In-chang and Ri Joon-pyoeng get nearer to Baekdu and their mission, makes the film reference-quality eye-candy. When the camera finally turns to the erupting Mt. Baekdu, even if for a few fleeting seconds, it is a sight to behold. While the background music does tend to get cacophonous at times, the sound designing is of superior quality, putting the audience square in the thick of it all.
The writing in “Ashfall” doesn’t give a lot of scope for actors to really dig into their characters, but both Ha Jung-woo and Lee Byung-hun try earnestly to make the proceedings interesting. Ha, in particular, gets a lesser brunt of the sword, with most of his work here falling in familiar territories for him. Lee, however, gets to do most of the aforementioned comedy scenes and there’s a reason why his vast filmography so far does not carry one proper comedic role. His discomfort with the genre is evident even in the few such scenes allocated to him. The two are in their element when the action scenes start though and the visibly good camaraderie they share is evident, which makes the scenes they are in together better to watch by their mere presence. It is also interesting to see Ma Dong-seok return to the kind of smaller supporting roles that he used get prior to achieving his current superstardom, playing an integral but obviously fringe character while Jeon Hye-jin and Bae Suzy are left on the sidelines for the most part.
Even as the film stumbles towards its wholly predictable climax, “Ashfall” ultimately feels sadly like a vastly missed opportunity, given the talent involved in front of and behind the camera. If you expected the film to explode majestically like Baekdu itself, the script detonated quietly in a mine nearby, causing the film to implode within itself.