A standard direct flight from Incheon International Airport in South Korea to Honolulu clocks in at a little over 10 hours, and a lot can happen in the duration of that dawn-to-near-dusk journey. You could start and finish a medium-sized book or work your way through a season of a premium-cable prestige drama. Maybe you’d answer a lot of emails (depending on the Wi-Fi situation, which we’re told can be unreliable), get wildly drunk, or catch up on your sleep. Or, should you be a psychopath who works for a pharmaceutical company and have absconded with a deadly virus, you’d have plenty of time to kill all 220 passengers onboard for the sheer thrill of it.
This last option unfortunately seems to be the first choice of Jin-seok (Yim Si-wan, a.k.a. Siwan, of the K-pop boy-band ZE:A), an unstable young man who has smuggled a vial of some nasty, highly contagious shit onto a flight via an incision under his arm. His plan is to release the airborne plague in powder form while they’re 35,000 feet above the ocean and watch as innocents succumb to high fevers, skin blisters, seizures, the occasional eye-so-swollen-with-blood-it-pops, death and other such undesirable symptoms. It’s not like he was hiding his intentions, either — the dude recorded a manifesto on the internet declaring what he was going to do!
When that video goes viral before the actual virus does, it attracts the attention of police detective In-ho (Parasite‘s Song Kang-ho). He discovers which plane Jin-seok is planning to sabotage, which [pause for dramatic effect] happens to be the same one his wife is currently on. And it’s also the flight that Jae-huk (Squid Game‘s Lee Byung-hun) and his daughter are on. Once upon a time, this short-tempered dad was a hotshot pilot before something derailed his career. Good thing he’s around, as the captain just ate a virus-tainted steak. Only Jae-huk and the copilot (Kim Nam-gil) have a history together, which includes some bad blood and unfinished business. Meanwhile, back on terra firma, there’s a political minister (Jeon Do-yeon) navigating bureaucratic red tape while In-ho keeps trying to figure out what’s behind this bioterrorism attack in the sky, plus….
An old-school disaster movie and an all-star virusploitation thriller coming in extremely hot, South Korea’s Emergency Declaration finds itself being caught in an odd time warp. It’s a complete throwback to the cycle of 1970s Hollywood blockbusters that slapped a year behind the word Airport and forced a who’s-who of famous people to deal with in-flight issues or die trying, not to mention the long tradition of peril-among-the-clouds potboilers like 1957’s Zero Hour (the same film that inspired Airplane). Not to mention its look and feel could have come straight from the 1990s updates of that subgenre — think Passenger 57 and Turbulence — and the way in which it introduces a dangerous element into the mix, then lets you guess who the most expendable supporting cast members are, recalls a certain 2006 film renowned for its truth in advertising. It’s essentially a K-pop-cinema Snakes on a Plane, if by “snakes” you mean a deadlier Covid.
And it’s that last part that makes what should be pure, imported-for-your-pleasure multiplex escapism into something a little scarier and eerily prescient. Writer-director Han Jae-rim, the gent behind the hit 2017 South Korean movie The King, began conceiving of this high-concept movie back in 2019; they apparently started shooting just as the world was shutting down. By the time the movie premiered at a special Cannes screening in 2021, the whole notion of dealing with a killer virus and a public outcry felt a little too familiar. That it’s a very different movie now than it would have been pre-pandemic is a given for a lot of reasons, and even though it chooses to forego go-for-broke, disaster-movie mondo delirium — minus a full zero-gravity plunge or two — for a milder sense of melodrama, it still knows how to push pressure points.
In other words, you expect the movie to pit our heroes against fighter planes trying to blow them out of Tokyo airspace, especially as it’s an easy way to score political points. (For more on this subject, kindly go to: the complete history of conflict between Japan and Korea.) But when this two-and-a-half-hour feature, which has already managed to cram in a TV season’s worth of narrative surprises and hoo-boy subplots, moves into moral-dilemma territory — and has the passengers and crew debating on whether its ethical for them to land an inflected plane at all — you get the feeling that Emergency Declaration has a little more on its mind than just thrills and (metaphorical) chills. Even if that ends up merely being a set-up for a half-dozen heroic acts on deck, the notion feels radical and perversely timely through the lens of our here and now. This is still star-driven, big-screen goofiness writ large, something to be consumed with popcorn and a crowd, and that fact its hitting U.S. screens during the summer dog days couldn’t be more welcome. You just might want to wear two masks in the theater.