14 April 2009 | DICK STEEL
A Nutshell Review: 252 Signal of Life
While a movie like this would likely contain a tragedy of epic proportions and a celebration of the human spirit, one can't help but to laugh at its missteps, overwrougt melodrama, and sheer ridiculousness of an ending that probably insults the professionalism of the uniformed group it wanted to put in good light. It becomes an unintentional comedy of errors that just makes you shake your head knowingly that it could have been something more interesting to begin with.
252: Signal of Life is just that, a code that rescue forces (or at least in Japan) use to inform everyone of survivors, galvanizing resources and to propel some lung bursting morale and adrenaline to rescuers who are risking life and limb for strangers that they do not know. But first they have to get their original mission statement through to the top brass whose concern is for the safety of the men under them, and risk taking becomes a tedious exercise, frustrating to the men all eager to perform a job well.
I thought this tussle against the backdrop of an ongoing disaster would serve as an interesting fuel for thought, especially meaningful when it tries to examine how these folks put others above self, and family beneath others at times, and had an extreme opportunity to debate over self-preservation, and to wonder the immense courage that it takes for one to do just that. Instead, we get melodrama, plenty of tears and frustrations lashed out amongst colleagues, friends and strangers, that it becomes too tiring, and most of the time for nothing.
For actor Hideaki Ito, one who has cut his teeth in disaster-rescue flicks like Umizaru and its sequel, his role here as ex-rescuer Yuji Shinohara might seem like a walk in the park. If not for his brooding of a sin of the past, and his good looks, he's an extremely cardboard character, which is what most of the other characters in the film are made of. Only Ayane Omori who stars as his deaf-mute daughter Shiori stole the show at every scene she's in, though the good work was destroyed by the story which decided to exploit that character for some Kleenex moment. I can go on about other characters in the film that continue to be unappealing such as Sachiko Sakurai's very teary turn as Mrs Shinohara, but the one which takes the cake, and probably chief villain for her incompetence, is Yu Kashii's Saki Umino the weather girl who has really poor forecasting skills.
The filmmakers here lacked the courage to have people bumped off. Not the anonymous extras that are in the background (those die en masse), but each deadly scenario the leads got put through, they lacked the confidence to shut the door on the characters, making it again highly repetitive in crafting how one survives death defying moments due to sheer luck, but only after some moments of unnecessary tension that the same trick just becomes overused by the time the third scenario rolls around. What's more of a sin was how the finale was one really draggy affair, allowing opportunities for more chest-thumping, affirmative actions like nodding, saluting, shouting, crying, and just milking all that's worth from an 18 minute window when the eye of the storm passes by.
Speaking of which, the special effects turned out to be less than spectacular. It showed off some eye-popping moments of gigantic tidal waves enveloping the streets of Tokyo, but it dried off really fast through some awesome drainage that the city has in its streets and underground network. Visually, it was more interesting to see how all the extras in each scene just run about the set in the background trying to look busy and act with a sense of urgency, while the cast in the foreground are feeling anything but that. As I mentioned earlier the finale was overwrought with cheesy melodrama that unnecessary dragged out the ending, but the moment which took the cake was how hundreds of rescuers would just gather round and do nothing but the care-bear-stare. Powerful stuff that.
252: Signal of Life had moments where it could have struck a fine balance in presenting an action-packed flick if it could have tightened up some of the incessant repetition (like how long it took for massive floodwaters to fill up a subway station, and there are only so many ways for extras to find themselves facing with a gush of water), and to have given itself enough time to explore the human dilemma of self-preservation versus the call of duty. Instead it became an unnecessary comedy filled with cardboard yet invincible characters.