Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 7, 2021)
With 2020’s Fukushima 50, we find a movie based on real events. The story takes us to Japan circa 2011.
On March 11, a massive earthquake strikes off the coast of Japan. This creates a tsunami that leaves massive death and destruction in its wake as well.
Included in the calamity, the incident badly damages the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. If 50 brave volunteers don’t risk their lives to stop the impending catastrophe, all of Japan could endure a horrible fate.
Movies about recent history can run into issues due to viewer familiarity. Given that most of us remember the Fukushima disaster, a cinematic take on the topic needs to find something to tell us beyond what we got from the news reports of a decade ago.
To some degree, 50 manages this, as it delves into the behind the scenes efforts of the power plant employees to avert catastrophe. Unfortunately, so much of the film adheres to standard disaster flick tropes that it fails to do justice to the subject matter.
Granted, I understand the desire to bring thrills to the material, tacky as some of these attempts may seem. The events of March 2011 included plenty of real-life deaths, so the usual mayhem and calamity feel borderline crass when depicted in the same tone as a fictional disaster.
This becomes my main issue with 50: it never conveys the gravity a depiction of these dramatic events needs. Given our understanding of how close Japan came to death on a mind-boggling scale, I expect to invest in this material to a higher degree that I do with San Andreas or some other fictional popcorn movie.
50 wants to convey the seriousness of the events but it also wants those big rock-em sock-em thrills as well, and the two sides don’t co-exist especially well. This seems particularly true because the film clearly favors the popcorn side of the street, so it doesn’t try all that hard to present a sense of gravity.
If 50 didn’t involve historical material, I wouldn’t mind these choices so much, but its preference for wild action over character development turns into a weakness. 50 tosses a lot of roles at us – far too many for any to really stick.
As such, we never identify with the characters or really bond with them. Sure, many disaster flicks come with large casts, but this one goes too far and leaves out the usual form of exposition that at least allows us to really get to know a handful of the roles.
Less than stellar production values don’t help either. I couldn’t locate specific budgetary information for 50, but I’d guess it cost somewhere between “relatively little” and “not nearly enough”.
No, 50 doesn’t offer the cheapest-looking film of this sort that I’ve seen, but the effects and sets fail to bring the needed sense of realism. If we don’t swallow the disaster and menace, we can’t dig into the drama, and the lackluster production elements become a distraction.
All of this feels like a shame, as 50 clearly boasts a potentially gripping tale. This version of that story can’t find the human pulse at the core, unfortunately.