There are two obvious ways to mount a "disaster movie." You can go the Irwin Allen / Roland Emmerich route and exploit the deaths of screaming citizens for a quick thrill, or, if your project is based on actual events, you can go the Deep Impact route and focus more on the human part of the equation: What do natural disasters do to cultures, civilizations, and specific people? Such questions are asked, asked again, and then answered numerous times (slowly) in the handsome, sober, and almost entirely boring Tsunami: The Aftermath.
I'm not saying that a three-hour HBO mini-series that was inspired by the horrific Thailand tsunami of late 2004 should be played for thrills, chills, or simple escapism. Absolutely not, as a movie like that would be as tacky and classless as Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, but there is something to be said for entertaining an audience while you're soberly preaching to it, and for all its well-intentioned efforts, Tsunami is, for the most part, an arid and draggy yawn of a film.
The plot is simple: We're invited to travel along with a disparate group of tsunami survivors as they try to pick through the rubble, find a few survivors, and take some steps back towards normalcy. Although the mini-series is written with a lot more insight and humanity than your run-of-the-mill disaster movies, the simple truth is that these stories really run out of steam long before director Bharat Nalluri shows any interest in wrapping things up. The first half of the film presents a harrowing tragedy and introduces a few normal-yet-interesting characters; the second half spins its wheels mercilessly, as if HBO desperately wanted a prestigious mini-series, but all they really had was a half-decent feature-length film.
The cast, however, is top-notch. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sophie Okonedo anchor the film as a pair of desperate parents who are forced to roam across the entire country in an effort to locate their missing daughter; Tim Roth provides some welcome color (albeit in an entirely conventional role) as an opportunistic journalist who begins to grow a conscience; Hugh Bonneville plays the British politico who's more interested in getting some comfortable office space than in rescuing trapped victims; Samrit Machielsen is quite excellent as a Thai hotel employee who simply wants to get back to his village and start putting the pieces back together; and Toni Collette is just dandy as the too-good-to-be-true volunteer who, apparently, never stops to sleep, eat, or use the ladies' room.
Tsunami: The Aftermath is one of those "important" HBO productions that's awash in solid production value and nothing but good intentions -- which means it's probably supposed to be above reproach -- but the simple truth is that, well, the thing's a really dry and circuitous affair that gets more redundant and less compelling the longer it runs. What begins as shocking, poignant, and tragic story slowly (very slowly) morphs into a well-intentioned chore that simply doesn't know when (or how) to wrap things up.
Video: Technical specs are predictably excellent, as is expected from an HBO-produced DVD release. The two-part mini-series is presented in a flawless anamorphic widescreen format.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English or 2.0 Spanish, with optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Again, A/V quality is not even remotely an issue here.
A pair of featurettes are included on disc two: "Tsunami: The Aftermath -- The Story Behind the Film" is a 10-minute piece in which the filmmakers and cast members discuss the "why" and the "how" of the process. "Recreating Nature's Fury" is a 7-minute dissection of the film's subtle-yet-effective special effects work.
Well-intentioned, well-shot, well-acted and, well, boring is how I'd probably describe Tsunami: The Aftermath. It feels like HBO tried to have it both ways with this production: A small dose of escapist thrills when the giant wave actually hits ... and then another 2+ hours of stress, search, sadness and speechifying.