Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: It’s all disaster movies, in honor of Independence Day (the holiday and the movie) and also in light of the real-life disaster movie happening outside our windows.
It was good to be a disaster movie in 1996, the year Independence Day, Twister, and The Rock topped the box office. But it was not a good year to be a Sylvester Stallone disaster movie. Though still a massive star internationally, the Rocky heavyweight was in a slump in the U.S., and Daylight—released on December 6 with a reported budget of $80 million—would ultimately earn only $33 million domestically. “The premise was really good but it didn’t deliver,” Stallone told Variety in 2013. A lot of action stars would probably say this about a lot of their stinkers, but in this case he was right: The premise is really good.
More in the vein of The Poseidon Adventure than Earthquake, Daylight traps a dozen people—all survivors of a massive explosion— in the Holland Tunnel between Lower Manhattan and Jersey City, 100 feet below the Hudson River. With seemingly no way out, the authorities have to send someone in. That someone is former New York City emergency medical services chief Kit Latura (Stallone, of course). Much of the film is right out of the disaster-movie handbook. Its stock group of survivors includes a heroine who is stronger than she knows (Amy Brenneman); a group of hot-headed, orange jumpsuit-clad juvenile delinquents (Stallone’s son Sage among them); a dysfunctional couple with a teen daughter; an elderly couple with a dog they consider their child; a tunnel officer with a girlfriend on the other end of his walkie-talkie; and a wealthy jerk businessman (Viggo Mortensen) who thinks no stinkin’ tunnel could ever get the best of him. Shaky ground, explosions, and rising water levels provide expected threat after expected threat, while the fear of a complete tunnel collapse and/or loss of oxygen looms over their entire struggle.
But unlike other films of its ilk, Daylight doesn’t burn daylight. It takes less than 11 minutes to introduce all the relevant players, and just four minutes later the massive explosion has trapped them. The assembly line of adrenaline-pumping obstacles makes the two-hour runtime fly by, though director Rob Cohen (DragonHeart, The Fast And The Furious, xXx) still manages to highlight a handful of quieter moments. Stallone plays to his strengths, carrying most of the action sequences, including a tense scene involving massive fan blades. But there’s always been more to the Rocky writer, and he handles Kit’s insecurities with a subtlety that most of his action-hero contemporaries lack. Insecurities actually play a large role in grounding screenwriter Leslie Bohem’s script: From the revealing final words of one unlucky member of the group to an almost shockingly truthful moment of panic and desperation from Brenneman’s failed playwright, the characters seem real even when we know the explosions are staged.
Daylight was part of a dying breed. Its reliance on practical effects seems quaint compared to the digital spectacles higher up in the 1996 box office. And while the disaster-movie deluge continued with the likes of Dante’s Peak and Volcano in 1997 and Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998, audience tastes changed dramatically after 9/11, with Hollywood pivoting to stories of war heroes and superheroes as the nation healed from its real-life crises. In the years since, Daylight has mostly been forgotten, even among fans of the genre. But don’t count it out. If it finds a whole new audience, who knows, maybe it’ll join Independence Day and Twister in becoming a franchise decades later.