Inauthentic Aftershock Wastes a Terrific Schwarzenegger
Arriving at the airport to pick up his wife and daughter, who happens to be pregnant with his first grandchild, construction foreman Roman Melnyk (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is shuffled into a quiet room and told the worst news possible: Their plane has gone down. No one has likely survived. Emergency units and airline crash scene investigators are rushing to the site. Roman is understandably devastated, his entire world shattering in an instant, and as the days, weeks and months pass and the analysis into the cause of the crash continues, his grief threatens to overwhelm him.
A seasoned aircraft controller with a wife, Christina (Maggie Grace), and a young son, Samuel (Judah Nelson), whom he loves dearly, the evening shift began like any other for Jack Bonaos (Scoot McNairy). But suddenly left in the tower on his own, facing an extra plane on his screen and a technical difficult that’s making conversation between varying parties difficult, one thing compounds upon another leading to a horrifying accident. In a second Jack’s life changes forever. Right or wrong, he feels directly responsible for the loss of over 200 lives, and as such he’s having understandable difficulty moving on from his despair and putting his own psychological pieces back together into something of a cohesive whole.
The opening act of director Elliott Lester’s (Blitz) plane crash drama Aftermath is superb. Javier Gullón’s (Enemy) eccentrically structured script introduces both Roman and Jack in parallel vignettes, giving both men ample freedom to introduce their respective characters. Lester allows events to play themselves out with naturalistic intimacy thus making the calamitous events the two of them become connected with all the more emotionally bruising. It’s a gorgeously heartbreaking start, setting the stage for what should be an affecting examination of grief in all its bruising guises from that point forward.
But that movie frustratingly never materializes. Instead, thanks to a ham-fisted time jump, awkward character evolutions and a couple of key plot transitions that ring agonizingly false, Lester’s film refuses to take flight, most notably as things pertain to Jake. There are few opportunities to feel a connection with the devastated aircraft controller, his life falling apart as one imagines that it would yet does so in ways that are cloying, melodramatic and rarely ring true. Additionally, the movie never allows his and Christina’s relationship to feel genuine, both McNairy and Grace unable to generate chemistry as they navigate the harsh emotional interiors of a loving couple who find the core components of their relationship seemingly damaged beyond repair.
Schwarzenegger fares better than his costar. Alongside his work in the somewhat disappointing zombie drama Maggie, this is one of the riskiest, more richly complex performances of the action icon’s superstar career. He’s superb as the demolished Roman, and just for that early scene where the good-humored construction worker learns of the plane crash and has his world destroyed, I’d be tempted to say the film is worth the price of admission just to watch him, its numerous missteps be damned. The power, depth and majesty of this performance builds in aggrieved majesty as things progress, and while the script’s various twists do him no favors, and while Lester’s grows increasingly oppressive, that does not lessen a single bit the powerful majesty of Schwarzenegger’s work.
It isn’t enough. Once Roman and Jake end up on a path where collision is inevitable, the film grows less and less interesting as it moves towards an outcome that can’t help but feel like a contrived letdown. Everything revolves around the pursuit of forgiveness and the desperate search for someone to say they’re sorry, and while that’s just fine, the way those dueling quests are represented failed to keep me interested. Lester and Gullón present a number of artificial situations for Roman and Jake to deal with, and while I do not doubt for a second airlines, insurance companies and corporations act in a similar fashion as depicted here, that doesn’t mean the filmmakers needed to make the moments when they’re front and center so malevolently cartoonish and grotesquely silly.
Aftermath means well. It’s a character-driven drama dripping in pain, Lester’s latest presenting flawed protagonists unable to put their grief behind them as they deal with an unfathomable tragedy neither had any control over the outcome of. Yet, despite a fantastic opening act, even with Schwarzenegger delivering one of the best performances of his career, the movie proves to be a massive letdown, never crafting an atmosphere that felt authentic and pure. I just don’t think the film is any good, the potential it hints at in its early sequences going to waste, and as such I found the finished product almost impossible not to be disappointed in.
Film Rating: 2 (out of 4)