Director: Elliott Lester
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maggie Grace, Kevin Zegers, Scoot McNairy, Hannah Ware, Mariana Klaveno
Runtime: 1 hr 34 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Violence and Scene of Intimacy)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 27 April 2017
Synopsis: The story of two complete strangers, Roman Melnyk, (ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER) a construction foreman, and Jake Bonanos, an air traffic controller, (SCOOT MCNAIRY) who become inextricably bound together after an unfortunate tragedy.
Aside from trading barbs with President Donald J. Trump on Twitter, Arnold Schwarzenegger has sadly faded from our collective consciousness. That is all too evident in the box-office reception of his more recent movies – namely Kim Jee-woon’s ‘The Last Stand’ in 2012 and David Ayer’s ‘Sabotage’ in 2014 – and not even a return to his most iconic role in ‘Terminator: Genisys’ two years ago could reverse that. It is no wonder that Schwarzenegger opted for a less action-heavy role in the zombie drama ‘Maggie’ by playing a grief-stricken father who goes all out to save his infected teenage daughter, and in the process earning some rare praise for his dramatic chops. And it is also no wonder that he has reprised essentially the same role here in ‘Aftermath’, another (supposedly at least) character-driven drama that sees him struggling to cope with the death of his beloved wife and pregnant daughter following a horrific mid-air plane crash.
As its opening credits tell you, the movie is inspired by the 2002 air disaster that took place outside of Überlingen, Germany, in which a passenger plane from Moscow collided with a cargo plane in midair, killing everyone on board. About two years after being cleared of responsibility, the Swiss air traffic controller who had been in contact with both planes was stabbed to death at his home by a Russian man who had lost his wife and children in the crash. Indeed, like its title suggests, the focus of this Javier Gullon-scripted story is not on the crash per se, so the closest you’ll get to seeing the accident is a computer screen in the control tower showing two triangles glowing red and heading straight for each other before disappearing from the monitor altogether. Rather, the emphasis here is the impact of that crash on one Roman Melnyk (Schwarzenegger), a Russian immigrant working as a construction foreman whose thrill at finally being reunited with his family is transformed abruptly into grief.
Staying true to the true story, Roman’s reaction to the freak accident is stretched across a two-year timeframe, which though admirable in its authenticity, requires a compelling character arc in order for us to comprehend the anguish he is going through during that time. And that is precisely where both Gullon and director Elliot Lester ultimately falters. Immediately following the crash, Roman’s grief is characterised by a stunning sense of emptiness, so much so that he decides to sign up as a volunteer at the crash site, eventually discovering a pair of seats suspended from a tree with his daughter still strapped in. After that dramatic turn however, the movie itself struggles to pin down Roman’s mourning – once the obligatory stages of cinematic grief, i.e. abandoning his job, spending his days morosely watching home movies and his nights sleeping next to his loved ones’ graves at the cemetery, are exhausted, it finally settles down to Roman’s determination to have someone assume responsibility and apologise for what had happened.
To be sure, Roman’s perspective is only half of the story; indeed, Gullon’s narrative is structured as a two-hander that juxtaposes Roman’s grief next to air traffic controller Jake Bonaos’s (Scott McNairy) guilt. He retreats into bed, he withdraws from his family (who, following one particular meltdown where he serves his little boy raw eggs for breakfast, prompts his wife (Maggie Grace) to suggest that they spend some time apart), and after the investigation, accepts the severance package from his employer and settles down into a new identity in a different town working as a travel agent. As much as Roman earns our empathy, it is clear that the movie wants us to feel pity for Jake too, whose actions were but one in a chain of human errors that precipitated the tragedy. In fact, it is during his reunion with wife and teenage son that Jake finally comes face-to-face with a supposedly inconsolable Roman, that fateful climax you were waiting for from the very beginning which sees Roman claiming Jake’s life as compensation for the loss of his loved ones.
For that tragic intersection to make psychological sense, we would have needed to believe at least that Roman was exasperated in his search for closure and that he had an obsessive and retributive side which led to him searching out Jake. Somewhat ironically, it is Roman that proves to be the story’s weaker link, which fails to build up a persuasive depiction of a man driven from a desire for accountability to a thirst for revenge. Schwarzenegger does a decent job conveying his character’s stoic mourning, but one wonders if a character thespian would have portrayed the gamut of emotions within Roman – shock, loss, anger, frustration and finally, rage – more keenly. Despite his best abilities, it is undeniable that Schwarzenegger’s capacity for deeper, more complex, emotional beats is somewhat limited, and more so than in ‘Maggie’, these limitations are quite plainly evident here. It doesn’t help that Schwarzenegger continues to be haunted by the ghosts of his blockbusters past, and you’re half expecting that he simply let out his wrath than bottle it all up.
If it isn’t yet clear, ‘Aftermath’ is a depressing movie to watch from start to finish. Both Roman and Jake start off from much better points in their respective lives, are struck by calamity, never quite recover, and even when one of them looks like he might be bouncing back, is swiftly upended yet again by misfortune. But it also feels much more like a slog than it needs to be, especially because it cannot quite get a handle on just what Roman is going through during the two years before he finally confronts Jake. Telling two sides of the story over that two-year period also makes the movie as a whole less coherent because of the disjointed time frames. Much as we would have loved for this to be Schwarzenegger’s sophomore comeback, it is sadly not, and if anything, simply reinforces the actor’s own struggle to remain relevant once again.
(Lacking a crucially compelling character arc for one of its two protagonists bound together by tragic fate, 'Aftermath' comes off no better than an after-thought, especially for Schwarzenegger's post-action hero movie career)
Review by Gabriel Chong