“Aftermath” is a plane crash movie without a plane crash. Instead, the closest we get is a scene set in the control tower, where a computer screen shows two triangles headed straight toward one another until both glow red and then disappear from the monitor altogether. There’s no boom, no screaming passengers, no great big whoosh as cocktails and carry-on bags get sucked out a gaping hole in the cabin — just the aftermath, which in this case, entails a bedraggled-looking Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to make sense of his loss.
In theory, this should be enough. Certainly, screenwriter Javier Gullón did more with less in “Enemy,” a psychologically rich character study in which Jake Gyllenhaal dealt with a man who might have been his doppelganger. But “Aftermath” is one of those mopey coping-with-grief movies in which the characters grapple with intense emotions, while audiences feel nothing. It’s like the downer version of “Sully” — call it “Sullen” — where we never meet the passengers (who don’t survive anyway), and the screenwriter instead decides to dwell on two men who never left the ground: air traffic controller Jake (Scoot McNairy) and grieving parent Roman (Schwarzenegger), who lost his wife and pregnant daughter in the off-camera crash.
Perhaps it’s macabre of audiences to want to see carnage. Air travel offers a nearly universal anxiety, and movies about worst-case travel scenarios can both feed and alleviate our own personal fear of flying, as movies such as “Flight,” “Final Destination,” and “Alive” have done. The most vicariously beneficial: “Fearless,” in which we can vicariously identify with doomed passengers coming to peace with a disaster beyond their control. What were Roman’s wife and daughter thinking in their final moments? Did they suffer?
Doesn’t matter. What matters to Gullón and director Elliott Lester is the suffering of the survivors — and not just Roman, but also the man “responsible” for their deaths and those of everyone on board both planes. “Aftermath” was inspired by the real-life Überlingen mid-air collision, a 2002 incident in which the blame was placed on the tower crew, inspiring a Russian man whose family perished in the accident to murder an air traffic controller in front of his wife and kids.
You’ll have to watch “Aftermath” to discover whether Roman takes the same route, but suffice it to say, the confrontation between the two men allows for the only remotely Schwarzeneggerian moment in the whole movie, which is otherwise a drab, desaturated affair. Everything else suggests an unnatural attempt to reposition the one-time action star as a serious thespian, providing further opportunity for Arnold to try some of that capital-A Acting that proved the best surprise of his post-gubernatorial zombie movie “Maggie.”
But Roman is a very specific kind of role, one that calls for a performer with an ability to convey inner torment, and that’s ultimately beyond Schwarzenegger’s rather limited range. As movie stars go, he’s a charisma-driven supernova, almost Incredible Hulk-like in his emotional simplicity: Make Hulk angry, and Hulk smash! But “Aftermath” demands one of those brooding, black-hole actors who sucks up all the energy in the room, going somewhere so dark, you can’t help but share their pain. By contrast, watching Schwarzenegger attempt to emote amounts to exactly that: watching someone attempt to emote. A certain kind of man makes every effort to hold in his frustration and rage in circumstances like this, so it feels all wrong to be confronted with the exact opposite as a constipated-looking Schwarzenegger grits his teeth and tries to force it out.
Consider the scene where Roman learns of the accident, coming right after several Hallmark Channel-esque vignettes in which he’s established as a hard worker and an honorable father — not to mention an expecting grandfather (he caresses his daughter’s sonogram before heading to the airport to pick her up). Arriving at the ticket desk with a bouquet of flowers in hand, he is led, dazed, to an impersonal counseling room at the airport, where an employee breaks the news of what has happened.
What’s meant to be Arnold’s Oscar moment is instead just plain awkward, and the actor’s expression of stunned grief never really matures from there, as he lumbers through the motions that follow — the most cinematic of which finds him volunteering at the crash site, where he finds a pair of seats with his daughter still in it suspended from a tree. Though the “real Roman” blamed the air traffic controller following the Überlingen incident, the movie imagines that the guilt-stricken airport employee felt plenty tortured on his own, finding parallels in the two men’s suffering.
Feeling far from absolved by internal airline safety hearings, Jake suffers a nervous breakdown and nearly loses his family (including wife Maggie Grace), only to arrive at a tentative reunion just before Roman shows up at his door. The relentlessly downbeat movie might have ended with that scene, but instead leaps forward several more years to find Roman still paying visits to his family’s graves — only this time, even the reckoning has a reckoning, as the fallout from the accident continues to infect future generations. For a tragedy in search of catharsis, the ending falls short, but at least it ensures there will never be an “Aftermath II: The After-Aftermath.”