If there were Oscars for chutzpah, “The Unthinkable” would be a cinch: The first feature for a Swedish collective who’ve been making short films together since childhood, it manages a sprawling story with considerable spectacular action to technically commanding effect on a relatively miniscule, partly Kickstarter-funded budget.
Yet Crazy Pictures’ disaster movie/thriller/romance/dysfunctional family drama is more laudable for its ambitious resourcefulness on limited means than for actual achievement or impact. Despite some strikingly accomplished elements, the awkward whole never quite gels, sewn-together parts from “Red Dawn,” “Independence Day,” et al., failing to cohere amid major logic gaps, not to mention lead characters more off-putting than interesting.
At once impressive and misconceived, this is truly an odd duck whose ungainliness may explain why the U.S. took so long to catch up with a film that’s launched in numerous other territories since its 2018 home-turf premiere. There’s little question the five “Crazies” have a future in commercial cinema, but next time they might seek some outside input on the scripting side. Magnet is releasing to limited theaters and VOD May 7.
Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot, whose co-writing credit is a rare individual onscreen designation among the group members) is introduced as a withdrawn only child to squabbling parents. His sole friend in the rural village is fellow teen Anna (Lisa Henni), but she’s soon moving to Stockholm. He’s further crushed when his mother (Ulrika Backstrom) also splits — though it makes no sense she’d leave him behind with the father whose mistreatment of him caused her angry exit. Doubly abandoned, Alex is the last remaining target for rage from evidently PTSD-afflicted, ex-army dad Bjorn (Jesper Barkselius). Hence he’s soon stomping out the door as well, their relationship beyond repair.
Several years later, apparently still incommunicado with all the above personnel, Alex is now some kind of solo keyboard savant, making grandiose music that sounds like prog-rock Philip Glass. But despite adoring audiences he ignores, he’s still a humorless, self-absorbed loner. A series of mysterious terrorist attacks on infrastructure do get his attention, particularly when the mother he’s semi-estranged from dies in one incident. He reluctantly heads back home to Vanga for her funeral, there running into lost love Anna.
Meanwhile Bjorn, his mental instability making him an unlikely senior employee at an important regional power control station, gets knocked out by a suspicious intruder in a high-security area. Upon waking, he tries alerting authorities to suspected “Trespassing! Sabotage! Espionage! A fuckingg Russian speaking German!,” but they laugh him off as a known conspiracy-theorizing nutjob. Just hours later, however, he has cause to sigh, “Why am I always right?” — perhaps the only deliberately funny line in these 129 minutes — as the entire nation comes under attack. Alex, Anna and myriad others get caught in a deadly chaos that includes strafing aircraft as well as brain-afflicting chemical warfare.
This is a big story framework, and “The Unthinkable” has quite a number of imposingly scaled elements. They range from surprisingly good CGI of massive destruction to an action sequence on a bridge, as cars wrecked by afflicted drivers imperil Anna’s own semi-estranged mother (Pia Halvorsen), a government minister. The film is consistently good-looking, with a fine wide-screen sweep; other principal design and tech contributions are also very solid. (Though nearly all these principal crew roles are credited simply to Crazy Pictures, it appears that Victor Danell is the director/co-writer, Hannes Krantz DP/editor, Rasmus Rasmark production designer and Olle Tholen sound/FX designer.)
But if “Unthinkable” thinks large in many splashy-surface ways — ones rather remarkable for something that cost about $2 million — it doesn’t think nearly enough about the narrative joints and character psychology that must anchor the fireworks. Those factors appear to have been afterthoughts at best, making this a film that aspires toward the epic yet feels more like a serial, jerking from one disconnected cliffhanger to another.
The enemy forces remain shadowy, comprising a nemesis so vague our protagonists might as well be facing a UFO invasion or Biblical Judgment Day. (A parting news clip of smirking Putin is intended to remove any doubt on that score.) Worse, the film takes very seriously interpersonal dramas that are clumsy when they aren’t trite, springing too many against-the-odds family reunions we don’t feel like rooting for.
It is hard to be enthused about anyone reuniting with Alex or Bjorn, two antisocial alpha males with anger issues but zero redeeming depth or complexity. The performers are competent, yet their characters remain one-note, and generally repellent despite credulity-stretching abilities under duress. (Bjorn singlehandedly holds off Russki hordes in Rambo fashion by booby-trapping the transformer station in one montage.)
When one central figure basically tells another, “I only said your spouse was dead to see if you still loved me,” it’s a flabbergasting moment — primarily because the movie hardly seems to notice. That wee emotional hiccup occurs just before a stylistically flamboyant finale whose sentimentality rings equally grotesque and off-key.
Helicopter crashes and exploding buildings are things “The Unthinkable” does with a panache filmmakers using many times its budget might envy. But characters exhibiting plausible human behavior in a plot that progresses consistently toward a satisfactory destination … well, that constitutes a form of creative alchemy the Crazy Pictures collaborators are nowhere near mastering yet. Their more arbitrary decisions might work if this were an anarchic genre-defying mashup. But “Unthinkable” approaches that status only by default.