No Highway in the Sky: Lester’s Inane Exploitation of Compounded Grief
Director Elliott Lester takes a hard left into slipshod terrain with his latest feature, Aftermath, a tale of two grief-stricken fathers dealing with emotional fallout after a mid-air plane crash claims the lives of hundreds due to manual error. The inspired casting decision to pit the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger against character actor Scoot McNairy aside, this feckless piece of exploitative detritus is a far cry from Lester’s previous film, 2014’s Nightingale, a one-man show for David Oyelowo which was a superb showcase for the underrated actor. Working from a script from Javier Gullon (who, despite the promise shown in adapting a Jose Saramago novel for Denis Villeneuve on 2013’s Enemy, has been churning out Z grade genre fare, such as Out of the Dark), the initial promise of this dramatic scenario evaporates quickly, leaving us with an increasingly illogical descent into madness and revenge which doesn’t even have the wherewithal to conjure a semblance of emotional manipulation to help wash it down.
The lives of two amiable family men become inextricably intertwined after a mid-air jet collision, ending the lives of all on board both vessels. Air traffic controller Jake (Scoot McNairy) was the only employee on duty, whose multitasking and some equipment malfunctions caused the miscommunication between the jets and ground control. Roman (Schwarzenegger), a builder who had been waiting the arrival of his wife and pregnant daughter at the airport, is one of many devastated relatives to learn his family was killed due to this inexplicable error. Refusing the help and assistance offered by the airlines, Roman’s mental composure begins to erode. Meanwhile, Jake’s home life suffers when news of his involvement hits the media, leaving his wife (Maggie Grace) to try to deal with her husband’s increasing depression while their family is harassed by the public. As Jake tries to grapple with what happened, Roman seeks a scapegoat for revenge.
The dramatic incident at the heart of Aftermath, which accounts for the film’s only viably tense moments, is based on an actual incident from 2002 where two jets collided over Germany, and two years later a Swiss air traffic controller was murdered by one of the family members of the deceased. It’s certainly a premise ripe for emotional razing, but the psychological shading is woefully absent from what ends up being a poorly paced slog. Schwarzenegger, who managed to at least strike a mournful tone while bemoaning the impending loss of his zombie daughter in 2015’s Maggie, is a constant distraction here. The hulking performer loafs about onscreen, forced to deliver disingenuous emotional beats which seem silly. One of the film’s most stilted sequences finds his blue collar construction worker at fever pitch, refusing the assistance packaged offered by the airline (a smug but throwaway cameo from Kevin Zegers) as he forces a gaggle of company men to gaze upon a photo of his deceased family members, demanding acknowledgment and an apology.
Somehow, the broader emotional palette extended to McNairy’s clan is equally stilted. To prove the devastating effects of the situation, a beleaguered Jake cooks breakfast for his doting child, serving up a soupy omelet because it never registers, even when Maggie Grace (a usually underwhelming screen presence who somehow ends up being the lone serviceable accent) storms into the kitchen to save her child from salmonella, that he never turned on the range.
Aftermath fails to convey a believable mindset for its characters, and labors greatly to overcome the slightness of its budget (some early sequences juxtaposing the vastness of the sky from the earth below vs. a bird’s eye view of the complicated network of freeways, hint at some metaphorical visual artifice which eventually seems forgotten).