In her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” Susan Sontag wrote that the allure of “exotic dangerous situations” came down to the way they “normalize what is psychologically unbearable.” It would have been intriguing to get Sontag’s take on “The Unthinkable,” a riveting disaster movie that’s actually heartbreaking, and doesn’t so much delight in world-ending events as it recognizes that surviving them never ensures a happy ending. Getting through the ordeal is only half the battle.
But what a battle: In this fast-paced adventure from Swedish director Victor Danell (credited as his collective, Crazy Pictures), an unsuspecting public contends with toxic rain that renders its victims into puddles of dementia who slam their cars into epic pileups as a mystery international threat invades from the skies. Like Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room,” the movie oscillates from stark survival drama to outright war movie and back again, speeding through taut, claustrophobic shootouts and exploding helicopters even as it shoehorns the spectacle into a somber look at one broken family. If “The Unthinkable” juggles a few too many ingredients to make the unpredictable balance gel, it’s nevertheless fascinating to watch Danell give it a shot.
It takes a solid half hour before “The Unthinkable” even bothers to incorporate the vast, conspiratorial threat at the center of its plot. Before then, it centers on the plight of Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot), a disgruntled young musician who grows estranged from his hot-headed, PTSD-afflicted father Bjorn (Jesper Barkselius) after his wife leaves them both.
Cut to a dozen years later, when Alex has become a renowned electronic musician still haunted by his past. The early scenes leading up to this moment unfold with a simmering tension steeped in the mystery of the moment, as Danell (who also served as cinematographer) shifts between tense closeups of Alex and Bjorn as the two men drift through a world dominated by their feelings of anger and regret. Despite Alex’s successes, he’s still pining for the life he left behind, specifically childhood sweetheart Ana (Lisa Henni), who may or may not feel the same way.
The matter-of-fact nature of this conundrum unfolds with such subtle, elegant strokes that when a series of explosions suddenly begin to unfold across the country, they initially seem like little more than an afterthought. It’s a clever narrative masterstroke that (as most pandemic survivors will agree) perfectly captures the way a vast national emergency can creep into the contours of everyday life.
And creep it does: Bjorn, now a bearded loner who works at a power plant, has devolved into a shell of his former self when he starts to realize something awful is afoot. While co-workers dismiss his ravings as pure conspiracy, Bjorn concludes that a foreign threat (maybe the Russians?) have been posing as German tourists and screwing with the power grids. As ominous clouds gather and dazed people start roaming the streets, Bjorn heads underground for a fast-paced showdown through tight corridors that ranks as one of the best action sequences in recent memory — an adrenaline-packed hodgepodge of guns blazing through light and shadow that gives way to ample punches and knives before the explosive finale.
Meanwhile, Alex reconnects with Ana for an awkward reunion that finds the pair making their way to shelter — where they inevitably run into Bjorn, and that’s when dueling strands of family melodrama and blockbuster disaster movie unite for the sensational concluding passage. The movie is smart enough to realize that it’s not the first of its kind to push a father-son dynamic into apocalyptic circumstances (hello, “Independence Day”!) and finds a way to keep the tension between the two men high even as they’re forced to rely on each other to make it through their awful ordeal.
For its ambition, “The Unthinkable” struggles at times to clarify the threat in question. Why would a foreign adversary target Sweden, of all places, for its nefarious invasion? Were other parts of the world affected? Why does the rain render some people into puddles of confusion while others seem fine? And how on earth do our main characters evade so many bullets that obviously head right their way? Unlike your standard Roland Emmerich joint, the movie hovers in a strange grey area between the grounded naturalism of its dysfunctional relatives and the outrageous circumstances surrounding them, asking us to suspend disbelief while investing in a believable drama at its core.
Nevertheless, the blend of emotional intrigue and action-thriller aesthetics holds unique appeal, right down to a concluding nighttime performance on a rickety old piano against the backdrop of a golden downpour. It’s a haunting, poetic image that finds beauty in a broken world riddled by confusion. Completed and released way back in 2018, “The Unthinkable” finally makes its way to the U.S. in the midst of a global pandemic with accurate look at how why most end-of-times dramas miss the boat with tidy resolutions. In this particular case, the imagination of disaster was downright prophetic.
“The Unthinkable” is now in theaters and on demand from Magnolia Pictures.