In the grand tradition of “Deep Rising” and “From Dusk Till Dawn,” Peter Thorwarth’s “Blood Red Sky” is a hijacking thriller that — at just the right moment — is suddenly hijacked itself, as the bad guys realize that they’re in a very different movie than the one for which they signed up. Except that “Blood Red Sky” doesn’t find just the right moment; this undercooked, overlong piece of genre-blurring German schlock hardly even seems to look for it. On the contrary, this midsummer Netflix release drops its big twist with all the panache of an incidental detail, one that requires too much backstory and offers too little excitement in return. And so what could’ve been a fun chimera that someone Frankensteined together from two wildly different films instead becomes a low-flying slog that fails to sew its mismatched parts into a monster with a personality of its own.
“Blood Red Sky” is an emergency mode from the minute it starts; we know that something went screwy aboard a passenger jet en route from Germany to New York, and the film begins with an amateur pilot landing the plane at an RAF air base in Scotland (where snipers are at the ready with their rifles trained on the cockpit). A little boy named Elias (Carl Anton Koch) descends from the cabin with a teddy bear clutched under his arm, and the rest of the movie flashes back to show us what happened to all of the other passengers.
The first thing we learn is that Elias’ single mom Nadja probably had something to do with it. Played by a fiercely committed Peri Baumeister, whose sharp performance helps compensate for the script’s missing bite, Nadja enters the movie sporting a loose black wig that makes her a dead ringer for Noomi Rapace, and the intensity chiseled onto her face is that of a woman steeling themselves for a trip aboard the Prometheus rather than a redeye to JFK.
Elias tells a kind-hearted stranger at the gate that his mother is heading to the U.S. for a bone marrow treatment, but the word “cancer” is curiously never mentioned, and the liquid drug cocktail that Nadja stabs herself with in the airport bathroom suggests that her condition isn’t quite so cut-and-dry. By the time a group of violent white terrorists assume control of the plane somewhere over the Atlantic, we know enough to suspect that Nadja isn’t the only one who chose the wrong flight.
Typically, a movie like this would wait until the start of the third act (or at least the halfway point) to spring its trap, but “Blood Red Sky” isn’t much interested in the element of surprise. Inverting viewer expectations — even those who’ve had the big twist spoiled for them by the film’s trailer as it auto-plays on their Netflix home screen — Thorwarth and co-writer Stefan Holtz are less concerned with how Nadja complicates the hijacking than they are with how the hijacking complicates Nadja’s relationship with Elias.
What do the terrorists want? Well, something seems a bit fishy about the jihadist message they force a Muslim passenger to read at gunpoint. Why doesn’t Nadja die when the most trigger-happy of the bad guys (an anomalously flamboyant Alexander Scheer, bringing anime villain theatricality to his performance as a sociopathic flight attendant gone rogue) shoots her in the chest? “Blood Red Sky” is about to answer that question in the least invigorating way possible.
Rather than show us the quirks of Nadja’s sickness and indulge in the sudden what-the-fuckery that would seem baked into this film’s mash-up premise, “Blood Red Sky” pauses the action before it even starts in order to walk us through the heroine’s origin story. On the precipice of his film’s most potentially satisfying turn, Thorwarth drops us into a flashback (within a flashback) that sucks the air out of the story with all the force of a broken window in a pressurized cabin. Why share in the shock that falls over the terrorists’ faces when Nadja starts drinking from their jugular veins like water fountains when we can learn about the fateful night she was turned into a bloodsucker in pulse-slowing detail?
Abstractly speaking, there is a clear reason for that: “Blood Red Sky” may reach its cruising altitude on the strength of conventional thriller tropes, but at heart this movie isn’t “Passenger 57” with vampires so much as it’s a high-stakes parental drama about a mother trying not to become a monster in front of her son. Nadja is flying to America for a cure, but what good is a cure if her only child will always see her for the demon within that she failed to disguise? It’s an intriguing dilemma — one that a better film would have done more to contrast against the hijackers’ craven inhumanity — but “Blood Red Sky” fails to coagulate that conflict into action.
The fraught dynamic between Nadja and Elias frays apart as the standoff gives way to an interminable series of under-lit fight sequences in the galley, momentum-sapping bits of mythology that do little to deepen the situation aboard the plane, and extremely clumsy attempts to conflate anti-Islamic sentiment with the hazy idea that vampires shouldn’t be judged on reputation alone (Kais Setti’s humane performance as a kind-hearted scientist named Farid is is wasted on an ill-advised subplot that doesn’t feel malicious so much as it does very, very dumb).
It’s only once “Blood Red Sky” surrenders any singular aspirations and descends into a confused “Train to Busan” ripoff — its vampires acting rather zombie-like whenever convenient — that Thorwarth is able to meaningfully position Nadja’s motherhood in the shadow of her monsterdom. By that point, however, both the movie and everyone in it are just looking for a safe place to land.
“Blood Red Sky” will be available to stream on Netflix starting on Friday, July 23.
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