Somewhere over middle America, two large commercial passenger airliners collide in midair at high altitude, killing hundreds, everyone onboard both planes. How could such a thing happen in US airspace, some of the best regulated in the world? It probably couldn’t, in fact. Though Aftermath is based on a true story, nothing like this has happened in the US since at least 1965 (and then with far less catastrophic results): this movie was inspired by a 2002 disaster (also less catastrophic) in which a Russian airliner collided with a cargo plane over Germany while under Swiss air traffic control. European airspace is supposed to be very safe, too, of course… but the whiff of implausibility that Aftermath opens with is not redeemed by what comes next: a deeply uninvolving, often weirdly stilted and amateurish exploration of the accident’s impact on the air-traffic controller responsible for the crash and a husband and father left behind when his family is among the dead.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator Genisys, The Expendables 3) is Roman Melnyk, a construction foreman whose wife and pregnant adult daughter were on one of the planes. Roman is given almost nothing to do by Javier Gullón’s (Enemy) inept script except shuffle around in mute mourning, and unfortunately, Schwarzenegger is even less successful at conveying literally unspeakable grief than he was in 2015’s Maggie, his most recent attempt at truly dramatic acting. Scoot McNairy (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Our Brand Is Crisis) as ATC Jake Bonaos is a regrettable example of a very good actor trying to overcompensate for a poor script — and he sometimes succeeds! But even when he does create a momentarily gripping portrait of a man overcome by horror and despair at his own mistake, he has almost nothing to work against and gets nothing in return from the movie.
Director Elliott Lester — his last film was the terrible 2011 Jason Statham action junk Blitz — is unable to find any conflict, drama, or even simple momentum in Aftermath: it’s just a series of things that happen that bear little connection to one another and that don’t build on what has come before, which sometimes causes us to watch with utter bafflement at what is occurring onscreen; we often are given no reason to believe that characters turn out to be the sorts of people who do what they do. Worse, except for brief bits with McNairy, the film is almost totally inert emotionally, which is pretty unforgivable given the subject matter. It should be a no-brainer to build, at a minimum, a manipulative tear-jerker about so many tragic and unnecessary deaths. But Aftermath can’t even be bothered to cheat at making us care.