There is an iconic scene in “Red Dawn” – the original 1984 film directed by John Milius, not the inferior 2012 remake helmed by Dan Bradley: As a history teacher lectures about Mongol military tactics and organization under Genghis Khan, outside the classroom window dozens of Soviet paratroopers descend from the blue sky and land in an open field outside the Colorado high school. The brief sequence, before the shooting starts, is simmering with giddy anticipation. It’s the calm before the storm.
Admittedly, “Red Dawn” is a bit of a mess. Released in what turned out to be the waning years of the Cold War, tensions remained fraught between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1984, with U.S. President Ronald Reagan hastening a reversal from the policy of détente that had been set aside following Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and increasing unrest in Poland. Preoccupation with the threat of nuclear war percolated into mainstream culture, with the airing of “The Day After,” an American television film that depicts the aftermath of a full-scale nuclear exchange on residents of Lawrence, Kansas; and Kansas City, Missouri. “Red Dawn” opts for a more conventional campaign aiming to split American in two with an invasion force made up of Soviet-backed Cuban and Nicaraguan troops.
I was in high school when “Red Dawn” hit theaters, and I confess I retain a certain level of appreciation for the wholly implausible, blatantly alarmist, unabashedly jingoistic tale of small-town teenagers mounting a desperate resistance movement using guerrilla warfare tactics. Yes, it feeds on 1980s paranoia, but – as a guilty pleasure – it’s still a fun ride.
“Red Dawn” wasn’t the last what-if scenario involving World War III. The theme has popped up in subsequent productions such as the 1986 animated disaster film “When the Wind Blows,” the 1991 HBO original movie “By Dawn’s Early Light,” the 2010 Australian war drama “Tomorrow, When the War Began,” and 2013’s “How I Live Now.” The latest is the 2018 Swedish thriller “The Unthinkable.” If you’re wondering why it took three years to reach international audiences, it might help to know that “The Unthinkable” wasn’t expected to have such far-reaching appeal. Made on an extremely modest budget, “The Unthinkable” is first feature film from Crazy Pictures, a film collective from Sweden best known for its acclaimed short films on YouTube. The film was released May 7 by Magnet, screening in select theaters and on various video-on-demand platforms including Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Google Play, Apple TV and others.
The film mainly revolves around Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot), a reclusive pianist, and his estranged father Björn (Jesper Barkselius). The story begins with an extended flashback to 2005, providing a glimpse of teenage Alex’s dysfunctional family in their small village of Vanga. Björn, whose military service has likely resulted in undiagnosed PTSD, intimidates his wife Klara (Ulrika Backstrom) and his son through frequent aggressive outbursts. Alex, who suffers from social anxiety, seems only comfortable around his friend Anna (Lisa Henni).
Alex’s world is turned upside down one Christmas when Björn uncontrolled hostility toward his wife finally drives her to walk away from the unsalvageable marriage. In doing so, however, she also abandons her son. The next morning, Anna departs the village as well, relocating to Stockholm because her mother has been awarded a government job.
Feeling forsaken, it doesn’t take long for Alex and Björn to clash, leading to Alex’s own exodus. The budding musician finds temporary sanctuary with his uncle.
The story picks up about a dozen years later. Alex has found fame and fortune, performing intricate prog-rock compositions for adoring audiences. The modern-day Keith Emerson does not appreciate his fans, and has grown into a bitter, self-absorbed artistic tyrant.
As midsummer arrives, Sweden finds itself in a state of emergency following a series of suspected terrorist attacks. Alex, who intends to return to his hometown to purchase a cherished church piano, learns that his mother was killed in one of the incidents. The violence gradually escalates, complicating his visit to Vanga. When he arrives at the village, he reconnects with Anna and is eventually forced to seek shelter in the power station where his father works.
After a direct attack on the parliament building and the loss of telephone, internet and television communication, it becomes increasingly clear to the viewer that the scale of the assaults suggests a coordinated effort by a powerful entity – and possibly the prelude to an invasion. That prospect is confirmed when foreign troops arrive and chemical weapons are used to quash resistance.
This sounds like an ambitious undertaking for filmmakers working with a small budget, right? “The Unthinkable” manages to produce some spectacular action sequences with its limited resources, including a hair-raising bridge crossing, a brutal standoff in the narrow corridors of the power station and a scene in which helicopters come crashing down on a forest road crammed with refugees seeking shelter.
It's neither the invasion nor the ensuing action that the filmmakers really want viewers to focus on, though. “The Unthinkable” is about how common people react in a crisis. The film provides a fairly bleak portrait: People will predominantly act out of self-interest.
Unfortunately, that supposition sets up an insurmountable obstacle that prohibits viewers from connecting with the main characters. Even when faced with catastrophe, Alex and Björn can barely relate to each other. They refuse to concede their selfishness. Their arrogance blinds them to their own shortcomings – and makes them oblivious to the fact that they are correspondingly stubborn, detached and unlikeable.
That’s a shame, because “The Unthinkable” – like “Red Dawn” – features some electrifying suspense sequences, gripping action, and intense depictions of the horrors of war. Had the filmmakers chosen to focus on Anna’s point of view rather than Alex’s experiences, this might have been a much more compelling drama.
According to the film’s production notes, the creative team at Crazy Pictures loves “big challenges” and making “big films in a small way.” The collective is based in Norrkoping where they have their own studio and office. Within those four walls, they do everything, including editing, sound design, writing scripts, producing, making VFX building sets, and developing special effects.
“The Unthinkable” is a near miss. Despite its running time of 129 minutes, it is slow-moving but never tedious. Despite its disparate story threads and glut of supporting characters, it never feels particularly disjointed or irrelevant. Its cinematography is striking. Though it may offer a hat tip to conspiracy theorists through Björn’s seething paranoia, it doesn’t seem intended as flag-waving, nationalistic propaganda – though it isn’t afraid to point fingers, either. If only the protagonists had been a little more affable, and a little less conceited.