Several times throughout its running time, Elliott Lester’s Aftermath, which evokes nothing more strongly than a live-action adaptation of a Crate and Barrel catalog, picks up strange transmissions from the avant-garde film that could have been: a shot of a plane’s wing, rattling in the night, about to shatter into pieces from the torque of an imminent mid-air collision. These abstractions are haunting for how they seem sprung from the mind of someone struggling to imagine the unbearable, though you’d never think that mind belonged to either of the film’s two main characters: Roman (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a construction foreman who loses his wife and pregnant daughter after two planes crash into each other, and Jake (Scoot McNairy), the air traffic controller whose error was responsible for the accident.
With the possible exception of an eerie scene that sees Roman infiltrating the crash site pretending to be a volunteer, so as to make contact with his wife and daughter’s bodies, the man’s grief itself remains an abstraction. This at first suggests a failure entirely of Schwarzenegger’s own making, as Roman spends the majority of the film self-consciously walking around with a picture of his wife and daughter if for no other reason than to allow the actor to more easily create a sense memory. But by the time that Roman meets with two inexplicably smirky lawyers who try to convince him to take a settlement and he reveals that all he wants is an apology, it’s clear that Schwarzenegger is fighting a losing battle against Lester and screenwriter Javier Gullón’s inherently simplistic conception of both Roman and Jake’s grief.
For the majority of its running time, Aftermath idly toggles back and forth between snapshots of Roman vaguely processing his trauma and Jake running away from his haters by getting out of Dodge to work as a travel agent under an assumed name. Jake certainly inspires our pity, especially given that his wife, Christina (Maggie Grace), is less in a hurry to paint over the hateful graffiti that appears outside her house than she is to chastise Jake for his post-traumatic cooking disorder, which leads him at one point to serve their son a batch of barely cooked eggs. But the film itself only inspires contempt, sloppily bum-rushing in its final stretches to finally converge its main characters and posit their hurt as the grist for a contrived game of revenge-fueled tag that doesn’t end until someone inevitably says freeze.