A Better Blockbuster Formula: The Unthinkable (2021) - Reviewed

Image courtesy of SF Studios

Scandinavian films have been around forever, but it’s usually the auteurs that are remembered: Bergman, Von Trier, Refn, etc. More recently, though, more blockbuster and non-auteur films are becoming available on streaming platforms. A Norwegian production company has made a number of well-made disaster movies that have garnered attention, including The Wave (2015) and The Quake(2018). Last year’s Troll became a crowd-pleasing addition to the wave of popular Nordic films gaining more attention in the US. 


The Unthinkable (2018) would be Sweden’s contribution to this wave of blockbusters. In it, an unknown military force attacks Sweden and a handful of central characters work to survive it. Though the scope of the attack is large, the focus remains on just four main characters experiencing this attack. The aforementioned Norwegian disaster movies follow the same formula: using smaller set pieces and scenes with fewer characters to keep the story grounded and believable. 


Nearly the entire first hour of this Unthinkable tells the story of Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot), his unstable and abusive father Bjorn (Jesper Barkselius), and his childhood sweetheart Anna (Lisa Henni). Alex and Anna grow very close as teenagers, but then get separated after Anna’s mom takes a government position in Stockholm. Alex grows up to be a musician and concert pianist and loses touch with Anna, who returns to their small village to maintain the beautiful piano they both played in their village church. 


All this time spent on character development creates better-drawn characters than one usually sees in an action/disaster movie. The viewer might even forget what genre of movie they’re watching until the first mysterious attack occurs in Stockholm the day before Midsommar’s Eve. Alex’s mother dies in the attack, sending him back home to arrange the funeral in his village. While there, he sees Anna when he decides to buy the church piano he spent so much time playing as a teenager. 


When the unknown military steps up their attacks on both Stockholm and the rural village where Alex and Anna are, the film shifts genres with the loss of their power grid and communication systems. A sci-fi element is introduced as part of the attacks that is simultaneously creative and frightening, which further amps up the suspense and mystery. 


The scope of the attack stays large with Anna’s mom experiencing it in Stockholm and Alex’s father, who has since, conveniently, become a doomsday prepper, defending a power station in their small village. The set pieces and action sequences are very well orchestrated, giving this film the feel of a much more expensive blockbuster. 


The film had an interesting financing journey, which began by raising $100,000 dollars through crowdsourcing. It received more funding from some Swedish film companies, raising its final budget to the equivalent of $2.2 million dollars. This small budget shows in some of the CGI used as part of the attack, but is used judiciously to create the feel of a much more expensive movie. This could easily be compared to Robert Rodriguez’ El Mariachi, which was also made on an incredibly small budget. 


The focus on early and extensive character development in The Unthinkable keeps the smaller moments real and more the focus than the larger scope of the film. This formula is what makes this and other Nordic blockbusters better than their American equivalents. 


The Unthinkable is currently streaming on Hulu. 


- EB