Thursday, May 30, 2024

‘Black Crab’ Says War is Hell-On Ice

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Black Crab is a bleak Swedish futuristic post-apocalyptic movie that tries to smuggle in some hope into all its fatalism. The result is an anti-war film that seems at odds with itself until finally throwing up its hands in exhaustion. However, much of the film has an eerie, almost dreamlike quality despite this.

The film marks the debut of Adam Berg, a director who has worked on music videos for everybody from A-ha (no, not that one) to Idlewild, not to mention the poetically straightforwardly named Afro Celt Sound System. Black Crab is an anti-war film chock full of scenes and tropes that we have come to expect from anti-war films never feel all that interested in being a typical war film. But when it is not a war film is when the movie and Berg come alive.

black crab
The future

Co-written by Berg and Pelle Radstrom, Black Crab is a war movie in which why or what the war is over is never stated or even hinted at. All we know is that it seems to be a civil war, but the film never makes any effort to help us tell one side from another. Possibly because the only thing Berg and Radstrom seem all that intent on says is “War is hell.”

A noble, if not altogether the freshest idea for a movie. Yet, inside all this militaristic posturing, the idea for Black Crab seems ripped right out of a classic B-movie. Caroline Edh (Noomi Rapace) has been selected for a suicide mission that, if successful, will end the war. The mission? Edh and the rest of her patrol must skate across the frozen archipelago to deliver a mysterious package behind enemy lines. Yet, amidst all the humorless and stone-faced glaring, there beats a heart of a silly, if not a little charming, weird little movie.

It’s on the ice that Black Crab begins to find itself. Edh and her fellow soldiers, Nylund (Jakob Oftebro), Malik (Dar Salim), Karimi (Ardalan Esmaili), and Granvik (Erik Enge), find themselves on thin ice–sometimes literally–as they skate through the dark. The motley crew will stumble upon kindly old couples in abandoned houses and cruise ships frozen in the ocean that have crashed onto land.

I couldn’t help of think of Ishiro Honda’s 1963 film Matango as the characters wandered around frozen relics of the past. Frost, ice, and the elements slowly eat away at all that once was. Yet, the characters, single-minded in their focus, are not immune to the strange, surreal sights they stumble upon.

black crab
Edh (Noomi Rapace)

When Black Crab is on the ice, the film approaches ecstatic beauty. Jonas Alarik’s camera, either from above or behind, frames the soldiers skating as the techno-orchestral score by the band Dead People pumps underneath the haunting scenes. Berg, Alarik, and the music create a hypnotic sense as the soldiers skate onward toward the dark horizon, compelled by their mission and their demons to seek an end. In these moments, Berg’s Black Crab is an engrossing and darkly beautiful piece of cinema.

The title refers to the operation Edh and the others are conscripted into. All we know is that they are to deliver to pods after crossing into enemy territory, and their actions will end the war. However, as they grow closer, the soldiers wonder if it might be the end of everything. While the film is Swedish, the civil war does not seem to be set in Sweden, with the names of the cities and territories being fictional. 

Edh was picked for the mission. She became a soldier after her daughter was taken by the enemy. The higher-ups convince her to go with the promise of being to be reunited with her daughter, whom they have discovered in a refugee camp

The politics and propaganda of the war are only ever alluded to. But never in a way that would shed light on the situation at hand. All that is known is that the war has ravaged the land and its people.

Refugee camps and homeless encampments litter the geography of the war-torn country. Early on, Berg clarifies that you can never trust anyone. This flows into Berg and Radstrom’s wide net of anti-war messaging. The problem with civil wars is that they are messy. For one side, it is a revolution, and the other an upset of the order of things as they should be. There is no clear enemy; the enemy is whoever has a gun or is hungry and needs to do whatever they can to survive.

But Berg shows the horrors of war so much better when he and his characters skate on the ice. What seems like a surface-level riff on the 1990 Rick King film Prayer for the Rollerboys is, in fact, the film’s most astute, enrapturing, spell-like aspect. Here, Berg and Alarik merge their themes and images in the most coherent ways. Scenes such as when the squadron stumbles upon a mass grave of bodies in the water.

black crab
A chilling discovery

Some soldiers believe it’s the enemy because “we” would never do that. Others believe that they are from a capsized lifeboat. Who the bodies are and how they got there isn’t the point; it’s representative of how war slowly ebbs our shock of death. The squadron questions where the bodies came from, some being more disturbed than others.

Berg and Radstrom’s script doesn’t give the actors much to work with or we in the audience much to distinguish one character from another. Rapace’s Edh is the only one with any kind of motivation, while the others are given almost no real arc of their own. As a result, we don’t feel any loss when they begin to die off. Though the actors do a tremendous job in their attempts to breathe life into those flimsily constructed cliche roles.

It’s only when Black Crab finds itself recycling well-worn tropes that it begins to lag. For example, through a series of misunderstandings, one of the soldiers is thought to be a traitor until it is revealed after his death that he is innocent. Another soldier has a monologue of what he dreams of doing after the war is over, and wouldn’t you know it, he gets shot. Of course, he brushes it off, but we learn the wound is much more severe than he let on a few short scenes later.

Though there are times when Berg and Radstrom confront the truth of the matter in clever ways, as the platoon gets closer and closer to their destination, members begin to die off or are killed. One finally breaks down and cries out, “Everybody just keeps dying, and nobody cares.”

Eventually, Black Crab gets off the ice and into a film’s coda that is neither interesting nor particularly engaging. The problem stems from Rapace’s character, whose stoic determination helps buoy much of the film’s gravitas. It is revealed that the package is, in fact, something far more deadly than they were led to believe. Unfortunately, the revelation means little to Edh, who only wants her daughter.

But it doesn’t seem to click for Edh that if everyone else dies, her daughter dies. It’s an act of not just incredible selfishness on her part but of rank stupidity that has up to this point not been part of the character’s personality. To make matters worse, Black Crab begins to dove-tail into a sort of sloppy and broad ad hominem aimed at anti-authority and individualism that seems to go against everything the film has been saying up until that point. Not to mention the head-scratcher of a decision to try and end the movie on a dour but hopeful note.

It dilutes the film, which, while not without glaring flaws, was still effective and at times spellbinding. It is a pity because swaths of Black Crab border on haunting and strange and begs the question of what type of film it might have been if it felt free to shake off its narrative shackles. As it stands, the film is a promising debut of a director that falters because he refuses to skate into the unknown and instead settles for cliche.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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