The press materials for Netflix’s Swedish-import action movie Black Crab say it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world, and that does communicate the look and feel of this grimly stylish military thriller. But “post-apocalyptic” is still a bit of a misnomer. It’s mid-apocalyptic, really, and the apocalypse onscreen isn’t a plague, an alien invasion, or an environmental catastrophe. It’s a war — a conventional, brutal war that’s been going on for years.
The geopolitics of this situation are kept intentionally obscure. In an opening flashback, a car radio mentions rioting, “both sides” blaming each other, and the start of a civil war. The setting seems to be Sweden. The enemy is only ever referred to as “the enemy.” To the extent viewers can tell, it feels more like a society turned on itself than a clash of cultures or nations, but no ideological rift is ever explained. Whatever set off the conflict must have been serious, because the society is nearing complete destruction.
All this lack of detail is presumably intended to underline how meaninglessness the conflict is, or to keep audiences from getting bogged down in their personal political opinions about the war. But really, it just feels like a failure of imagination that makes the film itself feel meaningless: a bleak disquisition on how war is hell, but also looks kind of cool.
Noomi Rapace, as steely and collected as she was in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, plays Caroline Edh, a soldier recruited for a secret mission, the “operation Black Crab” of the title. It’s a bitter midwinter, and her side is losing the war. They’re almost totally cut off, and their only hope to turn the tide is to get two mysterious canisters to a research station on a remote island. And the only way there is to travel quietly at night, sneaking behind enemy lines, across an archipelago locked in sea ice. The ice isn’t thick enough to support a vehicle, so Caroline and a ragtag team of five other soldiers are assembled because they all possess an old-school Nordic skill: They can skate.
It’s easy to see why the premise of Jerker Virdborg’s 2002 novel appealed to commercials director Adam Berg, here making his feature debut. The visual appeal and the inherent tension are clear, and to be fair, Berg realizes both with panache. The small team glides silently across an eerie, fragile white wilderness, a desolate world suspended delicately above a deathly void of freezing sea water. The night skies are lit by arcing flares, muzzle flashes, distant explosions, and the otherworldly glow of the aurora borealis. Occasionally, the images have a surreal poetry. The team must contend with the cold, the treacherous ice, the omnipresent enemy — and each other, because they’re strangers, and they aren’t sure who they can trust.
Here, in the strange and threatening moment it conjures up, Black Crab works quite well. The economical bursts of action are mapped out with clarity and bitten off with curt precision. The quest is simple and the threats are tangible. When Berg and his co-writer Pelle Rådström reach for something more, however, they just close their hands on air. Empty clichés abound.
Rapace is convincing, but can’t do much with the thin material. Caroline, insubordinate and volatile, is seen in flashback scenes trying to survive the early days of the war with her daughter Vanja, who is ripped away from her. Her superiors exploit this pain as motivation, and their promise of an easy end to the war should her mission succeed is suspicious, to say the least. But she charges on regardless. Her nihilistic drive makes sense, but her blinkered obliviousness doesn’t, and when the scales fall from her eyes, viewers are likely to roll theirs. The antagonism between her and another of the soldiers, Nylund (Jakob Oftebro), fizzles and flares and fizzles, however the plot demands it. Lunges for pathos with the other soldiers are undermined by how basically they’re drawn and realized.
There’s another, thornier problem with Black Crab. When this film was made, a horrifying, large-scale internecine war in a modern European country was the stuff of dark fantasy. Now, it isn’t. Berg shows us scenes of bombed-out apartment blocks and miserable refugee camps that look like the news coming in every night from reports on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This isn’t the filmmakers’ fault, and the world of Black Crab is just barely far enough removed from reality that it can pass as a palatable entertainment.
But the comparison also exposes the film for the empty gesture it is. Yes, war is hell, and it inspires people to imagine doing the unimaginable. But it also happens for real and complicated reasons, and it has real stakes: humane, political, moral. By stripping their world of any of this meaning, Berg and his collaborators show us only a beautiful, horrible emptiness. Frankly, it’s a bummer.
Black Crab is now streaming on Netflix.