When it first hit theaters way back in 1999, people predicted that The Matrix would be influential. It had that amazing bullet time effect, lots of Wachowski Brothers bravado, and a narrative that lent itself to multiple viewings (and interpretations). Sadly, very few of the films inspired by this sci-fi landmark have come close to matching its power and providence. They either leave in the style and forget the substance, or visa versa. Now comes the Swedish directorial team of Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein. After years as part of their homeland's TV industry, the duo offers up their first full length feature, a direct take on Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity called Storm. With its reality vs. dream structure and slacker as superhero dynamic, there's a lot of comparable elements at work here. But Mårlind and Stein also manage the near impossible. They've made a movie that is as good - or perhaps even better - than that infamous clash between man and machine.
Writer/screw-up DD enjoys his life as a fringe dwelling drone. He does his job, parties when he wants, and uses the secret knowledge of his co-workers' vices to his own ends. One night, he runs into a very evocative redhead named Lova. She hands him a tiny grey box and tells him to hold onto it. Before he knows it, bald headed hitmen under the direction of a black suited man come calling, bringing death and destruction every step of the way. When DD confronts Lova later, he is told he must revisit his past - literally - if he is to uncover the secret of what the cube contains. Suddenly sent back into his own history, our hero sees the many mean-spirited mistakes he has made, as well as all the personal hurt he has caused. Naturally, it all has something to do with a private pain he has tried to hide from for all these years. And Lova may be much more than a catalyst. She may have a connection to saving - or condemning - his very soul.
It's always interesting to see how foreign films channel our Western aesthetic. A few years ago, filmmaker Ulf Malmros took an obvious love for all things Tarantino and morphed it into the terrific genre-bending burlesque Slim Susie. While some complained of its copycat nature, there was no denying the 2003 movie's methodology. Something similar happens with Mårlind and Stein's Storm. Upon a first viewing, audiences eager for something new and unusual will probably drone at the striking similarities between this effort and the work of a certain pair of comic book loving Chicago savants. But at its core, this time traveling take on personal pain and the memories we stridently store away is a great deal more spiritual, complicated, and open ended than its obvious inspiration. It may not have the Matrix's level of visual sophistication, and the final analysis may be missing that movie's deep philosophical undercurrent, but in its own unique way, this film is just as powerful and approachable. Storm is not just about a battle between good and evil - it's a war fought on a landscape both cosmic and highly insular. Together, they make even the most mundane situations resonate with meaning.
In essence - and without wandering over into spoiler territory - Storm centers on one man regaining the horrors of a misspent youth. Most are aimed directly at deeds he himself was responsible for. Those illustrated in the narrative are quite unnerving. DD does something to a willing if wary Goth gal girlfriend that sickens us in its sadism, and the brutality he forces on his little brother gives bullying an even more horrific name. There must be a reason for these reactions, for what appears to be a decent man who spent his adolescence making those around him miserable, and Mårlind and Stein definitely deliver on said premise. When we learn of DD's entire past, of the single event that may hold the key to what's inside that precious box, we believe in the force it holds. Even better, our directing duo handle this material in a way that brings out added facets. The aesthetic approaches here may seem obvious, but they function as free association, allowing us to fall further down into our hero's hideous life, and see why the struggle for his very soul may be occurring. Even dressed up in videogame parlance, Storm sticks to the very nature of our humanness - and frequently lapses of humanity.
As with most movies of this kind, Storm benefits from revisionist revisits. Since we are thrown into a dark and disturbing chase without knowing the 'who', 'what', or 'where', a second time through realigns our perspective. It also gives us an opportunity to appreciate the action, as well as the actors. It is up to Oscar Åkermo to carry the entire film, to make us care for this otherwise ambiguous cad, and he does so magnificently. Sure, there are times when he's obviously "performing", putting on the tears to earn some emotional heft, but in the sequences where it counts the most - the supposed time travel - our lead really sells the logistics. Even better is Eva Röse as Lova. Offered up as the personification of one man's graphic novel dreams, as well as to move us along through the frequent concept convolutions, she's striking to look at. Yet thanks to her delicate features, we sense her vulnerability and champion her challenges. While it would be nice to say that Storm satisfies the last element of an effective thriller by providing us a proficient villain, there is no Agent Smith here. Our bad guy is a decent presence, but nothing more. It may be the only flaw in what is otherwise a proficient and very provocative effort. Storm may suffer from an initial comparison to its Matrix-like tendencies, but in the end, this Swedish import provides just as much fascinating food for thought.
TLA Releasing uses this Danger After Dark label to bring Storm to Region 1 audiences in an evocative, if slightly underwhelming 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image. Certainly there is enough of a reliance on the green/blue visual aura to remind us of the Wachowskis, but there are also washed out sequences of abandoned towns, along with fiery moments when Lova battles for spiritual supremacy. All are represented well, even if it appears that Mårlind and Stein had a limited budget with which to realize their aims. Storm doesn't look specifically lo-fi, but there are moments when this transfer gives away the production constraints.
Offered up in two dramatically different mixes, Storm strives to "Westernize" its appeal by providing a slightly silly English dubbed version (in Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0). As with any attempt to translate one language into another, skipping the Swedish reduces the movie to a series of cinematic clichés. Stick with Mårlind and Stein's native tongue. While they pepper their scenes with frequent American euphemisms, the inherent power in the Scandinavian dialect (and its 5.1 Surround presentation) is far more compelling.
Sadly, TLA does little with this movie except provide a trailer and a series of production stills. This is the kind of complex experience that mandates the filmmakers be given an opportunity to explain, yet there is no commentary, or interview featurette for that matter. Maybe the company felt a certain financial limitation in bringing this kind of added content to the DVD. Here's hoping it was an artistic, not fiscal, choice on the part of TLA and/or Mårlind and Stein.
As one of those pleasant surprises that accompanies a career centered on film criticism, Storm deserves a great deal of praise. It is a worthy successor to the movie that inspired it, and offers enough originality to warrant referencing - or outright remaking - itself. Indeed, one imagines that somewhere in the great Hollywood cabal, some suit is trying to mastermind a US version of this twisty tale ASAP. A better DVD package would have produced something akin to the much coveted Collector's Edition ranking, but as it stands, Storm earns a definitive score of Highly Recommended. If you can get past your prejudices, and notice how sly Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein are in presenting their version of the most universal of battles, you'll realize something very extraordinary: sometimes, imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery. Sometimes, it creates an equally compelling original.