Directed by: Brian Horiuchi; Runtime: 98 minutes
Inevitability, fatalism, and the effect they have on the fabric of love are the driving forces behind Parts Per Billion, the epidemic disaster romance-drama from Brian Horiuchi. There's a noteworthy philosophical consideration at the center of this idea, one that coexists in the space between other films that depict uncontrollable doomsday events: the appreciation that we, as humans, should have for the time we're able to spend with those that matter most to us, along with the decision whether to persevere or "bravely" surrender to likely death. Unfortunately, Horiuchi's film materializes into something as insistently pessimistic as it is frustratingly tedious while navigating the premise, a heavy-handed cautionary tale about the dangers of biological warfare that intentionally wants to leave its audience emotionally overwhelmed by the bleakness of its doomed relationships. Despite a robust cast that misses few beats along the way, it's simply too inauthentic and severe to embrace the points it'd like to convey.
During a catastrophic conflict in the Middle East, a lethal contaminant has been deployed that, by the cruel neutrality of nature, has begun to spread across the entire globe. The amount of preparation time everyone has remains largely unknown, but emergency broadcast systems gradually feed information to United States citizens as the cloud approaches. Amid the catastrophe, Parts Per Billion jumps between time periods to tell the stories of three different, yet loosely connected relationships, and how they're reacting to the news: a young newly-engaged couple, featuring a demanding, reactionary girlfriend (Teresa Palmer) and her struggling musician boyfriend (Penn Badgley) living off his family's wealth; a close-to-middle aged couple, including a high-profile lawyer (Rosario Dawson) and her unemployed, depression-wracked writer husband (Josh Hartnett); and an elderly couple, made up of a wife (Gena Rowlands) with health problems and her incredibly well-off scientist spouse (Frank Langella). Through them, the film explores the way people grasp the unavoidability of death and the relative futility and significance of their prior issues.
The acting isn't a problem here, whatsoever, which should be a testament to the underlying issues with Parts Per Billion itself. Teresa Palmer and Penn Badgley capably embody the conflicting quirks of a couple on the cusp of engagement, yet they're undermined by ludicrous and overblown conversations about washing the dishes and the label on a cheap bottle of soap. Rosario Dawson and Josh Hartnett are both in top form as conflicted yet loving spouses, but they're contained in sequences involving one character's erratic attitude at parties and another's descent into an irrational death wish. Frank Langella and Gena Rowlands hit plenty of earnest notes as an older couple coping with the many losses in their lives, yet much of Langella's arc is clouded by the bloated gray-area decision he makes regarding his finances and his scientific knowledge. Each of their performances hits the right notes, especially when their dispositions shift into panic and despair, but the material they're given isn't convincing enough to ring true as genuine human interaction or reasonable tangents of thought.
This is largely because Parts Per Billion -- much like the airborne poison at the center of the film -- is intentionally engineered for hopelessness and emotional defeat, systematically tearing down shreds of optimism without the substance to give it weight beyond its insistent anguish. It starts with news announcements and images of pandemonium, where the material feels content enough in its establishment of the situation's imminence to focus directly on the relationships themselves, unlike the balancing of emotional drama and course-correction suspense in Soderbergh's Contagion. Instead, director Horiuchi attractively captures the looming fate of these individuals, unsteadily jumping back and forth in time to reveal bits about their intimacy shortly before the blight becomes critical. While never completely losing its grasp on whether things occur in the past or present, the jumbled chronology makes it difficult to embrace the development in each kinship, especially with pregnancies, revelations about affairs, and the design of the plague itself shoehorned in their end-of-the-world musings.
Despite a suitably-presented indie setting of mushrooming dread against a collage of news and radio broadcasts, the result is a seriously objectionable piece of cynical cinema, especially in how it handles the feature characters' moments of inescapability from the apocalyptic spread. As the script sprays and prays with its half-realized themes -- following one's heart in their profession over financial security, the futility of arguments over small things, whether you've really discovered the love of your life or just another fish in the sea -- the film almost seems like it's obligated to remind us that, yes, the actions and thoughts of these people are how they're utilizing their time before their clock runs out. There's little justification to that nihilism, only the knowledge that it's happening as the consequence of warfare, and that personal introspection and resignation to death come to the surface with the knowledge of oblivion approaching. Sadly, even the comedic inclinations of something like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World hits those notes more poignantly than the devoted machinations of this superficial downer.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 6/24/2014