Friday, 15 February 2019

Movie Review: Parts Per Billion (2014)


An end-of-the-world drama and romance, Parts Per Billion features three loosely connected storylines but adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

A war in the Middle East results in biological weapons being launched. Winds spread the lethal airborne germs, triggering massive death on a global scale. In Michigan, three couples await the arrival of the end, with flashbacks filling in their backstories.

Anna (Teresa Palmer) is intently following the news and the looming disaster increases the intensity of her jealous attachment to fiancé and musician Erik (Penn Badgley). He is calmer and less interested in world events. Lawyer Mia (Rosario Dawson) has a successful career, while her husband Len (Josh Hartnett) is underemployed but supportive. Their relationship is under stress because she did not discourage the advances of an office colleague. They take refuge in their sealed basement as the germs arrive.

The elderly Andy and Esther (Frank Langella and Gena Rowlands) are at the hospital for medical tests when the airborne contamination strikes. Oxygen masks help them survive. He is struggling with feelings of guilt, as he was paid large sums of money to help develop the biological weapons now destroying humanity. The three couples share some associations: Erik is the grandson of Andy and Esther, Mia successfully defended and acquitted Andy in a legal case, and Len's sister Sarah (Alexis Bledel) is a nurse looking after Esther at the hospital.

Sharing some of the same contaminant properties as 2011's Contagion, Parts Per Billion focuses more on people and less on events. Writer and director Brian Horiuchi is interested in the lives and loves of relatively ordinary people, and leaves the broader response to the crisis, if any, off screen. The six central characters are relatable, but far from profoundly interesting. They are also passive victims and observers rather than protagonists.

From the vantage point of the three couples, people are dying en masse, television reports reveal powerless elected officials fleeing, and opportunities for salvation or rescue are not even mentioned. A sealed basement and stocks of supplies offer hope for Mia and Len, but only if they can tolerate each other in confined surroundings. Oxygen masks extend life for Andy and Esther as long as they can find more canisters at the hospital. Anna and Erik just embrace the end with understandable anxiety but overall ambivalent acceptance.

With the title referring to the measure of contamination but also the miniscule relevance of every individual in a global context, it may be fully Horiuchi's intent to highlight the banal nature of life and predictable appreciation of love as the end comes into focus. But the movie suffers mightily from the absence of momentum. Other than small revelations about the couples, not much of anything actually happens over 98 minutes spread thin across three sub-stories. The repetitive shallow expressions of love, anger, frustration and regret struggle to leave an impression.

Parts Per Billion rides in on an evil wind, but exits in a whimper.






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