“Walking Dead” fans may with to rally around “Air,” the sci-fi thriller that reteams star Norman Reedus with the hit drama’s producers Robert Kirkman and David Alpert. Regrettably, the feature directorial debut of video game writer turned filmmaker Christian Cantamessa gives audiences little to get excited about. And no, in case you’re wondering, there are no zombies here.
Inspired by actual Cold War plots, “Air” is set in the not-so-distant future, where chemical warfare has scorched Earth, making its surface uninhabitable. To preserve the human race, a selection of experts in various disciplines have been cryogenically frozen, awaiting a time when they might be revived to help the world rebuild. Looking after them are are two custodians, Bauer (Reedus) and Cartwright (Djimon Hounsou), who are awoken from their own cryogenic sleep for two hours every six months to carry out their duties. But when one of the pair’s sleep pods is destroyed, they are left scrambling for survival and — say it with me! — air.
The script by Cantamessa and Chris Pasetto offers a premise rich with possibility. What must it be like to be, more or less, the only two people left on Earth? And how do you cope when your purpose in life boils down to is preserving those deemed more valuable to the world than yourself? Unfortunately, Cantamessa and Pasetto take the path least interesting , only lightly touching on the concept’s most promising elements before forcing its characters into a clumsy one-on-one showdown filled with twists so predictable it’s irksome.
More frustrating is Cantamessa’s incompetence as a visual storyteller. Despite his background in video games, his attempt at establishing the geography of this bunker feels haphazard. Considering a major element of the film is the threat of suffocation, “Air” should have emphasized the claustrophobic nature of its setting. But without a strong sense of where we are, the feeling of being trapped is compromised. The production design does “Air” few favors, with high ceilings — that the cinematography repeatedly shows off — lessening the sensation of being trapped.
Think of “Snowpiercer,” and how every inch of the tail of the train was crowded, cruddy or utilized; it created some incredible world-building, along with a sense of claustrophobia that ratcheted up the tension. In contrast, “Air” offers one surprisingly spacious yet bland setting after another, exposing the film’s low budget and a missed opportunity.
If “Air” had created a smothering atmosphere, then its slow-burn pacing might have paid off. It would’ve bolstered tension with each passing minute, as Duncan Jones did so sensationally in “Moon.” But “Air”s lengthy setup of its simple premise and stock characters (snarky realist, high-minded idealist) isn’t tense, it’s tiresome. Cantamessa doesn’t trust the audience to pick up simple visual cues (like family photos with the word “dead” scrawled across faces), and so slathers on verbal explanations (those people are all dead) with clunky dialogue (“You’d think someone who just slept six months would be in a better mood!”). When the second act finally kicks in with the destruction of a pod, I hoped things would pick up. But somehow Cantamessa took two charismatic performers beloved for their gritty gravitas and made their life-or-death interactions yawn-inducing.
To his credit, Reedus relishes in Bauer’s dark side, be it the antagonistic sense of humor he shows bragging about his plans to masturbate, or the sick glee displayed when he has the upper hand. Hounsou delivers a striking performance laced with tenderness, empathy and fear. And it’s good to see him breaking from his niche of cold, scary baddie (“How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “Seventh Son,” “Furious 7,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”). But their powers combined cannot save this dull production.
Ultimately, “Air” is one of those forgettable sci-fi movies you might watch on TV during a rainy afternoon and enjoy just fine if you’re splitting time between it and fiddling with your phone. But ultimately, there’s nothing here innovative, fresh or fun enough to recommend it.
“Air” opens Aug. 14.
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