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Parts Per Billion

2014 | 102 min | R | 1.85:1

Parts Per Billion


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Parts Per Billion


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Parts Per Billion Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, May 24, 2014

“Parts Per Billion” is the type of film that stretches for profundity, but can only reach a punishing ambiance of despondency. Taking on the end of the world, writer/director Brian Horiuchi struggles to create a dynamic doomsday vibe while tending to the intimate details of humanity as it struggles with the inevitable. More dull than devastating, “Parts Per Billion” can’t kickstart a convincing mood of panic, instead resting on tedious existential discussions and relationship woes while stringing together a useless cat’s cradle of character connections, forgoing the larger portrait of desperation to keep everything linked in a contrived manner.

Chemical weapons have been unleashed in the Middle East, with wind patterns spreading the toxins all over the world. In America, panic is beginning to settle in, with unassuming citizens starting to realize the gravity of the situation as they casually avoid news reports. Musician Erik (Penn Badgley) is struggling to make a living doing what he loves, while fiancée Anna (Teresa Palmer) is fighting the early stages of schizophrenia, frightened by her unsteady behavior. Mia (Rosario Dawson) is a lawyer targeted for seduction by a co-worker, coming to terms with her unemployed husband, Len (Josh Hartnett), who spends most of his day avoiding responsibility. Sarah (Alexis Bledel) is a nurse who’s hit with front line hysteria, watching people flood into her hospital seeking treatment. And Andy (Frank Langella) is a scientist who sold chemical weapon plans to the highest bidder to pay for his daughter’s health care, now facing the consequences of his actions as he fights to keep wife Esther (Gena Rowlands) alive.

If there’s anything that “Parts Per Billion” gets right it’s an atmosphere of gradual panic. Since Horiuchi doesn’t have any money to feel out the expanse of the chemical threat, he builds the framework of the crisis with faux news clips and a repurposing of file footage, creating at least a passable depiction of a world turned upside down, with citizens facing possible extinction without governmental help. It’s budget panic, but effective, launching “Parts Per Billion” with a credible sense of looming disaster, nicely contrasting chaos with the relative peace of domestic life for the main characters, each tied up in their own personal drama, blinded to the life or death struggle that’s inching towards them.

To create a sense of surprise, Horiuchi dices up the storytelling, flashing back and forth in time to maintain a woozy sense of placement that adds to global disorientation. Sometimes we’re introduced to characters who are already dead, moving back a few days to understand how the poisoned air finally claimed them, while others show up with full confidence, and we watch as everything worsens for them. It’s a scattered approach to telling a simple tale, and it doesn’t work as smoothly as it should, an irritant eventually coupled with the screenplay’s goal to connect all the personalities in one way or another (for example, Erik is Andy’s grandson, Sarah is Len’s sister), which appears engineered to make approaching desperation all the more thorough. The community vibe doesn’t work without necessary screentime to make the relationships matter. Horiuchi establishes superficial ties, which call attention to screenwriting deficiencies. These survivors are better off as strangers, only united in a solitary fight to save their lives.

The use of Michigan locations, including the rotted remains of Detroit, is effective, finding a desolate space to generate additional tension once the deadly air reaches the city. Perhaps “Parts Per Billion” might’ve be more useful as a “Contagion”-style thriller, as Horiuchi’s more philosophical directions are difficult to digest, while Anna’s downward spiral into possible insanity is reduced to shards of significance, contorted with dreamscape imagery. There’s sadness everywhere, as the end of humanity collides with private matters, yet the production only truly concentrates on relationship woe, imagining that viewers will be pulled in by such a personal touch. It’s difficult to find scenes of substance in “Parts Per Billion,” which does a fine job of introductions, but doesn’t have a game plan for payoffs, keeping the picture locked in a tedious cycle of triviality as the material teases a large scale nightmare on the horizon that holds far more potential than characters arguing about their marriage, their madness, and their guilt.

Starring: Frank Langella, Gena Rowlands, Rosario Dawson, Penn Badgley, Teresa Palmer (I), Alexis Bledel
Director: Brian Horiuchi

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