Since Roland Emmerich has pretty much cornered the market on big-scale steroid-enhanced end of the world extravaganzas, the makers of “Parts Per Billion” go the opposite direction. If “2012” was a duvet of the end of days, “Parts Per Billion” is a tea cozy, small and maybe not as useful as it thinks.
A terrorist attack in the Middle East releases a cloud of toxic something or other that proceeds to shift all of Europe to a vertical position, and gradually makes it way across the ocean. Three couples have to face the end of civilization, and face the choice of how their end of days will end, together or apart. Each of the three storylines are interconnected in glancing ways that are only gradually revealed.
Frank Langella plays a chemist who had an important role in the origins of the attack, and whose wife, Gena Rowlands, is wheelchair bound after heart surgery. Lawyer Rosario Dawson and husband Josh Hartnett find their estranged relationship renewed as they fight to stay alive. Teresa Palmer is a young girl suffering from mental illness, who wrestles with revealing a big secret to her boyfriend, Penn Badgley. Alexis Bledel is a nurse who helps out Langella, Hill Harper is Hartnett’s friend who faces his own drama.
Writer and director Brian Horiuchi sets the stage of his apocalypse drama with some low-budget crowd chaos and a good deal of stock footage re-purposed with newsreader voiceovers. The only CGI seems to occur inside a guitar pick (a foreshadowing vision from the young woman, if you must know) and the focus is on intimate conversation, not on extroverted explosions or vast vistas of devastation.
Stretches of the film work that unhurried confidentiality effectively, other scenes are languid to the point of immobility, with some dots that never quite connect. Dawson and Hartnett’s story works the best, with an emotional urgency and pointedness that the other two stories can’t seem to muster up. No one will accuse “Parts Per Billion” of sensory overload.
The film also struggles with a quasi-documentary look and sound, with problematic bits of dialogue recording and a dreary visual style. Maybe these are stabs at in-the-moment realism, maybe not. And who decided that having Langella and Rowland wear oxygen masks for half the movie was a good idea? Since his scientist character helped create the toxin, he knows to breathe pure oxygen from a tank, instead of breathing the air. When their tanks run low, they journey on foot and wheelchair to a hospital to find more. Two fine, fine actors, and you cover their faces with a mask, like they’re Bane or something?
Considering it really is the end of the world as we know it, and no one feels fine, there’s a curiously placid mood. You’d think there would be a sense of panic or urgency, but Horiuchi tends to dawdle even when proceedings are crying out for a burst of energy. The result is a soggy, if well-intentioned, drama that only works one-third of the time.
The Blu-ray for “Parts Per Billion” is presented in 16 x 9 widescreen. I suspect there isn’t much that can be done for the gray toned, listless photography of the finished film, but whatever the challenges, this disc doesn’t address them. There are subtitle options for English SDH and Spanish.
The audio track is 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, and again, there seem to be problems with the original footage that the disc cannot compensate for. A few bits of dialogue are faint or unclear, and the multi-channel mix is just okay.
There are no extras on this disc.
“Parts Per Billion” looks at the apocalypse from a refreshingly intimate point of view, but can’t really find much of interest to say about it. Performances by Josh Hartnett and Rosario Dawson are the highlights.