The future is short of breath in “Air,” a sci-fi chamber piece with Norman Reedus and Djimon Hounsou as two grunts charged with maintaining an underground government bunker after chemical warfare has rendered the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. This irst feature for videogame designer/writer Christian Cantamessa has an intriguing premise and two capable stars, none of which is utilized as memorably as one might hope. Competently crafted but ultimately just OK, the suspenser should be able to parlay its cast names’ appeal into decent returns in home-format sales. Limited theatrical opening on 15 U.S. screens Aug. 14 is occurring simultaneously with a VOD launch.
At the start, Bauer (Reedus) and Cartwright (Hounsou) rise from their sleep tanks, as they do every six months. Twice a year they’re roused from artificial slumber and given two hours’ worth of oxygen to complete the tasks necessary to keep this subterranean complex operating. Their job is vital, but they aren’t the VIPs here: There’s a small army of scientific and other experts in cryogenic limbo, waiting for the day when their knowledge and skills will (hopefully) help humanity rebuild some semblance of civilization. As their caretakers guess from various (presumably archival) news reports glimpsed on TV monitors, that may not come to pass for some time — it’s estimated that the damage done to the planet’s atmosphere will prevent above-ground resettlement for another 30 to 150 years.
Though Cartwright is earnestly idealistic toward this mission and Bauer more a cynical pragmatist, the two have arrived at a sometimes cranky but mutually supportive rapport. After all, they only have each other — something that, as Cantamessa and co-scribe Chris Pasetto’s dialogue repetitiously reminds us, makes them “like family.” Actually, Cartwright also has imaginary conversations — and occasional imaginary kisses — with Abby (Sandrine Holt), who’s one of the nearby geniuses on ice, and was apparently his spouse before everything went to hell.
Business as usual is disrupted when one of the two men’s sleep pods is damaged in a spontaneous fire, shifting focus to their own immediate survival. Searching for replacement parts, Cartwright is forced to explore sealed-off areas of the complex, making some unpleasant discoveries as Bauer uncovers a few of his own. These revelations lead to a potentially mortal conflict between them, which somewhat routinely plays out as one chasing another with a conveniently found handgun.
“Air” is confidently executed (beyond vidgames, Cantamessa and Pasetto honed their skills on several prior shorts), but its middling plot twists and atmospherics fail to ratchet up as much tension as Edo Van Breeman’s score tries to evoke. More could have been eked out of the setting’s claustrophobia (indeed, with oxygen in such short supply, the complex seems rather wastefully spacious), and the dangling fate of not only our protagonists but all mankind merits more urgency than is communicated here. Though it’s an every-second-counts situation, the sole sequence that really captures emergency tension is one in which Bauer nearly suffocates due to a mechanical malfunction.
Hounsou and Reedus are charismatic performers. Still, they’ve played variations on these characters before, and the writing introduces no particularly flavorful idiosyncrasies. They keep the film watchable, but can’t quite lend it the greater distinction lacking in the serviceable script. Design and tech contributions are solid if unimaginative, with CGI limited to a brief sequence in which Hounsou pokes head above-ground to survey the devastated planetary surface.