Sometime in the near future, due to nuclear fallout, the object of this film’s title becomes a rare and precious commodity, one even more valuable and life essential than the scarce petrol in the first three Mad Max films. From TV news clips we get the current state of affairs: Riots and chaos break out as the breathable life force runs out and the world slides into an apocalyptic purge. Those who survive (the educated and the well-off, as everyone else is told to hold tight) get put into stasis in subterranean facilities (ironically, old missile silos) where engineers (Norman Reedus and Djimon Hounsou) breathe the last kernels of air and keep a watchful eye over the remainder of humanity.
The dark ant-tunnel sets erected by director Christian Cantamessa and his crew call to mind the camped confines of the salvage ship in Alien, as does the theme of man being vulnerable and at the mercy of a computer-controlled environ. It’s also a place where authority is nonexistent and order is a tenuous concept from across time and space, open to interpretation.
At its core, Air comments on man’s self-destructive nature and wastefulness—let alone the ostensible environmental issues and our future prospects. But as Bauer (Reedus) and Cartwright (Hounsou) set out to make a critical repair, the dynamics between the two—their trustfulness of each other, along with other hidden agendas and states of mental health (Cartwright keeps chatting up the lovely Sandrine Holt, who’s clearly not in the material now)—take center stage. The ensuing action, or nonaction as the film has it, becomes a dramatic ebb and flow propelled by much banter, and feels better suited for the stage.
As a cloistered test of wills, Air could have best been expanded with further contemplation about the relevance of man, his place in the universe and the prospect of extinction. There are some neat dabbles about the working-class survivors getting in to tend to the upper class, but beyond that the two capable actors, like their characters, are left to fend for themselves in the looming staleness. Cantamessa, who cut his teeth on video games, gets the moody edginess down right, but he doesn’t know how to get the narrative arc to level up when it matters.
It’s interesting to see Reedus, star of The Walking Dead, hang out in another post-apocalyptic struggle, but then again he’s also on as an executive producer—and Robert Kirkman, the creative force behind AMC’s hit zombie fest, also serves as one of the film’s producers.
Back in 1972 the enviro-thriller Silent Running, a film of similar size and construct in which the future of mankind was also entrusted to a few drones, was rooted in the firm beliefs of one man (a fabulously frantic Bruce Dern) and sold the concept effusively. Here, the myriad of heavy-footed red herrings make Air a lesser Event Horizon (1997) sans the bloody gruesomeness. Feather light and full of unrealized promise, Air disappoints in not where it goes, but where it doesn’t go.
Director: Christian Cantamessa
Writers: Christian Cantamessa, Chris Pasetto
Starring: Norman Reedus and Djimon Hounsou
Release Date: August 14, 2015
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, Mass. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Paste, The Rumpus, WBUR’s ARTery, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. He is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.