Narrative contrivances doom 'Air''s attempt at psychological tension
Air Vertical Entertainment
Director: Christian Cantamessa
Screenplay: Chris Pasetto and Christian Cantamessa
Starring: Norman Reedus, Djimon Hounsou and Sandrine Holt
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
It would be charitable to say that Air, an original sci-fi feature from Christian Cantamessa, is a half-formed idea. "Half" might be overselling it. An unexplained calamity has wiped out most of life on earth, because of course. For those who remain, breathable air is extremely scarce, and so they (or at least the best and brightest among them) exist in cryogenic sleep in an underground facility, presumably kept alive in order to re-start civilization once the air is clean. A pair of grunts are tasked with keeping the facility up and running, which means they get to wake up and stretch their legs every six months ... but only for two hours. Then it's back to cryo-bed.
The rest of the film could basically be summed up as, "Things go wrong, and the two grunts get mad at each other." It's meant to be a tense, claustrophobic chamber piece, but Cantamessa is never really able to exploit the atmospheric possibilities of the setting. We never wonder much beyond, Is one of these guys going to kill the other one? And even that question stems more from narrative constructions than emotional or psychological volatility. The movie doesn't really know what to do with its story concept or the apocalyptic background that set it all in motion. Instead of trying to figure that out, it resorts to small talk among the leads, the presence of an unexplained ghost, and the appearance of Chekhov's Gun.
It's that last element that fully exposes the film as being almost completely devoid of ideas. It begins to feel like a product of the Michael Scott school of storytelling. Once the gun shows up, we're simply waiting around to find out who is going to eventually point it at whom. The why doesn't particularly matter. It never feels like anything but a cheap device to artificially heighten the tension. As a lover of old-fashioned cinematic artifice, I can appreciate that as much as anyone ... but must it be so lazy? In this case the gun is just plopped - yes, plopped is the right word - into the environment because no one could come up with a better idea. It might as well be a video game. I half-expected to see a chicken dinner and a first-aid kit sitting in the corner of the room, too.
Air is designed primarily as a showcase for its two actors, the great Djimon Hounsou and cult hero Norman Reedus, capitalizing on his The Walking Dead popularity so transparently - he has the exact same matted-down hair and ratty beard as Daryl Dixon - that I was kind of disappointed the movie didn't just go all the way and give him a crossbow to carry around. It'd be a hell of a lot more interesting than the pistol, at least.
The two men - Bauer (Reedus) and Cartwright (Hounsou) - share a jocular familiarity bred mostly out of circumstance. They get along, but what choice do they have? They are, by default, one another's best friend. Because who else is there.
Well ... except that's not entirely true of Cartwright, who, unbeknownst to his compatriot, has been meeting (conspiring?) with the apparition of a woman named Abby (Sandrine Holt). A former lover, we assume. Dead, we also assume. But just because she's not real doesn't mean she can't put some dangerous ideas in his head ...
The inciting incident - which we see initially just from Bauer's point of view before later gaining a clearer picture - is an intriguing sequence because our view is so limited. It is the film's best scene because it is its most elemental, primal moment - and it suggests a raising of the psychological stakes that the screenplay had, up to that moment, only hinted at. I don't believe it's too much of a spoiler to say it has directly to do with the nature of Cartwright's situation. Has he gone mad? If so, what is the degree of his madness? Or are his visions simply a coping mechanism?
But Cantamessa is largely unable to really turn those into interesting questions, let alone provide interesting answers. Air is competently made, and the dirty industrial aesthetic of the set - the Nostromo as an underground survival bunker - grounds the film effectively, putting our focus less on the ideas about the world that's disappeared, and more squarely on whatever psychological dance is taking place between these two - or should I say three? - characters in the here and now. The sense of time, or lack of it, is an intriguing lingering concern for Bauer and Cartwright. Theirs is a Sisyphean task, and they could realistically be doing it for decades, even centuries, while only aging a few weeks or months.
The possible futility of what they're doing is certainly a topic of conversation, but further exploration on the film's part is sacrificed in favor of trumped-up danger and suspense. To be fair, Cantamessa has an idea of where he's going with this story and why. He just takes one of the less thoughtful roads to get there.