If you’ve been paying attention to movies over the last decade or so, you’ll notice that the post-apocalyptic theme has been ever-present. Humanity is clearly invested in the possible downfall of civilization, and whether it’s surviving zombie culture on The Walking Dead or solving labyrinthian mysteries in The Maze Runner, we’ve invested in the concept of “the end.” Writer/director Brian Honuchi’s feature debut Parts Per Billion is the less prevalent pre/during-apocalypse movie, which makes it a somewhat sobering reminder that the joy of fictional obsessions is a far more enjoyable thing than actually experiencing the end of the world as we know it. It seems obvious, but this flick drives that home, for better or worse.
Instead of shooting for one coherent narrative, Parts Per Billion splits its storyline between three couples who are struggling with an impending disaster. A new breed of chemical weapons have been created and used overseas with extremely deadly results, and the film flips back and forth between two points in time. The “past” involves the tension-filled days just after the massive casualties have been reported, while the “present” takes place during and after the U.S. falling victim to the airborne chemicals. I’m not sure if this story would have worked had it been presented sequentially, but it definitely loses something being chopped up and unevenly distributed like this. Though the dread and depression still manage to linger throughout.
Because this is a meditation on what survival means to different people, it’s not worth getting too deep into the story here. Frank Langella (Robot and Frank) and Gena Rowlands (The Notebook) are Andy and Esther, respectively, the eldest couple here. He is partly responsible for the disaster, and is now steeped in regret as he tries to keep Esther alive.
Andy’s lawyer in the weapons trial, Mia (Rosario Dawson), is married to the broad-minded Len (Josh Hartnett), and allows herself to enter into a flirtatious relationship with a coworker. Meanwhile, Andy’s grandson Erik (Penn Badgley) is a struggling musician in a relationship with Anna (Teresa Palmer), whose mood shifts are starting to become more obvious and serious. Other characters include an overwhelmed nurse played by Gilmore Girls‘ Alexis Bledel and a basketball-playing Hill Harper CSI: NY.
While big-budget disaster films often spend too much time focused on the problem at hand, ignoring character build-up, Parts Per Billion is almost all character work, as its budget doesn’t really allow for massive sequences. And that’s fine, because this isn’t a movie in need of CGI corpses and car chases. But it’s also misleading, because it leads audiences to believe that getting to know these people will affect you by the end of this movie, but that’s not the case. This is almost akin to meeting someone at an airport and then later hearing that their plane crashed. There’s a need for deeper meaning, but it isn’t always there.
Not that Parts Per Billion is a terrible movie or anything. I can find little wrong with Horiuchi the director, and he communicates the ideas of his lacking screenplay affirmatively. Every scene is imbued with warmth, even when the subject matter is chilling. The performances are all on par with each actor’s better work, and they deliver this workmanlike dialogue with believable angst. This all inevitably makes me that much cooler on Parts Per Billion, as I wish there was more to chew on and feel something about. Maybe I’m just numb at this point. I’ll let you know once I’m doing developing these chemical weapons.
Parts Per Billion is currently available for digital purchase, and will be available on Blu-ray/DVD and for VOD rental on June 3.