Inevitability, fatalism, and the effect they have on the fabric of love are the driving forces behind Parts Per Billion, the epidemic disaster romance-drama from Brian Horiuchi. There's a noteworthy philosophical consideration at the center of this idea, one that coexists in the space between other films that depict uncontrollable doomsday events: the appreciation that we, as humans, should have for the time we're able to spend with those that matter most to us, along with the decision whether to persevere or "bravely" surrender to likely death. Unfortunately, Horiuchi's film materializes into something as insistently pessimistic as it is frustratingly tedious while navigating the premise, a heavy-handed cautionary tale about the dangers of biological warfare that intentionally wants to leave its audience emotionally overwhelmed by the bleakness of its doomed relationships. Despite a robust cast that misses few beats along the way, it's simply too inauthentic and severe to embrace the points it'd like to convey.
During a catastrophic conflict in the Middle East, a lethal contaminant has been deployed that, by the cruel neutrality of nature, has begun to spread across the entire globe. The amount of preparation time everyone has remains largely unknown, but emergency broadcast systems gradually feed information to United States citizens as the cloud approaches. Amid the catastrophe, Parts Per Billion jumps between time periods to tell the stories of three different, yet loosely connected relationships, and how they're reacting to the news: a young newly-engaged couple, featuring a demanding, reactionary girlfriend (Teresa Palmer) and her struggling musician boyfriend (Penn Badgley) living off his family's wealth; a close-to-middle aged couple, including a high-profile lawyer (Rosario Dawson) and her unemployed, depression-wracked writer husband (Josh Hartnett); and an elderly couple, made up of a wife (Gena Rowlands) with health problems and her incredibly well-off scientist spouse (Frank Langella). Through them, the film explores the way people grasp the unavoidability of death and the relative futility and significance of their prior issues.
The acting isn't a problem here, whatsoever, which should be a testament to the underlying issues with Parts Per Billion itself. Teresa Palmer and Penn Badgley capably embody the conflicting quirks of a couple on the cusp of engagement, yet they're undermined by ludicrous and overblown conversations about washing the dishes and the label on a cheap bottle of soap. Rosario Dawson and Josh Hartnett are both in top form as conflicted yet loving spouses, but they're contained in sequences involving one character's erratic attitude at parties and another's descent into an irrational death wish. Frank Langella and Gena Rowlands hit plenty of earnest notes as an older couple coping with the many losses in their lives, yet much of Langella's arc is clouded by the bloated gray-area decision he makes regarding his finances and his scientific knowledge. Each of their performances hits the right notes, especially when their dispositions shift into panic and despair, but the material they're given isn't convincing enough to ring true as genuine human interaction or reasonable tangents of thought.
This is largely because Parts Per Billion -- much like the airborne poison at the center of the film -- is intentionally engineered for hopelessness and emotional defeat, systematically tearing down shreds of optimism without the substance to give it weight beyond its insistent anguish. It starts with news announcements and images of pandemonium, where the material feels content enough in its establishment of the situation's imminence to focus directly on the relationships themselves, unlike the balancing of emotional drama and course-correction suspense in Soderbergh's Contagion. Instead, director Horiuchi attractively captures the looming fate of these individuals, unsteadily jumping back and forth in time to reveal bits about their intimacy shortly before the blight becomes critical. While never completely losing its grasp on whether things occur in the past or present, the jumbled chronology makes it difficult to embrace the development in each kinship, especially with pregnancies, revelations about affairs, and the design of the plague itself shoehorned in their end-of-the-world musings.
Despite a suitably-presented indie setting of mushrooming dread against a collage of news and radio broadcasts, the result is a seriously objectionable piece of cynical cinema, especially in how it handles the feature characters' moments of inescapability from the apocalyptic spread. As the script sprays and prays with its half-realized themes -- following one's heart in their profession over financial security, the futility of arguments over small things, whether you've really discovered the love of your life or just another fish in the sea -- the film almost seems like it's obligated to remind us that, yes, the actions and thoughts of these people are how they're utilizing their time before their clock runs out. There's little justification to that nihilism, only the knowledge that it's happening as the consequence of warfare, and that personal introspection and resignation to death come to the surface with the knowledge of oblivion approaching. Sadly, even the comedic inclinations of something like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World hits those notes more poignantly than the devoted machinations of this superficial downer.
Video and Audio:
Parts Per Billions flows in onto the Blu-ray front from Millennium Entertainment in a suitable, sharp 1.85:1-framed 1080p AVC transfer, elevating the strengths in its digital source while working against the current of its occasionally hazy and smooth attributes. Little details become crucial while observing the conversations between the film's individuals: zippers and ribbed fabric of hats stay precise and defined, facial hair and wide, teary eyes amply capture fluctuating details in physical emotion, while the reaction of out-of-focus lights and lens flares remain crisp and atmospheric. Skin tones shift with the visual tempo to a suitably degree, never too robust nor pale in response to the scene's lighting, while contrast and black levels -- typical for many of Millennium's Blu-rays -- lean on the lighter side in their relative stability. It could be sharper and less noisy, sure, but it captures the bleak atmosphere of the film.
The slightness of a still atmosphere and the punch of emotion depth in vocal delivery push Parts Per Billion forward, presented here in a suitably robust 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Stray sound effects like the creaking of a wheelchair on pavement alongside a man's wheezing, the bouncing of a basketball in frigid air, and the honking of both distanced and nearby horns nail down the fluctuations in tempo intended by the sound design, ranging from moderate to crystal-clear clarity for the film's demands. Most of the encompassing surround activity comes from the moody score, but some urban and natural sound effects travel to the rear channels for an immersive effect. Primarily, of course, the dialogue needs to be clear enough to discern the characters' emotive intentions, and the track capably retains the quivers, the anger, and the flickers of contentment in its mid-range and bass levels that stay undistorted. Parts Per Billion sounds just fine, if a bit restrained at times. An English 2.0 Stereo track is also available, along with optional English and Spanish subtitles.
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Dour, introspectively flat, and frequently frustrating while exploring the closeness of human interaction, Parts Per Billion takes the concept of searching for catharsis and resisting death in the face of an accidental bioengineered apocalypse and guides its relationship drama to an unconvincingly dark place. The performances are, by and large, excellent from a range of under-appreciated talents, and the situation's escalating terror comes across clearly enough through Brian Horiuchi's direction. However, there's only so much that can be done with the premise's execution itself, which rings exasperatingly hollow while navigating the nuance of three levels of romance bracing for their lives' final impact. Being that the film's core purpose lies in the intimacy and turbulence of these significant relationships, we're left with ineffectual drama built around an intentionally condemned scenario, resulting in a rather unpleasant film with few deeper takeaways. Millennium Entertainment's Blu-ray looks and sounds predictably strong, but ultimately it's a film that's unable to justify the time it'll take from one's life. Skip It.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site