Breathe (2024)

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Breathe (2024)

Imagination, or resourcefulness at least, is necessary for constructing a future that has been destroyed on a tight budget. To be honest with you, breathe, this stripped-down science-fiction thriller, does not lack the latter. It starts in 2039 where pollution has made most of the air on earth toxic and killed off much of the planet’s population while leaving the rest to scuttle around with gas masks and oxygen tanks. A couple of establishing shots still reasonably persuasive show us a crumbling New York City, otherwise world-building is mostly done by way of suggestive tinting, through filters and color-correction, the filmmakers give their Brooklyn backdrop a sickly orange, the same hue of contamination that bathes stretches of Fallout’s nuclear wasteland or the Las Vegas of some much pricier sci-fi movie set exactly a decade later. Just looking at it makes you want to cough up.

If that unnatural dustbowl shade doesn’t immediately fling you forward in time, then maybe the casting will. Turns out Quvenzhané Wallis i.e., the little girl from Beasts of the Southern Wild is now in her 20s, such knowledge has a way of making one feel as ancient and decrepit as Breathe’s NYC skyline. Wallis plays Maya, the tinkering teenage daughter of Darius (Common), a scientist, and Maya (Jennifer Hudson), his no-nonsense wife. The three live together in an underground Brooklyn bunker which they only leave so far as they can go without getting poisoned.

The storytelling is about as economical as the production design (which serves it well for half its runtime). At first this seems like purely a blessing, Here we are spared any unnecessary exposition; screenwriter Doug Simon and director Stefon Bristol (See You Yesterday) simply reach the natural conclusion that if we don’t stop choking on our own environmental mistakes right now then eventually we will have to. So much better instead to get to know our close-knit band of survivors, right? With quick brushstrokes of sensitivity and the mood-setting hum of John Coltrane on the record player the filmmakers paint an oasis of warmth and affection in what should be (and is) a desert, We’ve only just met these people but we feel it when Darius treks out into the poisoned outdoors to bury his dead dad, dropping out of the movie and out of his wife and child’s lives forever.

Where Breathe works best is as a clash of needs and uncertain motives. The main plot begins months after Darius’ departure, when Maya and Zora having pretty much given up hope that they’ll ever see him again face a threat to their sanctuary. It comes in the form of Tess (Milla Jovovich), Lucas (Sam Worthington) and Micah (Raúl Castillo), who have traveled up from Philadelphia seeking answers about their own encampment’s rapidly diminishing oxygen supply. The movie holds certain pieces of key information back from both us and some of its characters and then builds its increasingly tense standoff between Maya’s family unit and this trio around those gaps, Tess claims to have worked with Darius in the before times, which is how she knows about this bunker, Maya’s never heard of her. Is this stranger lying so she can steal their technology, or keep herself safe? Or are these travelers just desperate people who need a lifeline?

The majority of the activity takes place on the same abandoned city block, which puts survivors who are at odds with each other in their sights or drops a heavy door between them. Hudson is all steely distrust; Wallis tempers Zora’s fear with hope; Worthington is freed from the flat virtue of his “Avatar” avatar. And Jovovich, no stranger to orange-hued fallen worlds, ratchets up the urgency from the moment her baby blues appear behind a pane of glass.

There’s the skeleton of a crackerjack thriller here, timed to an O2 reserve always ticking down. But “Breathe” could have used more complications and more clarity of message too. As an allegory for trust and community, it’s muddled at best: COVID optics and Malcolm X’s autobiography which Darius gives Zora as a gift demand larger meaning that never emerges. Maybe Simon and Bristol are too tenderhearted to draw any truly withering conclusions from this clash between two desperate groups so far apart in every way but their desperation. Though there is sharp ambivalence to the setup, the kind that leaves you wondering what you would do in that situation, it eventually devolves into a cleaner binary of scrupulous/not.

Those inclined to think movies should be shorter these days might let out a sigh of relief when they hear that “Breathe” runs 93 minutes. No one could say this film wastes much precious time of theirs. But there’s a difference between efficiency and skimpiness, and by the end of this very quick hour-and-a-half, it starts to feel like drama has been left gasping for air. Plenty of sci-fi films overstay their welcome luxuriating in some fantastically imagined future world; this one needed just a little more space to well, you know.

Last Words

Set in a post-apocalyptic future where most of the air is toxic, “Breathe” is a small-scale thriller with hints of intrigue and excitement. Most of them spring from the central dilemma facing a mother (Jennifer Hudson) and daughter (Quvenzhané Wallis) who must decide whether to let desperate strangers into their oxygen-safe bunker. But at 93 minutes, this movie feels skimpy in all the wrong places, resolving its conflicts too quickly and never fully cohering as an allegory. Shorter isn’t always better, even in self-contained genre fare.

Also On Putlocker.

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