Parts Per Billion
ĎParts per Billioní is an example of an independent movie that is that has been misunderstood and therefore unfairly under evaluated. With any movie it is important to know what genre the filmmaker is working in but with indie movie this determination can be critical. Independent cinema exists for experimentation and expansion the art form. Placing a movie in the correct category is especially necessary in order to properly determine the parameters of the story being told and to best understand the intentions of the artist in the creation of his opus. In my opinion this movie has received unnecessarily harsh criticism. Comments citing a disoriented storyline, erratic performances and unresolved issues are predicated on this movie being a disaster movie, post-apocalyptic story or science-fiction. While it is true that there are elements of each of these genres contained in this movie, none of them capture the essence of the story being presented. Just to be certain I viewed this movie several times and each time it became obvious to me that this is an intense the character driven romantic drama. The loving relationship between three couples is placed in incredibly stressful situations, more so than any of us has ever experienced. The writer/director, Brian Horiuchi, has crafted a film that heavily relies on imagery and the juxtaposition of scenes for the character development. The degree of difficulty was significantly enhanced by his utilization of a non-linear chronology. When used in any movie this technique is difficult to master but for someone who has no other directorial credits and only a few for screenwriting this is a bold move in one that demonstrates that this filmmaker is one to watch as his career matures.
A necessary component of any romantic movie is to place the couples under some stress, a set of conditions that challenges their relationship and cause them to reevaluate the feeling of love that they share. In the majority of such films the common stressors include infidelity, the significant other being a workaholic or objections by friends and family. ĎParts per Billioní, creates a traumatic environment that makes the others pale by comparison; the extinction of humanity. The film opens with the cable news channel anchorman (Greg Cromer), is delivering the news to the audience in the most somber tones possible. Hostility between two opposing factions in the Middle East has escalated from acts of terrorism all-out war. Concerns over the use of chemical and biological weapons have become serious concerns for the nations of the world and the deadly potential to murder hundreds of millions of people. One of the brilliant choices made by this filmmaker is not to dwell on the pandemic as it grows. Several ways this is the directorial technique called the McGuffin; presenting a plot point that is crucial to the characters within the context of the story but is largely insignificant for the audience for their understanding of the overall plot. In this framework this movie is not a disaster movie nor is it a post-apocalyptic story. It is fundamentally a romance, albeit a somber one. The pandemic and growing number of casualties is merely the platform built to showcase performances by an ensemble cast of incredible actors.
Setting the stage may be economically brief but it is to the point in providing the audience that the sense of realism that such a catastrophe could occur. A spokesman from the CDC (Ned Vaughn) does his best to maintain a calm, rational tone, that there has been a biological attack but the government has the situation under control and is monitoring the progress. The news network graphics we have become so used to seeing showing colorful detail the spread of the infection and its projected course showing the audience it will not reach the shores of the United States. Subsequent maps show that this is not to be the case but the official voice remains reassuring as panic rises among the public. After adding just a perfect dollop of religious righteousness the filmmaker introduces us the three primary couples.
The first couple we meet living in 20ís and newly engaged; Erik (Penn Badgley) cut and Anna (Teresa Palmer), his live-in girlfriend and new fiancť. Heís an underemployed musician being supported by Anna. During a visit to the music shop at becoming infatuated by a guitar pick, related elucidated as the first symptoms of the onset of schizophrenia. This scene jumped us in time to just prior to the announcement that the biological weapon had been unleashed. We now jump again for time and space to meet our second couple; Mia (Rosario Dawson) and Len (Josh Hartnett). Another slip in time space brings us to the third couple the elderly Andy (Frank Langella), Esther (Gena Rowlands). In each case the color pallets is altered to reflect the prevalent mood and emotional condition of the characters seen. Eric and Anna are brightly lit with vibrant colors; prior to the infection. Mia and Len, on the other hand, are held up in the basement, plastic sheeting easterly duct taped to seal the doors and windows; the lighting minimal and mood dank. The scene with Andy and Esther is grey and dusty. He struggles to push her in a wheelchair, both of them with oxygen tanks and masks desperately trying to avoid the infectious air. We have a new love, fresh and exciting, one that has stood as few years and a third depicting a couple that has been deeply in love for a lifetime.
Mr. Horiuchi includes a few ancillary characters that some that were critical of this film that deluded the impact. Quite the opposite, their inclusion had the effect to provide nuances to the main stories hoping to connect them and place them within the horrific reality that now surrounds them. The first of these characters, Rick (Hill Harper), is a friend of Lenís as demonstrated by been playing basketball together. Then there is a nurse in the cardiology unit of the hospital, Sarah (Alexis Bledel). She has become close to Andy and Esther during their many visits to Estherís cardiologist. Sarah is also Lenís sister. The three couples that serve as the focus of this work also interwoven. Andy Ericís grandfather, a man of some financial means although Eric refuses to take any financial help from him. Andy is the defendant in a civil suit that media, a lawyer, is defending him. Decades ago and the released trade secrets from the research company he was employed by. As it turns out the research involves led to the weaponization of the pathogen that has recently been released. As the story progresses his guilt increases as he realized that his comfortable life was blood money at the cost of the significant portion of the human race. In many cases when the filmmaker depends on the intricate interrelationship of most of his primary characters the results can be disastrous unless the filmmaker is one with extensive expertise. For a burgeoning auteur such as Mr. Horiuchi, it is once again a filmmaker willing to take chances, to grasp beyond his comfort zone in order to expand his artistic expression. The relationship between the characters comes across as perfectly natural and understandable. It also adds related abilities of these characters to the audience. The couples are not presented in a vacuum, devoid of friends and family. Even though they must face his pandemic separately there is a commonality to what they must decide.
The temporal jumps are utilized throughout the film but have a tendency to move forward as it progresses. Eventually all three couples are faced with the ultimate decision; do they fight for survival or submit to the inevitable. So many films of this ilk showcase the indomitable spirit of humanity willing to live at any cost. One theme that is usually expressed in this movie is if all of mankind is wiped out is there any rational reason to prolong the pain and fight for survival in a world lying and smoldering ruins. This is not conducive for a very happy ending for one of the great things about independent cinema is the ability to pull away from the mandatory Hollywood happy ending in favor of one that explores a bleak reality that is inevitably possible such a dire scenario. Each of the three couples is forced to face the inevitability and do so making their choice through the filter of their own experiences, hopes, and expectations. The characters are not relegated to only this situation. Previous moral descions are infused in their development. Andy took the money to pay for the medical expenses of his daughter giving her 15 years of life. Mia has permitted the flirtatious overtures of a co-worker, Walter (Giancarlo Evola) although she never acted upon them. Anna has recently learned she is pregnant and has not told Erik yet.
This movie is mislabeled as a science-fiction. Potential for such a virulent weapon to be deployed is frighteningly feasible. The technology assuredly exists as well as individuals and organizations insane enough to deploy such a doomsday weapon. For those of us who have lived through the Cold War under the threat of total thermonuclear annihilation is an uneasy familiarity to this scenario. The belief that duct tape and plastic sheeting can prevent your death is ultimately as absurd as our teachers telling us to hide under an eighth of an inch of plywood to protect us from the hydrogen bomb. Potential annihilation may have moved from the atom to DNA but the madness inherent in the political world stage remains a threat to our civilization. The three couples each represent a stage in life that fundamentally covers the gamut of the audience. As the movie demonstrates a problem like this is universal; equally threatening the young as well as the old.
When the film is properly placed in context as the dark romantic drama, it is obvious that the filmmaker exhibits exceptional abilities in presenting the nuances intrinsically part of such a scenario. The fact is that every story and has a happy ending. One of the most fascinating aspects about independent film is ability to examine full-spectrum of human emotions, not just the positive ones. Despair is a valid emotional state and one fully deserving of being examined in film. This movie does this style in a certain undeniable grace. Although the outcomes for the couples are not what you would like to see they are realistically portrayed in role played by actors who demonstrate their command of the full range of the human experience. The performance and presentation is consistent with people under a type of stress that absolute and final. No oneís behavior under these circumstances would be in anything other than disjointed. The filmmaker successfully elicited performances of incredible intensity from his cast.