“Breathe” Is a Fascinating Concept That Runs Out of Air

There are many ways the world could end and each day seems to bring us closer to the inevitable tipping point. Will the seas rise due to climate change? Will a geopolitical conflict spark nuclear war? Will AI become self-aware and destroy us all? Or will it be something else – a fate so dark it hasn’t been considered? Stefon Bristol’s Breathe posits a horrifying end to humanity – a world devoid of breathable air. This sci-fi horror film presents a toxic Earth then challenges a lonely family to sacrifice their own survival for a chance at saving others. Unfortunately an unconvincing script and generic execution keeps this promising idea from coming to life.

Darius (Common), Maya (Jennifer Hudson), and Zora (Quvenzhané Wallis) are survivors in a world with no air. A scientist, Darius saw this tragedy coming and built a secret bunker equipped with a machine designed to recycle air in a limited capacity. When his elderly father dies, the frightened father ventures outside to inter the body and never returns. Months later, mother and daughter are confronted by a mysterious woman named Tess (Milla Jovovich) who claims to be the missing man’s former colleague. She begs to examine his machine in hopes of designing one to save her own band of survivors. But three years of isolation have not been kind to this struggling mother and Maya hesitates to trust the woman and her sketchy friends. How can she weigh the theoretical lives of strangers against the survival of her own family and will she even be allowed to make the choice? 

Breathe begins with an interesting premise. Unprotected moments in the outside world feel like drowning on dry land. New York City has lost all plant life and Maya struggles to grow organic food. Unfortunately, the concept is strung together by a vague plot that borrows heavily from other post-apocalyptic stories. Early scenes feel like a home invasion thriller with deadly stakes, but once Tess and her accomplices breach the bunker, the story devolves into outlandishness. A drive to another part of the city reveals a shocking twist, but the details surrounding it barely make sense. Bristol implies that the atmosphere may be restoring itself, but stops short of playing out the idea and we’re left wondering if we misinterpreted the scene. The story exists in broad strokes requiring massive logical leaps and suspension of disbelief. 

These plot holes could be overlooked with a touching family drama or moving script, but Breathe feels oversimplified and clunky. The sweet relationship between Hudson and Wallis is the film’s strongest element, but their attempts to communicate with anyone are stuffed with scientific jargon both oversimplified and convoluted. Jovavich feels particularly wasted in light of her Resident Evil pedigree. She does well with what she’s given to do, but the film mainly serves to remind us of her performance in better films. Sam Worthington attempts to portray a soulless survivor who’s lost his humanity, but Bristol can’t seem to decide on his motivations and he winds up an empty post-apocalyptic villain.  

Breathe boasts a strong cast and an engaging premise as Bristol invites us into a horrifying world we may soon face. Unfortunately the story is hampered by a clumsy script and a plot that only makes sense if you’ve seen other, more successful post-apocalyptic films. The ending in particular is preposterous and feels like it exists simply because that’s the way these films are supposed to end. Bristol sets up a fascinating thought experiment, puts all the pieces in place, then gets lost trying to find the way out.

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.

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