Why is it that some of the best movies are the ones that you don't see coming or didn't know were ever released? One can argue that they are the passion project films. The crew puts everything they have into it as a labor of love and they make a fantastic piece of cinema...but then they don't have any money left to release it. That said, you'd think something from the producers of The Walking Dead and starring Norman (Daryl Dixon) Reedus would have had a little bit more fanfare.
I love science fiction. It's by far probably my favorite genre of film because of its limitless potential for creativity and fresh story-telling. It's also one of the easiest to mess up because of the tendency to fall victim to cliches or lose sight of the overall story by becoming obsessed with special effects shots.
There are various sub-genres of science fiction and one of the best (yet also overlooked and under appreciated) is the dystopian future genre. Films like Escape From New York and The Road Warrior are classics in their field and even new offerings like Divergent and The Maze Runner have found their place. The great thing about dystopian future films is the emphasis they can put on story without feeling so obligated to fill out the run time with action and over-the-top spectacle.
However, even new fare in the field has started to fall victim to that trap of modern moviegoer expectations. So, following the explosive diarrhea of action, explosions and things happening that was Mad Max: Fury Road, one can understand what a...dare I say...breath of fresh air AIR was.
What is AIR?
Simply put, AIR is the rare film that proves science fiction doesn't need elaborate special effects or excessive action to be great.
AIR is the story of two technicians played by Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead, The Boondock Saints, Pandorum) and Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Island) whose task is to wake up for two hours a day every six months to maintenance the facility that is keeping humanity's last hope for survival alive.
Following a nuclear holocaust, the Earth has been completely contaminated by poisoned air. To ensure that humanity can survive when the air eventually purifies itself, various scientists and other unique specialists were put into suspended animation to wait it out. Each facility was appointed two technicians to make sure everything keeps working until the time comes to retake the planet.
However, when a technical problem causes one of the technicians' sleep pods to catch fire, the two men have to search for a replacement before their facility runs out of air for the next six months. As if that's not enough, it starts to become clear that things aren't what they seem and a clear and present danger to the facility and they people they are tasked to keep safe becomes evident.
AIR is written and directed by Christian Cantamessa (in his feature film debut). Cantamessa has previously written for and directed many popular video games including Red Dead Redemption, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Manhunt. What I love most about both his writing and directing style is the tension that he builds from the simplest of scenarios. There are no massive explosions or rampant machines on the loose. It's just two men isolated in a confined space with limited air and mystery that needs to be resolved.
The lack of advanced technology or emphasis on visual effects are the cornerstone of dystopian science fiction. In fact, one of the things that I loved about 80s sci-fi is the promise that dot matrix printing and floppy discs would come back into style. And sure enough, as we pan the facility at the start of the film, we are treated to 70s and 80s era computer machines and...yes...a dot matrix printer. AIR is a love letter to the dystopian sci-fi movies we grew up loving from the late 70s and 80s.
Norman Reedus, currently finding outstanding levels of success with The Walking Dead, brings his A-Game to the role of Bauer — a technician with a troubling memory of what he had to do in order to get the life saving job as one of the facility's two technicians.
Getting a look into the personality of Bauer in the first few minutes of the movie are the type of solid filmmaking that really grips your attention without needing that giant spaceship emerging into frame. It's the subtleties that make this film the gem that it is.
Academy Award nominee Djimon Hounsou's portrayal of Cartwright is the polar opposite of Bauer and it's that Odd Couple mentality that makes the pair work and enjoyable for the hour and a half that you spend with them. And when a film centers primarily on only two characters you need to have that dynamic. Otherwise the whole film will fall apart.
The level of suspense is as good as any horror movie and Cantamessa masterfully crafts a scenario where you honestly can't predict what is going to happen next.
AIR is produced by Robert Kirkman and David Alpert (also of a little show you may have heard of called The Walking Dead) and co-stars Sandrine Holt (Fear the Walking Dead, Terminator: Genisys) with an appearance by Michael Hogan (Battlestar Galactica, Smallville) as a character I call President John McCain.
The movie is available on Blu-Ray and DVD and can be found in RedBox so I suggest you watch it as soon as possible. And don't forget to follow me on Twitter (@ThisIsJamesT) for all things rant and ravey.