Film Review: Air

“Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman produces a claustrophobic post-apocalyptic chamber piece that lacks dramatic oxygen.
Specialty Releases

It’s not hard to see what attracted Robert Kirkman, the mastermind of the “Walking Dead” empire that currently consists of a comic book, a videogame and one (soon to be two) blockbuster TV shows, to make Air his first foray into feature film production. Written by Christian Cantamessa and Chris Pasetto, and directed by Cantamessa, the film begins with a lone character waking up from a long sleep to find himself in a brave new post-apocalyptic world. As “Walking Dead” devotees know all too well, that’s the way both the comic and the TV series begin, as coma-stricken sheriff Rick Grimes arises from his hospital bed to confront the zombie hordes that have conquered the planet.

Air’s apocalypse isn’t zombie-related, but it’s even more catastrophic; after all, Rick is at least able to wander the surface of the planet where a stable civilization once stood. In contrast, Bauer (Norman Reedus, who plays fan-favorite Daryl on “The Walking Dead”), the awakened man in Air, regains consciousness in a bunker buried deep beneath an Earth that’s been ravaged by chemical warfare. And where Rick eventually stumbles upon groups of other survivors, Bauer only has one companion for the days, months and years ahead: Cartwright (Djimon Hounsou).

Actually, the two aren’t completely alone. They’re surrounded by the cryogenically preserved bodies of other survivors, who will remain in a deep sleep until such time as they can safely be woken up. It’s Cartwright and Bauer’s unenviable task to climb out of their own chambers every few months to ensure that the other pods continue to function. There’s a countdown clock that keeps them stringently on schedule, but mistakes are bound to happen, particularly as the confined quarters and their own imaginations about what, if anything, still exists on the surface takes a heavy psychological toll.

Wait a minute… a countdown clock? An underground hatch watched over by half-mad custodians? Is this a knockoff “The Walking Dead” or “Lost”? Fans of that late, occasionally great ABC serial will be able to spot a number of accidental and/or deliberate similarities on display in Air, up to and including the Dharma Initiative-like logo that adorns Cartwright and Bauer’s uniforms. Cantamessa and Pasetto have taken cues from “Lost” in the storytelling department as well. Just as that series dropped fresh clues to the convoluted overarching mystery every episode, Air doles out a new twist every few minutes in an effort to keep the walls from closing in on the audience the same way it is for the characters. Some of these developments feel organic to the story, while others are more overtly obvious bids to pad the scenario out to feature length.

In the process of making sure that there’s plenty of narrative incident, though, the writers forget that one of the chief appeals of “Lost” was the rich—if occasionally maddening—characterizations of the various castaways stranded on that island of mystery. Reedus and Hounsou, unfortunately, are trapped playing two-dimensional characters whose inner lives are measured by how loudly they emote. (The fact that this also happens to be the meatiest role that the Oscar-nominated Hounsou has had in ages says more about the deficiencies in the Hollywood casting process than the virtues of the script.) Because chamber pieces hinge on the strength of their characters, the atmosphere leaks out of Air early on. A videogame designer by trade (his biggest credit is the hit western game Red Dead Redemption), Cantamessa admirably avoids any showy visual trickery, preferring to focus on making the limited setting as tactile and immersive as possible through static shots and blocking that reveals the geography of the bunker in clear, consistent terms. He’s got the eye of a promising director—now he just needs a better script.

Click here for cast and crew information.