An entirely predictable square-dance

Watching Stefon Bristol’s Breathe for New Scientist

Zora (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Maya (Jennifer Hudson) live behind the hard-to-open bulkhead doors of a homemade bunker in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. If you can call it living: their every breath has to be calibrated and analysed, as the oxygen-producing machinery constructed by their missing husband and father Darius (a short, sweet performance by the former rapper Common) starts to fail.

The Earth’s oxygen has vanished. So has all its plant life. The oceans are all dried up. Survivors are few, and trust between them is a thing of the past.

Had Maya simply listened to her daughter and let in the two mysterious visitors who want to study their oxygen plant (Tess, played by Milla Jovovich, and Lucas, played by Sam Worthington) Breathe’s plot, such as it is, would have barely filled a quarter-hour. (Zora has been monologuing to her presumably dead dad over the shortwave radio for months now. If Tess has overheard her, then her claim to be Darius’s colleague may simply be a lie.)

As it is, no one trusts anyone and everybody shouts a lot, while performing an entire predictable square-dance around door codes, pass keys, key-cards, dead and dying batteries, cable ties, unreachable switches — we’ve been here before, oh, so very many times. Breathe’s sole highlight is Sam Worthington’s manic, dead-eyed Lucas — incapable, after a lifetime of horrors, of thinking more than thirty seconds into the future.

Low-budget science fiction favours the global catastrophe. What better alibi could there be for squeezing your cast into small, affordable sets? Though hardly one-room dramas, two recent sci-fi thrillers have shown what can be done with relatively few resources: 2018’s Bird Box (in which Sandra Bullock’s character Malorie must shield her and her children’s eyes from entities that prompt people to suicide) and, in the same year, A Quiet Place (whose gargoyle-like aliens chomp down on anything and anyone that makes a sound). Whether the world beyond that armoured door is as uninhabitable as we think fuels the paranoia of both 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, and the rather more expansive Silo, a TV adaptation of Hugh Howey’s series of sf thrillers.

Still, it’s hard to think of a movie genre so resistant to innovation as this one. While it solves the problem of small budgets, the one-room scenario doesn’t at all play to genre’s manic strengths. The best one-room thrillers aren’t science fiction at all, but regular thrillers. In Geoffrey Household’s unforgettable 1939 novel Rogue Male, to take an extreme example, Hitler’s would-be assassin is foiled and has to go hide under a hedge.

The trick, when writing science fiction versions of such stories, is to treat seriously the macguffin that created your scenario in the first place. The psychocidal monsters of Bird Box, first invented by Josh Malerman for his 2014 novel, are a wonderfully insolent, high-concept proposition. The big-eared raptors of A Quiet Place are only marginally less convincing.

Come 2020’s The Midnight Sky however, and the scraping of the barrel has become almost deafening, as radiation (that’s it, that’s all you’re getting: “radiation”) comes to stand in for what we tuned in for: a display of malign and cackling inventiveness. 2021’s Tom Hanks vehicle Finch was a winningly goofy proposition on paper — a grumpy old man, dying in the End Times, invents a robot to look after his dog — but the entire enterprise had the charm sucked out of it by that cursory macguffin: a massive solar flare used merely to excuse a smorgasbord of unrelated bad-weather CGI.

In 2010 Breathe’s screenwriter Doug Simon co-wrote a low-budget film called Brotherhood. Tellingly enough, that was a far more successful one-room thriller, about a college fraternity initiation rite gone horribly wrong. Turning to science fiction, Simon seems to have made the frequent and fatal assumption that SF comes with all the necessary inventiveness somehow “built in”.

Why has the oxygen vanished, more or less overnight, from Breathe’s gasping Earth? Its not even as if we needed a rational explanation; we just needed a compelling one. In its place we get a story as sterile as the planet it’s set on.