During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was struck by the thought that breathing itself had turned dangerous. The air around us was filled with a virus that could be deadly. That reality was unsettling because breathing is normally something we take for granted. Envisioning it as a hazard hit a little too close to home. The sci-fi thriller Breathe plays on a similar idea and may therefore stoke a touch of post-Covid anxiety. Instead of contaminated air, there’s almost no air at all in the story’s futuristic world. A few remaining survivors are forced to fight for survival.

One of those survivors is a scientist named Darius (Common) who built a bunker for his wife Maya (Jennifer Hudson) and daughter Zora (Quvenzhané Wallis) in East Flatbush. Inside is his masterful invention, an oxygen generator that allows them to breathe indoors. When Darius goes out on an expedition and doesn’t come back, Maya and Zora are left alone to deal with two intruders, Tess (Milla Jovovich) and Lucas (Sam Worthington). The former claims to be an old colleague of Darius’s. They say their only intent is to study the oxygen generator so they can build one at their own encampment where other survivors wait. Maya isn’t sure they can be trusted.

Breathe is essentially a 90-minute standoff between the characters. Tess tries to convince Maya that her motives are pure, but her behavior occasionally contradicts that statement. Zora is more willing to take the visitor at her word. Writer Doug Simon’s screenplay shifts the balance multiple times over, so that different characters have the upper hand. That makes the movie suspenseful in parts, although by the second half, the back-and-forth begins to feel repetitive and contrived. Slightly absurd events transpire that shatter the carefully constructed tension of the first half.


Director Stefon Bristol gives the film a strategic visual style. All the scenes outside, where characters wear special breathing suits, are tinted burnt orange to help convey the barrenness of the planet. They contrast with scenes in the bunker that have normal coloring. The approach also reminds us that any exterior location is dangerous to the characters. It’s a cool psychological technique.

Bristol’s storytelling isn’t as on point. The way Darius’s fate is shown is muddled, and there’s a related third-act development involving Maya that leaves you questioning how something happened. Handling it in such a circumspect manner is an act of sheer emotional manipulation. The film intermittently takes shortcuts when expansion would have made the themes more fulfilling.

Ultimately, Breathe is a mixed bag. Parts of it are very engrossing, whereas other parts are thin or underdeveloped. The central idea has a lot of potential, and the performances are quite good. I especially like the way Jovovich keeps you guessing about Tess’s sincerity. Wallis and Hudson have nice scenes together, too, creating an appealing mother/daughter bond. (The manic Worthington, on the other hand, feels like he's coming in from an entirely different picture.) Despite their efforts, the movie needed a bit of fine tuning to achieve the impact it’s aiming for.

out of four

Breathe is rated PG-13 for bloody violence and strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan