It’s almost impossible to separate Before the Fire from the current coronavirus outbreak, given that the film is… set in the aftermath of a global pandemic. It’s not, however, about the aftermath of a pandemic, or about much of anything, unfortunately, as it doesn’t go into any great lengths to explore the psychological implications of such a crisis, be it on an individual or mass level. It’s a shame, because the film kicks off strong enough, with dynamically immersive shots of people stuck in traffic and the deafening noise of panic and chaos reverberating through the streets of LA and all over the media. However chillingly pertinent, it’s not long until you realize that contextual relevance, which turns out to be both a blessing and a curse, is really the only exciting thing the film has going for it – and it barely even has that.
Well, not quite the only thing – Jenna Lyng Adams, who plays the lead character, Ava, a TV actress who used to star in a show about werewolves, gives a generally solid performance – though the script doesn’t give her much to work with – and the cinematography is quite good and even beautiful at times. But beneath its glossy veneer, the emotional core of the film turns out to be quite hollow, not to mention incoherent. The pandemic forces Ava to confront her traumatic past, as her boyfriend, Kelly (Jackson Davis), basically tricks her into flying back to her rural hometown in South Dakota, where she can be safe from the virus, while he stays in LA to… take photographs? In any case, when she gets there, she stays with Kelly’s family, including his brother Max (Ryan Vigilant), with whom she develops an interesting relationship that unfortunately doesn’t go anywhere.
Neither does the main storyline of the film, which revolves around a mysterious figure in the protagonist’s hazy past that has done her some kind of harm. But rather than slowly building up to some revelatory climax by progressively revealing more hints about that event, the film instead simply refrains from giving us much information at all in the hopes that the lack of it will keep us engaged (spoiler: it doesn’t). In the meantime, it wastes half of its runtime trying to create tension without the emotional stakes to back it up. Add to that plenty of questionable moments that don’t make any sense as well as too many shots of people just walking (or awkwardly yet aggressively coughing), and you’ve got a recipe for disaster, though not necessarily the kind that makes for a gripping cinematic experience.
Even if you set aside its narrative mishaps, Before the Fire simply doesn’t keep you emotionally invested long enough, despite having a decent lead at its centre. Because even though you’re probably rooting for Ava to survive the rising tensions, it becomes increasingly unclear what it is that she’s fighting for. If it’s getting back with her boyfriend, any investment in that relationship was lost the moment he lied to her. If it’s confronting her own unresolved trauma, well, the film doesn’t dig deep enough to tie those loose ends together, leaving many questions unanswered. In a way, the title is inadvertently fitting – we spend two hours waiting for the fire, but it never really comes.
Of course, it’d be unfair to expect the film to act as an unintentional yet deeply profound commentary on the current epidemic reigning over us, but it doesn’t even fulfil its own purpose of telling a compelling story about human trauma. There are moments that hint at how humanity’s darkest side is deadlier than any virus, but that potential is squandered by an underwhelming script and two-dimensional characters that you care less for as you go along. Despite some competent acting and decent production value, the fact that the film has a global pandemic serving as its backdrop and still doesn’t quite stick the landing should tell you everything you need to know. Before the Fire is not infectiously bad, but it’s probably safer to just stay away.