Combustible Celluloid
With: James Badge Dale, Sasha Frolova, Marin Ireland, Stephen Root, Joel Courtney, Samantha Logan, Aaron Poole, Robert Aramayo, Evan Jonigkeit
Written by: David Prior, based on a graphic novel by Cullen Bunn
Directed by: David Prior
MPAA Rating: R for violence, disturbing images, language, some sexuality and nudity
Running Time: 137
Date: 10/23/2020

The Empty Man (2020)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Next to Nothing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A long, slow-burn sci-fi tale, The Empty Man moves its simple "urban legend" idea into ambitious territory, but by the time it wraps up, it all makes too little sense to make sitting through it worth the effort.

It's 1995, and four hikers explore a valley in Bhutan. One falls into a crevice and falls under some kind of spell, resulting in the deaths of his three friends. Years later, in 2018, a group of teens engage in a ritual in which they blow into an empty bottle while on a bridge, thus summoning "The Empty Man."

Most of them wind up dead, hanging under the bridge, but one, Amanda (Sasha Frolova), vanishes. Amanda's mother Nora (Marin Ireland) calls upon her friend, an ex-cop, James (James Badge Dale), to help. His investigation brings him to a cult called Pontifex, which worships the idea of nothingness ("nothing exists"). Little does he know that the mystery goes even deeper.

Directed and co-written by David Prior, The Empty Man startles with its extra-long prologue about the four hikers, spending several days with them, developing character, etc., all to end it with a shock. However, once all the pieces of the overall story arc come together, it turns out that all that time wasn't particularly important after all. "Empty" isn't just part of the title.

Prior, who previously worked making short, behind-the-scenes documentaries for feature films like David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, seems to be channeling Fincher on The Empty Man. The movie is, admittedly, beautifully, spookily designed with fine, unsettling uses of space and sound, especially when James begins poking around in the inner sanctum of Pontifex. And its dialogue about reality and nothingness tickles the brain.

Overall, it definitely rises above cheap quickies like The Bye-Bye Man and Slender Man, which try to cash in on similar "urban legends." But whatever goodwill the movie builds up is largely squandered with a big "that's it?" of an ending.

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