The 1997 Canadian sci fi film Cube, by Vincenzo Natali, was one of the great examples of good writing, good acting, and a limited budget making for an excellent, and thought provoking little film. Unfortunately, its financial success led to two mediocre sequels, neither of which had the verve of the original, and neither of which were directed by Natali. Thus, when I stumbled upon a 2003 film made by Natali, starring two of his stars from Cube, David Hewlett and Andrew Miller, I thought there was a good chance that it would be equally compelling.
But, Nothing is not science fiction, it’s sheer fantasy, and not a drama but a comedy. It’s not a bad film. But it’s not good either. It’s at best mediocre, with some good moments, and potential to be more. To say that the film missed opportunities is an understatement. The basic premise is that two loser roommates inexplicably get the power to wish away the whole universe, save for the home they share, which inhabits an all white nihility — an island of something in the midst of . . . well, nothing, although that is not technically true, as there is bright white light and a surface the characters can walk and bounce upon. So, there is something — not to mention oxygen to breathe, and gravity that keeps them from floating. And this is one of many logical conundrums that dog this well intended but not so well thought out morality play. But, its essential silliness and triviality are what keep this from reaching the existential level of a good The Twilight Zone episode, or something more akin to George Lucas’s THX 1138.
The film follows the travails of Andrew (Andrew Miller) and Dave (David Hewlett). They are an Odd Couple sort — the former a wimpy agoraphobe and the latter a smugly deluded narcissist. Dave is looking to move out of the home they share in the midst of a highway clover leaf, but soon finds out his sexy girlfriend has broken into his PC and embezzled over $27,000 from his company. Dave is blamed, fired, and faces arrest. Similarly, Andrew faces arrest as a possible pedophile when he refuses to buy a Girl Scout’s cookies and the girl makes up a tale of sexual molestation against him. On top of that, their home has been condemned by the city of Toronto. Just before 3 PM, the wreckers come to demolish the home, and the cops come to arrest the pair. Under assault, the two hide in their home until all goes away and they are in the white void.
After initial shock, the two venture out into the void for a few days, only to find they have circled back to their home, in sort of a finite, enclosed universe. Once home, they find they are out of food and will starve to death. Then, Andrew wishes away the clock in their home, and the pair find out that they wished the cosmos away. They think they are gods, and start to self-improve, by wishing away their hunger and other flaws. Andrew tries to improve himself deeply whereas Dave only seeks hedonistic pleasures.
Here, however, at the point the duo discover their “powers” to wish away things, external and internal, is where Nothing goes awry. It descends into slapstick rather than a deeper exploration of what ifs. In other words, the film could have retained its essentially Absurdist bent, but, ala Samuel Beckett at his best, never given in to the “easy way out.” The viewer never has to really know what cosmic power or joke is behind the scenario, but the characters should react “normally,” thus intensifying all subsequent actions. Instead, the film loses its nerve, and cops out into silliness that, while enjoyable, soon becomes predictable. After all, once we know the squabbling roomies have the power to hate away things, it’s inevitable that they will turn their powers on each other, which they do, and hate away all but their own heads, literally, as well as their pet turtle whom, one presumes, had all his bodily needs wished away by one or both of the protagonists. After the credits run, we see that ten years have passed and the two heads are awakened, with much longer hair and beards (I guess they could or did not want to wish away their hair), by the sound of stampeding elephants and other cacophonous sounds. They scream and the film ends. While humorous, it, again, adds nothing essential to the film.
The screenplay was written by The Drews (Andrew Miller and Andrew Lowery), adapted from a story by Natali, Hewlett, and Miller. The cinematography is by Derek Rogers, and for what it does, it’s adequate, although more could have been done with modern computer effects. The film’s soundtrack is by Michael Andrews and it is light and bubbly, but not in a good way. The whole tale, the acting, and the visuals all suggest whimsy, and the film would have been much more effective if the music had suggested darker undertones. Rather than directly stating that the pair were under the influence of some greater power, the music could have suggested it subliminally, thus lending power to the fluff of this 90 minute long film.
The DVD shows the film in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It has a making of featurette that is solid, and a commentary track with Natali and members of the crew. It too is solid, but nothing special, sort of like the film it comments on. There is some of the usual jocular fellatio involved, and the producer and technical people tend to give more insight into the film than does Natali.
Interestingly, in looking over how the critics of a few years back handled this film, it was one of those offerings that most either loved or hated. Few actually looked at it impassively and came down in the middle, as I have. Part of the “fun” of films like this, or Cube, is having the viewer empathize with the characters enough to imagine themselves in the film’s predicament. But, whereas Cube seems rooted in a logic of its own, Nothing abandons all logic, and without at least an internal consistency (as example, they should rather easily be able to wish things back into existence by hating away the last several days that found them in the void. And with the knowledge of their situation, they should be able to hate away the females that did them in in the real world). But logical flaws like this are not even broached, much less followed up on. Consequently, the film’s “novelty” wears thin at about the time the duo discover they are the architects of their fate.
But the biggest flaw is that the film takes a comic approach to things, rather than putting “real” characters and events into the film. Even in the film’s first 20 minutes, in the “real” world, we get nothing even resembling reality — from bad computer effects and animation to absurdly written minor characters and situations. Comedy, by its nature, divorces empathy from a viewer. Laughter AT a character is always more satisfying for most viewers than laughing with a character; but this necessarily dehumanizes the character, making empathy near impossible, and sans empathy, a whole horde of tools that an artist has to manipulate a viewer intellectually and emotionally is gone. On the plus side, actors Hewlett (who looks like a younger Jon Lindstrom) and Miller, do well with the mediocre stuff they are given. Miller’s transformation from obsequious nerd to insensitive boob is funny, but Hewlett’s is the better character and the only one to evince any form of empathy, in the scene where Andrew tricks Dave into thinking he committed suicide.
Nothing is one of those films that will stick with a viewer for a while, if only because it will leave scenarios open to be reworked in each viewer’s mind. But, given the title and the tone and arc of the film, its ending is all too predictable, in the worst sense of the term. Yet, given how little thought is given to most films these days — Hollywood, independent, foreign, or domestic — I guess one should be grateful for what little is received, especially coming from a film that only promises nothing.