When you’re dealing with supernatural horror as a filmmaker, you’ve got to walk the fine line between real life and suspending believability. And if that means toning down your story which flips and flops between concepts of The Matrix and being a Creepypasta clone, then you haven’t seen The Empty Man (which doesn’t).
In fact, this film straddles that line one too many times as test audiences could attest. So much so, as one of the very last films produced by 20th Century Fox to be dumped by Disney after the buyout, it was almost instantly considered a non-profitable write-off.
From the start, The Empty Man is just too long. Clocking in at two hours and 17 minutes of runtime, being an adaptation of a comic series could have something to do with it (or maybe it was just a lack of previous experience for Writer-Director David Prior, who also appears as an editor here for the very first time on a feature film).
The backstory is long, which probably could have been consolidated as a much-quicker flashback instead of wasting almost 30 minutes.
Fast forward to a group highschoolers with too much free time on their hands. Hanging out at a bridge, they find an empty bottle, blow into it and think an urban legend into existence. OK, so deadly mistakes are made by stupid people every day. How are these any different from all the rest?
Well, for one reason, these kids are instantly declared “into weird stuff” by the local police department, but when they wind up missing, something sinister seems to be afoot. It takes a former undercover cop who’s still coping with deaths in his family to realize the true motives of these outcasts as he works outside the law.
Sounds decent so far, but you lost me when the “self-empowerment hippy bullshit” takes over as characters talk in circles about attaining singularity and blame something real on something that isn’t. Fate and destiny, the loss of personal control and madness are just a few more topics that are touched upon. Oh yeah, and somehow a doomsday cult is involved.
“We can’t indict the cosmos…”
And then there’s the antagonist. Listed as The Entity, it’s an endless black chaos emanating from between worlds that’s no more than a dark, shrouded figure who makes you kill yourself, once summoned. Is The Empty Man a supernatural killer or is this an occult experiment gone wrong? The Pontifex Institute is somehow involved, promising to open peoples’ eyes to seeing the bigger picture, but it’s mostly a McGuffin.
The skeptics vs. believers debate reminds me of Dispatches From Elsewhere, while the missing teen with a bad haircut kept giving me Stranger Things vibes. I really dug the work here by lead actor James Badge Dale and there was some very cool animation/special effects in the ultimate confrontation, but it simply felt like a mind-meld of Slender Man and The Bye Bye Man.
This “thoughtform” tulpa features many hallucinatory sequences and filmmaker Prior can’t decide whether he wants the story to be real or not. With no true conclusion other than the main character realizing his TRUE place in the world, it’s mostly anticlimactic.
The Empty Man might have been a flop in movie theaters, but it is now viewed as a cult classic — although it could have been so much more than just a mind-made manifestation. It’s got decent individual elements that’ll send you to watch other releases, but as a whole, it is not quite My Guilty Pleasure.