By Jonathan Wojcik


Today's entry is considered a "sleeper hit," flopping in 2020 only to pick up a cult following from there. Directed by David Prior, it's based on a comic book series by writer Cullen Bunn and artist Vanesa R. Del Rey, but as far as I know the two are quite a bit different.

The story begins with a flashback to Bhutan in 1995, where we meet four hikers: Greg, Fiona, Ruthie and Paul. When Paul is drawn to a strange, trilling, fluting sort of sound, he slips and falls down a dark chasm and doesn't respond to his friend's calls. Fearing the worst, they climb down and only find Paul staring blankly at a bizarre, inhuman form embedded in the cave wall; what resembles an enormous humanoid skeleton with huge, many-fingered hands and dozens of additional arms.

By the next day, the group has experienced some ambiguously paranormal activity, pursued by a frightening presence the audience has not seen, and taken refuge in a cabin. Paul has continued to act strangely, and after whispering something unknown into Ruthie's ear, he vanishes into the blizzard outside.

When the group catches up with Paul, they find him standing at a rope bridge, emitting that same strange sound by blowing into a glass bottle. As soon as they interfere, Ruthie enters some kind of trance in which she kills Greg and Fiona, then throws herself off the bridge to her death.

So ends a fully 20 minute prologue before the film's current events; a move that a lot of reviews harp on, but I thought was interesting enough. Kind of like getting a whole bonus "prequel episode."

So now we jump to Missouri in 2018, where we meet James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), a former detective whose wife and son died in a car accident. His only friend, and apparently a lot more than that lately, is his neighbor Nora Quail (Marin Ireland) who raises a teenage daughter alone after the death of her own husband.

One day Nora's daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) disappears, and she leaves a bloody message written on a bathroom mirror: "the empty man made me do it." Naturally, James investigates with the skills he acquired over years of detective work. He finds a strange flier for something called the "Pontifex Institute" in Amanda's room, retraces her steps and eventually questions one of her close friends, Davara (Samantha Logan). He learns of the urban legend of the Empty Man, a being that can be summoned only if you find an empty bottle near a bridge and blow into it while you focus on his name. Empty beer bottles are in no short supply near remote bridges of course, and the whole friend group dared each other to take turns one night in the tradition of such ghosts and demons as Bloody Mary or Japan's Toilet Hanako.

The last time Amanda was seen after that night, she was whispering something to their friend Brandon.

Heading to the bridge for more clues, James finds the entry to a maintenance ladder left open, climbs down and discovers the hanging bodies of everyone but Amanda herself. Meanwhile, Davara is attacked and stabbed to death by a shrouded figure that was never seen actually entering the room with her, seemingly materializing right out of the steam.

With no other leads to follow, James tracks down the Pontifex Institute, where his investigation takes a turn for the much more bizarre.

Pontifex is clearly something akin to the cult of scientology; when James feigns interest in membership he's giving an obtuse and confusing personality quiz to fill out, asking him to agree or disagree with statements as peculiar as "the brain can itch" and "not all shadows are cast from something." Listening in on a seminar, he's disturbed to find the speaker, Arthur Parsons (Stephen Root) speak of the Empty Man as a spiritual figure, and catches up with him afterwards to question him more directly on the subject.

Arthur happily expounds upon some fascinatingly strange theories on the nature of mind and matter; that thoughts and concepts are one with physical forces, that all things are connected by the mnemosphere, or "the sum of all conscious thought," and that "virus-like vectors" can facilitate transmission between the thoughts of individuals or even break the boundaries between what is imagined and what is reality. According to him, the Empty Man isn't a literal entity, but a "focal point for mental energies," a symbol they use to personify their principles.

A thoroughly unsettled James continues his hunt for Amanda from there, but someone appears to keep breaking into his home and he finds himself plagued by vague nightmares of pursuit by some unseen, monstrous force in flooded, decrepit maintenance tunnels. Believing the cult to be stalking him, he puts Nora up at a hotel room until further notice, and we happen to learn that the two were having an affair even before his family died.

The investigation leads James to secretive Pontifex meetings and operations in remote locales, at one point finding graffiti art of The Empty Man and a grotesque video of some ambiguous brain experiment, during which the test subject uses his own blood and viscera to outline that very same painting.

In one of the film's most frightening sequences, James subsequently witnesses a gathering of several hundred Pontifex members acting in perfect unison, and they give chase to him through a forest - illuminated only by the flashes of a thunderstorm - as an impossibly coordinated unit. He only narrowly manages to escape, and goes on to ambush a lone cult member that he grills for information. He's told that someone at the local hospital is acting as a "transmitter" for the Empty Man, and there, he finds none other than Amanda, alive and well and enthusiastically a part of the institute's ongoing operations.

Those operations center on none other than Paul, from the beginning of the film, comatose for the past 23 years and tended to by the cult as a hub of their telepathic connection: the current vessel of The Empty Man.

This is where things go completely off the rails for James, when Amanda tells him that his entire life is a lie. She informs him that he's nothing but a psychic construct, like a tulpa, just a few days old and implanted with false memories. He naturally thinks she's speaking gibberish, but when he tries to contact Nora, he finds that she doesn't recognize his voice, his name or anything about him. Being forced in this manner to question his own reality is all the institute and the Empty Man need to overtake his mind, and he suddenly perceives himself in the sewer-like tunnels from his nightmares.

We finally see the thing that has been chasing after James in these visions; tattered sheets of fabric are draped over a hulking shape that suggests something nearly humanoid, but skeletally emaciated, and with a cluster of grasping fingers where its mouth should be. Once James is cornered at a dead end, the creature pounces, hurls him to the floor, and crams its entire massive, apparently tentacled body down his throat. He exists only to serve as its perfect new vessel; one that won't break under the weight of its power like the fragile, human flesh of the dying Paul.

But does it work? When last we see James, he walks out of the Hospital room to find the Pontifex members bowing before him, and the movie ends.


"Cults" and "lovecraftian" entities feel fairly overplayed to me these days, but I still find a bit of intrigue in this kind of pseudoscientific "psychic energy" angle, the idea that there's somehow some deeply hidden faculties of the human brain that can interact with the universe in ways we cannot understand. It doesn't have any conceivably basis in reality, of course; I'm sorry to say that your brain is truly "just" trillions of cells chit-chatting with one another in the confines of your skull, and their "only" interaction with the world outside your body is through your external sensory systems, though that should be more then amazing enough, shouldn't it? Must we be so greedy as to demand even more? A human being is the sum of countless chemical process that underwent so much struggle, so much adaptation to a universe packed full of impending death and destruction that its advanced computational systems now know what I mean when I string these little symbols together into this sentence. I can type "banana" right here and the amoebas in your skeleton's attic will load up whatever data you need to remember what a banana is. That is MAGICAL. Why does anyone need psychic stuff?!

Still, it makes for a pretty fun story when we imagine the amoebas know more than we know that they know. That they can do way more than make you remember that I didn't type "pineapple," that's a different thing I just forced them to force you to think about. See? I'm practically a god already, and so are you! I guess that's precisely why it's scary to imagine unfathomably greater collections of organic data, capable of bridging gaps in reality we couldn't even imagine were ever there.

As far as these unfathomable psychic forces go, The Empty Man is a pretty cool one. I like that, at least within the movie there's no determining whether the being is part of the collective product of the mnemosphere or vice-versa, and the identity of that inhuman mummy is especially tantalizing. Was that in fact what became of an ancient human vessel? Is that the sort of evolution James may one day undergo?! It's a beautiful design, too, confirmed to have been based on the aesthetic style of one of my favorite painters, which I'll get to in a moment.

I actually decided to go check out the short comic series after writing the review up to this point, and while the film easily stands on its own, it's also basically a prequel story. Taking the two as canon with one another might disappoint those who prefer the movie's more open ending, but the comic begins in the midst of a global pandemic, The Empty Man Virus, that somehow allows people to communicate telepathically. By the end of its story arc, it's been explained that consciousness, itself, has always been part of an entity that formed a sort of symbiosis with organic life, which is just as bonkers an explanation as I could have asked for. Every thinking being, therefore, is simultaneously already a vessel for this entity, simultaneously controlling and controlled by it. Something like that, anyway.

In directing the prequel film, David Prior clearly sought to tell his own original story and say something distinct from the books, but what that is, we don't really know. I've now seen review articles and internet comments interpreting The Pontifex Institute as a parallel to either new-age liberal progressivism or traditionalist, conservative conformity run amok, to fascism or socialism, to religion, the internet, pseudoscience, whatever the hell "wokism" means to some guy on twitter, and anything else the viewer fears about modern society. You're basically free to slap any label you want on these antagonists and make your own New Yorker cartoon of the whole thing.

There's even a small following of LGBT reviewers who see something similar to Tetsuo at work; that the plight of James strongly resembles the pain and confusion of never feeling "right" about who you are or where you fit in, and that the Pontifex Institute can therefore be taken to represent either submission to conformity (returning to the closet) or the frightening first steps to re-examining your personal identity. On the other hand, there are also those who feel that the LGBT community are among the targets of this movie's social criticism - especially given that some of the Pontifex Institute's "application questions" are about gender - and I can't really argue with that, though it's difficult to argue with any given reading. Across multiple interviews, Prior has essentially said that nobody (at least as of one 2020 interview) has quite hit on his own thought processes, but that it doesn't mean anyone else is incorrect, either. It's a movie confirmed to have a deeper meaning, then, but not necessarily one that comes built-in. Like abstract art, it might be an intentional blank slate, deliberately inviting the viewer to construct whatever meaning resonates with them. Most positive reviewers admit to projecting their own feelings into this blank slate, and that's exactly what they've been enjoying about it; a refreshing break from the usual pre-packaged social commentary of so much other media.

I guess it's an interesting coincidence (or is it?) that the movie design of The Empty Man was inspired directly by the artwork of the late Zdislaw Beksinski. His hundreds of magnificently strange paintings were notoriously unexplained and even untitled - each and every one of them - and he even openly laughed at critics who ascribed any deeper meaning to his work, only ever stating that in his eyes, they were much more whimsical and happy than anyone else ever took them to be. To this day, no one close to him can say whether he was being sardonic and simply kept the meaning to himself, or he really did just like to paint a lot of funny guys in silly places.