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Nothing (2003)

by on 2013/01/09

Nothing (2003)

“The universe is fine without us, and we’re just fine without them.”

– Michael Andrews, Tim Lamson, “Everything

* * *

I really want to appreciate Vincenzo Natali’s work. No, scratch that. I do appreciate it, I simply haven’t enjoyed it as much as I would have hoped. The driving force behind Cube and Splice, he seems to specialize in unusual high concepts, executed within some constraint.

Nothing is another entry for that list, a kind of indie sci-fi comedy with deeper philosophical underpinnings, an exercise I’d love to endorse whole-heartedly. The best I can manage is to say it has a lot of potential.

Techie David (David Hewlett of Treed Murray) and artsy Andrew (Andrew Miller of Last of the Dogmen) are two co-dependent geeks, living together in present-day Toronto. (Given the absurdity, surreality, and near-symbolic abstraction of the story, I strongly suspect they could well be two sides of a single person.)

Their insular world of TV and gaming is suddenly threatened one day, when David’s sociopathic ex frames him for the embezzlement of a small fortune. Meanwhile, Andrew is falsely accused of molesting a girl whose attentions he spurned. On top of these personal crises, authorities unexpectedly arrive to demolish their house.

In a flash-point moment of stress and desperation, they manifest a new ability: to remove from existence anything they want. Objects, people, places, and intangibles, like limitations, memories, and feelings. They debate the possible causes – slipping into another place, another time, becoming gods – and realize with experience they cannot rebuild, only winnow.

The first half hour is brilliant. It conjures aspects of several other touchstones, distilled into something promising: Shaun of the Dead, The Wrong Guy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Tapestry” episode, and the play Waiting for Godot.

In time, however, its absurd dark humour becomes almost unbearably grating, a pastiche of slapstick and witless, screaming panic. It’s ultimately exhausting despite the occasional flashes of insight.

Any commentary, real or imagined, on the nature of humanity, justice, or reality, is bolstered by Natali’s original filmmaking. It’s a deceptively elaborate minimalism: charmingly primitive animation, visual trickery placing the heroes’ hovel between expressway ramps; disappearances shown with stop-motion disintegration; missing things replaced by a blinding “whiteout” environment (arguably appropriate for Canada); and camera range extended through glass-paned floors.

Perhaps most of all, I was reminded of the landmark Warner Bros cartoon, “Duck Amuck”, minus the meta-level appearance of the director himself. In Nothing, it is the character(s) controlling “reality” via the power of subtraction, both for better and for worse. Initially entertaining, and often thought-provoking, it eventually becomes more tiring than it’s worth.

If you can reconcile the poles of “goofy” and “experimental” then maybe you will find some answers here. For my part – although I’d love to have done so – I didn’t.

* * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

89 minutes

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