Tuesday 19 August 2014

The Hollow Men (2010)

Director: Ashley Denton
Stars: James Harwood and Jerome Quiles
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
I had problems with The Hollow Men when I first saw it, but it stayed with me and eventually made itself known as one of those films that draws you in and makes you think. Any filmmaker can refuse to dot his i's and cross his t's for the sake of cinematic ambiguity, but it's easy to lose the audience when doing so. What Ashley Denton achieves here is a film that we don't get, but is enticing enough to make us want to explore it and figure out the puzzle. Ironically, in doing that, he does to us precisely what the story does to his characters, and, I think, that's the key to understand what's going on. I have no idea how long it took me to figure out the ending, but I think I'm finally there and The Hollow Men plays all the better now I have my own theory as to what it means. I should emphasise that while my theory holds true, as far as I can tell, it is just a theory and Denton may have aimed at something else entirely or even just to create a film that prompts its audience to theorise.

Two scientists walk into their laboratory for the umpteenth time, entirely familiar with their surroundings, moving through the routine steps they need to set up their new day, bickering at each other about their methodologies as they do so. Oli is the shorter one in the flying helmet that ought to look completely out of place but somehow fits with the delightfully analogue equipment with all its switches and dials. Charlie is the taller, more arrogant one who clearly believes he's in charge, whether he is or not. The word of the day is 'comfortable', but something is different and eventually they notice. There's some kind of burning vision at the end of a corridor, a sort of artificial sun that just sits there radiating light, waiting for them to notice it and start asking questions. 'What did you change?' Charlie asks Oli and they're off and running. What it is we're never really told, though it's apparently an unexpected overflow of their experiment to generate something. Its blinding light hides a doorway, which it has also metaphorically become.
And as they walk towards it, the picture restarts. They're back at the beginning, arguing as they walk into the lab. It isn't a straight repetition, of course. While actions and dialogue are mostly identical, there are changes which change all the more as Oli and Charlie realise that they've done this before. We aren't told how often they've been through this time loop already or how long it took before déjà vu set in, but they keep on restarting. We don't know how it's triggered or how large an area is affected. We have little data to go on, but we find a crucial point which sets up the dynamics of how they can jump the loop and move forward. What I find most fascinating about this is the irony with which the entire film is constructed. The scientists' job is clinical and methodical, but the reason they're watchable is that they're human beings, creating drama. The very stuff that makes the movie for us is what in them creates the opportunity for it to exist; when it goes away, so does the film. In a way, this is the purest and truest movie ending ever.

Denton's chief inspiration was Shane Carruth's Primer. 'Seeing Primer for the first time was like a kick in the soul,' he wrote on the film's website as part of a larger explanation that's well worth reading. Each of the points he makes there stood out for me as major successes for the film. The unexplained science was appropriate, to the degree that Oli and Charlie appropriately mumble through their routine. Not showing 'the machine' was a great choice, but so was not explaining it. Something as unreal as this MacGuffin is rendered all the more realistic by the characters not focusing their dialogue for the audience's benefit. A collection of tech donated by a ham radio nut grounds the whole thing. Even the major omission Denton cites is spot on; I wondered why there were so few cables. Sure, the old tech would have been designed to house them, but not so the bigger or more modern equipment. There are flaws, as the staticky editing was certainly overdone, but it's powerful, if not a film for everyone. Let's see if it grabs you too.

The Hollow Men can be watched for free online at Vimeo in a 2012 edit called Who are the Hollow Men?

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