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(2002) (Sarah Polley, Robert John Burke) (R)

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Drama/Satire: A young woman searches for and eventually befriends the bitter and immortal monster that killed her fiancé.
Beatrice (SARA POLLEY) is a young woman working for a NY TV producer (HELEN MIRREN) who's always on the lookout for the latest sensationalistic news story she can air on her program. When Beatrice receives a tape recording from the individual who claims to be the monster who killed a three-person crew from their station - that included her fiancé, Jim - she convinces her boss to let her travel to Iceland as part of a follow-up regarding the creature.

The young woman is sidetracked, however, when she ends up being the sole survivor of a plane crash that lands her in a hospital for months under the care of Dr. Anna (JULIE CHRISTIE) who nurse her back to a healthy state. Half a year later, Beatrice is ready to resume her trip to the nearly desolate, Icelandic coastal village where the few locals attempt to appease a nearby Monster (ROBERT JOHN BURKE), and Beatrice's subject, with liquor.

When she finally meets him, neither his demon-like looks nor threatening demeanor scare her. Instead, she tries to figure out what and/or who he is. As she does so and they form an unlikely friendship where he promises not to kill anyone else, they then set out to find Dr. Artaud (BALTASAR KORMÁKUR) - an eccentric scientist who may hold the Monster's only answer to ending his immortality - and must then deal with the ensuing media circus that engulfs them.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
With the recent advances made in both science and medicine, it now appears that mankind's goal of attaining immortality could be within our grasp. Yet, one hopes that those striving for eternal life have also contemplated the problems and curses that go along with that, such as never being able to retire (even Bill Gates would eventually run out of money) or losing one's friends or family if they're not also immortal.

Various films have tackled related issues - from the adventurous if goofy "Highlander" pictures to the schmaltzy but more thoughtful "Bicentennial Man" - and for a while it appears as if "No Such Thing" will be doing the same.

After all, it features a character who hasn't just achieved immortality, but rather is one who's been around since the dawn of time. Given no name beyond "The Monster," the demon-like creature - complete with broken horns, scaly skin and fire-breathing abilities - is disgusted with life - both his and all humans considering how they've evolved - and lives a solitary, bitter life that he tries to drown in liquor when not killing the random trespasser.

It's an intriguing setup, complete with a young woman who travels there to investigate him after he sends back a tape recording admitting to killing her fiancé and others from the TV station where she works. Alas, that and the immortality elements are pretty much wasted and turn out not really to be the point anyway.

Written and directed by Hal Hartley - whose previous efforts such as "Henry Fool" and "Flirt" have definitely fallen into the "either you get it or you don't" category and viewer response - the film wants to be something of a scathing and humorous look not at immortality, but instead the media, its consumers, and the fact that one grows and gets its energy from the other that feeds on its instant-gratification offerings. You see, the monster isn't really the violent creature, but rather all of us. Or the media. Or something else entirely.

Since one never quite knows what the filmmaker's underlying intentions might be, even that idea is wasted. Of course, it doesn't help that the picture is plagued by two rather large problems. First, satirical looks at the media certainly aren't anything particularly new - with films such as "Network" and "Wag the Dog" previously exploring the issue with better and more clever and imaginative results.

The bigger problem, however, is the way in which Hartley has fashioned the story and instructed his performers to play their characters within it. Regardless of whether it's the point or not, nothing is played realistically and is either so scattershot or campy that it becomes maddeningly irritating to watch. Elements that do or don't occur make little if any sense, and the performances are either so deadpan or goofy that the whole affair becomes increasingly preposterous, not to mention boring and painful to behold, as it unfolds all over the screen.

Take, for instance, the whole bit about the young journalist and her "relationship" with the monster. In true "Beauty and the Beast" fashion - from which the film is obviously inspired to some warped degree - she befriends the beast and manages to look past his faults without a second thought (such as recently killing her fiancé). She also isn't scared of him, and doesn't fall for him or particularly worry about him becoming weaker due to the media focus placed on him and his promise to her not to kill anyone else.

I can only imagine what a filmmaker of the caliber of David Lynch or Tim Burton could have done with the material, turning it into something intelligent, poignant and/or spooky. Yet, everything is played in such a broad and often unconnected fashion here that any sort of effect Hartley was trying to achieve is completely squandered.

As far as the performances are concerned, Robert John Burke ("Thinner," "Fled") gets the physicality of the part down pat - thanks in large part to all of the makeup - and plays the character in an appropriately gruff and disgusted manner regarding his life and view of the world. Notwithstanding the fantastical element, though, something just doesn't feel quite right about the character and the way he acts and reacts.

A lot of that is obviously due to the storytelling problems, but a bigger fault is that we're not allowed to hate or like the beast wholeheartedly. He's simply there, and while we know we're supposed to feel sorry for what happens to him, such a reaction never occurs (no doubt due, in part, to all of the campy, illogical and nonsensical elements at play).

Rather than playing the shrieking Fay Wray or resourceful but frightened Jodie Foster type character, Sarah Polley ("The Claim," "Guinevere") is mostly reduced to an unsatisfying deadpan or near emotionless stare, expression and reaction to everything that occurs. Accordingly, her character doesn't come off as real or believable. While that might have been the filmmaker's point or intent, it seriously undermines both the character and film since she's the protagonist and we're supposed to have some sort of reaction to her.

Julie Christie ("Afterglow," "Heaven Can Wait") shows up in a subplot that comes out of the blue and goes nowhere. Although one initially thinks her nurse character or plot detour will have something to do with the main story, it doesn't (beyond Polley's character briefly becoming a celebrity of sorts for being the sole survivor of a plane crash - and that's far more implied than shown).

The focal point of the satire is with the character played by Helen Mirren ("Gosford Park," "Last Orders"). A heartless and soulless creation who chain-smokes her way through trying to elicit the most sensationalistic news stories, the character has some potential, albeit of the recycled variety since we've seen her kind before. Unfortunately, the talented actress can do little with the part that goes nowhere and never amounts to much, which also holds true for Baltasar Kormákur ("Me and Morrison," "The Split") as an eccentric scientist.

While the filmmaker's diehard fans may enjoy what's offered here and/or imagine that something profound and novel is being explored, the way in which Hartley has conceived and then executed the story will leave most viewers feeling nothing but confusion, boredom and anger for wasting their time on cinematic drivel such as this. "No Such Thing" rates as a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed March 21, 2002 / Posted March 29, 2002

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