THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE NATURE OF EXISTENCE"
You've got to hand it to The Nature of Existence; the film isn't afraid to tackle big questions. Director Roger Nygard (Trekkies) has made a documentary that specifically sets out to answer the basic yet complex question, Why do we exist? To get insight, he travels around the globe, interviewing religious leaders of all stripes, scientists, philosophers, stand-up comedians, and even ordinary people on the streets. Also scattered in are some notable folks who, while perhaps not possessing any special knowledge, have a passion for the subject that matches Nygard's. Writer Orson Scott Card and The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner are among them.
What Nygard finds is that his central query doesn't inspire answers so much as other questions. Different interview subjects have different perspectives that cumulatively peel away layers of the onion to reveal even more layers. Some of the participants believe we're here to be children of God. Others, like noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, feel it's essentially just one large fluke. A few hedge their bets, saying that the real purpose for humans to exist is, ironically, beyond our comprehension.
The Nature of Existence is undoubtedly thought-provoking as it breezes through a series of related issues, from religion's impact on sexuality, to the difference between “religion” and “spirituality,” to whether any one faith is actually "right." But what's interesting is that the film is also quite funny in the way it suggests that nobody really knows anything. Nygard never, ever mocks any religion (or lack of religion), yet there's a wry undertone to the picture as it observes how seeking the Big Answers only makes one's head spin.
Some of the individuals we meet here are fascinating. Consider Brother Jed Smock, a "confrontational evangelist" who hangs out in college quads screaming at the students. While he undoubtedly believes what he preaches, Brother Jed seems to, at some level, be satirizing street corner proselytizers. Then there's Rob Adonis, the founder of Ultimate Christian Wrestling. He uses the pro wrestling format to teach Bible stories. At one point in the film, we see a violent grudge match evolve into a reenactment of Jesus' crucifixion. My first thought was that this was sacrilegious, but then Adonis points out that his message may be reaching people who wouldn't otherwise hear it. Who am I to argue?
Not everyone is as eccentric as these two. Nygard makes sure to give quality screen time to experts and scholars who provide plenty to chew on. I don't consider myself to possess a particularly deep philosophical mind, but I nevertheless find these kinds of discussions enthralling, in part because of their mercurial nature. Some of the brightest minds in the world are dedicated to determining why we exist (if there is indeed a reason at all), and yet while there are pieces of truth, there is no definitive answer that we know of. It's all still a mystery. This is what The Nature of Existence does best: it reminds us that asking the questions is an essential part of the journey, whether we solve the puzzle or not.
I think that the documentary, at times, takes on a little too much. It might have been better to pare down some of the detours and focus on a few central topics, thereby giving the experts more room to expand on their key theories. Nygard also inserts himself into the film a lot, a la Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. While he's undoubtedly a nice guy, he lacks the humorous onscreen charisma of the filmmakers whose style he emulates, which makes his appearances seem intrusive.
A few minor quibbles aren't enough to dull the fun, though. The Nature of Existence presents a lot of diverse viewpoints, never ridiculing any of them. This desire to consider all perspectives is what makes the movie a smart, engrossing, and entertaining crash course in the study of What It All Means.
( out of four)
The Nature of Existence is unrated but contains some adult language and discussions of sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.