Film Review: The Nature of Existence

Engaging but ironically lightweight, <i>The Nature of Existence</i> offers differing views about The Meaning of Life.

Those who ponder existential issues should appreciate Roger Nygard’s documentary The Nature of Existence, but at the same time they may be frustrated by the superficial way it looks into the Big Questions. As with James Toback’s The Big Bang and William Arntz’s What the Bleep Do We Know?, the film might find a more welcoming post-theatrical “afterlife.”

Nygard’s journey of discovery begins with local California types, including a large, androgynous, expletive-spewing guru named Aha. He also asks his own friends and crew members their theories and opinions. Then Nygard’s curiosity compels him to travel around the world to meet such luminaries as India’s Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (author of The Art of Living), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion), Chinese Taoist Master Zhang Chengda, Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind (co-discoverer of string theory), novelist Orson Scott Card (author of Ender’s Game), and other prominent artists, writers, teachers, musicians and religious thinkers.

Some of Nygard’s interview choices are more questionable—wrestler Rob Adonis (founder of Ultimate Christian Wrestling), hack director Irvin Kershner (yes, The Empire Strikes Back, but also RoboCop 2), and confrontational evangelist Brother Jed Smock. Scenes with these colorful folk play like Religulous minus Bill Maher’s smart-aleck retorts.

But most of The Nature of Existence is innocently earnest. In fact, Nygard’s inspiration to consider his place in the world and make this film was 9/11. I suspect most of the people Nygard interviewed (and most of the people who would attend this kind of film) started thinking existentially well before they arrived at adulthood and 9/11. This makes Nygard seem like the eponymous heroes of The Man Who Fell to Earth or The Brother from Another Planet. And you cannot dismiss someone who obsesses over his upcoming pancake breakfast all the way through church service. Yet Nygard’s childlike inquisitiveness limits his degree of probing. (The film’s fast-paced editing, jumping from person to person, papers over the fact that Nygard doesn’t seem to have studied for his interviews or to have asked many follow-up questions.)

Nygard (the director of Trekkies) might be a New Age male, yet there are glimmers of Old World misogyny. It is a bad omen when the opening montage of guest speakers (each one paring down their answer to what life means to a simple sound bite) are predominantly male with only a couple of women represented.

Later, in an inadvertently disturbing sequence, Nygard pairs up with his best friend in Northern California, writer Geoff Bolt, as they visit a female artist at her Spirit of Goddess shop and a Goddess-themed restaurant; the cutaway shots of Bolt rolling his eyes heavenward disparage and undercut the words and gestures of the women. But are these women really that sillier or more worthy of ridicule than the “spiritual” males of the film (who are never treated this way)? Is Nygard betraying his innocent front here or is he just that oblivious about the meaning he creates? That’s another Big Question Roger Nygard should start to ponder if he ever makes another film.