Roger Nygard ("Trekkies") says he was born into the Episcopalian Church, which is "kind of like Catholic Lite." When people cruise along in life, no one ever thinks of their mortality. It's only when we hit life's speed bumps, he says, that people start to seriously wonder: Is there a God? Is there life after death? What's the meaning or purpose of life? After hitting a few rough patches of his own, Nygard started asking those questions and 82 more "hard" ones related to the mysteries of existence.
To try to find answers, the filmmaker began by asking friends and neighbors what they thought. Before long he's emailing all sorts of philosophers, scientists, religious leaders, spiritualists, and others to find out if they're willing to talk with him about the big, ontological questions on-camera. Eventually, his search for meaning takes him to the cradles of religious thought in places like Israel, India, the Vatican City, and China. He talks with Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons, and members of other religions--both those in official capacities and those who are merely members of a faith. He talks with taxi drivers and street philosophers and he talks with Holy Men who draw pilgrims to their feet. He also talks to non-believers--among them the teenage girl next door--who think that when you die, you die, and that's it.
What's the meaning of life? The responses range from the sacred ("To serve God and pray") to the profane ("I don't give a shit"), and from the serious ("I don't doubt God; I doubt his representatives") to the flippant ("Sex . . . and chocolate"). Some of the responses are downright sexist ("Man's purpose is to have women"), while others, like those from a self-proclaimed guru, seem more show than tell, and more performance than thoughtful consideration.
For that, we have to go to the astrophysicists, cosmologists, or particle physicists, one of whom proclaims how utterly easy it would be for him to make a million dollars by writing a book that claims particle physics proves the existence of God . . . but it can't, and it would be a sham for which his fellow scientists would hate him for the rest of his life. But this statement and one from a professed atheist who slips and says "God knows . . ." before correcting himself bear testimony to how MUCH people want and need to believe that their life isn't just a here today and gone tomorrow affair, with no more purpose than the grazing cattle have that we pass along the highway.
Nygard begins in a pretty traditional manner, with a narrative voiceover that maintains a journalistic tone and the respondents filmed as they deliver their answers. It's one talking head after another, with a kind of randomness that predominates until the filmmaker announces his intent to go to the cradles of religion. At that point, a funny thing happens. He becomes more a participant himself, filmed on camera as he visits Holy places, and the film goes from being a straight talking heads collection to a kind of travelogue. What's more, Nygard's tone slips from that unbiased Midwestern newscaster to a kind of Michael Moore voiceover, though much lighter in tone. But there's a definitely recognizable wise and bemused voice that takes over for the second half of the film, and "The Nature of Existence" becomes more entertaining as a result. In fact, there's one unmistakably Michael Moore moment when the pope drives by in his popemobile and we hear Nygard shouting, "Hey Pope, POPE? Why do we exist?" Another Moore moment comes when, shortly after being told by an Asian monk that happiness comes from hard work, he finds an old woman turning an old, heavy grinding wheel and asks her if it's hard work. "Yes, hard," she says. "Are you happy?" he asks, and then tries pushing the wheel himself.
Some of the best sequences in this film come from seeing those cradles of religious thought and hearing the wide range of responses. The most interesting remarks come not from any of the religious experts or scientists, but from a man on a college campus who rebuts Brother Jed, a confrontational preacher who starts ranting on campus just for the purpose of drawing attention to himself and "Jesus." "Get a husband, get pregnant, that's what you girls were made for," he shouts at co-eds. But one man engages him with pointed questions and seems to put Brother Jed back on his heels. "If Jesus died for our sins, why does anybody go to hell?" And, "Why is it so hard to believe man evolved when it's hard to believe God evolved?" Brother Jed is also seen telling young men, "If you're a masturbator today, you're on your way to becoming a homosexual . . . something which, without the illogical leap into homosexuality, finds a kindred naysayer in a Tibetan monk.
Crossover beliefs form a large part of the content that's of interest in this film. Included among those Nygard interviewed was a man who believes he channels an alien called Bashar, an evolutionary biologist, a poet, the head of the Druids, Paiute elders, the director of the Gandhi museum, Ravi Shankar (formerly a musician, and now a holy man), the director of "The Empire Strikes Back," the editor of Skeptic, a wrestler, a writer, the wife of a pastor, the founder of the string theory of physics, the author of Life after Death, and worshippers of Baba, whom followers believe was the latest chosen one in a line that includes Jesus and Mohammed.
Don't go into this movie expecting to learn the answers. On the contrary, if you're one of those who's bothered by the hard, existential questions, you're probably going to leave the theater with more questions than you carried into the movie house. The beliefs across the world are so varied that it's hard to conclude much of anything other than what Nygard does: that it proves how the need to validate our existence is something that unites all human beings. We all have big, unanswered questions, and "The Nature of Existence" is a fascinating film that shows just how crazy we are for even trying to answer the big questions.
On the DVD Town scale, I'd give this a 7 out of 10. "The Nature of Existence" is showing in select theaters. For a complete listing, see "The Nature of Existence" website. Or you can wait until October, when the DVD is slated to be released.