[Moving picture of popcorn]

Laramie Movie Scope:
The Nature of Existence

God, life, morality and everything

[Strip of film rule]
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
[Strip of film rule]

May 6, 2010 -- If you know what you are doing, you can make a good movie simply by asking questions of a bunch of people and recording their replies with audio and video equipment. Of course how good the resulting film will be depends on the quality of the questions asked and the answers received. In “The Nature of Existence,” film director Roger Nygard (“Trekkies”) uses this simple documentary film technique to ask simple, but profound questions, and gets a variety of intriguing answers from a large variety of very interesting people. The result is fascinating, ironic, revealing, entertaining and occasionally very funny. The questions are simple, but have profound implications on both ancient and modern belief systems, morality, laws, politics and religion.

Nygard, who doesn't hide behind the camera in this film, talks about his own religious upbringing. “I was born into an Episcopalian family, which is sort of like Catholic lite.” As a child he remembers religious services were a time where he counted down the minutes to brunch, when he could escape church and eat pancakes. Like many people the attacks of 9/11 caused him to reflect on the meaning of life, something he had avoided thinking about for many years. The 9/11 attacks were made by people who believed what they were doing was right. “How can we believe in things that are so different?”

His personal crisis led to this movie. In it, Nygard makes two journeys, one, a personal journey to connect with friends who have influenced him, and a spiritual journey to many more people and to places in the world, like China, Jerusalem and Rome, where the great religions, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Confucianism and others all sprang into being. He talks to pagans, atheists, satanists, social activists, movie directors, scientists, wrestlers, musicians, academics, doctors, philosophers, priests, monks, actors, stand-up comics and many others, among them a variety of fascinating people with very different ideas. He started every interview with the biggest question he could think of: “Why do we exist?”

The answers to this seemingly simple question vary widely of course, from “sex and chocolate,” to fairly incomprehensible philosophical contortions. Physicist Steve Biller had a different answer, that we don't exist at all, we just think we do. One would expect a scientist to say that our existence is a result of random chance and therefore our lives have no purpose other than what we choose. Instead, we get a scientist who says, “I like to think that I exist to figure out why I exist.” Not bad. Nygard, of course, also asks the second question, implied in the first, which is “What is our purpose, or “What is the meaning of life?” Another avalanche of answers include “to serve God,” “to love,” “to have fun,” “evolution,” “to make a difference,” “to procreate,” “to take care of mother earth” etc.

The implications of these basic beliefs explored in this film are vast, as Michael Schermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, says, “For the first time, as far as we know anywhere ever, there is a species that can colonize the entire cosmos.” Stanley Woosley, an astrophysicist of UC Santa Cruz, made the implications even larger than that. Woosley explains how the stars generated all the elements of nature over billions of years, starting from just Hydrogen and Helium. “We are star dust. The universe evolves. Stars evolve. People evolve. Everything that is alive evolves. We may be the path towards some ultimate intelligence, some ultimate life in the universe that would be virtually indistinguishable from what we call God.” Now that's heavy.

The nature of religion and spirituality is also a topic of this film. Is being religious and being spiritual the same thing? When Nygard asks this question he gets some answers that seem to indicate being spiritual and being religious can be the same thing, or these two things can be mutually exclusive. Nygard is able to round up some top religious figures and famous people for his film, like the Archdruid of Stonehenge, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (the most famous self-proclaimed guru living in India), authors Larry Niven (“Ringworld”), Ann Druyen (co-authored “Contact” with her husband Carl Sagan, and produced the movie of the same name), Richard Dawkins, film director Irvin Kershner of “Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back,” but he is shot down in his attempt to see the Pope. He finds out he must donate $20,000 to the church in order to get a 20-minute audience with the Pope. Nygard said he was willing to go as high as $200.

Ironies run thick in the movie, as with the Evangelist David Miller, who proclaims “God is love,” while wearing a badge on his chest which has the word “homo” on it which is crossed out by a line. Evidently, there are certain lines of love which he will not cross, even for Jesus. Two Islamic practitioners, placed in the film back to back, give opposite answers to the question “Do animals have souls?” Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, says yes, all animals, even plants have souls and feelings, while Dr. Zakir Naik of the Islamic Research Foundation says animals do not have souls. Perhaps the most famous atheist in the world, Richard Dawkins, humorously catches himself saying “God knows” while explaining why God is not necessary to explain the mysteries of nature.

Nygard explores the idea of God at some length. A religion professor says God is imaginary. Actress Julia Sweeney said, “In my search for God, I kept doing what everyone does and that is have a very narrow definition of God and then as they look for evidence and don't find it, they keep broadening the definition until it becomes God is air or God is a life force ... ” The old “unmoved mover” argument for God is raised. Woosley says if God pushed the button that started the universe, who pushed his button? A Muslim says God created himself, which is really no more a leap of faith than a scientist arguing the universe created itself.

Nygard also explores the idea of life after death, reincarnation or non-existence after death. One man described his feeling of liberation after being in the presence of over 100 dead bodies in a morgue. He realized he still had many choices in life, while the dead have no more choices. Nygard wonders, “Should I live my life for now or should I live it for later?” Nygard goes on to more questions, “What is truth?” “Are prayers answered?” “What is sin?” Is there a heaven and a hell? How do we find happiness? What do religions teach about sexuality? Where do the voices in our heads come from?

One of the strangest segments of the film is on “Ultimate Christian Wrestling,” founded by Rob Adonis in Athens, Georgia. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Pro-style wrestling is scripted like a play to tell a story. Why not use this style of theater it to tell religious stories? That's what Ultimate Christian Wrestling is all about. Among the exotic locations visited by Nygard in this film is Meherabad, India, where the followers of Meher Baba (1894 – 1969), a self-proclaimed avatar of God, gather at his shrine.

Nygard concludes his film by saying his journey led him to like people more. He found the differences between people and their beliefs are far less than he feared. He feels as long as he continues to move forward, seeking answers to these basic existential questions he will continue to progress. When he stops seeking these answers, he feels he will be in the process of dying. As for me, I think that God is something entirely supernatural, disconnected from the natural world, and that he doesn't intervene in the affairs of this tiny world. I also think our purpose is to be of service to others and to nature. This movie sort of falls into the category of service to others. It is an important subject that doesn't get much coverage in movies. Nygard has done a terrific job of asking questions, getting answers and finding interesting people to appear in this film. It rates an A.

This is a review based on a screening in advance of the film's theatrical release. The film is due to be released in the U.S. on June 18, 2010.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

[Strip of film rule]
Copyright © 2010 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
[Strip of film rule]
Back to the Laramie Movie Scope index.
[Rule made of Seventh Seal sillouettes]

Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)