Mr. Nobody (2009), directed by Jaco Van Dormael, is a long (140 minutes), ambitious, fascinating and sometimes confusing film that is both highly original and reminiscent of a few other experimental films of recent years. Whereas many movies deal with the question of decisions and how they impact our fates, none does so in a way that’s more thorough and deep than Mr. Nobody.
The film starts off with a premise that’s quite perplexing, even by the standards of science fiction. The protagonist, whose actual name is unknown, is an apparently confused 117 year old man who is publicly recognized as the last mortal human, in an age when medical advances in stem cell technology have conquered death. This brings up the question of why this man has been singled out for this fate and how, if he’s unknown, they even know how old he is. The film may or may not answer these questions satisfactorily.
The film then focuses on flashbacks, dreams and/or hallucinations that Mr. Nobody has about his past, where he experienced (or imagined) several mutually irreconcilable lives. Not only was he simultaneously married to different women, in certain “lifetimes” he actually died at a young age. We are first taken back to his childhood, where he is compelled to choose between his parents when they split up. The pivotal moment is when his mother is riding away on a train and the boy chases the train and either does or doesn’t -or, rather, does and doesn’t- catch up to it. From this point onwards, the boy’s life starts to branch off into different timelines.
Fans of fantasy, science fiction, and even certain alternative news and conspiracy websites, will be familiar with the concept of timelines. This is also related to possible worlds theory in the realms of academic philosophy and quantum physics. The premise is that every possible reality actually exists in some dimension. Yet Mr. Nobody isn’t content to “merely” examine the notion of timelines. It takes us even further afield, invoking the Butterfly Effect, a future when humans visit Mars and, as alluded to, the technological defeat of death itself. If that wasn’t enough, there is even a sequence with angels and a unicorn, to portray the alleged moment before babies are born and choose their parents.
What can we make of such a complex and seemingly over-ambitious film? I actually found it more enjoyable and accessible than this summary probably indicates. While it is overly complex, convoluted and, ultimately, indecipherable, it is also thought-provoking and philosophical. It also manages to avoid being overly dry and cerebral. Indie actress and director Sarah Polley, plays Elise, a bipolar (or perhaps borderline personality) love interest of Mr. Nobody, and one of the women he marries. Their tumultuous relationship is one of the factors that gives the film some emotional weight. His other two wives are also aptly portrayed by Diane Kruger and Linh Dan Pham.
The film it most closely resembles is the better known Cloud Atlas (2012), which, at 172 minutes was even longer, had the advantage of some big name stars such as Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Halle Berry. Both movies deal with long periods of time and individuals living out multiple lifetimes. Although Cloud Atlas, which was based on a book, got more attention and, in general, better reviews, I actually preferred Mr. Nobody. I found Cloud Atlas overly long and somewhat sanctimonious. Mr. Nobody, despite what could be called its flaws (but which I’m more inclined to simply call its style), was more an open-ended exploration of some fantastical (but not implausible) theories and possibilities. For what it’s worth, both Cloud Atlas and Mr. Nobody envision a future where guys with intricate face tattoos are prevalent.
Other films that Mr. Nobody can be compared to include Richard Linklater’s exploration of lucid dreaming (among many other things), Waking Life, the reverse aging saga, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and a number of David Lynch films that deal with issues such as multiple identities. Finally, anyone who saw the quasi-documentary What the Bleep do We Know? will recognize the rather farfetched interpretations of quantum physics, such as multiple dimensions.
Mr. Nobody combines philosophy, science fiction and drama in a way that is difficult to reconcile. It’s probably better if you just watch it without trying to understand exactly what it’s all supposed to mean. If nothing else, you should take away from it that life is more complicated and multifaceted than most of us realize most of the time.