Director Roger Nygard is the clever mind behind the uncomfortably biting Trekkies documentary, so going into his 2010 feature - a global soul-searching exploration of why we are - one would expect The Nature of Existence to carry much of the same vaguely mocking tone. Yet Nygard appears to have matured somewhat, and as he boldly attempts to find "the meaning in the chaos" he basically lets his subjects speak their collective minds, cutting together a vast assortment of individuals, all of whom pontificate and speculate on why we exist, the existence of a god (or gods) and the purpose of prayer amongst other topics. He plays it all pretty sincerely, simply setting up his camera in the face of anyone willing to explain why their notion of what it all means is the right explanation.
There is a diverse gathering of interviewees, ranging from Nygard's close friends to religious leaders to spiritual guides to taxi drivers to waitresses to Oxford-educated scholars to everything in between; even the late The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner contributes. Nygard frames his talking-head narrative in concentric circles beginning in Los Angeles, slowly spreading eastward across the southern United States, eventually traveling to England, Israel, India and China. There are thematic segments (such as Afterlife, Sex or Happiness), but essentially Nygard compiles the gamut of possibilities, from Satanists to Druids, allowing everyone - no matter how extreme - the opportunity to elaborate. Some - like the wild sermonizing of Brother Jed Smock - almost makes fun of themself, while the smart honesty of noted evolutionary biologist/atheist Richard (The God Delusion) Dawkins offers an intelligent balance to the talk of god and/or gods.
It's not often that a documentary will include talk of the complicated string theory alongside the spirited weirdness of Christian wrestling, but The Nature of Existence does just that. Credit Nygard for doing his best to leave no avenue unexplored, and in terms of equal time this one appears somewhat even-keeled, at least when it comes to letting each side get some valuable screen time. If we're to believe Nygard's thesis, he's just looking for answers, and if nothing else he has put together a documentary that should spark a lot of thought in viewers. That's not always as easy of a task as that appears, and as a filmmaker her Nygard seems willing to be looking for answers anywhere.
For what it's worth - as a raging "there is no god" atheist - I found The Nature of Existence to be a fascinating and compelling collection of "what if" scenarios, and I spent much of my time marveling at just how many different viewpoints there are on what it all means. Nygard minimizes much in the way of smarmy editorializing (for the most part, at least - sorry, Vatican) and he's content to let viewers absorb it all and sort it out themselves. Naturally there are no concrete answers by the time the credits roll, but the range of possibilities is wonderfully entertaining, considering they can't all be right.
Or can they?
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is disappointing, a miserably soft transfer that often loses all semblance of edge detail more often than not. Watching this on a large display television will not be the most rewarding experience, though the inconsistencies here seem to change as rapidly like Chicago weather. Colors hold up pretty well, coming across with greater stability than overall image clarity.
Audio is provided in no-frills Dolby Digital 2.0 track, though the backcover touts this as being presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 (it is not). Dialogue and interviews are clear, with no discernible hiss or crackle. All in all, a pretty basic presentation.
I'm rarely one to bemoan too many extras, but this two-disc is literally crammed to the rafters, and oddly enough I didn't really feel the need for this much background material.
Disc one - in addition to the main feature - includes with a crowded commentary with writer/director/editor Roger Nygard, producer Paul Tarantino, associate producer Laurel Barrett, along with Nygard pals Bobby Gaylor, Billy Sullivan, Stevie Ray Fromstein, Joe Keyes and Geoff Bolt. As expected with that many folks involved it's a busy track, and after a while it was difficult to remember who was who, with the exception of Nygard. There's plenty of "we shot this here" or "we shot this there" discussion, and with so many speakers I found it all a little too much.
Not so with The Making of The Nature of Existence (11m:56s), a fairly condensed and concise explanation of the hows-and-whys of the production, from the beginning on through the scoring, much of which is touched on in the commentary. Classic Works features The Destroyer (08m:20s), which highlights the colorfully weird Brother Jed Smock preaching at the University of Minnesota while Poltercube (04m:29s) is a silly early Nygard film about one man's adventure with a Rubik's Cube. Poltercube also features an optional commentary with Nygard and actor Patrick Farnand. Disc one concludes with the film's theatrical trailer and bios for Nygard, Paul Tarantino and Billy Sullivan.
Over on disc two there is a humongous set of deleted scenes (01h:06m:00s), and considering that Nygard professes often in the supplements about how much extra footage was shot it's not surprise a big chunk shows up here, The disc also features some Stevie Ray Fromstein standup (05m:37s) and a Pandit Pasraj performance (09m:10s) for you fans of the celebrated Indian classical vocalist.
The Nature of Existence is one of those documentaries guaranteed to get you talking and thinking, and for that I have to applaud Nygard. The good news is that despite all of theorizing and speculation on display here no one really know the answer to life's great mystery, so as far as I'm concerned there are no right or wrong answers.
A wonky transfer and too many extras notwithstanding, The Nature of Existence is well worth a rental.