The Nature of Existence was bound to fall short of its deliberately and ridiculously broad title anyway, but one still wishes for more; namely, a sensibility, a point of view, or something that carries the faintest whiff of originality. The conceit is that director Roger Nygard—confused by the casualties of 9/11—travels around the world speaking to scientists, priests, celebrities, and average Joes from many nations in the hopes of initiating discussions of life’s most distressing, perplexing questions, particularly “Why are we here?” Spoiler: Nygard doesn’t turn up the answer, and he doesn’t turn up much in the way of discussion either.
The approach is naïve and lame, and the “everyday guy interacting with global experts” gimmick works so well it eliminates the chance for a clash of ideologies. Nygard’s dull humility essentially cancels him out, and so we’re left with guests who are entirely unchallenged: They drop in their expected bit of rhetoric and seemingly evaporate, building little cumulative effect. An obvious idea is unexplored: assembling these personalities—such as a bigoted fire-and-brimstone campus preacher and the skeptical author of The God Delusion—in the same room and allowing them to hammer it out. The Nature of Existence is a collection of alternating sound bites. Scientists predictably proclaim the God idea absurd, while the religious write off any rational thinking with the much-repeated consolation of what is essentially blind superstition.
Miss opportunities inevitably abound. One wishes Nygard would’ve dropped his broader existential dorm-room bong-water pursuit to allow some of the admittedly interesting stories to fully emerge, particularly that of a church congregation in Atlanta that performs the killing of Christ as if it was an episode of Monday Night RAW, in the hopes of appealing to children. This episode leads to the one (unintentionally) chilling moment in the picture. Initially, the church’s ingenuity is sort of admirable, until the children’s unquestioning parroting of questionable principles begins to sink in. This church could potentially justify its own film, but it would interfere with Nygard’s trite, conventional, too-encouraging “we are the world, we’re in this together” puff-piece banality. Nygard’s picture would be okay to show as an initial conversation-starter for elementary school students, but the extremists, whose dangerousness is soft-balled here, would probably have the children yanked so as to avoid it anyway, which means The Nature of Existence is mostly inoffensive but pointless.