When it comes to thought-provoking sci-fi drama, you won’t do much better than Mr. Nobody. At least, that’s what a bunch of critics thought when it premiered in 2009 — hitting best movie lists of the year. Only, no-one saw it until it was released two years later in the US, carrying a couple of Venice Film Festival wins tucked under its arm.
Mr. Nobody is sitting in HBO Max’s vault right now. A cult gem over a decade old, forgotten, huddled in a corner, waiting for you to run out of other things to watch.
Jared Leto stars as the titular Mr. Nemo Nobody, a 118-year-old man living in a future where “quasi-immortality” is the norm. The last mortal man, Mr. Nobody fascinates audiences all over, who wait patiently for him to die and say something meaningful in a TV spot.
We settle in for Mr. Nobody’s life story, but Mr. Nobody’s life story makes no sense.
From the beginning of time to the very end of time — from a white void swirling with angels to a spacecraft heading for the Red Planet — we see the full length of Mr. Nobody’s existence.
Yet — wisely — the movie sticks close to the human relationships that sew his life together.
We flash back to Jared Leto not wearing prosthetics as we cover pivotal periods in Mr. Nobody’s life. They’re all connected to his failed relationships tracking back to the ’80s, with Elise (Sarah Polley), Anna (Diane Kruger) and Jeanne (Linh Dan Pham).
These periods, colored with blue, red and yellow motifs, represent different mindsets: Depression and despair (blue), passion and love (red) and material wealth (yellow).
Mr. Nobody is on a journey to figure out the absolute best way to live his life. His head is filled with every possible outcome from every decision he makes. Does he marry Elise, Anna or Jeanne?
We see these outcomes in an album of sumptuous frames evoking colorful fairy tale versions of The Matrix, Inception and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
We flip from page to page via visual effects supervisor Louis Morin’s peak creative transitions. The doors of an austere bank open onto a white beach swarmed by helicopters — helicopters literally hoisting slabs of the ocean into place like a jigsaw puzzle. That’s Louis Morin who worked on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to really stamp home the dreamscape coming at you.
Aside from an award-winning minimalist score, you’ve got Buddy Holly, Hans Zimmer, Otis Redding, Eurythmics and four different versions of Mr. Sandman to help transport you to this sci-fi fairy tale.
If there’s one flaw, it’s that the story holding everything together is dabbed on with a half-dried glue stick. Mr. Nobody isn’t really going anywhere. That might be the point: He’s exploring his options, back-treading, flinging himself into the future.
And yet Mr. Nobody keeps you sitting through the end credits. At its heart is an impossible decision: Mr. Nobody, as a young boy, must choose to live with his father or his mother, after their divorce. Brutal.
Here’s the twist: add a third choice to that. What if you didn’t have to choose at all?
Choice and meaningful choices are what concern celebrated Belgian director-screenwriter Jaco Van Dormael. He explains it through Mr. Nobody’s gig as a science TV presenter: We’re covering chaos theory, the butterfly effect, pigeon superstition and the space-time continuum. We’re covering the Big Crunch and entropy, a term that will be familiar to anyone who looked up the meaning of. (Someone should splice the entropy section of Mr. Nobody into a Tenet primer.)
By this point, you’ll probably know whether this movie is for you.
It takes a while to form its final message, a message about making big decisions. If you’re worried about jumping onto moving trains heading in different directions, maybe you’ll be comforted by the idea that all outcomes are valuable in their different ways. One decision, Mr. Nobody argues, doesn’t necessarily outshine the other.
What hurts is not making a decision. It’s not making any decisions that turns you into a…