Mr Nobody – an investigation into choice

I recently watch Mr Nobody, a film written and directed by the relatively unknown (at least to me) Jaco Van Dormael. The movie stimulated some thoughts, so I thought I’d share it.

Immediately I am intrigued; the film starts with an introduction to a famous psychology experiment devised by B. F. Skinner. The experiment, known as the “Skinner Box”, involves a pigeon in a box with a button that controls a hatch releasing food. The pigeon pecking randomly eventually presses the button and is rewarded with food. After a few more fortuitous pecks, the bird begins to realise the causal relationship between button pecks and food ‘reward’, so its behavior becomes less random and more focused – i.e. button pecks. However, rather than stop here at this interesting insight into psychology and conditioned behavior the film highlights another important finding from Skinner’s experiment. If instead the button is removed and the hatch is opened at timed 20 second intervals, the pigeon will associate whatever it is doing at that time of the hatch opening with a reward. If it happened to have been flapping its wings, it will now continuously flap expecting to get food, this is known as ‘pigeon superstition‘.

With this prologue, the viewer is now set up for the theatrical event, we have been primed so to speak. The pigeon wanted something (food) and it got it through various means, but the means to getting what it wanted are vastly different – In the first scenario the pigeon had full control over its reward (with the button) while in the other, it had only the illusion of control (with the 20s timer). We have to wonder sometimes if we, like the pigeon, are only flapping our wings throughout life or do we have control.

check this video about pigeon superstition.

Now with this philosophical preamble out of the way let’s get down to the literal story. The movie is about Nimo Nobody (Jared Leto) a 118 year old man living in the year 2029. And he is the last mortal alive, as technological advancement has cured all disease. There is no death from old age.

In his last remaining time, he has become a spectacle for the world and is asked to describe his life in an interview. This chronicle is the general framing for the movie.

Whether it is a bad memory, an overactive imagination or entropic arguments about the nature and direction of time; his life story is not straight forward. He describes many possible lives that he has lived without any clues to which is the truth.

!!! As I have already said too much I should warn you now of SPOILERS BELOW!!!!

As a child he is obsessed with the unidirectional nature of time, as he concludes “That’s why it’s hard to choose, because you have to make the right choice. As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible”. This idea was cemented in his youth, when faced with choosing between his divorcing parents. This was the first of several difficult decisions he has made throughout his life.

In various scenarios, he stays with his father and in others with his mother, in some he ends up marrying Anna and others with Elise or Jeanne. He is either happy or sad, and usually relates these emotional states to the choices that he made.

check the movie trailer

He meets Elise because he slips on a wet leaf and they bump into each other. But the story of the leaf is maybe just as interesting. It is sent there through a complex process of air pressure influencing the weather, and the actual cause was due to a butterfly in Japan flapping its wing. This is known as the ‘butterfly effect‘ (in chaos theory) whereby a small perturbation can grow to become a significant event with enough time. He ends up being very happy with Elise – but did he make a choice or was he simply subject to chaotic external influences that cannot be predicted.

In another scenario he is not happy with his choices in life, and finds himself depressed.

This film reminds me of this quote that I like, “The illusion of choice, is an indication of our lack of freedom.” It seems to suggest that we should relinquish our usual idea of choice, for it is only an illusion. Our happiness or sadness should not be linked to the choices we have made, it should be an ongoing process of living in the present moment.
We should not have emotional attachment to the choices we have made, the difficult decisions and the regrets, because at the end of the day – we ultimately had much less control over them than we may like to believe.

I will leave with a quote from the movie and the moral of the story, “Every path is the right path”.