MG looks at “Mr. Nobody” and Choice

MG looks at “Mr. Nobody” and Choice


“I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid I haven’t been alive enough.” – Nemo Nobody


Mr. Nobody – directed by Jaco Van Dormael

To what extent do choices matter? This is known as the philosophy of choice, the idea that we voluntarily make our own decisions and act in ways via our free will. Therefore, determinism is the equal opposite of free will and denies the reality of choice. But can we ever truly know whether our choices really matter?


In the film “Mr. Nobody,” the idea of choice is explored in order to explain that choices are the determining factor of who we are as people. The film centres around the protagonist Nemo Nobody and his sense of choice and self. Ultimately, a choice is the determining factor which leads our life in a certain direction.  The opening scene of the movie reveals that the year is 2092 and everyone, except Nemo, has achieved quasi-immortality and he is the last mortal left on Earth. His doctor is not aware of who Nemo actually is and, when a journalist interviews him about his life, it is clear there are contradictions in his life story. In chaos theory, the idea of ‘butterfly effect’ states that “slight imbalances in starting conditions lead to huge final variation in outcome,” or an action that does not seem important has a large effect in other places in the world. In Mr. Nobody, there are many portrayals of the butterfly effect, for example: when Nemo’s father tells Nemo of how he met his mother. The scene shows a butterfly flying in a Chinese field, causing slight changes in the wind speed as it travels. This butterfly travels to England and blows a leaf onto the sidewalk which leads his father to slip on it, leading the mother to check on him. The idea of the butterfly effect and chaos theory plays a major role in the film which sets in motion Nemo’s major choice – to stay with his father or to stay with his mother upon his parents’ separation.

When his parents get a divorce, he has to make the impossible decision of whether to stay with his mother (who has been involved in an affair) or with his mentally ill and struggling father. At this point, his life splits into multiple different realities and timelines which play out over the course of the movie – scenarios where he stayed with his father and scenarios where he stayed with his mother. Within the different outcomes, Nemo experiences different things that he could not have experienced in the other reality, such as relationships with different people, different jobs and, even, dying in a particular reality. This is a key connection to the ‘many-worlds interpretation’ which is an interpretation of quantum mechanics.

How does quantum mechanics apply to Mr. Nobody?


The Copenhagen interpretation, which was devised, mainly, by Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr; despite having differences in their theories, the main assertion in their interpretation was called ‘quantum superposition,’ in which a particle could be in two states, but we cannot tell, objectively, which. That is, until it collapses into one state only so an observer can view the particle in one possible state.


Schrödinger’s cat example – a paradox of quantum superposition

  • Imagine a hypothetical cat that is shut in a box made of steel, inside this box is radioactive material, a Geiger counter and cyanide poison in a bottle. If an atom of radioactive material decays, the Geiger counter will, ultimately, detect it and activate the system of a hammer to smash the bottle of cyanide poison, killing the cat. Because radioactive particles are highly unpredictable, the radioactive material in the box may decay after one second or years after being placed in the box. Due to no one being able to see into the sealed box, there is no way of knowing when the cat is either dead or alive – meaning the status of the cat is regarded as ‘measured.’ As such, the cat is in a superposition between life and death, creating a paradox in the quantum superposition theory.


When faced with multiple possibilities, before making a choice, every possible outcome of that choice becomes an alternate reality that branches from the original reality – meaning other parallel universes are created by choice alone. This is the ‘many-worlds interpretation’ of quantum mechanics which was postulated by Hugh Everett argues that both interpretations of Schrödinger’s cat, are ultimately true. Because there is a large number of parallel universes, there are many options open to us. When the box is open by an individual, both the observer and the measured cat is split into two realities. In one universe, the observer views an alive cat – whereas, in another universe, the observer views a dead cat. Nevertheless, the Copenhagen interpretation has a rebuttal: the wave function (Ψ) or Schrödinger’s equation, represents the knowledge of the whole system and, as there are two functions observed in the cat example – alive and dead, there is a 50% chance that the cat collapses into a state of being alive and a 50% chance of it being dead.


The MWI is the theory which is explored “Mr. Nobody,” in particular, via its presentation of choice. The main choice that sets in motion the film is when Nemo either catches the train his mother is leaving on or accidentally is slowed down by his shoelace and ends up staying with his father. Therefore, he grows up, in different parallel universes, with both his father and his mother. Within these two universes, he experiences wholly different things. In the universe which he stays with his mother, he falls in love with the daughter of his mother’s boyfriend, Anna, which is short-lived as his mother and her boyfriend break up and they move away. In the other universe, Nemo marries a girl named Elise who is either killed in an explosion after their wedding or continues living, struggling with depression. There is a third possible scenario, in one universe he is rejected by Elise and vows to marry the first girl he dances with at the school dance (to make Elise jealous). In this universe, he met Jean, whom he feels nothing for, marries her and becomes a rich businessman. Hugh Everett’s theory is directly mimicked within the film when, in some realities, Nemo is shown to have died. For example: In one reality he drowns in his car, in another, he crashes his motorcycle and ends up in a vegetative state and, in another, he is shot in his hotel room by mobsters. However, in multiple other parallel realities, he is still alive.


Time and choice in Mr. Nobody

In given interludes in the film, Nemo explains theories of time, the Big Bang and other theories of physics which are directly referenced in the film. He first explains how “before the Big Bang… time did not exist.” After the Big Bang occurred, Nemo further explains that the three spatial dimensions of height, width and depth came into existence with another dimension, the temporal dimension, coming into existence too. The spatial dimensions offer us freedom, whereas the temporal dimension does not as it is restrictive and only moves forward – forcing us to make choices. This theory of temporal direction is known as the ‘Arrow of Time’ theory which was developed by the British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington which explains that there is always a one-way direction to time, relating to the law of entropy. The law of entropy is regarded as the “tendency of the universe to move towards a state of disorder,” this is directly mirrored in the film as young Nemo narrates, stating that “the smoke comes out of the cigarette but it never goes back in.” Due to the fact we cannot go back and relive our lives and remake our choices, is precisely why choices are so hard to make.


Meaningful choices and Free Will

When we are born, Nemo says, we are regarded as omniscient as we have all the knowledge of every possible choice we will ever make. That is until the angels of oblivion take this ability away from us. However, Nemo is missed and, therefore, is special. He has the ability to know every possible outcome of every one of his choices. Despite this knowledge, it becomes more of a hindrance – “now that he knows what will happen, he is unable to make a choice.” Perhaps the knowledge of every possible outcome makes Nemo’s decisions less meaningful? Therefore, leading him to the conclusion that the best choice is no choice, to not do anything. He associates this lack of choice with the chess term ‘zugzwang,’ in which the situation a player might find themselves in, sees that every move they could make put them at a disadvantage.


In one of the realities, Nemo leads his life on a toss of a coin as he has become “bored” of his life, claiming it to be too stale and obvious after he has achieved great wealth. The toss of a coin removes the agency of making choice as it allows for a determination of random outcomes. In some realities he is poor, in some he is rich and the act of tossing the coin takes the choice out of his hands, letting unexpected things occur. In the end, Nemo states, “Each of these lives is the right one! Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning.” This, further, puts into question whether any of our choices have any meaning at all and, if meaning does exist, what makes some choices more meaningful than the next? If every reality is the right reality; if every path is the right path – every choice, we have ever made, holds no meaning.


But did Nemo have the free will to even choose in the first place?


Perhaps his choices are predetermined by what occurs in the environment? This is where the butterfly effect becomes a clear theme in the film which puts into question whether our choices are even our own. In many circumstances in the film, forces seem to push Nemo in a certain direction. For example: when Nemo is picking between two pairs of jeans, he ultimately picks the cheaper one which leads to a Brazilian man becoming unemployed. When the unemployed Brazilian man is boiling an egg, it increases the humidity in the air and leads to rain falling directly where Nemo is, making Anna’s number unreadable. This leads him to, ultimately, not being able to choose for himself, as the universe has already decided for him.


At the beginning of the film, we view an experiment where a group of pigeons that had their body weights reduced and fed for a few minutes every day at regular intervals. The original pigeon experiment, by B. F. Skinner, found that the pigeons developed superstitious behaviour, thinking that if they performed a certain action, e.g. flapping their wings, then food would arrive. In the conclusion of his study, three-quarters of the studied pigeons had become “superstitious.” Within the film, the experiment of pigeon superstition is used to show the dichotomy between freewill/causality and how the universe actually works. We may believe we have free will and that our actions affect our environment around us, but, in reality, we know very little about the forces of the universe and their effects on our lives.

To conclude, the film “Mr. Nobody” is profound as it raises a lot of questions, perhaps more than I can answer. Nevertheless, I suggest watching this film for the portrayal of choice and, in particular, free will.


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