Surreal Science Fiction

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a Sci-Fi Saturday post. (I didn’t post at all in 2017, so it’s been a long time since I’ve written a lot of things.) But last night I watched Mr. Nobody (2009), a slightly surreal science fiction film that I found hugely engaging and affecting, and it inspired me to write about it.

The truth is that Mr. Nobody isn’t actually surrealism — it does have a concrete narrative, but it’s a jumbled, imaginary, and fantastic one. That can sometimes be the case with really good science fiction. A common trick SF authors play is keeping you guessing until they reveal their mysteries.

Mr. Nobody isn’t particularly mysterious, but it does require that you pay close attention!

Since there isn’t really a mystery, there’s no issue with spoilers. The ending of the film is presented in the premise: It’s the year 2092, and the last living non-immortal human being is about to die.

This is the framing device for the underlying story — told as “memories” by Nemo Nobody (Jered Leto) — which is about the different paths our lives take as we make various choices along the way.

The film invokes the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics, which says that every choice results in all possible outcomes actually occurring. We seem to go down one path, but in reality copies of ourselves proceed down all possible paths.

This, of course, seems bat shit crazy (or bat poop bonkers, if you prefer a bowdlerized version), because the MWI considers every quantum event a choice, and quantum events happen in unimaginable numbers every instant.

So according to the MWI, there are uncountable new realities created constantly (not to mention all the ones created in the last 13.8 billion years).

I think there is a way to reconcile the MWI with sensibility, but it may be purely my invention. (I’ll touch on it below if there’s room.)

The film involves some key points in Nemo’s life where he made important decisions. For example, the first is about whether to stay with his father or leave with his mother when his parents divorce. The film explores the consequences of both.

And these two main paths have choices along the way to that lead to even more paths the film explores. (There is a little bit of a punchline at the end which I won’t spoil for you.)

Jeanne, Elise, and Anna — note the color coding!

Nemo’s personal life paths involve three women, all of whom he meets as girls when he is a boy. How they enter, or re-enter, his life, and what happens between them, depends on various choices he makes.

Jaco Van Dormael, who wrote and directed, uses color coding, music, and other stylistic devices, to separate the narrative paths. This is why you have to pay attention. Van Dormael jumps between realities in a way that can confuse the casual viewer.

I recommend the Wikipedia article if you want more details. It covers the various life paths Nemo takes — several of which lead to his death. And, of course, the framing narrative is all about the end of his longest path.

Here I’ll just say I found the film enthralling, and I give it a Wow! rating.

I need to watch it again to try to pick up more of the symbolism and to better follow Van Dormael’s cues about the different life threads.

It’s a wonderfully refreshing change from the superhero city-smashing noise so common today. I find I’m so over superhero movies that even fairly decent ones, like Dr. Strange or Wonder Woman, don’t impress me much.

(To be honest, I’ve tried to watch Wonder Woman twice now and turned it off because I found it dumb and boring.)

“Argyle World” — where Nemo wasn’t ever born.

The “surreal” aspect of Mr. Nobody comes from a premise that, before they are born, children remember everything about their lives, but Angels of Oblivion erase those memories at the moment of conception. Except they somehow miss doing that with Nemo, who is able to “remember” all his possible life paths.

There is also a life path of Nemo’s in which he was never born, and that reality is definitely a bit surreal. (I suppose one might call these plot points fantastic and imaginary rather than surreal, but whatever.)


Speaking of superior (and slightly “surreal” but not really) science-fiction movies, I also very highly recommend Arrival (2016), directed by Denis Villeneuve, and starring Amy Adams.

I’ll tell you now I give it a Wow!

(Don’t confuse it with The Arrival, either the 1996 one with Charlie Sheen or the much lesser-known 1991 one of no account.)

This award-winning film is based on an award-winning short science fiction story by Ted Chiang: “Story of Your Life”

I first read — and absolutely loved — the short story in one of SF collections edited by Gardner Dozios. I also found it in The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

(That’s a wonderful collection spanning the history of SF; a real must-have for any real SF fan. I got mine from Apple iBooks. It’s a steal at 18 USD.)

At its heart the story has two themes: determinism and linguistic relativity.

The former asks: If the world was fully determined, and you knew everything that was going to happen, would life still be worthwhile?

The second asks: How much does language inform, not just our thinking, but our entire worldview? (This is also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.)

The block universe theory holds that all time exists, that past and future are merely illusions that we perceive as we move through the block. Our inability to see the fixed future is a limitation on our part.

The aliens who visit us in Arrival (and in “Story of Your Life”) do not have that limitation, and their language reflects this. Further, the story says that learning the alien’s language confers the ability to remember the future just as we remember the past.

Both the film and the short story have an unfolding of events (because they’re both really good science fiction) that I won’t spoil. And, sadly, if you know nothing about the film, I’ve already spoiled it a bit. Oh, well.

We often think of the future as exciting because we don’t know what will happen. The idea of determinism, especially if we know what’s going to happen, seems to make life pointless and dull.

But ask yourself whether listening to a favorite song is pointless and dull. Or re-reading a favorite book or seeing again a favorite movie or play.

Or ask why little kids love seeing their favorite movies over and over and over and over and over… like every damn day for weeks on end until their parents can’t believe they haven’t become bored with it.

For adults there seems a spectrum. Movies and books we love might bear several trips through them, but think about songs and poems. How many times have your heard — and enjoyed — a beloved song? Or read a beloved poem?

You know the piece well, there are no surprises, yet it still has the power to evoke strong feelings.

For adults, perhaps the more complex is a work, the more it bears repeating, because new details emerge each time. (Children actually seem to thrive on the repetition of known things, and my theory is their world is so filled with new things that they need the downtime of something fully known.)

Chiang’s short story, especially, touches on how ‘performing’ a known role — reading a story to your child for the umpteenth time, or acting in a stage play for the umpteenth performance — does not, in fact, ruin it.

There is a grace and beauty, perhaps even excitement, to be found in walking a known path. There is something to be said about performing a known role.

And how many times have you enjoyed a particularly good rollercoaster?

In the short story there is no free will, choice is an illusion, as would be the case in a block universe. The movie does offer its characters choice, and the question shifts slightly to: Would you make a choice knowing there is pain and loss down that path? Would the joy be worth it?

I don’t fault the movie for this; visual storytelling is different from literary storytelling, and the main question still remains. One mark of a good story: It generates discussion!


So here are two outstanding science fiction films — both studying, in very different ways, the nature of choice. And both are a welcome, wonderful respite from the noisy trash so common today.

It’s especially heart-warming that Arrival received so much acclaim. I’ve always believed good SF can be crowd-pleasing. That’s actually kind of a no-brainer to any real science fiction fan. Just ask any Tolkien fan!


In contrast to the post’s title, neither of these films is truly surreal, so I’ll leave you by mentioning one that definitely is:

Southland Tales, written and directed by Richard Kelly, and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and many others you’ll know.

It’s a truly wild wack-a-doo film that I won’t even try to describe (see the Wiki article).

I mentioned it in passing when I wrote about some other oddball science fiction films (Bunraku and I Origins).

I’m touching on it again to justify the post’s title, but also because I think the film is a real hoot and well worth seeing. It’s one I’ll watch again; I give it a strong Ah! rating.

Suffice, perhaps, to mention that writer-director Kelly wrote and directed Donnie Darko. (He also did The Box, which I haven’t seen.)


All-in-all, weird films like these, which engage me so, really make me wonder about artists such as David Lynch… who has, so far, utterly failed to engage me at all. (Mulholland Drive wasn’t too bad, I thought, but Eraserhead? WTF?)

I struggle between wondering if there’s an Emperor’s New Clothes thing going on (no one will admit they don’t really engage, either), or is it simply that I just can’t connect with his work? Is it him or me?

I’ve been watching a lot of standup comedians on Netflix lately and have found the same thing. Some I laugh my ass off at, some don’t produce the same laughs, but still engage me. I connect with them.

Others, and it seems mainly the young white ones whose lives have probably been pretty good, just leave me cold. A few I’ve turned off after 20 minutes or so upon realizing I wasn’t even grinning. At all.

These have full houses of fans laughing, so I assume it’s me. I just don’t connect with some. At the same time, there do seem to be some common threads.

But that’s a post for another time.


I’m over my word count, so very briefly, more as a place-holder for another post, I’ve pondered the idea that the MWI makes more sense if we view all those possible realities as virtual.

What if reality is a vast, incredibly complex standing wave of possible realities, and the one we experience over time — the instant of now — represents a collapse of potential realities into the one we experience.

Each quantum-level choice creates a wave pattern, and these all interfere to create a single actual world line. One thing about all those realities is that they don’t just branch out away from our choices. Past choices also converge on the current moment.

Perhaps more a science fiction idea than a science one, but there ya go.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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