I think the phrase existential crisis has suffered from its association with the general idea of existentialism, which has come to be defined by the interest of first-year college students.
We think: Camus. We think: depressing. We think: pretentious.
And we tend to leave it there.
But the actual experience of an existential crisis is pretty common. For me, they can happen when I’m cleaning the wall tiles in the shower or re-organizing shoes under the bed.
Just about any time when there’s enough real estate in my brain for big thoughts.
All of a sudden, WHOOPS, here come the big questions about why any of us are bothering with any of this.
And when that stuff comes up, I tend to deal with it better if I have a way to organize it. And one of the things that art, and movies, specifically, can do really well is to organize life, temporarily, and make it look a little more manageable.
The other big upside of these movies about existential crisis is that they can serve as a reminder that other people think about this stuff, too. Kind of a lot.
And some people think about it so much that they decided to make a movie about it.
So here are a few of them, each with something pretty worthwhile to say.
Anomalisa – 2015
This movie is a heavyweight of the existential category, penned by a prizewinner in the genre: Charlie Kaufman, the man of certain madness who writes very good movies.
He originally wrote Anomalisa as a radio play to be performed live alongside a piece written by the infamous Coen Brothers.
And he didn’t really want it made into a movie.
But Dan Harmon (Community, Monster House) did. And he happened to have his own stop-motion studio (Starburns Industries).
This movie had its own Kickstarter campaign, then later needed even more money, and it didn’t get released until 2015.
It was then nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, alongside Inside Out and the Shaun the Sheep Movie.
Anomalisa did not win.
The surface story is about a guy who’s on a business trip to do some motivational speaking about customer service. He’s staying in a hotel in Cincinnati.
To him, everyone in the world has the same voice. Except for this one lady.
Then come the more surreal elements, all of which just highlight our protagonist’s isolation and utter confusion in the face of what his life has become.
This is not a movie that offers solutions to the problems of living and the big questions that come up during the quiet times, but it does offer one of the most realistic depictions of what it feels like to be alive, most of the time.
Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance – 2014
A middle-aged man struggles to do work that has any kind of significance.
If that’s how the movie had been pitched to me, I probably wouldn’t have seen it. It kinda sounds boring, and plain, and expected.
So it’s just that much more of a miracle that the movie is fun, magical, hilarious, and ultimately meaningful.
This is a movie that takes a very typical human experience and makes it fantastical and dramatic.
This is what we want our daily lives to feel like. We want to have high-volume screaming matches with our friends and family that cut to the core of long-held vulnerabilities and disagreements.
And we all want to believe that our many troubles are actually worth something.
Are they? Birdman takes a swing at an answer.
The movie is visually beautiful because there is beauty in struggle and questioning. Even low-points can be wonderful to behold.
Joe Versus the Volcano – 1990
This movie earns bonus points for packing several existential crises into a single storyline.
Joe learns that he’s dying. He subsequently quits the job that’s been killing him slowly for years. (P.S. It’s one of the best quitting scenes in movie history.)
He’s soon offered the chance to jump into a volcano to save a superstitious tribe in the South Pacific.
It’s one of the first times in his life that he’s felt like he has a purpose. As a result, he loosens up, smiles more, enjoys the world, despite not knowing what will come next.
Shockingly, this is the sunniest movie on our list.
Its proposed solution to an existential crisis is simply: maybe don’t worry about it so much. Maybe just accept that death is coming to us all and just live life the way you want.
There’s also a good bit of anti-corporate material here but we’ll leave that for a separate article.
The Darjeeling Limited – 2007
Three brothers reunite in India long after their father’s funeral. All of them are looking for meaning, in varying degrees and through very different methods.
They take high-grade painkillers for their own sources of physical, emotional, and intellectual pain.
Their repeated attempts to make plans are repeatedly foiled.
The overall lesson here: family isn’t everything, but it is something, even if you don’t have long, meaningful talks like you’ve seen in movies, even if the individual members of your family are incapable of saying what they feel.
And further, that getting rid of your personal baggage is ultimately up to you, as hard as it may be to get rid of.
There’s a lot more to say on this one, as well as how it fits into the filmography of the Man Himself, Wes Anderson, but we don’t quite have the room here. Just go watch it instead. We’ll talk later.
Blade Runner 2049 – 2017
There have definitely been times when we’ve forgotten, as a society, that sci-fi’s original intent was to provide an alternate context in which to view and talk about very real, present, human problems.
But Blade Runner 2049 reminded us.
It’s better than the original, and that statement alone tends to attract some nasty comments, so we won’t dwell on it.
It’s best to watch this movie as its own thing. The opening text gives all the basic exposition info you need.
The character of K is introduced with ease, and we quickly latch onto him as a semi-likable character in this forsaken, rotted version of the future.
Slowly, very slowly, we are told of this larger mystery: can a replicant reproduce? If so, it would mean that the human race itself would have to re-evaluate how they treat replicants and their role within contemporary society.
How? How is this movie an action flick and an existential drama and a long look into the nature of humanity? That’s not really supposed to be possible.
But it’s pulled off here and looks effortless in the process.
Mike Stoklasa described this movie as a nightmare blanket, which I think is pretty accurate. It’s cozy and warm, but only through the use of terrifying ideas and disturbing images.
It’s comforting because it reminds you that there are lots of people, like you, who spend their time feeling uncomfortable.