Charlie Kaufman’s mind-bending I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is a critically acclaimed and haunting thriller that explores just about everything under the sun. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the movie is about, but Kaufman doesn’t shy away exploring a myriad of rich social and metaphysical issues: age and decay, love and contempt, art, reality, time, and all that lies in between.
From this, it’s easy to see why people have taken to unpacking its themes. Others have created fan theories that valiantly try to explain the movie’s confusing plot points. But an aspect that hasn’t been explored in much detail is the film’s science, whereby Kaufman introduces many head-scratching concepts. So, let’s parse through the science and see if it adds value to this already dense film.
What actually happens?
The plot of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is deceptively simple: a woman (mostly referred to as Lucy) travels with her boyfriend, Jake, to visit his parents as she contemplates leaving him. The movie accompanies the couple on their journey to and from Jake’s childhood home, but at the end, the couple end up at Jake’s old high school. Failing to wait for her boyfriend after he leaves her in their car, Lucy ventures into the school and finds a janitor. Here, the movie takes on a dramatic perspective shift. We now follow the janitor, who we later find out is an older version of Jake, as he hallucinates talking to a philosophical pig and winning a Nobel Prize as the grand finale. Suffice to say, it is a charming, unnerving, and absolutely bewildering film.
The essence of the movie is relatively simple, but many things happen during it that confuses the watcher’s understanding of its plot. For instance, Lucy’s occupation, personality and wardrobe constantly changes. At one point she is a poetry student, yet moments later she’s a quantum physicist, and so on. Kaufman explores the movie’s themes using Lucy’s different viewpoints throughout the film.
When Lucy assumes the role of a scientist, Kaufman makes many explicit and implicit references to physics concepts that contribute to the ideas his movie meditates upon.
Lost opportunities and different truths
When Lucy has a change of occupation, it symbolises the manifestation of different possibilities. Lucy is a walking embodiment of everything an individual could be, squashed into one single plane of existence. Many speculate this means that Lucy is a projection of Jake’s romantic fantasies. Lucy is a mystery woman Jake could have dated if he was only brave enough to ask for her number one fateful night. All of her different personalities symbolise unknown possibilities Jake lost to time and inaction.
But there are other dimensions to Lucy beyond representing unrealised potential. If we were to examine the movie in a quantum lens, we can look to Richard Feynman, a founding father of quantum physics. Feynman believed that a particle’s behaviour at a point in space and time is determined by the sum over all the paths it could possibly take to get there. In other words, it’s a sum over all of its possible histories. And in the lens of this movie, Lucy is a summation of all the possibilities she could have taken in life, realised all at once. There isn’t a single path that has dominated over the others, and the different realities Lucy explores as a writer, artist and scientist can and do exist simultaneously.
This becomes important in the many conversations that happen between Lucy and Jake. In the car, they discuss a bunch of hard-hitting subject matter: the folly of nostalgia, the subjectivity of experience and whether “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is problematic or not. Here, Kaufman puts a disclaimer on these conversations. As Lucy changes her opinions throughout the film as she shuffles through different personalities, we are told that we shouldn’t take anything definitively. Truths are often partial and contradictory ones can make an equal amount of sense.
Inertia and ending things
“People stay in unhealthy relationships because it’s easier. It’s basic physics. An object in motion tends to stay in motion; people tend to stay in relationships past their expiration date.” This line is delivered by Lucy near the start of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things. On an obvious level, Newton’s first law of motion amplifies Lucy’s main conflict throughout the film—she is unable to bring herself to leave her boyfriend.
But more crucially, the inability to change established trajectories contributes to the film’s pessimistic tone towards life. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things has a dual meaning here. It both refers to the end of a relationship, as well as suicide. Lucy’s conflict also refers to a more general struggle with depression. Newton’s first law of motion, in this context, frames the continuation of life simply as the hesitation to end it. Cynically, the film suggests that going through the mundane motions of day-to-day life is an act of cowardice, rather than a brave struggle to survive.
Everything is the same when you look close enough
Possibly the most interesting idea presented in the film is Jake and Lucy’s entanglement. At the end of the film, a philosophical pig tells Jake: “Everything is the same when you look close enough. As a physicist, you would know that. You, me, ideas. We’re all one thing.”
The pig is right. Throughout I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, Jake and Lucy are suggested to be the same person. Jake can often hear Lucy’s thoughts, and Lucy mistakes Jake’s childhood picture for a photo of herself. Many people use this as further evidence that Lucy is just a projection of Jake’s thoughts. But this idea can be taken further: Jake’s entire reality is a projection of his thoughts. Quantum physics clarifies that an objective reality that exists independent of our perceptions doesn’t exist. Existence itself cannot be isolated from the act of perceiving others, and being perceived by others. Lucy may indeed be a projection of Jake’s fantasies, but she is no less ‘real’ than any other character, since everything exists as an idea or as an extension of Jake’s perception. And in turn, Jake’s identity, hopes and dreams to become a writer, poet, scientist etc. are moulded by the environment around him.
The way we blur into the people around us and our environment is a central theme of the movie. Our indistinguishability from the things that shape us can a source of great, or in Lucy’s case, a source of angst.
Kaufman presents leaves the watcher with a cornucopia of open questions, and science is just one of the many tools that the director gives us to answer them.
Words by Jacklin Kwan
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