The Adventure to Emptiness
Filled with black comedy, “Rick and Morty” have never once failed to deliver the thoughts of a meaningless life. How so?
Words by Whiteboard Journal
Nihilism is no longer a fresh theme on the screen. Nietzsche’s iconic ideas about how meaningless our existence is in the universe has been popular for so long through movies and television. From Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” to David Fincher’s “Fight Club”, from Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “True Detective” to Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s “BoJack Horseman”, nihilism has featured on almost every work in motion pictures.
But, out of all the works that has ever been done on screen, none of them has successfully tackled the idea of being a nihilist as funny and as brilliant as “Rick and Morty”. Filled with black comedy, “Rick and Morty” have never once failed to deliver the thoughts of a meaningless life. How so? How can the story of an old man who goes on crazy adventures with his grandson represent the idea that life in the universe has no meaning?
Created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon as an animated series, the episodes of “Rick and Morty” follow the days of an old scientist, named Rick Sanchez, who is annoyingly genius. Rick spends most of his time going on adventures across the parallel universe and outer space with his grandson, Morty Smith. Honestly, you can easily say that this is an animated version of the “Back to The Future” franchise.
Roiland and Harmon did not hide their obsession towards science fiction whatsoever. Exploring the works of science fiction to the deepest ins and outs is not new for either of them. Even in their previous works, science fiction has constantly become their focus. Almost every episode of “Rick and Morty” is scripted with scenes and dialogues that take references from other works in science fiction. Whether it’s “Ghostbusters”, Cronenberg’s monsters, “Inception”, Freddy Krueger, “Zardoz”, and many others.
Continuously exploring the world of science fiction, “Rick and Morty” is adapting a number of gimmicks from this particular genre as well. One of them is cosmic horror. A popular storytelling style, born after the legendary writer H.P. Lovecraft had given birth to his iconic literacy, “The Call of Cthulhu”. If you pay careful attention, you can even see the illustration of Cthulhu monster appearing on the opening intro of every episode.
Back to cosmic horror – this kind of storytelling style is unique. It doesn’t matter if it comes in writing medium or motion picture, it always has the ability to make you feel small just by witnessing it. It’s not just a cliché act with ghost, blood, thrilling music scores, and scary faces, cosmic horror brings you terrors that come from the realisation that human existence is no more than just a speck of dust. Cosmic horror can give you a whole new level of imagination, that if you watch it, will be able to give you a sense of horror, fear, or sometimes disgust. It has the potential to instantly destroy the reality you previously held with strong believe. That’s because cosmic horror is often used by storytellers to find the closest answers toward the basic question of life, such as, “What is the purpose of our existence?” or, “What does God look like?”
On “The Call of Cthulhu” for example, the terror does not come from scenes where a protagonist receives a deadly threat that can kill him. But, the terror comes from the discovery of The Great Old One, a gigantic entity that negates all the meaning of human existence in the universe.
“Rick and Morty” itself, despite being a comedy series, actually spends most of its episodes to adapt and explore that cosmic horror. Those two are often seen jumping from one world to another, meeting with many kinds of species, sometimes more powerful than humans, sometimes not. This writing, while it’s simple, is also creatively critical. On the “Get Schwifty” episode, Roiland and Harmon with their approach toward cosmic horror wrote a fantasy if one day there was a visit from superior gigantic aliens, and those extraterrestrial beings are threatening life on Earth, then immediately become the newest Gods for mankind.
Cromulon(s), is the name of those aliens. They’re a species of planet-sized beings, shaped as giant human heads, and made of stone. These Cromulons are powerful and big enough that a single one of them can make drastic weather changes and natural disasters to the planet visited by them. And so with their Cromulons, Roiland and Harmon starts to criticize many regular cultures of humankind on Earth. They show us, the audiences, how religion is just another kind of social constructions – it might be born just because of a simple accident. They also give us an imagination if life on Earth actually belongs to a universe-scale talent competition.
A gigantic cosmic entity is not a new thing for cosmic horror and science fiction. On novels, television series, and films, gigantic cosmic entities are often used to launch the story. Just look at “Arrival”, “War of the Worlds”, and of course “The Call of Cthulhu”. It’s not the only result, but the existence of gigantic entities from the outer space, like the Cromulons, can beautifully reconstruct the meaning of human existence on Earth into nothing. It’s the best recipe for cosmic horror.
Stories like “Star Wars”, “Star Trek”, “Armageddon”, or ones from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while they also have gigantic entities, they tend to make humans, metaphorically, as the center of the universe – humans are important to exist. It doesn’t matter if they are enemies or alliances, being the leader of a team or a slave, in those kind of stories, humans will always be the main character to decide the fate of the whole universe. On the contrary, cosmic horror attacks those kind of narrative styles. Instead, it’s asking, “What if the universe doesn’t care about humans at all?”
The terror comes. Pessimism becomes the answer.
“Rick and Morty” perfectly shows the audiences this pessimistic concept on the screen. They both have even died, only to be replaced by other version of them from other dimensions. “Rick and Morty” does not only tell the audiences that humans are just another speck of dust, but could also be another speck of dust from the unlimited multi-dimensional worlds. But the interesting part is, both Roiland and Harmon successfully use this pessimistic atmosphere as a comedy weapon. Black to be precise.
On “The Ricks Must Be Crazy” episode, Roiland and Harmon took their comedy into the darkest pit of pessimism. The episode starts with a big revelation that the battery of Rick’s spaceship is powered by a micro-sized universe, made by himself. Inside the micro-sized universe, small green-colored aliens live in a society as how humans live in Rick’s universe, with histories, governments, jobs, and cultures. There, Rick is treated by the micro-sized universe inhabitants as a cosmic entity. And later to be known as the God who created the whole micro-sized universe, just when he encounters the small green-colored alien version of himself, who has also created another universe inside the micro-sized universe.
Rick is the God for the universe he has created first. But inside it, there’s also another “Rick” who becomes a God too. And with these unlimited dimensions, unlimited realities, millions and millions of possibilities out of the regular cultures of mankind are offered. Slowly, the moral values and existence become meaningless. All that remain is only pessimism.
Like Nietzsche and his philosophy, “Rick and Morty” asks the nature of human existence in the universe too. Explicitly or implicitly, Roiland and Harmon continually squeeze one of the worst puzzles in the world into their works. They created a character, Mr. Meeseek, who has only one purpose in his life – Mr. Meeseek comes to life just to fulfill one wish from anyone who calls them, and will be dead soon after the wish is fulfilled. They’ve also created a simple yet smart dialogue between Rick and one of his robots. The robot asks about its purpose to be invented, and Rick clarifies the robot was made only to pass butter. The robot looks down, realising its sole reason for existence is just for something mundane, and says, “Oh, my God,” which Rick responds with, “Yeah, welcome to the club, pal.”
It is no doubt, questioning the sole purpose of our existence in the universe is an everlasting train of thoughts. It is a never-ending discussion. It is a question, but has nothing in the answer sheet. Only one, for Rick Sanchez, the word “nothing” still counts as an answer.
With confusing mathematic formulas, science allows us to make a guess about the origin of universe, about the nature of human existence. But, as creatures with feelings and emotions, us, the humans have to be ready too in the discovery of how banal is our existence is in the universe. No meaning. Nothing at all. Just accidentally happened in the first place. “Rick and Morty” completely shows if logical way of thinking has the potential to make audiences get intimate with pessimism about their existence between the stars.
Science could wipe out all the beauty of traditions and emotions, then transforms the entire human live experience into nothing, have no meaning anymore.
As what Nietzsche wrote on “The Parable of The Madman”, an old man in a sudden comes to the city, and screams, “God is dead! And we have killed Him!” Of course, Nietzsche didn’t mean humans have killed God literally. “The Parable of The Madman” was the chance for him to write a metaphor in the event after enlightenment and scientific revolution, the existence of God and religions would instantly erased, because they have zero relevancy with science. No God, no religion, in result, humans no longer have purpose in their own existence.
For Nietzsche, maybe, if humans finally crack the puzzle of the universe’s origin, the definition of God would perfectly down to emptiness. Then, nihilism would born as the new idea of living. Humans would realise they’re just accident that happened only to drift in the universe with no purpose, with no meaning.
That’s how Rick Sanchez is in his days. A super genius scientist, who is like God, he’s able to create a universe for his own mundane needs. But along with his intelligence, comes an understanding of the emptiness meaning of his existence, the human existence. “Wubbalubbadubdub!” is his iconic phrase in Birdperson’s language, which means, “I am in great pain! Please help me!” in Earth’s language.
The struggle against the idea of meaningless life is the main theme of “Rick and Morty”. Rick relentlessly uses science and logic to expose myths, love, religions, cultures, and traditions. He even calls love only a chemical reaction, school is a waste of time, and ultimately opposes the idea of God’s existence. While Morty, his grandson, have to deal repeatedly with the existential crisis and the ambiguity of moral values – which one is true, which one is fake; which one is right, which one is wrong. All due to the ignorance of his grandfather, who maybe just bored with his old age.