Big Trouble in Little China: Where is the universe?

John Carpenter poses with the core cast of "Big Trouble in Little China." Image courtesy John Carpenter

John Carpenter's 1986 film "Big Trouble in Little China" is the greatest film ever made. Sorcery and martial arts? Check. Semi trucks and monsters? Check. A biting commentary on U.S. foreign policy? You've got it. And like many of Carpenter's films, there's a little space science thrown in where you'd least expect it.

I mean, just look to the antimatter and tachyon transmission plot elements in 1987's satanic zombie romp "Prince of Darkness" or the terraforming in "They Live." It shouldn't surprise anyone that even a Carpenter Kung-fu flick full of Chinese legend would also pack in some cosmology. Consider this exchange between the sorcerer Egg Shen and our hero Jack Burton:

Egg Shen: Lo Pan is down there. Jack Burton: Down where? Egg Shen: Where is the universe?

Indeed, where is the universe? If the universe continues to expand outward from the Big Bang, then WHERE exactly is it expanding into? The answer is largely a tricky "nowhere," because Einstein's theory of general relativity links time and space as one. The universe is expanding like a balloon, but a balloon for which nothing at all exists beyond the red rubber barrier.

And here's another important point: This "balloon" of space time isn't even necessarily balloon-shaped. As Jonathan Strickland explains in the article "Does space have a shape?," we may reside in a flat Euclidean universe, a spherical closed universe (AKA elliptical universe) or a saddle-shaped open universe (AKA hyperbolic universe). Confused?

Change the definition for "universe," however, and everything takes on a new twist -- and one that actually fits nicely within the "Big Trouble in Little China" mythos: biocentrism. The theory roughly states that the universe requires consciousness in order to manifest. The world we see "happens" in our mind and there is no "outside" at all. Here's a quote from theory proponent Robert Lanza:

"Custom says that what we see is "out there," outside ourselves, and such a viewpoint is fine and necessary in terms of language and utility, as in "please pass the butter that's over there." But make no mistake: The butter itself exists only within the mind. It is the only place visual (and tactile and olfactory) images are perceived and hence located ... Some may imagine that there are two worlds, one "out there" and a separate one inside the skull. But the "two worlds" model is a myth."

You can read the rest of Lanza's thoughts in this MSNBC article.

So where is the universe according to biocentrist theory? It exists in the mind, making it only as "real" as the sinister Lo Pan, who is "of no flesh" and has become little more than "an evil dream."*

So there you have it! If this leaves you craving a good Carpenter film, then by all means check out The Official John Carpenter Web page. I also highly recommend the RA Podcast mix by Carpenter's frequent soundtrack collaborator Alan Howarth. It's an hour of classic, cinematic synth.

* This also brings to mind the phenomenology conversation between Doolittle and Bomb #20 in Carpenter's first film, 1974's "Dark Star." You'll find the exchange at the top of IMDB's "Darkstar" quotes page.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.