Is "Everything Everywhere All At Once" Missing Something?
The film makes big claims and hints at even bigger ideas – but at the end of it all, is there any there there?
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a film that does its damnedest to live up to the title. It comes pretty close; no one can accuse the film of skimping on runtime, and it is so visually packed with seemingly everything that you sometimes wish the eye could take in everywhere on the screen all at once. And if taken metaphorically (like the Bible, this film is more rewarding when not taken literally), Everything Everywhere is a film that wants to address the everything and the everywhere of existence.
How do you describe a film like Everything Everywhere? In the most straightforward telling of the film, it is about a Chinese-American family whose matriarch (our protagonist, Evelyn) manages a worn-out laundromat, attempts to keep the IRS off her back, is oblivious to the fact that her loving but long-neglected husband wants a divorce, and struggles to connect with her nihilistically depressed daughter. Into this chaos comes the discovery that all-out war has been waging across the multiverse and Evelyn is at the centre of the mayhem. Actually, she and her daughter (Joy) are at the centre of it all. No, in fact, a bagel is at the centre of it all, and the emptiness of the hole at the bagel’s centre is the absolute epicentre of all the violence rippling out across the infinite multiverse. Let me explain.
In one of the many worlds that exist in Everything Everywhere, a version of Joy has gained total mastery over the multiverse, able to visit any reality at will and manipulate it like a graphics designer tinkering with a video game. As her power grows, she collects “everything” – sadness, happiness, tunes you can’t forget, pocket lint, the sound of a dog farting, you name it – and puts it on an “everything bagel”. This is an actual bagel, a visual metaphor, and an existence-threatening black hole. Put simply: It is depression.
There is a particularly poignant scene, executed with originality and a keen sense of expression matching what is expressed, in which Joy and Evelyn spend time in a universe “where the conditions weren’t right for life to form”. Here, they are both rocks and communicate silently via subtitles. Joy tells her mother that we are all “small, stupid humans” who’d spent most of our history believing “the Earth was the center of the universe”. The discovery that we revolve around a sun that is merely one of trillions of suns has shown up the human animal for its undeserved pride. Further scientific discoveries have only made us smaller, less significant. “Who knows what great new discovery is coming next,” Joy says, “to make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit.”
Joy has discovered, painfully, the sharp immediacy of the question raised in the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus asks, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Joy has quite literally gained not only the whole world but the whole multiverse, and it has not made her happy. It has brought her only suffering as she feels diminished by the overwhelming totality of everything everywhere, hopeless in the face of the “pitiless indifference” (to borrow from Richard Dawkins) of a universe with “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good”.
The everything bagel, then, represents what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the “tyranny of freedom”. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Schwartz writes, “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.” And no one has more of this stultifying limitless possibility than Joy, who has a multiverse to choose from. This oceanic meaningless leads Joy to believe that “everything we do gets washed away in a sea of every other possibility”.
And then the filmmakers pull a metaphysical one-eighty, attempting to wrangle from the story an ethos of self-determination in the face of a deterministic universe. “We can do whatever we want,” Evelyn tells Joy at the end of the film. “Nothing matters.” When nothing matters, anything goes. Total freedom – that’s what is offered as a balm to the aching emptiness of nihilism. How this is not, in fact, a recapitulation of the crisis caused by infinite choice is uncertain.
The message of Everything Everywhere is, essentially, a declaration of faith. It is a credo in the manner of faith described by the Biblical writers as a “confidence in what we hope for, the evidence of things not seen”. The film’s depiction of kindness as a superpower (revealed as the way to defeat the everything bagel), its insistence on being kind “especially when we don’t know what’s going on” (a commitment in the absence of certainty), and its affirmation of meaning in spite of our meaningless universe – these are all tenets of a kind of secular faith.
Just as the faithful Narnian in C S Lewis’ story commits to following Aslan “even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead”, the religious devote themselves to their religion even in the absence of evidence that what they believe about God is true. Everything Everywhere firmly plants its ideological flag of belief in value, meaning, and autonomy in a value-neutral hill on a meaningless planet in a deterministic universe.
Unfortunately, there is a measure of the narrow-minded faith of fundamentalists in the way that Everything Everywhere operates. It gives reductive answers to complex questions, and while allowing its long runtime to include enough fight scenes and special effects to give the feeling of expansiveness, the film doesn’t spend much of that time teasing out the nuances to its themes. Everything Everywhere fails to connect meaningfully with its message of self-defined meaning, substituting depth for breadth, its expansiveness standing in for wholeness.
For instance: As the credits rolled and I considered what the film was saying about committing to kindness and purpose even while accepting the cruel and indifferent nature of reality, I couldn’t help but wonder if this faith position can be sustained without religion. Can a commitment of this kind be maintained by lone individuals without the architecture of shared systems of belief, without the liturgies and communion of frameworks that keep communities holding each other up when individuals struggle to hold themselves together?
The problem seems to be one of sitting on a branch we’ve cut through and, Loony Tunes style, expecting the tree to fall away while we somehow stay safe on the floating branch. The writer and ex-bishop Richard Holloway has a more optimistic image, one that I’ve used admiringly before but now see problems with:
“Like the rocket that has to fall away when it has established its satellite in space, religion has thrust its best values into the human orbit where we hope they will continue to do their work long after the vehicle that got them there has disappeared.”
Except that we don’t simply “hope” the satellite will continue; we routinely send teams up to fix and improve it, teams coordinated by establishments back on Earth. The rocket of religion may have fallen away, but the work of maintenance is ongoing, and the concern of many of us is that we haven’t yet created the requisite organisations to keep the satellite of our values in orbit.
The popular idea as expressed in Everything Everywhere – that autonomous individuals should rely solely on their own efforts to make use of the values and motivations once derived from communities – is akin to suggesting lone people can pop up to the satellite whenever they feel the need, without the help of spaceships for travelling there and back, without agencies of scientists organising the trip, and without teams of astronauts periodically repairing the satellite to keep it from crashing to Earth. It is a bootstrap theory of teleology.
I’m not suggesting that only religions as commonly understood (with supernatural beliefs and worship of a deity) can cohere life into a meaningful narrative. What worries me is the disappearance of any kind of organisation that would even attempt such a thing. We once believed in art, in literature, in journalism, in politics both at the grassroots level and the level of governments, in liberalism, in education, in various other institutions that we took as fundamental to a healthy democracy. That no longer seems to be the case.
Demagogues should be resisted at all times, but it can be instructive to listen to them so as to get a feel for the common sentiment in a society. Where populists used to appeal to shared faith in particular institutions, such that a politician who ran on a platform of honesty could be undone by a newspaper exposé of his lies, today we hear populists decry “fake news”, rail against the elitism of those actually educated on a given topic, and pretend that the political machine they are part of is a failed apparatus they are there to destroy from within. We now live in nations of one, solitary autonomous zones competing against all other such zones for dominance in the space we once shared as a community.
In Everything Everywhere, Joy’s misery isolates her, and her last hope of relieving her suffering comes from her mother, who might possibly see some way out that Joy herself fails to see. By the end of the film, with Joy finally pushing everyone away, resolved to lonely oblivion, her redemption comes when her mother insists, “No matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always want to be here with you.”
Perhaps the family is the anchor to which a given set of individuals can remained tethered, so that even as they explore or drift through life, they never get lost. Families and their particular catechisms for how to live well might replace the more wide-reaching and established principles of traditional religions. This seems like a stretch. After all, how reliable can a family be when it is itself not supported by the wider community, in a society that doesn’t value families as a thing into which its members give as well as from which they take?
The family is a worthwhile institution, and it is the first ring around the individual in the concentric circles of a meaningful existence. But we shouldn’t stop there. We need to extrapolate out to the neighbourhood, to the wider community, to the society, and – dare I say it – to the nation. And why stop there? It was once not ridiculous to aspire to humanism, a universal appreciation of and contribution towards the human project, throughout time and across cultures, to everything everywhere from then to now to the future.
Of course, this is a philosophy that many in the West now find harder to take seriously than the idea that we live in a multiverse in which everything and anything can happen, from a universe-destroying bagel to a world in which humans have hot dogs for fingers. But if the multiverse is real, then there must be a universe in which our sense of awe overcomes our cynicism, in which we regain a sense of grounding in our relationship to others, in which we stand for something rather than against everything. I’m still hopeful that this one will turn out to be that world.
• Everything Everywhere All At Once, dir. & written by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Sheinert (2022)
• River Out of Eden, Richard Dawkins (1994)
• The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz (2004)
• The Silver Chair, C S Lewis (1953)
• On Forgiveness, Richard Holloway (2002)