The Philosophical Paradox of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’

By Jeremiah Kim.

Photo courtesy of A24

The exhaustion of postmodernism and nihilism; the internet age and the demoralization of youth; the role of the Asian immigrant amid the rise of Asia and collapse of the West; the breakdown of institutions and family bonds in America; the general loss of meaning across Western civilization as a whole.

Perhaps by design, Everything Everywhere All at Once raises more questions than it can answer. At once vividly original and yet limited in its full scope of vision, the film reflects — and ultimately affirms — a belief that art can only go so far in attempting to breathe new meaning into a society thrown into chaos. Nonetheless, the film is noteworthy insofar as it earnestly broaches many of the philosophical problems that underlie the material decline and spiritual confusion we are experiencing in the West; and in doing so, Everything Everywhere All at Once reaches the upper limit of what American society currently perceives to be the capacity of art to address such problems.

This fact sheds light on a fundamental question confronting artists and young people in America more broadly: What kind of art is needed to show a way out of the crises of our time?

The Multiverse and the Internet Generation

Crossing over from a handful of arthouse cinemas to mainstream theaters, Everything Everywhere All at Once has won glowing praise from critics and steadily gained traction among audiences, especially millennials and Gen Z. It is the highest-ever grossing film for indie studio A24, leading a slate of breakthrough A24 hits like Moonlight, Ex Machina, Hereditary, Lady Bird, Midsommar, and Minari. Such overwhelming success points to the contradictory nature of Everything Everywhere All at Once: its ability to generate a uniformly positive reception from cultural elites and social media-savvy audiences simultaneously threatens to submerge much of what makes the movie interesting.

The film follows a Chinese American woman who discovers, while being audited by the IRS, that she must connect with parallel universe versions of herself to prevent a powerful being from causing the destruction of the multiverse. Everything Everywhere All at Once hits the viewer with a frenetic, overwhelming force, blending and jumping between worlds that traverse the genres of sci-fi, black comedy, fantasy, animation, and some impressively choreographed martial arts sequences.

As many commentators have noted, the movie’s central device — Michelle Yeoh’s protagonist Evelyn “verse-jumping” between infinite possibilities of her life in the multiverse — coincides with Marvel’s recent lurch toward movies similarly spun around the same concept. The clearest explanation for the surge of multiverse movies is that they heighten the dimension of escapism that audiences have been conditioned to expect from popular entertainment, while injecting an artificial swell of excitement into otherwise lifeless commercial behemoths like the MCU via multi-franchise crossovers.

There are, no doubt, traces of these factors in Everything Everywhere All at Once: the movie draws heavily from cinematic references as material for its different universes, and a large part of Evelyn’s character journey revolves around her desire to escape to a more glamorous iteration of her life or her attraction to a more masculine, “Alpha” universe version of her husband Waymond (played by Ke Huy Quan). But there is another interesting aspect of the movie’s conception of the multiverse. In an interview with the Financial Times, the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheibert, discuss how the multiverse is a vehicle for exploring the theme of regret — specifically in the age of the internet:

“People have always asked, ‘What if?’ But I think right now, why it’s really ringing true again is because the internet almost makes us that much closer to all those possibilities because we are constantly seeing other proxy humans living out different versions of what could have been our lives… Even though the movie never mentions the internet once, it is very much fueled by this strange existence we have right now where our lizard brains are trying to keep up with infinite technology.”

It is here that the film’s appeal with younger audiences begins to make sense. With its rapid cuts, dizzying kaleidoscope of visuals, and absurdist humor, Everything Everywhere All at Once is fine-tuned to play on the sensibilities of a generation that grew up on the internet. It is a striking experience to watch the movie in a physical theater, simply to hear the amount of laughter and suppressed sobs elicited from the audience. Careening from outlandishly funny to oddly poignant to excessively crude, the film’s comedic and emotional notes are a perfect match for the offbeat, sometimes inexplicable tastes of anyone who spends too many hours swiping through TikTok or Twitter.

In both its content and its form, then, the film reflects a kind of untethered, light speed consciousness that is impossible to describe other than being “very online”. The end result leaves the viewer in a daze, though not without some material to parse the substance through the noise.

A Way Out of Postmodernism and Nihilism?

The main “villain” of the story is a version of Evelyn’s daughter Joy (played by Stephanie Hsu) called Jobu Tupaki. Psychologically broken by continual exposure to the multiverse, Jobu/Joy is an avatar for every twenty-something-year-old consumed by the everything, everywhere, all at once pressures of contemporary life. Like many youth today, Jobu’s flamboyant, unhinged fashion sense and mannerisms announce the spiritual deadness that she feels inside and wishes to inflict on the world; it’s the other side of regular-verse Joy’s drab, driftless, downwardly mobile life. Joy knows she is a disappointment, especially to her mother, and Jobu is the manifestation of her desire to let go of any human bonds that only promise to bring pain.

In the world of the movie, the looming danger Jobu poses is the destruction of life in every multiverse, a hyperbolic endgame containing within it genuine consequences: the eclipsing pain of a mother losing her daughter to depression or potential suicidal tendencies, and the dissolution of a family by the resignation of its members to the meaninglessness of existence. By setting up Joy’s nihilism and postmodernism as an apocalyptic threat, the film points to how these philosophies are wreaking havoc on the good faith and shared assumptions that hold our actual civilization together. “Alpha” Waymond sums up the stakes in a speech, strongly reminiscent of The Matrix, explaining why his universe needs Evelyn to fight Jobu:

“You’ve been feeling it too, haven’t you? Something is off. Your clothes never wear as well the next day. Your hair never falls in quite the same way. Even your coffee tastes…wrong. Our institutions are crumbling. Nobody trusts their neighbor anymore. And you stay up at night, wondering to yourself: How can we get back? This is the Alphaverse’s mission — to take us back to how it’s supposed to be. But that begins with finding the One who can stand up to Jobu’s perverse shroud of chaos.”

And this is where Everything Everywhere All at Once arrives at a great paradox: in its attempt to find a way out of postmodernism (the rejection of truth) and nihilism (the denial of meaning), the film operates within a lifeworld shaped by the internet age — a force that has accelerated the spread of these same two philosophies in our culture. Like the internet itself, which offers the appearance of infinitude but more often conceals truth while stunting our moral and intellectual development (all under the domain of a handful of tech monopolies), Everything Everywhere All at Once is over-determined by a seemingly limitless sci-fi concept that obscures actual possibilities for transcendence in the reality we live in. As a result, the film has very few places to go at its conclusion other than to hold nihilism and postmodernism at an uneasy distance.

Embracing Joy in the emotional climactic scene, Evelyn reassures her daughter, “We can do whatever we want. Nothing matters.” This is an ironic statement, because the characters have spent the movie figuring out why their lives matter, and what their responsibilities are to each other; but it is also an honest statement, because the film is not equipped to provide an answer beyond the notion that people are capable of defining their own personal meaning in order to find a way to live meaningfully together. The filmmakers here are suitable representatives for our generation: increasingly dissatisfied with the prevailing philosophies of the day, but unable to come up with a substantial alternative.

America’s History and Art as Synthesis

That is not to say the whole journey is pointless. Evelyn’s fight is to save her family; to rescue Joy and herself from the seductive pull of nihilism and depression; to recognize the redemptive power in regular-verse Waymond’s philosophy of fighting evil with kindness rather than violence; and to find some way of keeping their laundromat afloat under the piercing scrutiny of an unfriendly tax collector (Jamie Lee Curtis). These are all worthwhile, surprisingly humble struggles for the film to grapple with, and the drama is played convincingly by the cast. But contrary to the mission stated by “Alpha” Waymond, in this story there is no going back to a time when life made more sense. Evelyn and her family must deal with reality as it is, and accept the choices and experiences that have brought them there over a lifetime.

Therein lies the kernel of the film’s significance in this moment. In addressing our current crisis, the American people have a worthy historical tradition to draw upon, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Civil War and Reconstruction era to the better parts of the American Revolution. Our generation faces the enormous task of reviving the legacy of these revolutionary struggles for our time, even while knowing we cannot return to an earlier era.

It is a task all the more difficult given that for many of us, our nation’s past struggles are largely missing from the firmament of our own imagination. The makers of Everything Everywhere All at Once, lacking a clear sense of historical movement beyond the scope of a single family or various film references, are just one example. Much of this can be attributed to the bewildering experience that Americans have gone through in the past half century — bombarded with superficial values, economic upheaval, technological change, unending wars, and skillful propaganda from a cynical ruling elite. These developments have largely had a disruptive, regressive effect on people’s consciousness; however, there is no use pretending they have not shaped who Americans are today.

In fact, it is this peculiar set of dark circumstances that makes the possibility of change in America so exciting. Ordinary Americans, young and old, are beginning to see the bankruptcy of the ruling class forces that have pushed ideologies like postmodernism and nihilism for so many years. And more than that — we are in a unique position today to make something of our experience, to work through our contradictions and arrive on the other side. There is no telling what new consciousness will be created by that process of transformation, and how it might mark a profound contribution not just to our own future, but to humanity as a whole.

Thus we are compelled to ask: How can we engage with our own experience leading up to the present moment, without succumbing to the dominant ideologies that have often dictated that experience? What kind of relationship must be established between our people’s best traditions of struggle and the terrain of our present culture? Can we approach an understanding of our past that will help us build a bridge to the future, or will we continue to flounder in a malaise of alienation and cynicism — a generation displaced from all sense of history and human possibility?

Asia’s Rise and the Legacy of the Cold War

The internet is not the only domain by which to assess these questions in Everything Everywhere All at Once. The film’s other big question revolves around the choices faced by Asian immigrants to the United States — not just in a general, timeless sense, but again in this particular moment. The theme of regret is brought to the fore by Evelyn’s discovery that in another life, she could have been a successful movie star or an acclaimed opera singer in Asia, a far cry from the mundane, working class life she has struggled to eke out in America. The conventional notion of America as a land of progress and opportunity, and Asia as a land of backwardness and poverty, is thus flipped on its head.

Here Everything Everywhere All at Once echoes other Asian American-centered films like the much more superficial Crazy Rich Asians (also starring Michelle Yeoh) in portraying the rise of Asia. The glaring omission in both films is a square acknowledgment of the central role of China in pulling the world’s economic center of gravity toward the East while challenging the hegemony of Western liberal democracy as the sole model of governing society. So while Everything Everywhere All at Once reflects a new period of Asian vitality and American decline, it does not situate Evelyn’s character journey in a way that attempts to make sense of the broader history from which our current world-moment emerges.

It would be unproductive to place all the blame on the directors for failing to explore the more controversial aspects of the rise of Asia and its relation to the West. More than anything, it reflects the historical reality that American artists, even those several generations removed, have been conditioned to operate within certain creative and ideological boundaries since the Cold War. This is even apparent in the directors’ choice to pay homage to Wong Kar Wai and other hallmarks of Hong Kong cinema, as these references are most familiar and safe according to the Western film canon.

In any case, while we may understand why it would be improbable for Everything Everywhere All at Once to seriously investigate the interplay between China and America, that does not mean we should be satisfied with the prospect of American artists remaining stuck in an ideological box stunting their creative potential to explore the defining questions of our time. The playwright Lorraine Hansberry penetrated this problem in a 1962 speech calling for the abolition of the McCarthyist House Un-American Activities Committee:

“But the vast majority [of artists] — where are they? Well, I am afraid that they are primarily where the ruling powers have always wished the artist to be and to stay: in their studios. They are consumed, in the main, with what they consider to be larger issues — such as ‘the meaning of life,’ etc… I personally consider that part of this detachment is the direct and indirect result of many years of things like the House Committee and concurrent years of McCarthyism in all its forms.

Among my contemporaries and colleagues in the arts the search for the roots of war, the exploitation of man, of poverty and of despair itself, is sought in any arena other than the one which has shaped these artists. Having discovered that the world is incoherent they have, some of them, also come to the conclusion that it is also unreal and, in any case, beyond the corrective powers of human energy. Having determined that life is in fact an absurdity, they have not yet decided that the task of the thoughtful is to try and help impose purposefulness on that absurdity… In a word, they do not yet agree that it is perhaps the task, I should think certainly the joy, of the artist to chisel out some expression of what life can conceivably be.”

Although much has changed, it is still the case that what lies before us are entire universes of untapped human potential more expansive, vivid, and dynamic than any movie about multiverses can put to screen. They are moral and political universes, revolving around questions like war and peace, that must be pushed to the forefront of our consciousness and our generation’s search for meaning.

The Choice Before Us

For Evelyn, the multiverse presents her with the choice between celebrity and relative obscurity, as represented by two continents. In what is now one of the film’s most famous Wong Kar Wai-inspired scenes, a version of Waymond tells movie star Evelyn: “Even though you have broken my heart again, I wanted to say, in another life, I would have really liked doing laundry and taxes with you.” In the end, Evelyn chooses laundry and taxes with her family in America. It is a cathartic resolution, even if it is also somewhat predictable.

Everything Everywhere All at Once suggests that there is beauty and fulfillment in the journey of building an ordinary life in America, so long as that life retains a heartbeat of familial love. This is a moving but ultimately safe conclusion, and we should not be afraid to take the thought further: If immigrants in this country choose to stay here, for example, or if young people choose to accept their future here, then we must make the choice count — not by chasing wealth or approval, but by seeking to infuse new life into a civilization that has clearly reached a state of decay. To do this will require a level of courage in reconciling the truth of our history with the most urgent needs of the place we now call home.

At its core, there is something distinctly American about Everything Everywhere All at Once, speaking to problems and attitudes that are specific to the American experience, especially for the younger generation. And at its best, Everything Everywhere All at Once’s honest search for meaning amid a profound crisis in America opens the door for viewers to press deeper into the questions it raises; to understand the film’s own limitations in addressing them; and to potentially search for a vision that can transcend those limitations. Where the American people will find the creative determination to bring about this vision remains to be discovered, but one thing is certain: the only way out of this crisis will be through the terrain of contradictions that define it.

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