- Tania Azhang
Everything Everywhere All At Once: Finding Meaning in an Absurd Universe
Existing within the current political, cultural, and international turmoil can feel overwhelming. The oversaturation of content on the Internet, thanks to social media like TikTok, brings a lot of what’s happening and how devastating the current state of the world is into everyday life. This information overload à-la-Internet is one of the key definitions of a postmodernist society; the sense that there is no beginning or end to our history where information abounds. Although we live in such unprecedented times, we continue to go about our relatively mundane lives. Friction between the chaotic, uncontrollable universe and the stubborn persistence to live one’s life normally epitomizes the context of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s indie-blockbuster hit Everything Everywhere All at Once. However, to ground the film’s abstract concepts, Kwan and Scheinert focus the story on a mother’s struggle to communicate with and save her daughter from the throes of depression.
One of the most touching moments in Everything Everywhere takes place nearly halfway through the film in one of the many universes it inhabits. Amidst a desert-like landscapes, Evelyn – the protagonist – attempts to show her daughter Joy a reason to live. Joy tells Evelyn “I was hoping you would see something I didn’t, that you would convince me there was another way.” The heart of the story lies in this interaction between Joy and Evelyn, encapsulating the philosophical ideas the Daniels postulate through the film’s 139 minute run-time. The story centers around Evelyn, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant and laundromat owner – portrayed by the effervescent Michelle Yeoh – whose fatigue with the tedious goings on of everyday life shows in her eye-bags. Evelyn runs her business with her husband Waymond (the endearing Ke Huy Quan), a seemingly-prepubescent middle aged man, and takes care of her ailing old father Gong Gong (James Hong). Joy, in an unforgettable performance by Stephanie Hsu, halfheartedly battles with Evelyn over her reluctance to tell Gong Gong about her girlfriend Becky. A seemingly mundane life, Evelyn’s reality is upended when she realizes there are multiverses in danger of extinction, and only she can stop the villain determined to annihilate the universe and rescue her daughter from the consuming darkness of depression.
Much of Everything Everywhere’s premise is philosophical food for fodder. The film exhibits elements of postmodernism through its visuals and sharp script, with the infinite branches of reality and its rendering of what Jean-Francois Lyotard posits as the inherent philosophical dilemma of postmodernism: a growing “incredulity’ towards the (grand) meta-narratives of modern thought.” The critical scene between Evelyn and Joy in the desert illustrates fatigue with modern scientific and philosophical thought as Joy laments, “Who knows what great new discovery is coming next… to make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit.” Joy’s comment, which she delivers after dismissing humanity’s endless quest for knowledge, encapsulates postmodernism's ultimate rejection of linear history, logic, and empiricism. Existing in a world defined by infinities, with infinite universes, identities, and possible life paths, is ultimately incongruous with how the human brain functions. Joy’s disillusionment with life, as she is shown the thin veil that separates the universe one inhabits and absurdity, exemplifies man at the precipice of demise.
The human brain’s conflict with absurdity is the main subject of Albert Camus’ existential treatise “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In his essay, Camus refers to man’s confrontation with the absurd as “the desert” in which he stands face-to-face with the knowledge that life is illogical, and he feels “within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” (15-16) The desert landscape in which Joy and Evelyn stand, the only moment in the movie where the two communicate clearly, is a literal manifestation of the mental “desert” Camus repeatedly refers to. Their conversation follows similar tracks laid out in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” wherein man reaches a state of consciousness from which he may not be able to return.
Joy, throughout the film, is shown to be depressed. Although she argues with her mother in the very beginning, she drives away before their argument can reach any constructive conclusion. She appears disheartened in every scene, and is shown to lack any energy or zeal for life’s challenges and pleasures. Joy is battling the impulse to commit suicide, personified in the black hole-like everything bagel shown in the film. Camus asserts that the theoretical notion of suicide is the most important question philosophers must contemplate, as it begs the question “is there a logic to the point of death?” (4-5) This question also lies at the heart of Everything Everywhere: is there a logic to living life when the universe is absurd?
Endeavoring to answer this question, Camus contemplates the nature of the absurd in itself. Camus finds that the absurd is a direct cause of friction between man’s logical mind and an illogical universe. He asserts “Absurd is not in man (if such a metaphor could have a meaning) nor in the world, but in their presence together. For the moment it is the only bond uniting them.” (16) He aspires to prove that the absurd would not exist if not for the opposing relationship between the human mind and the universe at large. The disruption of this allusion – that life is straightforward, that everything occurs because of a logical cause and effect – is exactly what drives the plot of Everything Everywhere forward. The heart of the conflict between Joy and Evelyn’s outlooks on life, as both have mastered the art of verse-jumping and shifting their identities, is whether knowing the truth of the universe warrants one to die or continue living. Evelyn, throughout the film, is depicted as weary with the tedious goings-on of everyday life. She is tired of taking care of the laundromat, of her husband’s antics and her daughter’s posturing. It is telling that the moment she first verse-jumps is in the meeting with Deirdre Beuobeirdra the IRS agent, as Ms. Deidre demands Evelyn pay attention to the nitty-gritty details of why her laundromat is being audited. Many will theorize what verse-jumping may philosophically represent, but most obviously it seems to visually manifest the feeling of dissociation with the whims of everyday life. Joy and Evelyn are suffering similarly, as both have lost a passion it. Why then, does Evelyn find reason to continue living when Joy fails to?
During the film's climax, as Joy is poised to jump into the everything-bagel, Evelyn battles Jobu Tupaki’s minions. However, instead of defeating them in hand-to-hand combat, Evelyn decides to get past them another way. She travels to different universes each of the minions inhabit – a world where one character is a sous chef learning to cook from a racoon (Raccaccoonie), another in which one of the characters hosts dominatrixes in a secret passage hidden in his office – and finds the passions and hobbies that make them happy. She defeats the sous chef by reuniting him with his beloved raccoon, and conjures a choker to appease the kinky-goon. Evelyn then successfully battles her way to Joy, poised to jump into the abyss. At first she tries to hold Joy back from tipping over the edge, but then she lets her daughter go. Joy tumbles over the canyons in the desert, and Evelyn tumbles after her. This pivotal scene calls to mind Camus assertion that one must commit “suicide of the mind” in order to reconcile the human mind with an absurd universe, that “suicide settles the absurd.” (32) Joy attempts to settle the absurd, but Evelyn succeeds in accepting the absurd. She finds the strength to persevere in the face of chaos by finding a tether in the ridiculous, mundane things that make one happy. It is this strength, the power she finds in love for Waymond and Joy, that gives her the strength to tumble over the edge into the abyss.
Everything Everywhere All at Once, perhaps more than any other film this year, captures the feeling of being suspended in chaos. The absurdity of the multiverse manifests the dark ether and endless limbo of the pandemic, and the nonlinearity of our postmodern historical moment. Although the film visually manifests what drives our deepest fears, it gives us a tool to battle them. Everything Everywhere reinforces what ultimately tethers us to life: love.