Visual by Vednt Mathur
The American-Chinese action sci-fi movie, Everything, Everywhere, All At Once can be best described and understood to be what it literally claims in the title. Its reception among audiences and critics has been amazing. ‘The Daniels’, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, are its co-creators, and it is their second movie. It has won a number of awards and has also become the production house, A24’s highest-grossing movie yet. With absurdity coming through in every scene, this film is an amazing amalgamation of drama, comedy, surreality and depth.
The plot revolves around Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese immigrant and a laundromat business owner. In the opening scene, Evelyn, along with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), are going through an existential crisis. Eveyln is thinking that the life decisions she’s made are all wrong because her life has come to nothing. She is stuck in the stressful mess of handling her laundromat business, her taxes, a strained relationship with her daughter and a failed marriage, all while trying to make amends with her dad who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and (resenting her for her life choices), had cut off ties with his daughter in her youth. Waymond, who loves his wife, is saddened by the fact that she resents him as being responsible for the terrible life she’s living, and shows distaste for his happy, carefree approach to life. He decides to get a divorce as he accepts that their marriage is no longer working out for either of them. Joy wants her mother to accept her queerness, for which she proposes that her girlfriend be introduced to Gong Gong, Evelyn’s father, for who a party was being hosted later that night. But Evelyn fails to do this, further increasing the strain in the mother-daughter’s relationship.
As they are being audited by the IRS, Waymond from another universe (Alpha Waymond), tells Eveyln that she is the only one who can save the multiverse from annihilation by Jobu Tupaki, a nihilistic villain of whom Joy is a version in that (current) universe. Here begins Evelyn’s deeply emotional, equally hilarious, soul-searching journey through the multiverse.
Exploration of Nihilism and Absurdism
The movie starts with existentialism, tilts towards nihilism, and then arrives at absurdism.
Jobu Tupaki, the version of Joy that had her mind broken by the Evelyn in her universe, is the embodiment of nihilism in the movie. Her aim is to cause multiversal destruction. Even though she feels no regret over the suffering that she causes and dismisses everything around her as utterly meaningless, she still holds out a sliver of hope for finding the meaning of life. This is where absurdism takes over.
Evelyn: “That doesn’t make any sense.”
- Everything Everywhere All at Once
The movie is filled with absurdity, with random acts like eating lip balm to travel through the multiverse to having hot dogs for fingers, to using a seemingly deadly fanny pack to attack a bunch of armed guards. The significance of these silly acts is to show how actions that might seem irrelevant and insignificant might have bigger, unexpected consequences (for example, the branching off and creation of a whole different universe).
The basic beliefs of absurdism and nihilism are the same, but absurdism differs from the latter because it goes beyond nihilistic hopelessness and proposes a solution - acceptance. Absurdists do not try to find or give life a meaning. By accepting that life is meaningless, they continue to live it nevertheless, seeing their continued existence in the world as an act of rebellion against the human urge to look for meaning in everything. They live in the moment instead of thinking about the what-ifs.
Evelyn embraces absurdism when she chooses the ordinary life she’s leading in her own universe over the better lives of Evelyns in other universes, because she acknowledges the ultimate lack of meaning in everything, everywhere, and hence chooses her own form of meaninglessness to exist in.
Philosophical Relevance of the Bagel and the Googly Eyes
The Bagel and Googly Eyes can be understood to be each others’ opposites through their color symbolism. The former has a white inner circle with a black outer ring, while the latter has a balck inner circle and a white exterior. They represent yin and yang, symbolizing the endless circle of life.
Bagel as the Abyss of Nihilism
Jobu Tupaki: “You know why I built the bagel? It wasn’t to destroy everything. It was to destroy myself.” - Everything Everywhere All at Once
Jobu created the Everything Bagel to find a way to live that didn’t amount to nothing. But when she failed to do that, it became a symbol of nihilism and turned into a tool for her to be used to destroy herself and escape the overwhelming meaninglessness of life and cosmos.
The Bagel (Yin) shows that life is dull and full of suffering, and that any instance of happiness is fleeting and thus meaningless.
Googly Eyes, in the movie, is a symbol of Waymond and his way of leading life, which is through kindness and compassion. In the fighting scene on the IRS staircase towards the end of the movie, Evelyn seems to make peace with herself as she sticks a googly eye on her forehead, and as Waymond encouraged her to do, she uses empathy and kindness as her weapons against all the people that came at her. She induces healing in each individual that attacks her by going deep into their psyches and introducing elements that bring about restoration in their minds. So, for Evelyn, the Googly Eyes represented her reaching a state of Enlightenment.
Evelyn sought to cancel out the negativity of the Bagel with the Googly Eyes. On achieving this, she was finally able to restore peace in her relationship with Joy, and accept that the strain in her relationship with her father was not her fault.
The Googly Eyes (Yang) show life in a positive light as being worthwhile, and that any form of suffering is temporary and can be overcome.
Evelyn to Gong Gong: “It’s okay if you cannot be proud of me. Because I finally am.”
- Everything Everywhere All at Once
Other Philosophical Connections Explored
Acceptance of Buddhism
By wanting things to be different than they are in reality, we make ourselves suffer. This is because we forget that even in the different lives we’ve created for us in our head, there will be struggles, and by wishing for such a life nonetheless, we are missing out on the life that we are living in that moment, and the only one that is real. This is what Evelyn comes to realize towards the end of the movie.
Evelyn speaks Camus
Towards the ending of the movie, Evelyn says the following dialogue which sounds like something Albert Camus might have said. “Nothing matters, we can do anything”, she said, expressing how we get to choose, often through love, which things have meaning for us. Using Camus’s own example, Sisyphus can find a sense of fulfillment in his seemingly meaningless and endless struggle merely by embracing it as it is. Through the movie, it is shown that even when Evelyn is ‘successful’ in another universe, as an actress, she is still suffering. The only Evelyn who is truly happy is the ‘ordinary’ and ‘unsuccessful’ one, because this particular Evelyn has embraced the absurdity of life.
Glimpses of Taoism
Taoist philosophy is concerned with finding balance and harmony in the universe. This is what Evelyn and Jobu Tupaki’s troubles were all about. As an answer to this, they discover that the first step towards making peace with their situation is acceptance. Waymond guides Evelyn on how to find some semblance of peace with the chaos that is the entirety of our existence - by using kindness in every situation.
Sartre’s Existential Nihilism
John Paul Sartre famously quoted - “Man is condemned to be free”, expressing how freedom is overwhelming. He proposed ‘living authentically’ to be the only solution. Rather than searching for meaning, one should create their own meaning. Life should not be thought of as being meaningless just because it doesn’t have any inherent meaning. In the last scene, Evelyn seems to adopt this philosophy when she tells Joy that they get to choose what gives their lives’ meaning.
The Rock Scene
There is a scene in the movie in which Evelyn and Jobu/Joy are rocks in a canyon. As another instance of color symbolism, Jobu’s dialogues are written in whte while Eveyln (who also has Googly Eyes on her rock form) has her dialogues written in black, further showing the existence of yin yang. Even though they are rocks, they have the constant urge to move, showing how we strive to find meaning in a meaningless world.
The multiversal movie captures the randomness of life through its absurdist style, and explores the relevant themes of gender, race, sexuality, generational divide and the search for meaning. There is a method to its madness, and even though it might seem fast paced and chaotic, it gives time to permit philosophical ponderings.
Jobu Tupaki’s nihilistic worldview is answered and overcome by Evelyn’s existentialist stance. The movie’s aim seems to be to reject nihilism and promote absurdism. Because life is meaningless, we have the power to make whatever we want out of it.
If I had to fix the movie’s takeaway into one sentence, it would be this - In this objectively meaningless world, love is the one thing that can create a subjective meaning. Though it might be true that we, with our individual lives, are tinier than specks of dust for the infinite cosmos, there is so much more to our existence than we realize. Seemingly irrelevant choices to the cosmos can be, in contrast, pivotal for that one person and their life. The characters, in the end, come to accept the life they are living rather than giving into despair.