When the Hurlyburly’s Done: A Review of Everything Everywhere All at Once

Article ID: JAR0422CB | By: Cole Burgett

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Written and Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited as the Daniels)

Distributed by A24 (2022)

Rated R

 

**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Everything Everywhere All at Once.**

 


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Everything Everywhere All at Once, directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited as the Daniels), is a film about the chaos that its title evokes, and the ways in which one finds meaning amidst the pandemonium of life. As a science fiction film, the plot is relatively straightforward: Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), owner of a struggling laundromat alongside her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), finds herself under audit by the IRS. However, what begins as a simple visit to the local IRS office turns into a world-hopping adventure when Evelyn learns that all of reality is under threat by a version of her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), from a parallel universe.

While the basic premise of a reality-breaking threat and an adventure spanning multiple universes and timelines is nothing new when it comes to the science fiction genre, Everything Everywhere All at Once nevertheless brings a unique vision and voice to the proceedings. Mixing bombastic action scenes and superb visual effects into a surprisingly hefty philosophical package, the film steps boldly into a niche area in the world of smart, zany action flicks, settling comfortably into a void that really hasn’t been occupied since 1999’s The Matrix.

Reworking the Genre. Everything Everywhere All at Once is a film that feels less self-aware than it actually is — and that is a good thing. The characters never once seem “in on the joke,” a credit to the actors who manage to sell the emotions packed into their respective roles despite the absurdity of the images and the circumstances that flash upon the screen. Michelle Yeoh is particularly convincing as Evelyn, a woman so caught up in trying to keep her business afloat and her lesbian daughter’s same-sex relationship a secret from her father, that she doesn’t realize life is falling apart around her, with her daughter growing distant and disenchanted, and her husband pursuing divorce. The earnestness of the characters contributes largely to the film working in the moments of heavy-handed philosophizing.

But the film’s self-awareness shows in the way it subtly reworks certain tropes. In most any other feature of this ilk, the protagonist would be a young, trim male with a chiseled jawline, or a scrappy young female with a fighting spirit. In fact, Everything Everywhere All at Once was originally conceived with a more traditional male lead.1 However, the final product gives audiences a middle-aged Chinese-American woman as a protagonist, someone who is more concerned with surviving an IRS audit than battling hordes of goons. As a result, the film’s positioning of Evelyn as the story’s messianic figure feels fresh and unique, even when the mythic archetypes are themselves familiar. Speaking of the uniqueness of her character, Yeoh commented: “I find the Daniels [the two directors] was so bold and courageous to write the lead of the movie an aging, Asian immigrant woman and give her such a powerful voice and turn her into a superhero.”2

Into the Multiverse. The idea of a “multiverse” belongs predominately to the realm of science fiction, thanks in no small part to the works of Michael Moorcock and Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek (1966–1969). Comic book publishers have also incorporated the idea into many storylines, the modern-day cinematic adaptations of which contributing largely to the renaissance the idea is currently undergoing in the popular imagination. While not a popular scientific theory, the concept of a true “multiverse” does have its proponents, among them the late Stephen Hawking.

The scientific conception of the multiverse appeals to advances in the field of quantum physics throughout the 20th century and is predicated on the idea that the big bang is best understood as a quantum event. Even within the scientific community, though, these ideas bring with them no small measure of controversy. Despite the popularity of the multiverse as a storytelling device, audiences should be aware that such an idea still skirts the fringes of what most scholars deem acceptable science.3

Everything Everywhere All at Once continues the trend of involving parallel universe escapades in modern stories. Though the film is light on the science, it nevertheless finds a way to break new ground in how it develops the concepts by having characters essentially “jump” into their own bodies in parallel worlds. This is all in service to the story, as once the multiverse opens up, Evelyn can suddenly experience different versions of herself across multiple realities that arise from alternative choices made at different junctures of her life. What if she had not married Waymond? Well, in another reality she would have gone on to become a famous movie star. In yet another she becomes a chef. It’s a clever narrative device that allows Evelyn the opportunity to explore a variety of lives she had the potential to live, had only she made different choices.

Evelyn the Messiah. The version of Evelyn the film primarily follows lives the least glamorous life of all her multiverse counterparts. With a strained marriage, estranged daughter, overbearing father, and failing laundromat, everything seems to have gone wrong. But in the context of the multiverse, this means that she is the one version of the character who has more potential than any other for things to go right for a change. Thus, Evelyn becomes a highly sought-after target, not only by the evil version of Joy looking to destroy the multiverse, but also by a small group of other individuals from another universe who believe this Evelyn could be a kind of messianic figure capable of stopping Joy and saving all of reality. And it seems everyone is convinced of Evelyn’s importance to the grand tapestry of the multiverse — except for Evelyn herself.

Over a nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, audiences follow Evelyn on her journey of self-discovery. She must come to acknowledge her current situation in all its messiness, commit to not giving up hope when faced with despair, and ultimately find a way to reconcile with her family. Viewers might not be accustomed to seeing an older female immigrant in the role of a narrative’s Christ figure, but Yeoh carries the emotional weight of the film admirably and generates no small amount of pathos along the way.

Finding Meaning. Where Everything Everywhere All at Once turns into a philosophical powerhouse is in its exploration of meaning. In the context of the film, the title evokes the chaos that threatens to tear apart the multiverse, the swirling maelstrom of hopelessness and uncertainty that permeates much of Joy’s adolescence. It would be unfair to the script to say that the great villain of the film is teenage angst, though that wouldn’t be an entirely wrong statement. However, the film is nuanced in its portrayal of fragmenting relationships and finds fault in both Evelyn and Joy. Another version of Evelyn is broadly shown to bear much of the responsibility for pushing the alternate version of Joy to become the megalomaniacal villain that she is — as such, it would stand to reason that only Evelyn could bridge the gap and reforge the broken relationship that would bring Joy back from the edge of oblivion (or, the bagel).

See, the villainous Joy has become lost in the throes of life’s hardships, swept away by feelings of futility and meaninglessness. She is, effectively, a nihilist who seeks to visit her pain upon all of reality. And the film never really wavers from this basic premise: that there is likely no grand meaning to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, and if there is meaning, it is downright unknowable — therefore, any meaning must be forged and fought for, as a cosmos with meaning is better than one without.

Eric Ravenscraft, writing for Wired, characterizes the film’s philosophical underpinnings as “optimistic nihilism.” He writes, “The multiverse might contain an infinite amount of pain and heartbreak, but it also contains an infinite amount of creativity, passion, beauty, and connection. Through that lens, cynicism itself gets distilled down to just another choice. It’s not naive or ignorant to choose to value little moments, small acts of kindness.”4

Ravenscraft’s assessment is an apt one and articulates quite well the narrative’s ultimate disposition toward these philosophical ruminations. In many ways, Everything Everywhere All at Once perfectly captures the zeitgeist of now — a generally agnostic and globalized world interconnected like never before due to advances in technology, unsure of how the story of everything begins or how it will end, desperately searching for meaning amidst an ever-changing sea of ideas in the ever-forward march of the good name of “progress.”

Live and Let Die? Watching Everything Everywhere All at Once, one gets the sense that Joy, as a character, fits the profile of the character legendary Beatles member Paul McCartney sings about in the opening lines of the Academy Award-nominated theme song to 1973’s Live and Let Die, a song which has arguably left more of a cultural footprint than the film itself. In reconnecting with her daughter, Evelyn grapples with the temptation to adopt a similar attitude — “live and let die.”5 The film’s climax sees her having to be rescued by Waymond and his more grounded perspective of the world, finding value in the ordinary rather than seeing it all as mundane. Sure, in these other realities, Evelyn could have been a movie star — but those realities would have meant a life without Waymond, a life without Joy. And this isn’t a wrongheaded way of approaching things; in fact, it’s quite mature and nuanced and intelligent. In many ways, Everything Everywhere All at Once makes a compelling case for being less cynical even in a world where that wouldn’t make much difference.

The trouble comes, for the Christian, in the film’s basic assumptions about the nature of reality and the way things are, which the narrative never really seeks to correct. Evelyn comes to find value in her simplistic life, in her relationship with her husband and daughter. But this value is assigned by Evelyn herself, and not something that arises from any basic moral code — enduring objective moral values and duties — that anyone in the film adheres to.

For the Christian apologist, Everything Everywhere All at Once offers a glimpse at one of the more interesting and paradoxical assumptions that currently dominates much of the popular imagination — goodness is a thing that should be sought after, even if there is no real discernable reason to do so. Wisely, Everything Everywhere All at Once does not come across as “preachy” in its message, but its message undeniably is that basic human decency is better than non-existence, even if it doesn’t amount to much in the end. Yet the thinking person will probably pause somewhere in the mazes of their thoughts to ask, “But why?”

And the film never really offers a compelling reason for why goodness and the ordinary are demonstrably better than evil Joy’s nihilistic perspective on things, other than suggesting that the latter simply accelerates the entropy toward which all things are working anyway. And herein lies the other half of the film’s basic assumption: that goodness, hope, and optimism are better values than the cynical nihilism that sees no meaning in anything — but when that premise is excavated for more, viewers will find themselves left wanting.

“Goodness and optimism are better philosophies to have,” the film basically asserts — but the caveat is that nobody seems too interested in the why. To read the film on its own terms, it would seem that Joy’s nihilistic perspective is taken as capital “t” True. There really is no meaning, no grand design to reality, and all things will eventually pass away into nothing. The End. Evelyn’s counter, and therefore the film’s message, is that, “Well, even if that’s true, then it is still better to find meaning in life than to go through it without meaning at all.”

But, again, there is very little work done to assert why it is still “better” to assign one’s own meaning to life. There is no overriding moral obligation for Evelyn to rebuild her relationship with Waymond or to reconnect with her daughter Joy, or to finally be honest with her father. Yet the film still recognizes these things as being better — good, even. And it’s a curious thing to take the time to destroy all categories of good and evil, right and wrong, only to come back and proclaim that goodness is still better, even if it’s really just a philosophical construct that amounts to nothing in the end.

Of course, the Christian agrees with the assumption that meaning and goodness are worth pursuing — but what the Christian does with the why makes all the difference.6 Because the Christian will point to an overriding objective moral reality that demonstrates why goodness is better than evil, and it has everything to do with the One who grounds what is right and wrong in the first place. If nothing else, Everything Everywhere All at Once presents the Christian with a unique opportunity to fill in some of these philosophical holes that the film overlooks.

But, if those kinds of conversations aren’t your cup of tea, the film can just as easily be enjoyed as a quirky sci-fi flick with big action sequences and some funny moments. Yet it would seem cynical and a bit disingenuous not to engage with the film’s philosophical underpinnings when the writers so clearly want to engage with yours. And if nothing else, it’s nice to know that such original and thought-provoking movies can still be produced by the Hollywood machine with a budget large enough to attract established actors and actresses.

​Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes in theology and Bible exposition and writes extensively about theology and popular culture.

Notes

  1. Samantha Bergeson, “Michelle Yeoh’s Role in ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Was Originally Written for Jackie Chan,” IndieWire, March 15, 2022, https://www.indiewire.com/2022/03/everything-everywhere-all-at-once-michelle-yeoh-jackie-chan-1234708097/.
  2. Michelle Yeoh, quoted in Kara Swisher, “How Michelle Yeoh Took Jackie Chan’s Role,” Sway, podcast audio, April 14, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/14/opinion/sway-kara-swisher-michelle-yeoh.html.
  3. For a brief analysis of the scientific “multiverse” concept from a Christian’s perspective, see Stephen Howe, “Stephen Hawking on Science and God,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 34, no. 1 (2011), https://www.equip.org/article/stephen-hawking-on-science-and-god/.
  4. Eric Ravenscraft, “Everything Everywhere All at Once Perfects Optimistic Nihilism,” Wired.com, March 24, 2022, https://www.wired.com/story/everything-everywhere-all-at-once-review/.
  5. Paul McCartney, “Live and Let Die,” Live and Let Die, 1973, United Artists, track 1.
  6. For a detailed discussion on the relationship between Christianity and Nihilism, see Thomas J. J. Altizer, “The Challenge of Nihilism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 62, no. 4 (1994), 1013–1022, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1465229.
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