Everything Everywhere All at Once and the limits of the multiverse

Everything Everywhere All at Once was one of my most anticipated movies of 2022. It almost beat out Crimes of the Future for the title of the film that got my pandemic-anxious backside back in cinema seats and the only reason I ended up waiting for the digital release was because it got very few screens in PEI (one) and the only showing was not at a time I could readily get to. Perhaps this is for the best because, although Everything Everywhere All at Once is far better than other multiverse-themed media I’ve seen this year, it would have been a let-down compared to my level of anticipation of it.

Now, I do want to be fair, this movie is well put-together. We get a good performance from Michelle Yeoh as the protagonist, Evelyn, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant struggling to keep her laundry business afloat as her family drifts apart. I should note that this is far from her best performance; she evinced neither the scenery-chewing glory of her turn on Star Trek Discovery nor the under-stated dignity that fuel her excellent performances in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny or the various dramatic roles she performed throughout the first decade of the 2000s. However Yeoh is a talented performer and even when not delivering her best work she is still very talented – if slightly up-staged by the delightful and unexpected range demonstrated by Ke Huy Quan as Waymond and the deranged scenery chewing of Jamie Lee Curtis who is very much on her A-Game here.

The Daniels deliver the exact kind of fast-cut music-video affected dadaist absurdity we would expect of them in a manner that delivers some excellent costuming and blocking and some perfectly passable set construction and Paul Rogers shows some excellent editing with an especial nod to the inventiveness of scene transitions in the second half and to an excellent rapid-fire montage at the climax of the film.

There are problems at the script level. Particularly the resolution of Evelyn’s material problems in our principal continuity are entirely subsumed into her cathartic revelation regarding her relationships. It seems somewhat pat the extent to which the conflict surrounding her tax bills just kind of smooth away in the conclusion just because our protagonist experienced a revelation concerning inter-general trauma and empathy. And these problems cannot be eased out regardless of how many strong performances are delivered and no matter how clever the editing.

Furthermore Stephanie Hsu seemed unable to deliver the emotional weight necessary for her role as Joy. It’s publicly known that the role was originally written for Akwafina but that she was unable to fill it due to a scheduling conflict – perhaps the expectation was that the role would be played funnier? But what we get is a rather dry and straightforward read of a character who should be anything else. Ultimately this may come back to problems with the script.

Now looking at what story the script is trying to tell what we see is a use of the multiverse to set up a conflict between two different existentialist perspectives: absurdity and ambiguity. Evelyn must learn to differentiate the absurd from the ambiguous such that she can save Joy from self-annihilation which is said to be intrinsic to a true appreciation of the absurdity of existence. Because alpha-Joy discovers the absurdity of a life in which any possible set of conditions might apply, which takes on any possible permutation of options, she becomes despondent, seeing what Kierkegaard would call the “levelling scythe” of dialectics collapsing into oneness. And it’s not surprising to see other critics using Kierkegaard in order to situate Evelyn’s arc as being one of identifying the need for a leap of faith but I personally think Beauvoir is a better lens here. Consider, “To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won.” This statement from The Ethics of Ambiguity, more than anything else I’ve ever seen, sums up the core conflict of the film. Joy believes that existence is absurd. Evelyn discovers it’s truly more ambiguous – that in each moment one can attempt to build a meaning via one’s community. And I think it’s important that the resolution doesn’t just involve the oedipal triangle of Evelyn, Joy and Waymond but a broader community that includes customers at the laundromat, extended family and even Deirdre Beaubeirdre, an IRS inspector and antagonist to Evelyn who contains unexpected depths. I like that they made this choice because if this film had collapsed everything down to “family is meaning in the face of the absurd,” it would have been a far weaker movie.

However I do think that this film suffers both from too great an attempt at subtlety and nuance and also from the intrinsic limitations of the multiverse as a storytelling model. Specifically I don’t think many people, even in the art-film audience, are likely to care enough about nearly century-old internal disputes among existentialists to particularly identify Kierkegaard here, Camus there, Beauvoir here. And, honestly, I think that the Daniels interpretation of absurdity is also lacking. I have seen other critics suggest that they would have been better off if they’d read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race or some other anti-natalist literature when fleshing out Joy’s character but, honestly, it’d probably be helpful if it had been clear they’d even read and understood The Myth of Sisyphus. Expecting an antagonist informed by Ligotti might be a stretch when dealing with scriptwriters who seem to have missed key points of Camus’ work considering how heavily Joy leans on Camus for her ideology.

Part of the problem here is the multiverse and, gosh, but if there’s a concept I’d like Hollywood to forget quickly that is it.

First off let’s be clear that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is not really the one preferred by physicists, cosmologists or philosophers of science. Multiverses are not a provable part of our reality sufficiently to make them an inevitability in art – part of a material basis to contend with. In fact, prior to Michael Moorcock, they weren’t really part of the genre fiction landscape much at all and only really achieved prominence when DC realized they could use the concept to lampshade continuity errors within their catalog of comic stories. And so we must treat multiverses not as an emergent property of fiction but rather as a deliberate narrative conceit.

Multiverses invite reflexive passivity in that, like we saw in the inferior Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it’s very easy to tease out a demand that you be satisfied with your lot in this universe because of the inevitable progression of an invisible hand composed of the aggregate decisions of history. By showing us the infinity of possibilities and then insisting upon a root universe to tether the audience to the multiverse actually constrains freedom. We can’t have the liberation of Beauvoir’s ethics within ambiguity because everything is purely deterministic.

This determinism is a problem in Everything Everywhere All At Once which posits every minor decision a person makes causes a bifurcation of reality. In this universe you had always already made that choice. The universe becomes clockwork – and that lack of agency is not something that arises in the debate between Joy’s absurdism and Evelyn’s ambiguity. Both seem resigned that they are slaves to the past.

I honestly think this fatalism represents a limit of the multiverse as a narrative conceit. If you introduce this arborescent pattern of decisions fanning out from some root such as a subjective sense of self you’ll end up with a fatalistic story. And this fatalism is at odds with a Beauvoirian read. Evelyn wants to tell Joy that we can win meaning out of the immediacy of our lives, that we can fight for the people we love and bring them back from the edge except she says this from a position of absolute inability to truly act. She must become aware that every decision she might have made has, in fact, been made and that the consequences of the same are fully mapped out. She must commit fully to a view of a multiverse of clockwork just to get the the point of being able to contend with Joy.

Pretty bleak.

Beauvoir built her ethic around an expectation that freedom, true radical freedom, wasn’t just something that could be achieved. It was, in fact, an emergent property of the world. Every person is, at all times, a font of infinite potential. But this is what a multiverse movie misses – that font of potential doesn’t arise out of failure. It simply arises. What a person can do is either recognize that freedom and foster growth of that recognition in others or succumb to a kind of mystification that obscures freedom via the antinomies of action.

This is the thorn this film gets caught upon and it leaves us with something that is, unsurprisingly, similar to a music video: stylish, surely. Well performed too. But ultimately empty and a little trite. That this is probably the best we could expect from the multiverse as a form should hopefully be sufficient to put a nail in the coffin of this narrative conceit but I won’t hold my breath.

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