By Allen Michie
This movie reminds us that if there is any meaning to life at all, it’s what you bring to it, not what it brings to you.
There’s a boomlet right now of multiverse movies. Everything Everywhere All at Once was released close to Spiderman: No Way Home. And soon Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will arrive. The alternate timeline is an old science fiction trope, but it caught fire in recent years, perhaps starting with the excellent animated Spiderman: Into the Multiverse (2019). Filmmakers have discovered that the multiverse provides an all-access pass to outrageous absurdities and trippy special effects bonanzas. In the case of Spiderman: No Way Home and the Star Trek movies with Chris Pine, it’s also a suspiciously convenient way to justify reboots and otherwise awkward casting changes. (Do you need an octogenarian from the original cast to pass the torch? Contract negotiations break down with your leading man? No problem, hire the kid, and the writers can mop up with the multiverse plot.)
But please don’t hold the multiverse plot against Everything Everywhere All at Once, even though the awesome star Michelle Yeoh is fresh from an extended parallel universe story line on Star Trek: Discovery. There’s nothing lazy about this movie — to the contrary, one of its themes is that we’ve become so busy we are missing out on the simple pleasures, like giving ourselves permission to be lazy for a few moments. Even when two of the characters in the film become rocks sitting in the sand, they still have to struggle with the impulse to keep moving. What is refreshing about Everything Everywhere All at Once is that it gets the multiverse right. It justifies the conceit, both narratively and thematically, by asking the right questions about what it means. Then, crucially — and unlike any of the other recent action-packed superhero movies –it answers those questions. And it does so with intelligence, humor, imagination, and heart.
But that’s not even the most impressive thing about Everything Everywhere All at Once. It incorporates a dazzling array of philosophical, cultural, scientific, and artistic traditions into a joyfully coherent statement. Its message will resonate in different ways for audiences of diverse ages and stages of life. But the film unifies rather than divides because it pulls us together by way of its powerful moral foundation — just look for the best in one another and cherish those few moments that actually make sense in life.
Spoilers are below. This is a commentary, not a review, so you might want to come back to this page once you’ve seen the film.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that the movie is hilariously funny. Not five minutes ever go by without a gut laugh. That being said, this movie is appropriately titled because it’s also an existentialist, postmodern, absurdist, feminist, Taoist, satirical, chaos theory–driven, mid-life crisis exploration of Chinese generational change. And it’s all wrapped up in a kick-ass Kung Fu movie.
Classes across university campuses could spend the first year talking about this movie — if every freshman were required to see it. There’s something for most every department here (including Math and Physical Education).
First, there’s the philosophy. There are multiple philosophical schools in play here (and I also mean “play” in the sense of Whee!). Existentialism is as much a literary movement as it is a philosophical one. Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche laid the groundwork in the 19th century, but it took the two world wars to consolidate the approach’s general tone of alienation, disconnection, and dread. However, along with the atheistic belief that existence in the here-and-now is all there is, there is also an energizing sense of the ridiculous and unpredictable. If you wake up one morning to discover that you’ve become a giant insect, and it never seems to occur to anyone to ask how or why, then that’s just the way things are (Kafka’s Metamorphosis). If you impulsively guzzle an entire 64 oz. bottle of sugary orange soda and zap over to an alternate life where you have a different sexual orientation and have hot dogs for fingers, then hey. Existentialism is about human freedom, with all of the lonely terror and excitement of self-realization that implies. What could be more free than movement across multiverses? Yeoh’s character, Evelyn, gets to experience various lives that for one reason or another she did not live. Each life brings its new skills but also its limitations. In the end, you are still no one but yourself.
The meaningless is existentialism’s legacy for postmodernism: the film’s collage of different time periods, cultures, artistic styles, and narrative genres all add up — to a big Nothing. The villain’s evil plan in Everything Everywhere (if postmodernism could take physical form, this baddie is what she would look like) involves creating the ultimate Everything Bagel. It will collapse the multiverse into a big black hole of trans-dimensional emptiness. Or, at best, it will leave us staring at a self-referential hall of mirrors, which is present here in the multiple parodies of Asian cinematic clichés.
At this point, it’s time for the freshmen to change classes and walk from the English Department building to the Science building. Sidestepping quantum physics for the moment, which may or may not explain the actual existence of the multiverse, chaos theory may be more familiar to moviegoers thanks to Jurassic Park (and to theatergoers thanks to Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece Arcadia). One of the key ideas in this revolutionary approach to physics, mathematics, and nonlinear systems is that the more chaotic things appear to become, the more opportunity there is for an underlying order to reveal itself. In fact, if you chart the chaos on a grid, the underlying order will gradually show itself via a repetition of the same pattern. The size (large or small) of the sample does not matter (“self-similarity across scale”). These patterns are called fractals. For example, draw a triangle, and pick any random point inside it. Then make a dot halfway between that point and your random choice of any of the three corners. Then make a dot between that point at any of the three corners, and so on. The results will appear random for a long time, but eventually this is what will emerge, known as a Sierpinski triangle.
The forces that pull chaos into fractal order are called “strange attractors.” If you chart the speed, direction, and position of 10 fish in a tank, the results will be random until you get enough iterations to show that there are certain speeds, directions, and positions that the fish gravitate toward (and those results, I expect, would chart as self-similar fractals). We don’t know yet how to draw the strange attractors that influence literature, human creativity, or life itself — but that does not mean they aren’t there.
What intrigues me in Everything Everywhere is how chaos theory coexists with existentialism. Sartre, Camus, Beckett, or Nietzsche might likely agree that chaos doesn’t vary — a day in the life in Beckett’s Endgame is no more or less empty than a decade in any life. But what would an existentialist have to say about strange attractors? Granted, finding structure in chaos isn’t the same thing as finding meaning in chaos. But with no God, no universal natural law that applies to everything everywhere all the time, no stable trajectory of the past or the future, and no guarantee that Godot will certainly come tomorrow, what is the force that pulls all of this stuff together in someone’s life? Let’s put it another way: Within the confines of a romantic comedy action thriller, does the emptiness of a random universe make an acceptable ending?
Of course not. Everything Everywhere answers the absolutism of the existentialists with the grand old strange attractor that ranges across all scales, moving from your life to the life of your family, to the combined lives in all of your family history, to the lives of the entire species as it procreates, protects its young, and finds a motivation to survive. Love! It’s the force that movies, songs, and literature show us time and again intertwines disparate people together. And it’s the force that keeps otherwise incompatible people linked even as they go their separate ways.
As suggested by the Sierpinski triangle, sometimes you can’t see the shape of the strange attractor until there have been enough iterations of the chaotic system. As Evelyn begins swirling through the multiverse, it is massively confusing and randomly absurd at first, with no apparent meaning (other than her having some vague mission to destroy the Everything Bagel). As she gets the hang of things — after she is given multiple perspectives on exactly who she could have been in life and what she would have gained and lost if things had only gone differently with her father at an early age (what chaos theorists call “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” or “the butterfly effect”) — the shape of her strange attractor starts to emerge. A chaos theorist would insist that the shape of the true attractor can only emerge with enough iterations of chaos. For Evelyn, it’s her love for her estranged daughter and husband. When you see your family members living in multiple alternate ways, following possibilities that could have been, you start to see clearly for the first time who they really are at their core. (Regarding Evelyn’s daughter Joy, those possible ways go to some seriously wild extremes, with a shout-out to costume designer Shirley Kurata). Existentialists would frown on the idea that you or others have a “core,” at least one worth discovering or knowing about. But Everything Everywhere builds an elegant bridge between existentialism, chaos theory, and even absurdist comedy.
This movie would be deeply Chinese, even if it hadn’t been co-written and co-directed by a Chinese artist (Dan Kwan), didn’t have an all-star Asian cast, didn’t involve martial arts, didn’t have a Tiger Mother as a protagonist, and wasn’t initially set in a neighborhood laundromat run by a struggling multigenerational immigrant family. The touchstone here is Taoism. (I make no claims for the personal religious beliefs of Kwan or anyone else involved in the film — I am only trying to situate it in a cultural and philosophical context.) The Tao Te Ching is a collection of folk wisdom, cosmology, philosophy, observations, political advice, and assorted mysticism collected by multiple people across the seventh and second centuries BCE. Its current form is popularly attributed to Lao-Tzu, a keeper of the royal archives from around 500 BCE.
The document itself is a multiverse in itself of sometimes maddeningly suggestive descriptions of The Way, known as the “Tao,” and the Tao’s Expression, known as the “Te.” If the chaotic flow of nature, life, and the universe is the Tao, then the strange attractors by which we are able to trace its outlines is the Te. Western languages are rooted in a grammar of tenses and prepositions that situate ideas in sequence and relationships (such as subject/object). Chinese characters are pictorial representations that can be seen as singular or plural, different parts of speech, or happening in the past, present, or future. Thus, as translator Jonathan Star puts it, the Tao Te Ching “was never meant to fully explain the mysteries of the universe, only to allude to them. The lessons and truths to which it points must be discovered within. That is the only way for the text to bring you past the words to the wonder of your own being.” The Taoist nature of the multiverse is also implied in a generic way in the Doctor Strange movies, where it’s Asian monks who are the masters of the magic and, imperfectly, can call forth and control the flow of the multiverse.
There’s a running gag in Everything Everywhere All at Once about kung fu (it reminds me of the pointed satire of Charles Yu’s 2020 novel Interior Chinatown, where a Chinese actor’s greatest ambition in the US is to one day be cast as “Kung Fu Guy”). In the tradition of the thought-expanding absurdist koans of Zen Buddhism, the kung fu instructor keeps nonsensically saying that most anything can be kung fu, including the pinky. (Evelyn, in one alternate reality, flexes some Rock-worthy pinky muscles.) The film’s hilarious opening fight scene involves a nerdy fanny pack that’s been transformed by the mystery of kung fu into a lethal nunchuck. The conceit delivers laughs, of course, but there’s also more to it. The unnamed Tao runs through the multiple alternate realities of the mother’s, husband’s, daughter’s, and grandfather’s lives, like the river that often appears in the imagery of the Tao Te Ching. It’s tempting, in fact, to read the evolution of Evelyn’s character as a commentary on the Tao itself, where in verse 5 the Tao is imagined as the Spirit of the Valley:
-trans. Jonathan Star
At the conclusion of the film (spoilers ahead), the Tao solves the existentialist conundrum posed by the multiverse. The final battle royale is won not by more and greater acts of violence, but by quicksilver offers of inner peace to each of the thuggish combatants. The amusement is uppermost in this most ironic of endings for a kung fu movie. But the climax is also quite moving, given where the story and characters have evolved. I opened the Tao Te Ching at random (appropriately) and found verse 68:
During multiple iterations of the multiverse Evelyn collects various short-term superpowers she needs at the time. But when her greatest trial arrives, she relies on the core self she has had all along. In the end, it’s not about layering up who we are, but tapping into the essential self, hewing to the values shaped by the strange attractors. “Everything everywhere all at once” is a serviceable description of the Tao, and what begins in dizzying complexity ends in the expressions of family and friendship at a Chinese New Year party in a laundromat:
Everything Everywhere All at Once is, ultimately, the most serene movie in years. Embrace its chaos and enjoy the story’s riotous humor. But don’t be afraid to let your guard down and accept what it reveals about yourself. We all have regrets: about all the things we could have been in life, all the roads untraveled, the superpowers we could have had if we’d only had more lifetimes to acquire them. But this movie reminds us that — if there is any meaning to life at all — it’s what you bring to it, not what it brings to you.
Allen Michie is, in this universe anyway, a higher education administrator in Austin, Texas. In another universe he’s a famous jazz musician. In another he’s a brilliant scholar of 18th-century British literature. In another he collects vintage jukeboxes.