Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn, in a film still from Everything Everywhere All At Once. Image credit: AGBO
Consider the multiverse: an existence in which everything that can happen, happens. All the paths that you’ve not taken—pleasures you’ve missed, dangers you’ve avoided—play out in realities parallel to this one. And though you’ve been living your life in a single reality, one decision at a time (up to this very moment), enter the multiverse, and you’ll suddenly experience all your possible lives, infinite and all at once.
If this scenario elicits a familiar sense of confusion and anxiety, join the family. You’ve been living the philosophical question at the heart of Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO)—even if you haven’t yet seen the film.
The creators of the “maximalist” sci-fi-action-comedy-drama realize that dealing with multiverse anxiety is not unlike grappling with the onslaught of information in our Internet Age. “The movie uses the multiverse almost as a metaphor for how the Internet has destroyed our minds,” explained Daniel Kwan, one half of the writer-director duo known as “the Daniels” (the other is Daniel Scheinert) behind EEAAO.
In the Daniels’ film, the protagonist Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is a middle-aged Asian American immigrant juggling mundane but draining problems: running a laundromat; taking care of her newly arrived father; prepping for an IRS audit; directing her meek husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan); and processing her daughter Joy’s lesbian relationship. In trying to take on this pileup of everyday reality, Evelyn fractures into the multiverse, becoming all possible versions of herself—and in essence, everyone—simultaneously. Her dissociative journey to reassemble her selfhood echoes our attempts to grasp our own fragmented identities and possibilities on the Internet, dispersed into innumerable platforms, accounts, and website cookies. The resonance helped make the film a breakout success with viewers and critics alike.
Crucially, Evelyn and her family draw subtly different conclusions from their respective encounters with the multiverse, leading to vastly different behaviors. Whether they can reconcile and build mutual appreciation becomes the core stake of the family drama; against the multiversal backdrop, this challenge hinges upon larger philosophical questions of rebellion and acceptance.
In the multiverse, Evelyn is pulled into a vast conflict with Jobu Tupaki, an omnipotent version of her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Her husband, Waymond, possessed by an “alpha” version of himself from another universe, begins training Evelyn in verse-jumping: the ability to enter her other multiversal selves, gaining their (her) experiences and skills, from martial arts to opera to spinning a pizza sign really, really well.
Facing the infinite possibilities of the multiverse, Evelyn initially suffers a bout of nihilism and self-abandonment. It is only after the Waymond of her own universe, in his modest and timid manner, makes a beautiful appeal to kindness that Evelyn embraces a philosophical epiphany. Armed with her new outlook on life and the multiverse, Evelyn asserts her love for Joy (and Jobu), giving them a chance to rebuild as a family.
Evelyn’s response to the multiverse reflects an existentialist resolution that builds upon a particular version of nihilism: if the universe is inherently meaningless, then we are at liberty to create our own meanings within it. Evelyn questions the meaning to her own life as she experiences all of her unlived ones. However, there is another form of nihilism that is even more foundational to a multiverse. In failing to recognize this, Evelyn misunderstands Waymond’s cause for kindness and Jobu’s source of depression, nearly letting her daughter commit suicide.
In EEAAO, nothing matters because our choices don’t matter. As Kwan lamented in an interview, “The multiverse posits that every decision you make doesn’t matter because every other version happens. It’s a slow watering down of why you should care about a movie.” This is what Joy/Jobu Tupaki realizes. Her version of nihilism stems from a multiverse determined to impose absolute consequential neutrality. The existentialist that is free to create her own meaning does not exist here: for every Evelyn that chooses to embrace her daughter, there’s another that rejects her.
Joy/Jobu’s radically neutral nihilism is fundamentally different from the Internet-era information (and opportunity) overload. The Internet age’s “analysis paralysis” stems from a fear of consequences: as I shop for sneakers in a market saturated with choices, I might be overwhelmed not only with my eventual comfort or discomfort, but also their implications on economic growth, environmental impacts, labor conditions, and animal rights. These concerns are important but separate from the ones confronting Evelyn and Jobu—in their multiverse, they’ve already bought all the sneakers.
Instead, a more suited modern counterpart to Joy/Jobu’s sentiment is democratic fatalism. Political scientist David Runciman wrote about the phenomenon in 2018: “Democratic fatalism arose out of a belief that the future belonged to democracy,” he explains, “in contrast to a belief that the future lay open for any democracy to shape to its own ends.” By rejecting alternative possibilities, the promises of democracy are perceived to be inevitabilities, merely expedited or delayed.
Runciman identifies two modes of democratic fatalism: the active and passive fatalists. Those in the passive mode surrender to their lack of agency upon the world. Passive fatalists range from the politicians who “send prayers” after a mass shooting while refusing to make tangible commitments to gun safety, to citizens who, disenchanted with their democratic candidates, abstain from voting.
Joy (and her homicidal version, Jobu Tupaki), meanwhile, exhibits fatalism in its active mode. Growing impatient with the wait for inevitability, fatalists in this mode become emotional and childlike, demanding the promised results immediately. Joy, convinced of Evelyn’s unchanging disappointment, intentionally conducts behaviors that she knows irritate her mother (refusing to call home, getting a tattoo, et cetera). For the extremist and all-powerful Jobu Tupaki, this means piledriving a security guard, exploding another’s head into confetti, and creating a doomsday device that will bring everyone to their inevitable end somewhat earlier than expected. (It’s worth emphasizing that queerness is not part of Joy’s fatalism. Instead, the relationship, and the hope of its approval, brings her back to the family at the start of the film.)
Outside cinema, Runciman notes that techno-optimists like Elon Musk are ultimately active fatalists—believing we can “tech” our way out of any crisis, if only our democracy gets out of the way. Having started writing EEAAO in 2016, the creators were wrestling with a rise of active fatalists, manically demanding an oppressive version of American exceptionalism. “I mean, the whole movie is a sort of reaction to how we felt with ‘the Donald’ in the [Oval] Office,” confessed Scheinert. This fatalist mania exploded when the mob, convinced history was on their side, stormed the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, only a year before the release of EEAAO.
If EEAAO is the therapy session in which the writer-directors reckon with democratic fatalism, then the husband character is the gentle therapist who guides them. Espousing baseless optimism and sticking googly eyes on random things, Waymond at first seems to embody a turn-the-other-cheek, pacifist naivety. He is perceived as useless and weak by his wife, who prefers his alpha-male alter ego. It isn’t until Waymond’s big speech—that we ought to be kind amidst the chaos and confusion—that Evelyn sees him in a different light.
Evelyn interprets Waymond’s message as a call to existential freedom: If nothing matters, why not choose to be kind, why not choose peace? Upon drawing this conclusion, she disarms her multiversal opponents by giving each person what they wanted: aromatherapy, neck massage, puppies, and more. Evelyn even tries to do the same with Jobu, embracing her daughter with a blind acceptance—appealing to the newfound sense of freedom-in-nihilism she believes her daughter shares.
Except, as we’ve observed, choices do not matter in EEAAO. Rather than being free to choose kindness, as Evelyn would have it, I posit that Waymond is compelled to do so. All things considered, their laundromat will likely be shut down, their marriage will fail, and the multiversal battle will continue. Nevertheless, he bakes cookies for the tax auditor, starts the divorce conversation, and delivers a passionate speech to a verse-jumping army. Waymond’s actions are not acts of resignation or freedom, but absurdist rebellion.
Developed by French philosopher Albert Camus, absurdism argues that the only possible rebellion against life’s inevitable meaninglessness is by seeking meaning and happiness despite that knowledge. As an absurdist who rejects bad faith, Waymond isn’t appealing to a blind hope or ethical default: he acts kindly because that’s the only way to rebel among a multiverse of fatalists.
In her attempt to pacify her daughter, Evelyn tries to demonstrate existential freedom by standing up to her own father and dragging Joy along into that confrontation. This sentiment is violently rejected by Joy, who responds by fleeing her mother (even in the universe in which they are both rocks). To Joy, that freedom is merely an illusion in the fatalistic nihilism that she experiences—somewhere, somehow, they’ll just hurt each other again. Instead, Joy turns the illusion of choice back at Evelyn: Why not disown each other and suffer a little less? (For the hyperbolizing Jobu, this means committing suicide.) Due to her misinterpretation of Waymond’s philosophy, Evelyn nearly accepts this proposal. It is only when Evelyn rebels, by acknowledging her disappointment with their relationship while still choosing to be with Joy, that their reconciliation becomes possible.
EEAAO resonated with its audience because of its authentic—and entertaining—meditation on contemporary fatalism and its nihilistic implications. Beyond democratic fatalism, today’s most pervasive fatalism centers around climate change. We are bombarded with unending existential alarms from scientists, ambiguous commitments from offending industries, and superficial promises from our government. Our political voice seems to be ever further away from any meaningful change.
What can we do in the face of modern fatalism? Perhaps we ought to channel Waymond’s rebellious spirit, both within and outside of the political system: vote despite not trusting that politicians will make real changes; call out abuses despite not knowing whether the perpetrator will be punished; commit to renewable energy despite not believing it’ll sufficiently reduce our carbon emission; demand conservationist policies despite not being confident that they’ll be effectively enacted. Be kind despite not being sure whether the other person will even notice, let alone appreciate it.
During the follow-up visit to the tax office that concludes the film, Evelyn once again hears noises from the other universes. If she has truly learned from her husband, Evelyn is compelled to keep choosing kindness, her reality, and her family, regardless of the inescapable dreariness and disappointment. Only then, by continually trying to understand and appreciate each other, do Evelyn, Waymond, and Joy have a chance of weathering through the multiverse. Us, too: we must repeatedly choose to rebel against democratic and climate fatalistic tendencies—despite the certain knowledge that, in this universe, we only get a Hollywood ending when we go to the cinema.
Ken Hu is a Liberal Studies MA graduate from The New School for Social Research.