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Everything Everywhere All at Once & Popular Nihilism
Oscar movies review
Parallel universes used to be a niche idea bandied about by high college students & comics fans. Or a component of terrible horror flicks like Netflix’s Wish Upon. But now, as with many such things, this cosmological hypothesis has come to pervade pop culture in a whole new way. Especially starting with 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, pop filmmakers realized the money-making potential of multiverses, one of the many silly things in which Millennials and Gen Zers want to believe rather than religion. I guess faith in multiverses provides the imagination with a sort of commitment-free hopefulness, or zero calorie beliefs… Parallel universes have featured lately, often to popular acclaim, in blockbusters like 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home & last year’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Titus reviewed it for Acton, with choice words about the multiverse). Now, the multiverse nonsense has leaped from popularity to prestige & got eleven Oscar nominations. That would be 2022’s most critically acclaimed film, Everything Everywhere All at Once.
The movie was produced by a small but prestigious mini-studio, A24, directed & written by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, & produced by the Russo brothers (they made the last two Avengers blockbusters). It came to theaters at one of the worst times in box office history. Thanks to COVID & the ever-growing creep of streaming, theatrical viewings were lower than ever & only Disney movies premiered to financial success. Even some Disney movies flopped. However, on a $25 million budget, Everything Everywhere All at Once managed to make $108 million globally ($74 million domestically), becoming the most successful movie for its studio. It also ended up somewhere around the top of the majority of critics’ best-of-the-year lists. It’s managed to garner lots of awards at the Oscar-precursors, the trade guild awards—Producers, Directors, Writers, & Screen Actors, as well as the Golden Globes. For this Sunday’s Oscars, its only real competitor is the blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick (I reviewed it for PoMoCon & Titus reviewed it for Acton). But movies that made $100 million in America haven’t won Best Picture since Argo 11 years back & it wasn’t common before that either… Unpopularity is almost mandatory at the Oscars.
So this is great, right? A popular indie movie with an original screenplay, technically well-made, especially in its editing, with music from electronic group Son Lux, & featuring a mostly Asian cast of such charming actors as Michelle Yeoh & James Hong gets recognition & awards! It’s more creative than most new movies, that’s for sure. Well, all this is surely impressive, but what does Everything Everywhere All at Once have to say to its audiences?
Here’s the story: Protagonist Evelyn Quan Wang, a middle-aged, Gen X Chinese immigrant is living a discontented life in America, running a small laundromat with her husband, Waymond, with whom she impulsively moved to America years ago. Adding to her unhappiness, Evelyn’s disapproving, sickly father is visiting from China; her daughter Joy wants to reveal her white girlfriend to her grandfather; the IRS is auditing the Wangs; & Waymond wants to serve her divorce papers. Her life becomes infinitely more interesting, though, when a parallel universe’s version of her husband dramatically appears, interrupting the family’s IRS visit, to inform Evelyn of the multiverse’s existence & her daughter’s villainous, anarchic role in it. The evil version of Joy says the universe is meaningless, which she has learned by seeing into “everything everywhere all at once,” & she simply wants the mother who drove her to her madness by demanding too much of her to share in this knowledge.
Winston Churchill wrote in My Early Life:
Nothing could be more repulsive to both our minds & feelings than the spectacle of thousands of millions of universes... knocking about together forever without any rational or good purpose behind them.
He might as well be describing Everything Everywhere All at Once, because the film’s ideas come down to the nihilistic fantasy that its characters exist in the midst of multiple universes, without any reigning god, without any binding spirituality. Yet the writer-directors try to resolve this issue to bring audiences a moral, because surely the message of a popular movie cannot be that everything is meaningless so we might as well kill ourselves. No, the message ends up as this: Be kind.
Now, in the face of such a terrible specter, the characters would be best off turning to religion to deal with such knowledge, as people have since the beginning of time. But the writers offer no such thing. Neither Buddhism, which is not unheard of in China, nor the Christianity they encounter in America gives them any guidance. Evelyn learns that truly nothing matters in her universe. Not even the uniqueness of humans is important, because the human soul might as well exist within anything from an absurd human with hot dog fingers to a sentient piñata to a rock with googly eyes. The solution to despair, then, comes from the mouth of their weakest male character: A helpless, emasculated man, Waymond cries out: “Please, can we just stop fighting?”
“I don’t know what the heck’s going on,” Waymond says. “The only thing I do know is we have to be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on. Please, be kind.” Evelyn looks at him and says, “It’s too late for that.” “Don’t say that,” is the only reply he can make. And it is too late, but happy memories across infinite parallel universes show Evelyn that she can, indeed, be kind, saving herself and her family from despair.
But what is this kindness built upon? What are Evelyn’s happy memories based in, other than repetitive interactions? If there’s a multiverse out there, anything that is this way could be any other way, oneself & one’s family. Nothing really matters & there’s no protection for anything one might love. What then is the foundation upon which Evelyn & her family can build a truly happy life in the shadow of a cruel universe? The writers sure don’t know! “We can do whatever we want. Nothing matters,” Evelyn tells her newly saved daughter, in one of the film’s final lines. What’s to prevent restlessness from creeping back in?
So it all ends up in empty sentimentality. The movie’s millennial nihilist was right, & the only thing the uprooted Gen X immigrant characters can add is an unmoored sense of family, kindness, & love. But these don’t really mean anything even to those espousing the ideas, so the happiness cannot last long & cannot be passed along. It’s hollow. Sentimentality is the distinctive quality of our culture, & it has become increasingly sophisticated as sentimentality from cynical people. That’s what Everything Everywhere All at Once has to offer, & its success suggests the audience is ready to move on from Eat Pray Love to the next step in imaginative nihilism.