If the fate of the multiverse—of everything, everywhere across all timeliness and alternate realities—depended on you, you'd probably not be able to call upon the skills of a Hank Pym or a Rick Sanchez, don a superhero suit, and blast off into a fantastic CGI-based adventure to put things right.
But you could hug your loved ones. You could keep your small business afloat despite the IRS's predations. Hopefully, you could have a laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
And that just might be enough to save the world. To save all the worlds.
Everything Everywhere All At Once, the newly crowned Oscar winner for Best Picture, is a manic bumrush of a film that is nearly impossible to sum up in a few paragraphs. It's a science-fiction story wrapped inside an homage to the kung fu films of the '70s, crossed with an exploration of mental health, with two big scoops of slapstick comedy heaped on for good measure. Inside all that, Everything grapples with a philosophical conundrum: If literally every possible outcome of every choice you've ever made were as real as this world, should you surrender to nihilism or embrace the freedom that comes from knowing your existence is both meaningless and unique?
"Since nothing matters, the only thing that can matter is the choice you make," says Evelyn Wang, the film's protagonist, played with exceptional energy and vulnerability by Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh, at the movie's climactic moment. It's a rejoinder to the perspective expressed earlier by her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), the would-be destroyer of the multiverse, who believes that embracing nothingness is the only way remove "the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life."
And while the movie may not have an explicitly libertarian interpretation—aside from using the IRS as a villain—the resolution to the dilemma is one that should resonate with fans of free minds. In a chaotic universe full of infinite realities where all choices are relative, individualism still matters.
Indeed, when Everything isn't zipping around the multiverse to comedic effect, it suggests that the lines we draw in this reality might be blurrier than we sometimes think. The main characters, all immigrants or first-generation Americans, switch between speaking English, Mandarin, and Cantonese depending on the situation. Much of the family drama swirls around Evelyn's worry that her elderly father will not accept her daughter's new girlfriend, a concern that proves unfounded in the end. Nationalities, generational divides, and other arbitrary distinctions that we draw all the time are completely meaningless in an infinite universe, the story seems to be subtly suggesting. We ought not to let them get in our way.
That sort of subtlety is even more impressive given how wildly unsubtle and over-the-top other parts of writer-directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan's picture can be.
OK, let's try to describe the plot. In the middle of an IRS audit that might destroy her family's laundromat business, Evelyn is suddenly contacted by an alternate version of her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Kwan), who informs her that an alternate version of Joy is trying to destroy all reality. That Joy, now calling herself Jobu Tupaki, gained full awareness of the multiverse and subsequently learned to "verse-jump" into other versions of herself. Now she is using that power to hunt down and destroy other versions of Evelyn, whom Jobu blames for her emotionally and existentially damaged state.
With Waymond's help, this Evelyn also gains the ability to verse-jump at will, tapping into the knowledge and skills accumulated by her infinite other selves. It helps that one of them is a kung fu expert—a nod to Yeoh's earlier career in Hong Kong action films and her American breakthrough in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
What ensues must be the most visually creative multiversal fight scene/mother-daughter therapy session in movie history. Evelyn is tempted by Jobu's nihilistic perspective, in which reality is nothing but "swirling buckets of bullshit" where nothing ever makes sense for more than a moment. In the face of such absurdity, the only truth is total moral relativism: Good and bad are just words, she explains, empty of any meaning or usefulness. For her, even seemingly miraculous events are nothing more than statistical inevitabilities.
Waymond, in all his versions, serves as Evelyn's anchor to meaningfulness. "Every rejection, every disappointment has led you to this moment," he tells her. "Don't let anything distract you from it."
But if all outcomes exist, the movie argues, the ultimate value is not found in the outcomes at all but in the act of choosing. By making the choice to love someone, to show kindness to a stranger, or to express yourself, we tether ourselves to a single reality. The only one that matters. In the end—SPOILER ALERT—Evelyn defeats Jobu not with her kung fu skills but by being a good mother.
The freedom to make those choices is a tantamount human value. It might be the only thing that can preserve our sanity and keep the darkness of nihilism at bay.
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