The fiancée and I had a fun little discussion before watching this film about the possible reasons as to why there’s been this sudden revival in interest towards the idea of a multiverse. Is it just COVID? Is this the collective delirium of an overburdened society taking comfort in the idea of a parallel universe where none of this is happening? Or is this just the product of an entire generation coming of age, and waxing nostalgic about the path not taken?
Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022, dir. Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert) comes to the big screen right in time for a surge in public interest towards the idea of the multiverse. Prior to the Daniels’ cinematic masterpiece, we’ve already seen popular treatment of this quirky theory even before Doctor Strange or Spider-Man. One of my favorite shows of all time, Community, dedicated an episode centered on the idea of its characters’ universe branching off into various parallel timelines, and later an entire season wherein inhabitants of a so-called “Darkest Timeline” invade into their main universe.
Much of pop culture’s understanding of a multiverse comes from the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Physics. Theory surrounding particles at the atomic level tends to be highly probabilistic, which is something that, for some scientists, stands at odds with how physical laws are supposed to function in reality. The Many Worlds Interpretation is an attempt to reconcile this issue: rather than particles actually functioning through uncertainty, the uncertainty is explained away by the existence of many, parallel universes each with a different configuration. A macro-level illustration of this is to imagine reality splitting away at each point in time, depending on the decisions we make along the way: while in this universe, you decided to sleep in on a Monday morning and therefore left the house in time to be stuck in traffic, in another one you got up early enough to leave before the morning rush hour and actually made it to the office before everyone else.
It’s not a very precise understanding of the Many Worlds Interpretation, but as Hollywood knows, it makes for some damn good storytelling. We get cross-overs between three generations of Spider-Man on the big screen, John Krasinski as Reed Richards in a mind-bending Doctor Strange movie, or a vivid children’s horror story involving alternate universe parents with buttons for eyes. And it’s this very trope that finds itself powering the engines of what is actually, in its core, a heartfelt inter-generational family drama about an Asian immigrant family in the US.
Don’t get it wrong, though, Everything Everywhere is still an exciting science fiction flick: its heroine, Evelyn Wang (played by the amazing Michelle Yeoh) is on a mad-dash mission to save the multiverse from what she believes to be a looming threat. On what is otherwise an insignificant day for Evelyn, on the way to the IRS offices for an audit of the laundromat business she runs with her husband, Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan), she is visited by Waymond’s variant from the first universe to discover travel between timelines (also called the “Alpha” universe, and this version of Waymond the “Alpha Waymond”). Alpha Waymond informs her that a malevolent being from the Alpha universe is hunting for her, and that it is somehow in her hands to stop this being’s ploy of destroying the multiverse.
Kwan and Scheinert’s script spares little time setting up Evelyn’s misadventure through the multiverse. Within the first half hour of the film, we are introduced to the basic details of “verse jumping” , in which the characters channel the lives of their variants in neighboring timelines, with the goal of obtaining any special traits and abilities that might help their fight against this approaching evil. The rest we – and Evelyn alongside us – must figure out along the way. The result is a trippy and fast-paced spectacle into all of Evelyn’s parallel lives, much of which we can only surmise was written during a bout of drinking by its creative team.
One thing that sets Everything Everywhere apart from all the myriad of movies that have taken on the idea of the multiverse is that it makes use of the concept not only as a plot device, but as a way of experimenting with different styles and tonal shifts. Through the parallel timelines, we are served an abundance of homages and pop culture references, with each exploring a different dimension of the movie’s characters. In one timeline, Evelyn refused to migrate to the US with Waymond and instead stays home to become a trained martial artist and later a famous movie star. Referencing the golden age of Chinese and Hong Kong Wuxia films, we see Michelle Yeoh reenacting the roles (from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Reign of Assassins) that effectively set her (Yeoh) up for international stardom. Evelyn realizes how successful and fulfilling her life would have been had she chosen to leave Waymond behind, as opposed to one of abject loneliness at their laundromat and getting bullied by IRS agents. She tells Waymond:
“I saw my life… without you… I wish you could have seen it… it was beautiful.”
Later, in this same timeline, Evelyn and Waymond, having been broken up and never married since Waymond’s departure for the US, reunite at a premiere of Evelyn’s latest film. The action dials down and we are suddenly thrust into Wong Kar Wai’s universe. Suddenly everything is saturated. Evelyn and Waymond stand facing each other in a back street outside the theater and talk about what could have been. I love this particular sequence of the film (actually divided across multiple scenes throughout the latter half) because it explores Waymond’s character in greater depth and gives us an insight as to how the couple stands in contrast with each other.
Evelyn is a fighter, an aggressor at heart. Her way of dealing with things is to face it straight on, while Waymond prefers to work around them, or to talk things out. In one scene, after a chaotic disagreement with the IRS auditor, Evelyn tunes out, watches her husband try to talk their way out of a penalty, and remarks with annoyance that he’s probably “making things worse.”
Outside the theater, Waymond spells out for us and for Evelyn a fundamental fact that she has always refused to understand about him.
“You tell me that it’s a cruel world and we’re all just running around in circles. I know that. I’ve been on this earth just as many days as you. When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naive. It is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive everything. I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.”
And then of course, the pièce de résistance, the quote you’ve probably seen everywhere, from TikTok to Instagram, even if you’ve yet to see the film: Waymond’s expression of multiversal love and regret to Evelyn:
“So, even though you have broken my heart yet again, I wanted to say, in another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.”
It’s one of those movies that really put tears into my eyes just at the sheer beauty and honesty of it, even though I was watching it with people (in this case, my fiancée). Ultimately there’s so much to say about the film, from its highly choreographed fight sequences (I just know Jackie Chan wishes he was in on this) to its total and stubborn refusal to take itself too seriously, but what I’ll settle for is this: this is Loki with an actual, beating heart. And I’m not afraid to be attacked by the MCU fans out there. Everything Everywhere is what Marvel wishes Doctor Strange could be (that “I’ll love you in every universe” line? Doesn’t hold even a wick to Waymond’s “laundry and taxes” bit). It’s a brave expression of unapologetic and futile love in a world that’s enmeshed within a vast nothingness. The choices that Evelyn makes throughout her quest is an attestation to the distinctly human bravery of continuing to live despite her consciousness of the meaninglessness, the absolute inconsequentiality, of it all.
It’s a modern reimagining of the doomed Sisyphus. Even though we’re all destined to die in the end, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you.