episode 1

everything, everywhere, all at once

BACK IN EARLY JANUARY of 2023, near the end of a particularly fond creative writing class, I was asked to submit a portfolio containing 10 of my best works. By then, I had already assembled a collection of nine pieces, but I was missing a sort of spark—some kind of beating heart to tie together all the loose ends. So, I wrote a finale. It was called, ambiguously enough, In the End. This encapsulation of thought took the form of a web of connections—a vast, meandering stream of consciousness where every idea melted into every other. In retrospect, that essay—if you could even call it that—was quite clumsy and imprecise, more an exercise in sounding poetic than saying anything of substance. Yet, at the end of it all—at the end of the many shallow words I had to say about biology and Nietszche and Buddhism—there remains one thing that still sticks out to me. That thing is nihilism. The ability to respond to the question of meaning with the simple answer of “no.” And that question of meaning is something I find myself wondering about increasingly often. How do we cope with modernity? How do we keep up with the unending march of the greater world?

     How do we deal with everything, everywhere, all at once?

I got bored one day, then I put everything in a bagel… everything. All my hopes and dreams, my old report cards, every breed of dog, every personal ad on Craigslist… sesame… poppy seed… salt, and it collapsed in on itself. ‘Cause you see, when you really put everything on a bagel, it becomes this… the truth. (Jobu Tupaki)

     What is the truth? (Evelyn)

     Nothing matters. (Jobu Tupaki)

I have a bit of a strange relationship with Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. I first heard about the film sometime in late 2022 when I accidentally stumbled across it on Wikipedia. I was searching to see if anything had already been made with the title Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, since I had just come up with the name and thought it would’ve made for a cool, say, musical album or video essay.
The real thing is way cooler than that.

     Directed by the two Daniels—filmmaker duo Kwan and Schienert—and published by A24, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is a transcendental film that, as far as I’m aware, is a modern cultural touchstone. Wikipedia describes it as an independent action-adventure comedy film with elements of science fiction, fantasy, martial arts, animation, and surrealism. Such details are a sign of things to come.

     Everything, Everywhere, All at Once follows the adventures of Chinese-American immigrant and laundromat owner Evelyn Wang. Her life is, to put it bluntly, kind of a mess. Her husband, Waymond, is constantly trying to get her attention to address their situation; her daughter, Joy, is suffering from depression and alienation; and Evelyn herself is too caught up in worldly matters to notice.

     That is, of course, until a mundane IRS audit meeting quickly spirals down an absurdist interdimensional wormhole. During a brief interlude in the elevator, Waymond’s body is commandeered by “Alpha Waymond,” a version of Waymond from the “Alphaverse,” a universe that has discovered the art of verse-jumping.

     Needless to say, this is a multiverse movie.

    “Alpha Waymond” explains that, in this other universe, the alternate version of Eveyln, dubbed “Alpha Evelyn,” was the one who first discovered verse-jumping—a method for momentarily controlling an alternate consciousness from a different dimension. However, with this newfound power, she pushed her daughter, “Alpha Joy,” to verse-jump too much, splintering her mind and leaving her to live across every universe at once. This broken version of Joy, known as Jobu Tupaki, has since come to have a nihilistic view of reality. According to “Alpha Waymond,” she is conspiring to create something that could destroy the multiverse as they know it.

     And it is Evelyn’s job—this Evelyn’s job—to save it.

     But why this Evelyn, of all people?

     Well, because, as Waymond states:

     But you, here, you’re capable of anything because you’re so bad at everything. (Alpha Waymond)

     That’s one heck of an ego boost.

In Why Do Movies Feel So Different Now?, video essayist Thomas Flight, introducing his section on metamodernism, says about Everything, Everywhere, All at Once:

     By the time we get to 2022 with a movie like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, many of the elements of postmodernism still remain. The movie is a never-ending pastiche of pop culture and film references much in the same way the postmodern Pulp Fiction was. Everything Everywhere constantly plays on genre tropes and has a silliness that rivals a film like Monty Python and the Holy Grail all while heavily leaning into a nihilist postmodern deconstruction of modernist philosophy like we see in something like No Country for Old Men. (Thomas Flight)

     In the essay, Flight identifies and analyses the recent art phenomenon of metamodernism, of which Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is a part of. That feeling of how “they don’t make them like they used to,” and the philosophy behind the effect. The constant oscillation between meaningless nihilism and hopeful optimism that characterises the opposing forces of modernist and postmodernist philosophy.

     Of course, the postmodern aspect of this distinctly metamodernist work can be found everywhere in the aesthetics of the film. Like what Thomas Flight remarks, Everything, Everywhere transcends genre. It transcends philosophy, language, setting, subtitles. It transcends aspect ratio too, not unlike the works of the aptly Wes Anderson-esque filmmaker Wes Anderson, whose 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel popularised the idea of multiple aspect ratio and whose 2021 drama The French Dispatch and 2023 Cold War piece Asteroid City have used it to great effect. Everything, Everywhere jumps and slides from aspect ratio to aspect ratio in the same way it jumps from universe to universe, drawing attention to the nature of the work as film. It hops from cinema to full HD and back. It frames documents on black bars. It plays with VHS and other screens.

     That’s not to say that Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is somehow stylistically similar to the works of Wes Anderson. Far from it. Everything, Everywhere transcends style in the same way it transcends universes, with a multiversal flair rivalled only by the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse and its sequel, Across the Spider-verse. Like genre, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once discards the idea of a singular style. As Thomas Flight says:

     Unlike No Country for Old Men, which deconstructs the Western genre, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once doesn’t deconstruct a genre, it transcends genre. It understands that in the hypermodern world, genre isn’t a box you either have to fit into or deconstruct. Now, it is just another tool in the storyteller’s toolbox. (Thomas Flight)

     So too does it see style, variable in every detail from the colour grade to the medium itself.

     I find that the similarity in these recent films can be pinned down on the prevailing philosophy of the time. Like the never-ending pastiche that Thomas Flight describes, postmodernism and its successor/derivative movement, metamodernism, have made liberal use of metatextuality and intertextuality. They’re metatextual films; films that comment in on themselves, in the sense that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film about storytelling, The French Dispatch art and journalism, Asteroid City playwriting, and Spider-Man, well, Spider-Man.

     They’re intertextual films as well, transcending their own frontiers to draw on the literature and pop culture that has defined their origins. The French Dispatch? The New Yorker. Spider-Man? Spider-Man. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is the never-ending pastiche that Flight calls it out to be, referencing everything from Ratatouille to kung fu to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course, we can see that this is largely a product of the ideology of our time, of our particular time. Even now, as I try to explore Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, I can’t help but draw on intertextual references to other films and works like Thomas Flight’s essay. And in Thomas Flight’s essay, I can’t help but notice how he draws on other films to make his point too, how Everything, Everywhere, All at Once references like the postmodern Pulp Fiction and has a silliness that rivals a film like Monty Python and the Holy Grail while possessing a deconstructionist philosophy like we see in something like No Country for Old Men.

There’s one more thing I’ll mention about the aesthetics, and they are the title cards. The title cards in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once are an absolute joy. The first moment you see the words “part one,” followed by “everything,” you can only be too excited for the next one to appear.

     “Part two, everywhere.”

     And then, finally, finally at the end of it all.

     Part three. All at once.

For me, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is one of the first true post-internet films. It’s not just about the internet, it doesn’t just comment on the internet, but fully embraces it in all of its absurdist, chaotic glory. The maximalist excess and complete tonal whiplash from one moment to the next captures the unhinged, unfiltered anarchy of using the internet in a way that nothing else I’ve ever consumed has.

This is a movie for people who have found themselves blinking sleep out of their eyes with 50 tabs open at 2AM, which I suspect is many more of us than we’d openly care to admit. (Thomas Flight)

     That’s Thomas Flight again, this time in Why Everything, Everywhere, All at Once Hits So Hard, offering an answer to that very question. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is a movie for the internet age. It is an ode to the internet generation, to the generation that grew up on web forums, iPads, social media, and now scrolling short form video feeds. Flight describes the multiverse of Everything, Everywhere as a keenly resonant metaphor for the internet, where everything, good and bad, occurs simultaneously with everything else. The internet shows us that we can do anything, be anything, achieve anything. It paves us a highway to indulge in our deepest desires, to wallow in all the life paths that one could follow. Simultaneously, the internet offers us everything. It shows us what is happening everywhere at the fastest speed in the universe. On the internet, everything, everywhere, from all of time, exists simultaneously on the same screen. Everything beckons for your attention. Everything is important. Everything has meaning. Everything is meaningless. Everything is meaningful.

     And it is this constant superposition between meaning and meaninglessness that can short circuit the focused mind. On the internet, you can see the collapse, perversion, and ironic detachment of society in realtime. Protests get live streamed alongside personalised advertisements. Articles regarding the mistreatment of workers under late-stage capitalism are shown alongside cute cat videos. Every other day breaks a new record, whether in global temperatures or box office sales. Rights get repealed as a part of the daily news cycle, as if the regression of society were a typical everyday occurrence.

     The collapse of society is on mainstream.

     And it's not just the internet. Like Everything, Everywhere’s antagonist, Jobu Tupaki, science has certainly not helped. First the Earth was the centre of the universe. Then, it was the sun. Then, we became just a speck on a dot, living in a vast, constantly expanding universe which will end in an unrelenting heat death. Of course, in Tupaki’s world, the multiverse is the disconcerting reality—making every universe a tiny bubble on the endless tide of everything. As Tupaki rants in a heart-to-heart scene with Evelyn within a lifeless universe:

     We’re all stupid! Small, stupid humans. It’s like our whole deal. For most of our history, we knew the Earth was the centre of the universe. We killed and tortured people for saying otherwise. That is, until we discovered that the Earth is actually revolving around the Sun, which is just one sun out of trillions of suns. And now look at us, trying to deal with the fact that all of that exists inside of one universe out of who knows how many.

     In our world, it has so far remained a theory.

     I suppose that we live in the universe where we get to watch multiverse films.

It is this disillusionment with grand narratives, driven by the sudden onslaught of information brought about by the internet and science, that I have begun to notice with increasing prevalence in recent years. We are disillusioned by late-stage capitalism and the climate crisis, and we are gradually losing faith in the institutions that could potentially solve them. Democracy, capitalism, meritocracy, conservatism, liberalism. In their place remains a hole that the truly disillusioned have filled with a sense of collective nihilism. A belief that nothing matters.

     There are also those who, looking up from the mundaneness of their own everyday life and, seeing the increasing pace of the modern world, have turned inward with a sort of fear of change. Instead of becoming disillusioned with the systems that they have staked their lives behind, they resort to a sort of extreme, what would be called hypermodernism, which takes the prevailing concept of a grand narrative to its greatest possible extent. These are the people we refer to when we mean conservative or right-wing. They are those who have become entrenched in the past or in misunderstanding, who see the endless whirlwind of the internet and modern culture as a threat to their traditional values. They may seek shelter or lash out, holding on to a semblance of meaning in their own ideas.

     It is this combination of postmodern, metamodern, nihilistic, and hyper-modern society that Everything, Everywhere, All at Once explores. In the end, while Jobu Tupaki believes that the truth is that nothing matters, an embodiment of nihilism, it is Evelyn who develops from a modern, almost hyper-modern individual into a metamodernist, and saves her. That is, the person who is aware of the infinite void but chooses to feel anyways.

     You are getting fat, and you never call me, even though we have family plan, and it’s free! You only visit when you need something. You got a tattoo, and I don’t care if it’s supposed to represent our family, you know I hate tattoos. And of all the places I could be, why would I want to be here with you? Yes, you’re right, that doesn’t make sense! (Evelyn)

     Evelyn, [stop talking]! (Waymond)

     Let her finish! (Joy)

     Maybe it’s like you said. Maybe there is something out there. Some new discovery that will make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit. Something that explains why you still went looking for me…and why, no matter what, I still want to be here with you.

     I will always, always, want to be here with you. (Evelyn)

I think that the recent rise of multiverse fiction is, in a way, a reaction to our collective nihilistic tendencies. The multiverse is a metaphor for the current human condition, offering a tangible phenomenon for commentary and critique. The multiverse reflects nihilism, as Everything, Everywhere shows in its presentation of meaninglessness in the face of every possible experience. This nihilism also creates an environment that questions the inherent issue of value. If there are infinite versions of me, then what is the point of this me? What good is value in the face of infinity?

     But in this infinity, the multiverse offers us a structure that we are, by its very logic, a part of. It offers us solace in hope. Perhaps, we think, in some other universe there is a version of me that has lived a happier, healthier life. Perhaps there is a version of me that has pursued a job that I would have loved. Perhaps there is an alternative version of me who decided to go outside instead of spending several days hammering out an analysis of a plot element in metamodern cinema.

     Of course, the larger comfort that the multiverse provides is the solace that we are a part of something bigger. That perhaps your mundane little life is part of something larger. The multiverse suggests that, yes, even that IRS tax audit is a part of something bigger; that everything you’ve ever done, everything you will ever do—they’re all relevant in their own special ways. This is the hope that films like the Spider-verse franchise tap into. Out there, beyond this universe, there are more people just like you. In fact, you’re a part of the same multiverse as Spider-Man!

     It is fiction, obviously, but it is only through fiction that we can begin to comprehend the big questions. And the interesting thing with the multiverse is that, with our current understanding of physics, we can neither prove nor disprove it. It remains a prospect for hope, not by shrinking us into oblivion in the face of its bleak vastness, but by embracing the possibility that it entails. In the face of disillusionment, having discarded the great narratives of the traditionalist and modernist worldviews, we are greeted with a blank slate. We can either leave it blank, or we can begin to develop our own.

In my closing remarks of In the End, I came, after a long and arduous journey, to a similar conclusion. We must find meaning in an increasingly chaotic world. We must find meaning ourselves, because no one else will do it for us. I ended the essay with a quote by American poet Robert Frost, who wrote:

     “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”

     And I added:

     So it is with poems, in the end, so it is with us.

And that’s not to say that nothing on the internet or that you find on the internet matters. But the point is that it can’t all matter equally to you. If you try to act like it all matters equally to you, you’ll end up feeling like none of it matters. (Thomas Flight)

I want you to imagine a bagel. Imagine that on that bagel is everything. All your hopes and dreams, all your old report cards, every breed of dog, every last personal ad on Craigslist. Every book you will ever read, every song you will ever hear, every movie you will ever watch. It contains everything the world has ever seen and everything the world will ever see. All our capitalist institutions and climate failures and societal failings. Sesame. Poppyseed. Salt.
In the end, you get the truth. And you might think the truth is that nothing matters.

     But that’s not the real truth. The truth is, you’ve been looking in the wrong place. Because the truth is that, with meaning? It doesn’t have to make sense, and it doesn’t come from outside. The meaning comes from inside. It comes from you.

     The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind. Please, be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on. (Waymond)

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