Movies on the multiverse have some serious advantages over their single-world brethren when it comes to entertainment value. Once a creator admits into his work the idea that our universe is only one among many, literally limitless possibility opens up to him. What wild adventures could be inaccessible to the writer who will access the multiverse? What story could not be told?
But even multiversal limitlessness can be reigned in, depending on the laws that abide in and across universes. In the case of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s multiverse in Everything Everywhere All At Once, it is first suggested that the multiverse arises only from variations in lifepaths due to freewill decisions leading characters one way or another, altering future options and future choices. As the movie progresses, however, the way that the antagonist, Jobu Tupaki, wreaks havoc across verses is through accessing worlds that have been changed not only by free will, but also through the very threads of reality.
Proposed by some of the first scientists to engage quantum theory, it is theoretically possible that the superpositions of quantum entities actually give rise to alternate realities. Standard understandings of quantum theory tend to state that alternate realities are real only in the sense that reality is underdetermined until a future event resolves the uncertainty between the two superpositioned states, somehow grounded by conscious agents. Yet there are those who believe that each new quantum possibility abides in the reality of an adjacent universe.
For all you keeping score at home, stop. Billions upon billions of quantum entities engage in one quantum interaction after another many times per second. The sheer magnitude of what we are considering gives rise to numbers that far exceed comprehension in no time at all. No single person would be able to appreciate it, to even bear it. This world of infinite possibility is how Kwan and Scheinert access the absurdist images in their very entertaining movie.
As it turns out, this is also the crux of Everything Everywhere All At Once’s plot and theme. Jobu Tupaki is seeking an Evelyn (her mother in universes where Jobu is Joy, Evelyn’s troubled daughter) who will be able to withstand encountering the dizzying array of quantum possibilities that otherwise only Jobu is able to access. Other characters, who have been trained and have the technological support, can jump from one universe to another, universes separated by relatively large differences actualized by free will choices in the past. Jobu, however, begins the movie as the single conscious agent able to jump to and from any conceivable universe, those separated by one recent quantum fluctuation and those that diverged at a fundamental evolutionary step eons in the past.
Jobu is seeking an Evelyn whose mind can withstand this kind of jump, something no other character can do. The end of this search would be to find a mother with whom to make the ultimate jump.
Jobu Tupaki, by accessing the fullness of the multiverse, has created an everything bagel (preposterous, I know). This giant, black, pulsating ring is a representation of limitless possibility, limitless choice; it is a storyteller’s tool to help us visualize what game Jobu is playing. She put everything on a bagel, “all [her] hopes and dreams, [her] old report cards, every breed of dog, every last personal ad on Craigslist. Sesame. Poppy seed. Salt.” Everything. And then everything collapsed in on itself to create this black hole of sorts. And if this visualization of limitlessness strikes the viewer as demonic, Jobu’s bagel seems to be just that.
Jobu wants to dive headfirst into that infinity of possibility, experiencing everything everywhere all at once, committing suicide by tearing her mind into shreds. She explicitly states that she wants her mother to join her. She may wish that someone who can see what she sees might convince her there is a better way forward, but that is just a sliver of hope. Giving into hopelessness, Jobu invites Evelyn to obliterate themselves together in perhaps the only way an omniversal being could perish.
You see, a very angsty, dispirited, disillusioned Joy feels that she is nothing but disappointment to her family, something she carries with her throughout the multiverse. Evelyn’s Joy dropped out of college and got a tattoo and does not come around often, all of which are clearly not what her mother had planned for her. Joy also has a girlfriend, a point that Evelyn does not explicitly condemn nor condone but is also a point from which Evelyn works hard to shield her father. Having grown up under the strict eye of her father in China, having disappointed him with her elopement and move to the United States, Evelyn falls back to her default position of avoidance.
In the alphaverse (the first universe that is able to make contact with other universes), Joy’s mind was pushed beyond what it could withstand. This Joy, seeing quantum splits and superpositions without limit, turned herself into Jobu Tupaki. Alpha-Waymond, Evelyn’s husband from the alphaverse, describes Jobu as “an omniversal being with unimaginable power, an agent of pure chaos with no real motives or desires.” But Alpha-Waymond is not aware of the hope that prompts Jobu’s search for an Evelyn who can match or master her. The only reason the plot is nothing but utter destruction is that Jobu works diligently for human connection before she ends her many lives (and perhaps all the universes at the same time) by succumbing to the bagel.
Regarding the original point made so many paragraphs ago, though, the infinite universes of Everything Everywhere All at Once actually do have limits within Kwan and Scheinert’s multiverse. Each verse is dependent upon quantum variations from reality to reality, and each variation depends on the same structural laws from verse to verse. We see this consistency in:
Scientific Law: We see no reason to suppose the law of gravity does not hold across universes. Evolution is also an explicitly assumed constant. The life of everyone still seems to depend on genetic continuity and normal physics.
Time: For all intents and purposes, it seems as though time continues on in a straight line. Characters who access a different verse lose that time in every other verse they did not access. All Evelyns are the same age. All Jobu Tupakis are the same age in relation to Evelyn (in any universe that Evelyn birthed Joy and neither has died yet).
Relationship: There is no universe that Joy/Jobu Tupaki is not Evelyn’s daughter. And in every universe we see these two characters together (though extended time is spent in two universes in which Evelyn is not married/does not have a child), they are recognizably themselves and related as mother and daughter.
These rules are bent in a number of universes throughout the movie, as in verses where Evelyn and Jobu are cartoons, piñatas, or rocks. Still, mother and daughter recognize each other and interact as if intimately connected while embodying non-human forms. This continuity, in spite of a complete deficiency of possible genetic connection, suggests another rule, if only implicitly:
Soul: It is difficult to understand the relationship the two main characters share in a number of these universes unless their souls are real and entwined whenever a lack of genetic material would suggest no other connection.
These transversal laws, should we agree that they are what unify the verses, are highly suggestive of some interesting conclusions. For one, by creating universes that together abide by given laws, Kwan and Scheinert have set up theoretical boundaries beyond which possibility cannot extend. Though the rules are softened for the purpose of storytelling, the infinity of possibility within Everything Everywhere All At Once is smaller than an absolute infinity of possibility. There are lines holding the universes together. There are lines defining boundaries beyond which the verses cannot extend.
What pulls Jobu Tupaki back from the brink of extinguishing her own existence is the personal love of her mother. Evelyn scolds Jobu for calling her “Evelyn.” She exclaims, “I am your mother,” a reality true in every one of Joy’s universes. Jobu lives in a small infinity of universes, always as Evelyn and Waymond’s daughter, never as the daughter of someone else she may prefer instead. And we never see Evelyn kill her daughter, even her daughter in another universe who is not technically her daughter, always allowing love to propel her actions toward reconciliation. Though we can imagine countless universes in which Evelyn kills Joy (before or after she becomes Jobu Tupaki), we are given no reason to assume it happens. Evelyn limits her possibilities with a mother’s love.
Evelyn, within her own small infinity, always living as her father’s daughter, is content by the end of the movie to limit herself even further, all the way down to one single reality: her father’s daughter, Waymond’s wife (in spite of their life’s difficulties), Joy’s mother (in spite of her disappointments and recognition that it does not make sense to keep fighting for their relationship). Evelyn’s is a conservative impulse, to accept what is instead of seeking what else might be. She severely and purposefully limits her experience to a single, straight-line existence. We are made to understand by the time the credits roll that Joy does the same.
Further, Evelyn consistently, to the very end, tries to enforce behavioral prescriptions for Joy, often coming from a conservative background, always denoting a real belief in virtue, however arbitrary the manifestation of that virtue may seem to Joy and the audience. Evelyn tells Joy she needs to lose weight (like a meddling mother might). She tells her that she shouldn’t have gotten a tattoo because Joy knew how much Evelyn would hate it. She tells Joy that she has to respect and honor family, to value community. She tells Joy’s girlfriend to grow out her hair. Evelyn does not release her demand for correct behavior, even when she knows it is her own limited, arbitrary conception of “right.” Evelyn (and certainly the movie) prescribes limits, rules, right and wrong. Explicitly stated, the fact that it would be wrong for Evelyen and Waymond to divorce after years of marriage figures prominently in the plot.
But for anyone who thinks we can file this movie away as a nice conservative morality tale on the peril of limitless choice and wanton, reckless, unrooted living, there is a disappointing surprise in store. The overall structure of Evelyn and Joy’s personal decision-making may have this conservative foundation; however, the means by which they achieve their contentment within embodied limits is hardly conservative in any traditional sense.
In the climax of the movie’s action (foiled scene-by-scene against the emotional climax in another universe), Evelyn takes the advice of her dear, sweet Waymond. Waymond’s monologue that leads into the climax (really two monologues from two different Waymonds) reads:
“You think I’m weak, don’t you? All of those years ago when we first fell in love… your father would say I was too sweet for my own good. Maybe he was right.”
“Please. Can we just stop fighting?”
“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.”
“I know you’re all fighting because you’re scared and confused. I’m confused too. All day, I don’t know what the heck is going on.”
“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 through everything.”
“I don’t know. 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.”
“I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.”
Waymond has such a well-intentioned motivation here, and as the movie’s most likable character, we take him at his word that this is how things should be. At the conclusion of his thoughts, Evelyn adopts her husband’s advice and begins to engage her combative adversaries very differently. She “kills them with kindness”; not hurting them at all, but overwhelming them with the kindest thing she can think to do for them, all while they seek her destruction.
This kindness, however, (along with the absurdist antics of Jobu Tupaki’s style, including sex-toy-weaponry and irreverently striking poses of Christian iconography) will register with the conservative audience as perhaps offensive and definitely unaligned with human flourishing. The best way to describe the paradigm that characterizes Evelyn’s “kindness” is by giving examples:
Evelyn marries two verse-jumpers randomly, who lose themselves in embrace
…gives a dose of scent-fueled, romantic nostalgia to a widower
…relieves spinal pain with a chiropractic jolt
…publicly provides sexual satisfaction to a masochist
to which, Waymond reacts with a surprised and hopeful smile
and even Jobu Tupaki betrays amusement with a smile of her own
Evelyn’s action-packed montage ends with the aftermath of her flurry of “kindness”: about a dozen combatants sprawled across the battle scene in various stages of infantile delight, romantic fulfillment, physical pleasure, and orgasmic satisfaction. All this from a woman not even from their home universes, with little or no personal connection besides.
Weighing our options, this seems to be a thoroughly liberal conception of kindness. In the moment, Evelyn quiets what we assume would be her own misgivings or objections to these desires in her foes (or at least her responsibility to fulfill them herself), and she provides each person with what will satisfy their animalistic drives, without judgment or concern for any value but the most rudimentary kindness.
Though Kwan and Scheinert have created a structure for the telling of this story that explicitly calls our attention to the dangers of limitless personal experience, that moral is ultimately undercut by a fundamentally liberal impulse toward anti-judgment and personal choice. These messages war against themselves. Anyone thinking deeply about the movie will likely have to choose which is meant to be conveyed.
In a sense, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a Rorshach test, shifting and expressing different aspects of itself according to the viewers’ prejudices. Conservatives can rightly applaud the call for personal limits and the practicalities of embodied, communal life. Liberals will likely find reassurance in the acceptance of persons regardless of lifestyle, something akin to “love is love.”
Both of these messages are presented in a positive light, with love and wisdom empowering the characters to more fully integrate their lives into a real and whole community. Practically every viewer will feel a sense of positive catharsis at the end of this movie, helped in large part due to how entertaining it is.
But as the credits begin to scroll across the screen, let’s reflect on one of the movie’s most poignant quotes, tucked away in a ludicrous universe where a raccoon controls a hibachi chef (à la Pixar’s Ratatouille). In conversation with Evelyn in that universe, after the loss of his raccoon puppet master, the chef laments, “I’m useless alone.” Evelyn retorts, “We’re all useless alone. It’s a good thing you’re not alone.”
As ridiculous as a movie that is purposefully absurdist must be, every audience member, aside from the most hardened disciple of Ayn Rand, will nod her head in agreement with Evelyn’s encouragement. We are all useless alone. And it is very good that we are not alone.
What we must reflect on, however, is how best to avoid being alone. The liberal audience would ask each individual to quiet his personal opinions on moral behavior in deference to the group. They would find incredibly diverse community by accepting each individual’s true self, living the given life. The conservative audience, in turn, would ask each individual to sacrifice the self to the established morality of the group. They would find rich community through deference to the group’s homogenous norms, living the given life.
Everything Everywhere All At Once introduces these options clearly and in the most entertaining way. However, the story is told in a multiverse where everything can and does happen through the magnitude of quantum statistical probabilities. If one thing happens in one universe, the exact opposite occurs in another, and everything else imaginable happens in countless more.
The relativity that attends such a conception of a multiverse will always ultimately undercut any moral that is positively proposed. In the end, even though the characters in the one story we witness find one useful truth and a definite path forward, the audience is justified in echoing the words of Jobu Tupaki in exasperated resignation to the reality of Kwan and Scheinert’s infinite universes:
“Nothing matters… Everything gets washed away in a sea of every other possibility.”
And still the question remains, from a disappointed mother to her beloved daughter:
“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… 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 s***. Something that explains why you still went looking for me through all of this noise and why no matter what I still want to be here with you. I will always, always want to be here with you.”
In response to her own question, Evelyn declares that something essential abides.
Paul Frank Spencer is the owner of By Grace For Glory Publishing and author of Marvelous Light. He earned a BA and BSBA from the University of Pittsburgh and still lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Keep up with Spencer's reviews and creative writing at www.bgfg77.com.