Part-Time Review: Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

*Last Updated: 3/13/2023


It's been a long while since a film has come along as powerful, dense, and still accessible as Everything Everywhere All at Once. It's rare I encounter a story that consistently upends my expectations, spans multiple genres, and feels like a fresh take despite having clear roots in other major films. The film pulled off a rare feat at the 2023 Oscars in sweeping all seven awards it was nominated for and even took three of the most coveted: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay! To top it off, it's even got some of the best kung fu comedy moments since 2004's Kung Fu Hustle! If you've not seen Everything Everywhere All at Once then let me try and give you a one line comparison: It's like if the quirky screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was forced to write his own multiverse tale on the original Matrix but had the Architect show up in the second act, then that script was directed by the visionary director Michele Gondry...only stranger. Oh, that didn't help? That's part of the appeal of this film - it's such an eclectic experience that simplistic description is difficult. I'll try again: It's a humanistic triumph that uses several genres of film to engage the viewer and challenge them to think and feel about life while still providing a funny and enjoyable movie to watch. I'm not a humanist though, at least not in the atheistic sense of the term. I'm a Christian and despite my love for the great artistic execution on display, there's something that rung fundamentally false about the film to me. Did you feel it too? It put a kind of glass ceiling on my enjoyment and admiration. If you felt similar and wondered why (or you were just completely confused) then let me try and share why. I think there are four major reasons the message of the film is at conflict with the Christian worldview: 1) It does not provide a trustworthy tool for knowing truth about reality 2) It doesn't successfully defeat the nihilistic void it posits 3) It's view of "love" is self-defeating and narrow  4) Its intellectual curiosity stops far too short.

Before I jump into my main four points, let me say three quick things about them. First, it's impossible to give a full review without getting into spoilers. So if you don't want the plot, character arcs, and themes spoiled, stop reading and come back after you have seen it. Second, one of the strengths of this film is that it doesn't tip its hand too early in the film. I really like that we go on a journey with Michelle Yeoh's character, learning about the multiverse as she does, and thinking incorrectly about it along with her as well. What I mean is that the character doesn't go from completely wrong thinking to completely right thinking. The character has spurts of insight, but also thinks in ways after initial growth that the movie wouldn't fully endorse. I bring this up, because it makes black/white critiques of the film's themes a bit more difficult. It also puts a heavy weight on the closing sequences to carry the true message of the film - after Yeoh's character has been enlightened to the message of the film. Thus, most of my critiques will be center on the final sequences as they provide the clearest way to understand what the film is ultimately trying to say. Third, you can't understand my critiques clearly, without understanding the plot of the story. Since it's necessary, let's sketch that out for you a bit.

The opening sequences of Everything Everywhere All at Once are overwhelming by design. The viewer is thrown into the chaotic and busy life of Evelyn Wang (played by Michelle Yeoh in a career best performance). Evelyn was possibly a bit foolhardy when she married Waymond, played by Ke Huy Quan, young and moved away from her family. They settled down, bought a laundromat with an apartment over it, had a daughter (who is now a young adult in same sex relationship - this will become important later), and now takes care of her elderly father. Oh, she’s also being audited by the IRS for constantly writing off her hobbies as business expenses and her husband is seeking a divorce! All of this is swirling as Evelyn attends an important IRS meeting with her audit agent played by Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s here that the film throws its first major twist at you. During the elevator ride to the agent meeting, Evelyn’s husband clicks into a different personality (her husband from an alternate universe (alpha Waymond as we come to know him) and offers her a Matrix like choice – to continue to the audit meeting or to meet in the janitor’s closet; red pill or blue pill. Eventually Evelyn finds herself in the closet where alpha Waymond tells her the fate of the entire multiverse is on the line and only Evelyn’s goodness can overcome it. We later learn that the Evelyn in the alpha universe was the scientist who discovered that you could connect with other versions of yourself in the multiverse. We also learn that in the alpha universe Evelyn saw potential for verse jumping (short for universe jumping) in her daughter Joy and pushed her, pushed her too hard in fact. The pushing turned her daughter into someone who could experience all the possible universes (everything, everywhere, all at once) and turned to despair over the existential meaningless of it all. They name her Jobu Tupaki and she becomes the central "villain" of the movie as she seeks out her mother to experience and despair at the universe's meaningless as well. In other words, on a basic level it’s a fantasy story about parents who push their kids too hard to become their best possible selves in every way and kids who want their parents to just be present and love them as they are. Of course, there's much more going on than that though.

The first act of the film is about Evelyn learning how everything is connected. Evelyn learns in a kung fu fight with Deirdre (the IRS agent played by Jamie Lee Curtis) that she can "verse jump" into other versions of herself and acquire their unique skills. She does this several times throughout the film. In her first major jump she connects with a kung fu savvy version of herself and she witnesses a lifetime of what it would be like if she hadn't followed Waymond into the laundromat version of her life. This first act ends with Evelyn meeting and finding out that Jobu Tupaki is her daughter. It’s an interesting sequence where Jobu essentially can control/construct the universe however she wishes. In this case it’s changing her body, outfits, maneuvering other people in whatever ways she wants, and conjuring objects out of thin air. She then confronts her mother and opens up to her: “Cause you see when you really put everything on a bagel, it becomes this…The truth…nothing matters….Feels nice doesn’t it, if nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel from making nothing of your life goes away.” Everything is connected - everything is just a re-arrangement of particles and if that's true, she reasons, then nothing really matters. Act 1 - EVERYTHING.

The second act is about Evelyn making the decision to save her daughter by becoming like her - someone who is present EVERYWHERE - in all the possible variant worlds. This leads to a series of comical, philosophical, and athletic sequences where Evelyn has to fight off "verse jumpers" trying to stop her. The essential question here as Evelyn learns of all the different possible (better more intriguing) universes she could be in is this "Why not choose to live in one where you are happier or get what you want?" In other words, when you can be everywhere, why limit yourself to one filled with pain and suffering and limited happiness? Act 2 - EVERWHERE.

The third and final act features the final showdown between Evelyn, her daughter Joy (Jobu Tupaki), and the "verse jumpers" sent to stop her. There’s a pivotal moment where Evelyn connects with her husband Waymond who in a passionate speech declares, "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." Evelyn has a kind of enlightenment moment and realizes that the kindness and goodness she so often despised in Waymond is the one way she could actually fight her daughter and bring her back from a pit of existential despair.  As she fights off the jumpers on the stairway (her daughter is at the top) she does acts of kindness for them as she peeks into their lives: helping two of them to marry, spraying an old nostalgic perfume on a veteran, helping align someone’s neck, becoming a dominatrix for a man’s fetish, and encouraging a man’s dependency on a racoon to drive him. Ultimately, the winning message and move here is for Evelyn to love her daughter for who she is, to accept her, to be present with her through pain and suffering of life. Act 3 - ALL AT ONCE. On one hand, I love the message that we must accept the limits of the life we are given and choose to be with one another despite our circumstances not always being the best and ourselves not being the best versions of ourselves. Why wouldn't I, there's a lot of overlap between a Christian worldview and that humanistic message. However, this film is not happy with that basic reading, it's deeper and much worse than that. Here are four major points that I think ultimately undermine the film's humanistic message.

1. It Never Provides a Trustworthy Tool for Knowing the Truth About Reality
The major philosophical conflict of the film comes into clear view as it enters the final act: is there any real meaning to life in this universe? In light of a multiverse where you've made every decision, become everything, where every particle is rearrangeable, life becomes meaningless. Is Joy right? Has Joy stared into the existential abyss and discovered the genuine truth about our reality? Evelyn experiences this feeling alongside of her daughter and it's clear she doesn't want to believe it, but struggles to argue and fight it. It's from the unlikely source of her husband Waymond that the film provides what it thinks is the ammunition to defeat Joy's existential meaningless: "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." This is a revelation for Evelyn (she literally has a third eye...well a googly to depict it) who decides to fight the despair with kindness. We get a clever fight sequence on a stairway as Evelyn makes her way to Joy that I'll comment upon later, but it's important to note that the film follows this logical argument: in the confusion of our seemingly meaningless universe we should be kind to each other and that kindness takes the shape of understanding what other people love and helping them to affirm it. To that argument the film adds one last key ingredient. Evelyn tells Joy that in all her searching for meaning, she was still searching for her mother. Why? Evelyn believes that the family takes a key role in the kindness we must show to each other - this is what makes her major declaration "I am your mother!" so important along with the reveal that the entire family of the father and the grandfather were holding her back from the abyss as well. Love is family and family sticks and stays and is present with each other - even when they could be present somewhere else. There are parts of this message I like, but there's a huge fault line running underneath the entire thing. Did you catch it?

There is absolutely no reason to actually believe that being kind and sticking to it with your family,  particularly their view of kindness, is actually objectively true. Look at the tools they used to argue it. First, Waymond says he is confused, but there is one thing he knows - we should be kind to each other. The obvious follow-up here is, "How do you know that Waymond?" The truth is that he just "feels" like that's the way people should be. He "feels" like it is right. Really? That's it? Later, Evelyn layers on top of that the point about Joy searching for her mother as a clue that family is essential to meaning/purpose - again, it's a feeling used as proof. We have no good reason to believe Waymond and Evelyn's feelings have any bearing on ultimate reality. In fact, given the multiverse setup of the universe, there's countless Waymond's and Evelyn's out there who feel differently! Whose feelings are the right one? Did we get lucky to find the one Evelyn in the multiverse who has the truthful view of meaning? Whose feelings have any authority over the other? Movies are powerful because we can get caught up in their stories, their characters, and their emotions, but we need to be careful when we are arguing philosophically. The primary tool the film is offering as the response to Joy's existential despair are the feelings of Waymond and Evelyn. This alone is not a trustworthy tool as the film itself would acknowledge!

2. It Doesn't Successfully Defeat the Nihilistic Despair it Posits
Because the film fails to adequately offer a credible response to Joy's existential despair, I think we have to believe that Joy is actually right; in light of a multiverse like the one depicted in the movie, life does become meaningless (she is clearly arguing "objectively meaningless" here). When one can re-arrange particles to anything they desire, be present everywhere in all the possible worlds, what meaning can any decision or choice have? Everything is self-constructed - our purposes, our goals, our ends, our values, our looks, our loves, simply become whatever we want and desire at the moment. In a world lacking any kind of objective meaning, purpose, or value, then the only thing remaining is our subjective opinion. To my mind, this isn't necessarily a failing of the film though, but I think more a failure of the (atheistic) humanist philosophy to objectively ground meaning and morality of any kind. If there is no designer, no creator, no authority outside our own feelings, then how could there possibly be any kind of objective meaning to life? Joy is right - nothing really matters.

3. Its View of "Love" is Self-Defeating and Narrow
Because it's very easy to fundamentally agree with the movie that it's good to be kind to each other, it can be easy to miss that the movie slips in a very specific definition of kindness that it cannot support in any objective manner. The key sequence to understand this point is when Evelyn is walking up the stairs and faces off against all the "verse jumpers" standing between her and her daughter. Instead of kung fu Evelyn decides to fight using kindness and love". She peers into their soul, understands what they want and desire, and she helps to give it to them; helping two jumpers to see that they love each other and should be married, sprays an old nostalgic perfume on a someone for whom it reminds them of their old love, helps to align someone’s neck causing them to lose their interest in hurting, sees one mans sexual fetish and becomes a dominatrix for him, encourages one man’s dependency on a racoon to drive him, and ultimately approves of her daughter's same sex relationship and introduces them to her father. Notice how the movie has narrowly defined love and kindness here: accepting and affirming whatever someone wants or desires. There's two main problems with this view.

First, as I mentioned earlier, the film offers no good tool to actually believe this definition of kindness is objectively true or real. It's main argument is essentially a logical fallacy - doesn't it just seem right? doesn't it just make you feel good? However, there's no good reason to justify it. Does Evelyn get to decide what the boundaries of kindness and love are for everyone? What if someone else "feels" differently? Heck, we know for sure that there are countless other Evelyn's in other universes who feel differently! What if I want something that hurts others? Who is right? Again, the film loses the philosophical battle here between an atheistic humanism and an atheistic nihilism. 

Second, this view of kindness and love is actually a historical anomaly and to act like it is obvious to the viewer is to engage in a kind of chronological snobbery. There's not a single major historical culture I can think of that would fully agree that the different "acts of kindness" Evelyn performed going up the stairway was "kindness". It is foreign to all the major religions as well. A major element of kindness that is lacking in Everything Everywhere All at Once is the basic idea that love sometimes must not affirm the actions and values of others, sometimes it must say "no" - as any new parent learns quickly. People aren't always the best judges of what they need and what they should really desire. Perhaps a secular society could tolerate some desires as a necessary freedom, but should we really endorse and encourage whatever wish or desire passes through the human heart? The film's portrayal of "kindness" here is a historical anomaly. 

I can hear the critic respond, "But just like we advance in science, we have advanced in morality. Our understanding of kindness is superior just like our understanding of gravity is superior." Wrong. This is why it was important to point out that the film simply provided "feelings" as the basis of this superior definition of "kindness." Science has advanced because our tools have advanced in ways the ancients never had access to. What great scientific advancement in understanding "love" does the movie point to? None. Even if it were true that Evelyn's view of "love" is an advancement, we could never KNOW it because there's no way to measure it and justify it beyond her feelings! In fact, rather being on the cutting edge of moral advancement, the film's positing that "Love is affirming whatever we desire" is just a slight twist on one of the oldest views mentioned in the Christian scriptures: 
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:2-5)
The argument that people should be allowed to construct their own meanings and moral values is just another version of man's eternal rebellion against God. "Who is God to define good and evil?" the heart of the rebel says. "Why can't I define it?" The twist our generation has put on this view is to argue that genuine love is to affirm whatever the person has desired. A critic might respond that they don't have a Christian view of this and that I shouldn't bring it into the critique. Here's the self-defeating problem the definition of "kindness" the movie finds itself in and why I offer Christianity as an important contrast.

If "kindness" or "love" has a right and wrong definition, which the film definitely seems to be saying, then we have to be able to determine which definition is right and which is wrong. In other words, how do we know if the definition offered by the film is the right one and my Christian one is wrong? Well, if the movie is right and the universe is essentially without a creator/designer and all possible worlds do exist, then how can there be any kind of objective answer to the definition of kindness? There can't. Everyone can define kindness according to their own feelings. Thus, if there is no creator/designer and all possible worlds exist, then the film's definition of kindness is clearly bogus - just another subjective feeling among every possible one in existence. Thus, it's a self-defeating view of kindness and love. 

In order for there to be an actual objective definition of kindness and love, their must be some kind of objective grounding for it. This is one of the reasons why the Christian view of morality has had such a powerful influence on our world the last two thousand years - it offers an intellectually satisfying way to objectively ground meaning and morality. We should love one another NOT because we "feel" that it's right, but because we were designed to, commanded to, and loved first! If everyone was able to define "love" however they wanted, then there would be endless definitions and twisting's of it. Thus, we should expect that when God shares his definition of love and kindness with us that it will be accepted by some but largely rejected by many. Why? Because if HE defines it, then he won't affirm and encourage versions of it that are not in harmony - that wouldn't be loving!

Let me wrap up this point with two images that I think illustrate this well. After Evelyn walked up the stairs doing her acts of "kindness" to the foes in front of her they all end up as puddles of humanity laying on the floor in a kind of trance of bliss. This is a great image of our Western world today, so indulgent of every passing pleasure and desire that we end up piles of "feeling" humans- seeking out whatever next hit of pleasure we can find (think Huxley's A Brave New World here). As G.K. Chesterton has said, "Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure." Instead of walking through a crowd and affirming every pleasure of the heart, no matter how devious it might be, think of the image of Jesus as he walked through the crowds. There are those whom he fed, those whom he protected from angry mobs, the blind to whom he gave sight, hearing to those who were deaf, knowledge to those ignorant. However, there are also the greedy whose money tables he turned over, leaders he called out for their ignorance, the self-righteous religious figures condemned for their pompous prayers and selfish plans, and rebellious humans for their sin. Instead of leaving a pile of humans laid out in some kind of pleasure overload in his wake, Christ left a trail of his own blood and a handful of transformed humans who would carry the torch of his self-sacrificing love to us today. The majority rejected him and crucified him for his version of kindness and love. Evelyn's "kindness" will certainly be lauded in our elite institutions of today, for why not, her love doesn't threaten, it only affirms whatever desires come and go. Christ, the definition and greatest demonstrator of kindness would certainly continue to be flogged and kicked out of society today not for its compassion, but for its truth. Either we live in a world where the daughter Joy is right, all is meaningless, including the movie's definition of kindness. Or we live in a world where there really is an objective kindness. I challenge you to look at the story of Christ and see it defined clearly for you.

4. Its Intellectual Curiosity Stops Far Too Short
I'll make this last comment a short one. I love the curiosity and imagination of the film. It shows far more reflection and insight than most of the "thoughtful" movies that fill our screens. I just think that its intellectual curiosity consistently stops short in frustrating and obvious ways. Let me give three quick examples. First, think back to my disappointment that the film essentially offers Waymond's "there's one thing I know" speech as the turning moment for Evelyn. Of course, the intellectually curious would immediately respond, "How does Waymond know that?" It's just merely asserted and it gets the astute viewer nowhere. In a film that is so questioning of reality and so imaginative of the possible repercussions of a multiverse - it essentially offer's Waymond's speech as its entire epistemology. For anyone who has a passing knowledge of the subject, it's just not satisfactory to stop there. The film adds on top of Waymond's speech Evelyn's point that Joy wasn't just searching for meaning, but was always seeking her mother to be a part of it as well. In other words, the film argues that our need for family is an essential essence of what it means to be human. Cool thought. Again though, if you just take that thought one step further it all kinda falls apart. Where did that feeling, that yearning for family come from? If we just ask this question of the world they present in the movie, you'd have to probably assume it was part of our biological evolution. Then it just becomes an accident of evolution. Your human longing for your mother is just biologically programmed by chance and not some insight into true meaning of life. Additionally, if there are multiple universes, then isn't it possible that other universes developed biologically different - like the hot dog finger universe? Isn't it possible the Joy there didn't have a desire for her mother? If you answer, sure, it could be different in every universe, the point is that they embrace their universe. My response is simply, okay, but that admits Joy's problem and destroys the humanism of the film - it's all meaningless, there is no objective meaning.

Second, the film goes out of its way to try and provide philosophical support for the same-sex relationship the daughter Joy is in. In the film's definition of kindness, it is important to accept and approve of this relationship. To be clear, I'm not here to debate the morality of same-sex relationships, but in how the film isn't intellectually curious enough to realize it has undermined its own goals. If it's true that there is an essential part of humanity that longs for family (whether it comes from evolutionary biology or wherever) and in particular her mother, then this is an interesting endorsement of the biological family unit - father and mother. If there is something fundamental about biological family, something inherent in humanity that came from our biological development that we must learn to accept and embrace, then where does that leave same-sex relationships - which evolution, by design, says can't reproduce children? The film can't have it both ways - picking and choosing what biological structures we must accept and what ones we can construct to our own ends. Again, it's obvious if you think it out one step further but the film never seems to make the connection.

Third and finally, for a film that is so curious about purpose and meaning and the makeup of reality, it seems to have zero interest in religion. This isn't some "equal time" cry from a Christian whose sad they didn't make Christ the answer - this is an argument that a film as curious as this one ignores the one place that the majority of people throughout all of human history and even today go to for meaning - religion. Everything Everywhere All at Once is a thoughtful movie, but it assumes an atheistic world (or at least a brutally deist one) without any exploration of the topic. Shouldn't an obvious repercussion of all possible worlds be that there's a world where Evelyn and Joy explore, join, & lead religious lives as well? Why wouldn't the beliefs, experiences, and "feelings" of the majority of humans throughout history not make up a large portion of the possible lives/worlds of a multiverse? I really enjoyed the film as a film and think it's extremely well produced and acted. It will likely do very well at my film awards. I just think its passionate argument for an (atheistic) humanism fails to see just how self-defeating, subjective, chronologically-elitist, and uncurious it actually is.



  1. Very solid write up. I guess perhaps that one could argue that we feel satisfied with the morality Joy finds in the end not because it is objective but because it is the morality our society generally values today.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. "not because it is objective but because it is the morality our society generally values today" - But that's the issue, "what morality our society generally values" is not a great bar and it's one that changes everyday. Would we be happy with her finding the values of 20 years ago? 40? 100? 500? Then why use time as the standard if its clearly subjective and unsatisfying?


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