Given our culture’s current obsession with multiverses, it’s unsurprising that yet another film should come around, exploring alternate dimensions and timelines. While the recent wave of universe-hopping action has so far mostly been relegated to comic book fare like the fantastic Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the wildly popular adult animated sci-fi comedy series Rick and Morty, it was only a matter of time until this very exploitable concept would find its way into other media as well. Enter Everything Everywhere All at Once. Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (or “Daniels“, as they’re known collectively), the film tells the story of a Chinese-American woman (Michelle Yeoh) whose laundromat, which she owns with her husband (Ke Huy Quan), is being audited by the IRS. While she struggles with tax problems, a failing business, a crumbling marriage and an awkward and icy relationship with her daughter (Stephanie Hsu), the woman, Evelyn, learns of the existence of parallel universes which she must soon navigate in order to save them all from destruction by an evil entity.
Outside of Spider-Man: No Way Home it’s hard to think of a film that better exemplifies the cultural dead-end of our time than Everything Everywhere. While No Way Home was inarguably a corporate product, the logical conclusion of decades of focus groups, test screenings and market research, Everything Everywhere has been heralded as the triumphant return of original stories to the silver screen, a masterpiece, a cinematic landmark and even, ridiculously, as an MCU killer. Nothing could be further from the truth since even with the outward appearance of authenticity and originality (it is distributed by indie-darling A24 after all), Daniels’ latest work is painfully emblematic of the intellectually and creatively barren zeitgeist.
Kwan and Scheinert, like they did with the dreadful Swiss Army Man, are experts at crafting loud but hollow images which seem designed for maximum GIF-ability but amount to little more than desperate attempts at the most obnoxious flavors of millennial internet humor. With Everything Everywhere the directors use the well-worn sci-fi conceit of inter-universal travel, to add to that a generous heap of pandering pastiche and trendy pop nihilism. Excruciating. For all the bells and whistles of extravagant fantasy, there is ultimately little here to engage with, which makes some of the exaggerated praise even more puzzling. The numerous moments of sophomoric philosophizing, seemingly earnest attempts at imbuing the film with some sense of importance or emotional resonance, fall completely flat and it’s hard to imagine them doing much to engage anyone who doesn’t get their worldview from Reddit. Often highlighted by critics, there’s a scene where two characters find themselves as immobile rocks and spout platitudes like “We’re all stupid! Small, stupid humans. It’s like our whole deal” and “Who knows what great new discovery is coming next to make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit.” This apparently passes as profound in the minds of our intelligentsia. Not every film or TV show needs to be a complex philosophical treatise but after more than a decade of being the millennial generation’s cultural default, this brand of sentimental scientism has more than outstayed its welcome. The fact that “I Fucking Love Science”-esque pseudo-philosophy still has this much traction and can somehow be touted as novel and deep is disheartening.
Like a lot of media currently occupying the public sphere, Everything Everywhere doesn’t actually believe in much of anything. It’s adept at vaguely pointing in the general direction of an idea but adamant in its refusal to actually commit to it. One might be asking too much of a silly sci-fi comedy to be philosophically coherent or offer constructive ways out of the bleak place the world is currently in, but the film does actually set out to do those very things. The filmmakers have said so themselves in an interview with the A.V. Club, where they answer weighty questions regarding their film’s connection with the cultural climate of the early 2020’s. Scheinert elaborates on the film’s philosophy by rhetorically asking, “nothing matters, and that’s a beautiful thing?” Kwan immediately agrees. It’s a telling statement in an interview full of them: besides proselytizing hip nihilism and mentioning Joseph Campbell (a favorite of Dan Harmon, creator of Rick and Morty), the duo namedrop futurist Daniel Schmachtenberger (founding member of the shadowy Consilience Project) and “out-there thinker” Jamie Wheal (who in actuality runs a tech-hippie leadership company). Both are archetypal figures of the ideas industry, offering fashionable, vapid nonsense like “improving public sense-making and dialogue,” “training next level leaders to effect positive change in the world” and other “revolutionary” ideas that are anything but.
Everything Everywhere reflects this intellectual shallowness by never actually subverting the nihilism its villain proposes (“If nothing matters then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life goes away.”), but rather encouraging the audience to embrace it. Evelyn, in a multiverse of infinite possibilities, ends up exactly where she started: sitting in an IRS office, listening to an agent’s stern lecture, at peace this time. Daniels lack the conviction (or the ability) to truly say anything about the onslaught of anxieties we face and instead offer reassurance: “Don’t ask for anything else. You’re exactly where you should be. Learn to live with it.” It’s the ideology of self-help, Ted Talks and Silicon Valley corporate culture poisoning the well of art: “mindfulness,” “harmony” and, most importantly, no meaningful change, all delivered in the most condescendingly didactic way imaginable.
If anything, the message is one of complacency. Looking for deeper meaning is useless, trying to improve your life is useless and all you need to do is “be kind.” Riveting stuff that’s unfortunately disconnected from any philosophical tradition and instead has to use its constant noise and busyness to distract the audience from how feeble the ideas at its core really are. How exactly we get from “nothing matters” to “be kind” is of course never answered. And how “being kind” is supposed to be helpful in the face of ruthless corporatization and the creeping dissolution of privacy, labor rights and living standards isn’t even touched upon. For a film that’s considered so timely by critics and its creators, Everything Everywhere sure seems uninterested in our time’s most pressing questions. Getting another week to file the taxes for your failing business is what constitutes a win in this world. In the Wachowskis‘ revolutionary sci-fi action landmark, The Matrix, Neo has to choose between living a comfortable lie and learning the uncomfortable truth and fighting the system that seeks to keep humanity enslaved. In Boots Riley‘s manic slice of magical realist agitprop, Sorry to Bother You, the workers are forced to make a choice between trying to climb the corporate ladder at the expense of their fellow workers or organizing and (hopefully) finding strength in numbers. In Everything Everywhere there is no such choice, no system to be unplugged from. There is no alternative. Everything is fine. In the face of hardship all you can do is change yourself.
Overall, Daniels seem exceedingly pleased with themselves, smugly wishing an interviewer “good luck!” after they say they were planning on seeing the film again and trumpeting their own work as “unique,” “strange” and “uncomfortable” and saying they’re “excited for small-town America to get it in their multiplex this weekend and rip it a new one.” All of this self-congratulation, barely hidden behind an unconvincing aw-shucks facade which includes Kwan insincerely asking if he is allowed to call the film “overhyped.” Two supposed underdogs who just happen to share the exact same cinematic sensibility as Marvel Studios. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Russo Brothers are involved as producers, bringing with them the same flat, flavorless spectacle they perfected with their MCU-entries, as well as bombs like Cherry.
After more than a decade of ouroboric IP movie cycles, it seems our senses have become dulled to the point where we can’t differentiate between art that actually synthesizes different influences into something new and a cynical slideshow of genres, styles and (superior) filmmakers, plopped on top of a hodgepodge of limp ideas, grating humor, cliché emotionality and cardboard characters. Everything Everywhere lacks imagination and even with some amusing set pieces and a very game and charismatic cast, it can’t help but feel empty, saccharine and, ironically, utterly meaningless. Seeing people, including critics, describe their viewing experience as life-changing is genuinely shocking.
Daniel Kwan has jokingly said on Twitter that the passionate and enthusiastic audience reaction was “scaring” him. On that point I agree with him.