Everything, Everywhere, All at Once – Part II: Hollywood versus Nihilism – Thanks Daniels

In a previous post, I noted that the film Everything, Everywhere, All at Once mischaracterizes the admittedly unjust condemnation, and worse, the penalty, Galileo received as the result of his two trials for heresy by the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition of the Catholic Church. In that post I gave instead a more accurate, though brief, recounting of his alleged “crime” and the actual penalties he received; neither he, nor as far as I know, has anyone been “killed and tortured for believing otherwise” than that the earth was the center of the universe. The filmmakers thus failed to deliver the main thing that one looks for in film, vis. the fair and accurate presentation of historical philosophical and theological ideas and disputes.

Despite this failure, EEAaO is nevertheless insightful in describing the effect of scientific progress in creating a modern crisis over the loss of intrinsic worth and meaning. The film also presents what seems to me a fundamentally Christian response or answer to this meaninglessness and loss of worth. I think EEAaO is an excellent film for these reasons, and I recommend readers see it, if they have not done so already. The film is also funny, creative, excellently acted and visually stunning, so it has all that going for it, too. [The following summary and analysis contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie, and want to discover its plot fresh, read no further.]

The film follows the main character, Evelyn Wang, the owner of a failing laundromat, facing tax troubles and in a seemingly failing marriage to a funny and kind, though hopelessly impractical man Waymond. Evelyn is also mother to floundering young adult daughter, Joy, who is in a lesbian relationship that Evelyn cannot reveal to her elderly father, who disowned her for her youthful decision to marry Waymond, but who now has come to live with them. As a different version of Waymond suddenly explains through the body of her familiar husband, Evelyn is the key to defeating the truly metaphysically existential danger, the film’s antagonist, Jobu Tupaki, who threatens to annihilate the whole of reality. For, an Evelyn in another parallel universe was among a few special individuals who discovered how to jump between universes, but Jobu Tupaki became virtually omniscient and omnipotent by doing so at will, while being simultaneously aware of herself in all of them. The film, then, chronicles the adventure of Evelyn out-running Jobu, while learning her unique abilities, until ultimately confronting Jobu in a climactic battle.

The Problem Science Poses

I think the movie makes two interesting and insightful observations. The first is that scientific progress does not alleviate the meaninglessness of life viewed naturalistically, but exacerbates it. This is the context for Jobu Tupaki’s mischaracterization of some of the history of science (Galileo and the Church), as she describes how her existential crisis (as paradigmatic of modern individuals’) results from the progress of science.

At one point, Evelyn learns that Jobu Tupaki is her daughter, Joy, from another universe whom she drove too hard to master universe jumping, and that this is what led Joy to become the threatening Jobu Tupaki. They find each other in a lifeless universe as rocks and have this illuminating exchange:

Evelyn: I just feel so stupid

Joy/Jobu: God! Please. We’re all stupid! Small, stupid humans. It’s like our whole deal. For most of our history, we knew the Earth was the center 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. Every new discovery is just a reminder-

Evelyn: We’re all small & stupid.

Joy/Jobu: And who knows what great new discovery is coming next . . . to make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit.

The classical Newtonian understanding of physical nature describes everything as obeying necessary physical laws, from planets and stars, down to rocks and trees, people and cats, all the way to the atomic and molecular level. This left no room for intrinsic value, meaning, freedom – and as I argue elsewhere – argumentation or science. In the 20th century, though, quantum mechanics provided an advance in understanding reality over classical physics by revealing that at the level of subatomic particles (e.g., quarks, mesons, charms and bosons) physical nature is inherently indeterminate, and the various outcomes of quantum events all exist superimposed on each other, until collapsing into one actualized by observation or interaction with its environment. (Of course, this is an oversimplification, and I admit, I don’t understand quantum theory well, or really very much, at all. But this is the theoretical framework, it seems to me, upon which the film EEAaO is built.) The indeterminacy of quantum states is symbolized in the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat, where two possible outcomes of a quantum event results in a cat being either alive or dead, and the cat would seem to have to be paradoxically both alive and dead until it is observed.

The movie is predicated on the Many-Worlds interpretation as a solution to this paradox of quantum mechanics, where every outcome of all of our choices is realized and gives rise to an alternate universe where our lives develop in a manner different than the present one. Thus, Evelyn (and everyone else) has other lives in other universes in which she is a chef in a Japanese restaurant, a martial arts master, a famous singer, the partner to a woman in a “stupid, stupid universe where we have hotdogs for fingers,” among seemingly infinite others. Various versions of the main characters, Waymond, Diedre the IRS agent, but especially Evelyn and her daughter Joy, have learned to jump between versions of themselves in different universes, and in doing so, play out the conflict between Jobu Tupaki, who seems intent on destroying the overall reality of all universes in an Everything Bagel, and Evelyn who is told she is the only one who has the power to defeat her.

Jobu Tupaki at one point explains that her ability to pass between universes and experience everything there is to experience ultimately led to her despair, and the creation of the ultimate means of destruction, the Everything Bagel.

Jobu: Everything is just a random rearrangement of particles in a vibrating superposition . . . just a lifetime of fractured moments, contradictions and confusion, with only a few specks of time where anything actually makes any sense.

I got bored one day and put everything on a bagel. Everything. All my hopes and dreams, my old report cards, every breed of dog, every last 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.

Evelyn: What is the truth?

Jobu: 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. Sucked into a bagel.

She is saying, it seems to me, that looking for fulfillment in anything, even everything, available within the physical universe, or many, many (an infinitude of) universes, does not satisfy our infinite longing for meaning and purpose, but collapses in on itself, sucking meaning out of any of it.

As a rock in a lifeless universe, Jobu further explains:

Jobu: I’ve been trapped like this for so long…experiencing everything…I was hoping you would see something I didn’t…that you would convince me there was another way.

Evelyn: What are you talking about?

Jobu : Do you know why I actually built the bagel? It wasn’t to destroy everything. It was to destroy myself. I wanted to see if I went in, could I finally escape? Like actually die. At least this way, I don’t have to do it alone.

The indeterminacy and superposition of various quantum possibilities does not free humans from classical physics and mechanistic determinism. Rather, the realization through science that all possibilities are realized in alternate universes just means that there is another version of yourself living a better life, and that you are even more of a failure for having made the choices that trapped you in this disappointing and wasted life.

I thought this was an interesting and insightful exploration of the implications of the advance of science into barely comprehensible realms of quantum theory that continues to seemingly exclude anything non-physical beyond itself, and this results in nihilism and despair, just as much as mechanistic determinism does.

The Way Out

The second interesting feature of the film is its ultimate resolution and affirmation of something beyond the physical structure of underlying quantum features of reality. In the end, what defeats her nihilism, and pulls Joy out of the sweet release she sought in the annihilation in the Everything Bagel, is Evelyn’s free, undetermined, but self-determined decision to affirm the goodness of Joy, i.e., to love freely and selflessly. 

Evelyn: And of all the places I could be, why would I want to be here with you? You’re right. It doesn’t make sense. Maybe it’s like you said. Maybe there is some discovery out there that will make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit. Something that explains why you 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.

Jobu: So what? You’re just going to ignore everything else? You could be anything anywhere. Why not go somewhere where your daughter is more than this? Here all we get are a few specks of time where any of this actually makes any sense.

Evelyn: Then I will cherish these few specks of time.

And it is not just any self-determination that brings resolution, for Jobu Tupaki’s path of destruction was also freely chosen. But this path of selfishness and ultimate self-destruction, I think, the filmmakers and the audience recognize as intrinsically inferior, morally corrupt. Jobu is, afterall, an antagonist, a villian, not an antihero, or misunderstood victim.

Against Jobu’s nihilism and suicidal drive, Evenly adopts the way of kindness and sacrifice that her husband Waymond pursued in various lifetimes in his different alternate universes. And this is inherently and intrinsically superior, and morally virtuous.

Waymond (from the universe where Evelyn is a famous singer): You think I’m weak, don’t you? All 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.

Waymond (from the universe where Evelyn owns a failing laundromat and is battling Jobu Tupaki): Please! Please! Can we… Can we just stop fighting?

Waymond 1: 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.

Waymond 2: I know you are fighting because you’re scared and confused. I’m confused, too. All day, I don’t know what the heck is going on. But somehow, it feels like it’s all my fault.

Waymond 1: When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naïve. It’s strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything.

Waymond 2: I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind. (To Evelyn) Please. Be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on.

Waymond 1: I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.

The turning point in the fight to stop Jobu comes when Evenlyn, through the sweetness and kindness of Waymond, adopts that same kindness. When the main henchman of Jobu, an especially ruthless version of Dierdre (the IRS agent in our Evelyn’s universe) threatens to block her path, they have this exchange:

Dierdre: Unlovable bitches like us make the world go round.

Evelyn: You’re not unlovable.

Dierdre : What are you talking about?

Evelyn. There is always something to love. Even in a stupid stupid universe where we have hot dogs for fingers, we get very good with our feet. (Cut to a scene of tenderness between Evelyn and Dierdre as romantic partners in the universe where people have hotdogs for fingers.)

When Evelyn embraces the absurdity of rejecting merely physical, naturalistic ways of operating, she turns bullets into googly eyes, and when Waymond asks, what are you doing? she declares, 

I’m learning to fight like you.

And, I think this is inchoately Christian, for this new, better way of “fighting” is realized in the film, not merely as altruistic self-sacrifice (which every culture honors and rewards when done for certain of its members (family, clan, the state, the gods), and which has become a staple in our culture, especially in superhero movies). I think what makes it implicitly Christian (though obviously not perfectly realized) is that the self-sacrifice that “defeats” or actually redeems Jobu/Joy, and the spiral of fear and hate at the core of all physical realities, is a departure from “what makes sense” (in any universe, including the lifeless one where Jobu and Evelyn are rocks). It is an altruistic self-sacrifice for the sake of Evelyn’s enemies, an embrace in love of her daughter who rejected her and her prior attempts at love. And this kind of love of one’s enemies is at the heart of Jesus’s mission, and of the Christian life.

For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

(Romans 5:6-10) Emphasis added.

This is the essence of the Christian gospel: God uses our very sins (in the cross of Jesus) as the means to redeem us from that sin and separation from Himself, and by living out that love in our lives through His grace received in faith in Jesus, we share in His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). I might be reading a little into the plot of the film, but I only think a little. I don’t know if the filmmakers thought their message was Christian – probably they didn’t. But it still may be, insofar as this ideal still lingers implicitly in the culture, even though the culture is post-Christian.

So despite the inaccurate, though oblique, reference and characterization of the Catholic Church’s unjust treatment of Galileo, and thereby failing in the main purpose of movies, the film Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, makes up for these lapses by giving an entertaining and engaging depiction of the meaninglessness of a purely physical grasp of the universe, as well as a vivid and creative (and implicitly Christian) depiction of the way to overcome this meaninglessness.

For more on the Catholic understanding of what salvation means and how Jesus’s sacrifice saves us, see the following:

Published by Joe Magee

I earned my PhD in 1999 and published my dissertation in 2003. I invented the Variably Expanding Chain Transmission (VECTr) which was patented in 2019 (US 10,167,055).

5 thoughts on “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once – Part II: Hollywood versus Nihilism – Thanks Daniels

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