Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO) is hard to write about because the possibilities for analysis are infinite. I’ve been a walking endorsement for the film since I first watched it and yet when people ask me what it's about, I find myself at a loss for words. I tell them I have no idea how to describe it other than the fact that it really is about everything….everywhere…all at once.
On the surface, it is about Evelyn Wang (the brilliant Michelle Yeoh) as she struggles to stay afloat in a life that feels endlessly dissatisfying. Caught between a tax audit, a neglected husband, an angry daughter, a disapproving father and her own feelings of inadequacy, she moves through the day embittered and frustrated. That is of course until she is thrust into a high-stakes, action-packed multiversal thriller arc where she must single-handedly save all of humanity from the clutches of absolute chaos.
Entire libraries can be filled with all the different ways to interpret and analyse this movie. It’s an ode to love disguised as a philosophical treatise disguised as a superhero film. It speaks to the immigrant experience, the infinite complexity of mother-daughter relationships, generational trauma and queer alienation. It’s a masterclass in original writing that makes all other multiverse movies pale in comparison. But my favourite way to look at the film is through the lens of The Myth of Sisyphus written by French philosopher Albert Camus.
The Greek myth goes that Sisyphus tried to cheat death, and the Gods (true haters of hubris) decided to teach him a lesson. They condemned him to the task of rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down every time it nears the top. Evidently, they felt that being forced to do the same back-breaking work over and over again, knowing that no amount of effort can change the outcome, is a deliciously cruel way to torture someone. And for a long time in our collective imagination, it was. Sisyphus, just like Tantalus (eternally hungry and thirsty) and Ixion (eternally spinning on a wheel of fire), was imagined to be utterly miserable. How could he not be? How could someone live knowing that their actions are inconsequential? How could they stand being completely helpless against larger inscrutable forces of existence? The Sisyphean fate is about as tragic as it can get right?
Not according to Camus. In 1942, he made the outlandish claim that Sisyphus is probably happy.
As an absurdist, Camus saw that there is a fundamental conflict between how we see the world, and how the world actually is. A conflict between what we want to find in the universe (meaning, reason, answers and logic) and what we actually find in it (chaos, more questions and randomness). In order to reconcile this conflict, most people will either make a “leap of faith”, by trying to find meaning in God and higher powers, which Camus saw as a kind of escapism, or they will accept that life doesn’t have any real answers or inherent meaning to offer them.
If life is meaningless, then why bother living at all?
This is exactly the train of thought the villainous Jobu Tupaki follows in EEAAO. Being able to conceptualize all the different versions of herself at the same time, she becomes fundamentally disillusioned. She is forced to bear witness to the vast randomness of the universe and reconcile it with her own insignificance. Far from being able to ignore the absurdity of existence, she must embody it, and live with the pain of it every single day. “Nothing matters,” she tells Evelyn, so why try? “It’s all just a swirling bucket of bullshit.”
Her disillusionment is condensed into the form of a bagel. The everything bagel represents an end to suffering because it's symbolic of suicide – a tempting alternative to eternal misery. In fact, when Evelyn finally reaches Jobu’s level and completely fractures her mind so that she can experience every version of herself, she quickly succumbs to the desire for oblivion. Why bother saving a marriage or a business or even her own daughter when it means nothing in the end?
What pulls Evelyn back from the brink of oblivion is Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) of course, but more specifically it’s the kind of approach to life that her husband embodies. He 'fights' through kindness because he recognises that meaning isn’t found at the top of the mountain, and there’s no point in trying to get there. Meaning is found on the journey. The boulder is here to stay. Or as Camus puts it, “One always finds one’s burdens again”.
When he says, “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you," it isn’t only because he loves Evelyn. It’s because he recognizes that every single version of existence has its inescapable mountain and unyielding boulder. Where Evelyn spent so long focusing on the weight of her rock – all the ways in which she failed, I imagine Waymond was watching the sunset even as he pushed. He put googly eyes on things, made people laugh and infused lives with hope and joy, not because he was in denial about his burdens, but because he was all too conscious of them.
Just like Camus, Waymond recognizes a third option between the leap of faith and eternal despair. The choice to rewrite the narrative. Instead of desperately trying to reconcile this conflict between what we want and what we get from life, we can accept and embrace the absurdity of existence. We can choose to be conscious of it, and free ourselves from the endless quest for answers. Camus believed that even though Sisyphus is doomed to keep pushing his rock, every step of the journey is his own to define. By continuing to live in the face of absurdity, Sisyphus subverts his punishment and triumphs over it. When he accepts the rock as his own, he reclaims his freedom from the Gods. Sisyphus is happy because he is conscious. Far from being tragic, Camus made him out to be a kind of absurd hero, in the same way that Evelyn emerges as a hero at the end of the film. She steps away from oblivion, choosing instead to learn to define herself and her life in new ways.
If nothing matters, then she gets to decide what matters.
But for all its overlapping theories and complex philosophical (and visual) projections, EEAAO is, at its heart, a fiercely personal and human story. For me, the genius of the film begins where it departs from the myth. The moment it recognises that despite our Sisyphean fates, we are not Sisyphus. Because we have something he never did.
We have each other.
In a Ratatouille-inspired alternate reality involving a raccoon named (you guessed it) Raccacoonie, a young chef (Harry Shum Jr.) mourns the loss of his furry friend. He tells Evelyn “I didn't even know... how to boil an egg! He (Raccacoonie) taught me how to spin it on a spatula! I'm useless alone.”
And Evelyn doesn’t tell him to work on himself and become self-sufficient. She doesn’t remind him of all his untapped potential. She doesn’t follow any conventions of the pep-talk rulebook. Instead, she says, “We’re all useless alone,” and proceeds to help him chase after his friend. Jobu Tupaki unleashing her wrath on the multiverse and Joy Wang running away from her mother crying, symbolize the same exact thing: at the end of the day, all we really want is to be understood.
And this, I think, is the crux of the film: The weight of cosmic absurdity is too much for one person to bear. Just being alive is maddeningly lonely. The film reminds us that perhaps in an incomprehensible world, the only thing that can give one life meaning is the impact it has on another. Perhaps the only reason we survive the terrifying experience of being human is because we can share our terror. We have the privilege of briefly laying down our burdens, in the hopes that someone will carry them for us. We can fall off the edge and still somehow land in the arms of love, just like Joy.
So then finding meaning becomes a matter of nourishing connections. Extending a hand. Showing kindness. Giving a chance. Taking a chance. Holding on. The “few specks of time where anything makes any sense” that Joy refers to, are perhaps simply moments where we recognize the people around us for what they really are- reflections of ourselves, buckling under the weight of their unique burdens.
Evelyn can be any version of herself inside any version of reality she chooses. She can experience all the success and glory that she’s always dreamed of, but at the end of the film, she tells Joy – “No matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always, want to be here with you.” Even though every new discovery only serves as a reminder of how small and stupid they are and even though all of existence is a swirling bucket of bullshit- there is still nowhere she would rather be than together.
And so perhaps Camus is right, and Sisyphus really is happy but I don’t believe he is. Not because he has to climb his mountain and roll his boulder, but because he has to climb his mountain and roll his boulder all by himself.