Everything Everywhere All at Once: The Many-Worlds Interpretation and Existentialism vs. Nihilism
Updated: Jul 26, 2022
It’s been a while since a trip to the movie theatre left me like this one. Eyes teared up, jaw sore from laughing, and wonder-induced dopamine weaving through neurons.
What. A. Wild. Ride.
I guess the best place to start in analyzing a movie about everything is to explain what exactly ‘everything’ is. Spoilers ahead.
Unlike other stories aboard the multiverse hype train, the diverging multiversal strands of Everything Everywhere All at Once are driven by choice. Every time a character faces a conscious decision, their life path forks into all available options. This is genius not only because it focuses the fate of the multiverse on human choice, but also because it’s based on a real scientific theory: the Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.
First proposed by Hugh Everett in 1957, the Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) provides an answer to the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox in which the behavior of quantum particles is compared to a cat in an enclosed box. Until the box is opened by an external observer, the cat cycles between states of dead and alive (i.e. 0 or 1) – but when it is opened, reality strikes, the quantum wavefunction collapses, and the cat must reveal to the observer whether it breathes.
According to the MWI, however, the wavefunction never actually collapses. Instead, at the moment the observer opens the box, the universe splits in two. In one the cat is alive, and in the other it ain’t.
Believe it or not, this is a plausible theory about how reality could work.
Well, except, take that concept and apply it to every particle of every atom of every object in every moment. If you don’t, the movie sure will.
Right, back to the movie.
During the first 2 acts, our protagonist Evelyn Wang is recruited to save the multiverse by tapping into its power via a device allowing her to temporarily adopt the skills of other-Evelyns who have lived much wilder lives than her. We’re talking taekwondo, god-level street sign twirling, and even hot dog fingers.
Side note: requiring characters to do bizarre things to access the multiverse is such a fun premise. That desk trophy scene will remain with me forever - IYKYK.
Eventually, Evelyn realizes she must crack the floodgates of the multiverse wide in order to stand a chance against the film’s villain Jobu Tupaki, who Evelyn discovers is a variant of her daughter whose mind has been corrupted by the infinite possibilities of the multiverse, allowing her to manipulate reality at the quantum particle level and travel the multiverse at will.
This is where the film dips into philosophy, which I found powerful and incredibly relevant to my own life and surely to the majority of my generation.
First, we get the villain’s perspective: a cold and callous Nihilism. Jobu Tupaki, like Evelyn, has obliterated the confines of the multiverse and exists in all versions of herself across all universes at the same time. Lost in the swarm of the infinite, she loses grip on both subjective and objective meaning and longs deeply for her own destruction, and for her mother to join her. And so, she constructs the means to make their immortal deaths reality via a Black Hole Everything Bagel.
“You see,” Jobu tells her mother. “When you really put everything on a bagel…it becomes this…the truth…nothing matters.”
The overwhelmingness of the infinite is something we can all relate to. It’s the subconscious envy of smiling faces on social media, it’s our indecision at pivotal (or perhaps even trivial) life choices, it’s the barrage of tragedy on the daily news cycle, and it’s the knowing we are a speck of ephemeral dust amidst an indifferent and incomprehensible cosmos.
Yet nihilism, defined here as a rejection of meaning and morality in all its forms, is not an acceptable reaction. Nihilism is an abandonment of humanity; it is the act of giving up on the world. It’s a mindset looming larger in our societies with each passing year and surely plays a part in the ongoing mental health crisis.
At the brink of leaping with her daughter into everything bagel oblivion, Evelyn experiences an epiphany from observing her husband's consistent passion across universes that offers us an alternative for how to deal with the infinite: Existentialism.
Existentialism is the acknowledgment that morality and meaning may not exist at the universal level without throwing them out at the human level. It is the freeing and empowering acceptance that our lives are ours to control, and that norms and constructs of society are exactly that, constructs, which we must decide for ourselves to abide or obliterate.
Existentialism is the defiant manifestation of meaning in a universe that has none.
In the film’s tear-yanking resolution, Evelyn holds her daughter tightly and transforms her nihilistic words from earlier into an uplifting lesson.
“We can do whatever we want,” Evelyn says. “Nothing matters.”
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and, please guys, go see this movie :)