Everything everywhere at once

Annika Elisabeth von Hausswolff, The Photographer, 2015


Commentary on the film directed by Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan

after the movie Everything everywhere at once was nominated for eleven Oscars and took seven statuettes, including best picture, best direction, best screenplay and best actress, several critics and newspaper commentators complained that the film did not deserve so much, and even that it would be a confusing film, a nonsense, a joke . Among commenting readers, there are countless who describe their experience like this: “I started watching and stopped after twenty minutes”, or “To consider this a good film is to have herd behavior”. In general, the latter also add that they did not see the film until the end.

This attitude is certainly unusual, it would be like saying “I didn't see it and I didn't like it”, which is not equivalent to “I didn't like what I saw”. Perhaps it stems from audiences that don't like superhero movies, where the concept of the Multiverse has already been used. But the film has aroused such strong passions that the public has become polarized, on the one hand a fan base and on the other hand disgusted people who even make hateful comments on social networks. This is certainly an anomaly, given that the film won 165 awards throughout the 2022-2023 season, making it the most awarded film in cinema history, second place taking 111 awards. Could it be that all these critics and judges got it wrong and the brave internet critic is right?

This may be yet another symptom of our fascist postmodern times, where the common man thinks his opinion is as good if not superior to that of the experts, who would be an elite who don't understand anything at all. From there it goes a step further to create exhibitions of degenerate art, or to burn disturbing books, for example.

I will argue here that there is a parallel between modern and contemporary art, which the good man does not understand, and the film Everything everywhere at once. I won't dwell on comparisons, but I would place the negative reaction to the film in the same context as the reaction to Picasso's Cubism, Warhol's pop art, and, in what the film is offensive bullshit, the reaction to Duchamp's urinal.

What makes film stand out as art is breaking barriers and paradigms. Duchamp's urinal is art because it is the first proposal of its kind. There would be no point in creating the second or third urinal. The film Everything everywhere at once it would thus be an example of Pop Art and has at least two sides: a philosophical reflection on the value of the human being in the Cosmos, and what the human struggle in life should be like, the famous philosophical question about how I should live. These two reflections will be made using elements of our pop culture, namely, choreographed oriental fights and the concept of the Multiverse (be careful, some people say Multiverse, but this word has no plural: the Multiverse is the set of all possible Universes ).

After facing several fights choreographed throughout the film, which serve to illustrate the hardness of the human struggle, the character Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) comes to her senses at a crucial moment and adopts her husband Waymond's motto, given in another universe: you must fight, but with gentleness. This is reminiscent of Che Guevara's famous phrase: “I have to toughen up, but never lose tenderness“. Evelyn goes into battle with the power of that kindness, and opponents weaken, change and even become her allies.

The Multiverse enters an even more important question. In the Middle Ages the Earth was the center of the Universe, and the human being was therefore important and the center of creation. With heliocentrism, the Earth becomes just one tiny planet, among the six known at the time, and the sun becomes the center of the universe. Then, with the recognition that the sun was just another star, the human being felt even more diminished.

This becomes dramatic in the twenties of the twentieth century, when Lemaître and Hubble recognized that countless nebulae were actually galaxies far removed from our own, the Milky Way. Our galaxy has billions of stars, and the Universe has billions of galaxies. The observable Universe is 13,8 billion years old and 93 billion light-years across. Compared to that, what are the typical size of a human being and their life expectancy? Wouldn't they be insignificant? What do human sciences matter if humanity is smaller than a grain of sand in the galaxy?

This is the film's central question, asked in a scene that lazy critics didn't get to see (the scene with the two stones, mother and daughter, talking). The question posed is: now cosmologists are asking themselves if there wouldn't be a Multiverse with infinite Universes (most of them without life, like the planet of stones). Could it be that with each advance in cosmological knowledge we do not become smaller and more insignificant? Why live if our existence is like a blink of an eye, the flame of a candle that goes out. Is it worth living?

The character Joy, Evelyn's daughter, concludes that no and, taken by nihilism and transformed into a powerful being, begins to destroy the Multiverse. This destruction is symbolized by the donut, an allegory to recent photos of black holes gobbling up nearby matter. But at the end of the film, with their gentle and loving struggle, Evelyn wins Joy back and both conclude that love and life are worth living.

How can it be? At this point we need to appeal to physics, biology and the human sciences. What happens is that the human being is tiny compared to the Universe (although it is huge when compared to the fundamental scale of physics, the Plank length). His lifespan is also ephemeral (though also very long compared to Plank's time). But in these matters, size doesn't matter. This is because the human being, along with other beings in the biosphere, is an example of a hypercomplex system.

Just to give an example, the human brain has an average of 83 billion neurons, each with an average of ten thousand synapses (connections). This hyper-complex network controls our body, it has memories, it has emotions like love, and it thinks. Galaxies have the same number of stars (200 billion) but it is not known that they think or contemplate the Universe. This is because they lack connections between stars, something impeded by the limiting speed of light.

Since we are the only known stellar civilization, then we are at the top of the complexity scale for now. We are not insignificant because, unlike galaxies and universes, we can think and love. That is the message of the film.

There is, of course, a catch: the feeling of insignificance may return if we encounter civilizations much more technological than we are. But by defending the rights of the original peoples, we are already training ourselves for an era when we will defend our right to exist in the face of an interstellar invader or perhaps a galactic UN. But then it's another kind of science fiction...

*Osame Kinouchi is a professor in the Department of Physics at FFCLRP–USP.

He is responsible for the Anel de Mídias Científicas portal (anelciencia.com). author of Juliana's Kiss: four theoretical physicists talk about children, complex sciences, biology, politics, religion and football...


Everything everywhere at once (Everything Everywhere All at Once)
USA, 2022, 139 minutes.
Directed by: Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan
Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tallie Medel.

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