Keep in mind that I still (I think) really like the film Everything Everywhere All At Once
And I am definitely elated to see the film single handedly carrying independent cinema on its shoulders with its surprising theatrical run. It is one of the more important film stories of 2022 on a number of levels.
The more the film persists in conversation however the more it intrigues me to see the ways it is translating to people with differing perspectives and worldviews in different ways.
One of the key aspects of the film on a thematic level, and a theme that I find people don’t always recognize is actually there in the film, is the problem of nihilism and it’s related form fatalism. Key to this theme is the question of meaning. If all of existence is inherently meaningless how then do we find meaning in this world. Do we create it? Do we make it where it otherwise wouldn’t exist? Is meaning an illusion? A simple trick of the mind that can be manipulated?
Where this film.has fostered division is in its wrestling with this question in light of the problem of suffering and evil. And I found this divide to exist irrespective of religious/non-religious lines. Some feel like in its efforts to answer the problem of nihilism it essentially romanticizes existence while ignoring the problem of evil and suffering, pretending like it doesn’t exist or suggesting that we can ignore the problem in favor of our own happiness. It appeals to the illusion of meaning by pretending it is true and creating a logical fallacy in its wake that can’t hold water when held up to the light of reality. Others find it to be message that says there can be meaning in this world, and that the answer to the problem of evil and suffering in the world is to be kind and enjoy life. This is, for some, what frees us to call existence meaningful.
Within this are people who had legitimate emotional responses to the film on both sides of the fence. Some walked away from it feeling duped and plagued by hopelessness. Others walked away feeling liberated and hopeful. Which is precisely why I think this film makes such a fascinating case study when it comes to how we tackle some of these big and weighty philosophical, and even theological issues. As I’ve been watching and engaging in some of these ongoing discussions, which have resurfaced in light of the films recent physical and digital release, I’ve been reminded a lot of Justin Smith’s A History of the Dark Side of Reason. In that book Smith argues that we all, religious and non-religious alike, depend on irrational claims when it comes to meaning making processes. It is when we ignore this truth that our meaning making processes become potentially dangerous and ignorant and, as Smith argues, more irrational in the negative sense of the term.
If there is a key takeaway from Everything Everywhere All at Once it is perhaps this- that we can’t tackle the problem of nihilism without appeal to irrational belief systems that allow us to assume meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. I have seen professed atheist critics suggest that this film is a polemic against religious delusions. What they miss by doing this is not only their own appeal in this film to a delusion of reality, but the potential of their view to deal with evil and suffering by ignoring the problem and pretending it doesn’t exist and is not a problem. Likewise, those who found the film to be an expression of hopelessness or, at the very least, dishonest in its whitewashing of reality, miss the film’s appeal to the idea that all of us, religious and non-religious, are engaged in necessary meaning making exercises that depend on irrational belief systems in order to be upheld. When this point is missed there is equal danger in using our claims to meaning and truth to ignore the problem of evil and suffering.
Somewhere between those two potential divides is a pathway to greater truth and greater meaning. Perhaps the most pointed observation contained within the film’s interest in nihilism is the fact that one of the very real outcomes of embracing Irrationality is that it holds the power to shift our focus from oursleves to the other. That seems to be the point where meaning is able to surface. I’m not convinced the film gets the relevance of its own message- it is possible it falls into the trap of romanticizing an idealistic vision of the self and the world at the expense of the very real problems inherent within, but it does present potential for further fruitful discussion to happen across divided lines.