The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become as absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a gem of a film, and thankfully it is neither hidden nor underrated. It is a loud shining light in the shadow of the Marvel behemoth, proving you can make ten times the film on a tenth of the budget ($25million to $200 million of the latest Dr Strange installment). It does what no Marvel film ever has – tying a profoundly human story with loftier philosophical themes. Through the relationship between Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), the two Dans (directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) transcend the on-screen action to question the doubts we all feel about our unfulfilled potential, the relationships we have with our loved ones, and through the character Waymond (Evelyn’s husband played by Ke Huy Quan) what to do in the face of a purposeless universe.
This final question was answered by Camus, a French-Algerian philosopher who rubbed shoulders (and drunk copious cocktails) with the likes of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir in Nazi occupied Paris. In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) Camus introduces the absurd; a juxtaposition of the apparent meaninglessness of the universe and man’s desperate need to search for meaning. Camus illustrates his idea with the tragic figure of Greek mythology, Sisyphus. Sisyphus was punished by the Gods to push a boulder up a mountain, only for it roll back down upon reaching the top, leaving Sisyphus to start over again. As Homer writes in the Odyssey,
I saw Sisyphus in violent torment, seeking to raise a monstrous stone with both his hands. Verily he would brace himself with hands and feet, and thrust the stone toward the crest of the hill, but as often as he was about to heave it over the top, the weight would turn it back, and then down again to the plain would come rolling the ruthless stone. But he would strain again and thrust it back, and the sweat flowed down him from his limbs, and dust rose up from his head.
This is the human condition, Camus says. We strain and toil all our lives, endlessly in dull repetition, only to die. In light of the cold indifference of the universe, our inevitable search for meaning and our Sisyphean task of simply living, Camus arrives at the more interesting question: how should we act in light of this?
Everything Everywhere offers two answers. The first comes in the form of Joy/Jobu Tupaki. As she struggles with her relationship with her mother, her mental health, and the numerous existential crises of 21st century life, she, like the rock she possesses, edges closer to the cliff in order to fling herself off and fulfill the promise of the nihilist: embracing a world devoid of meaning.
It is Evelyn’s goofball of a husband, Waymond , who provides the second answer to the problem of the absurd. Where Evelyn is hardened after a life of financial difficulty and setbacks, dwelling on her past mistakes and missed opportunities, Waymond lives fully in the moment, throwing himself uncompromisingly into the world as it appears before him. In scenes referencing In the Mood for Love (2000) Waymond explains his worldview:
You tell me it’s a cruel world and we’re all just running in circles. I know that…When I choose to see the good side of things I’m not being naive. It’s strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything…I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.
Like Camus asks us to, Waymond is revolting against the absurd. Camus says ‘revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it’. Waymond rises above the resignation that ought to accompany the gritty reality of his life, above the disappointments and missed opportunities, without lament or dispair. He embraces the absurdity of life and chooses the good. As Camus ends his essay ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy.’