All the while, the timelessness of the internet robs us of the cultural vehicles traditionally relied on to progress through adolescence. Everything exists everywhere online, all at once. Instead of television, film or music following broadcast or release schedules, we pick content from seemingly static online catalogues, according to our own atomised timeline: yhe cultural output of our parents’ generation is enmeshed alongside today’s releases, leaving us as likely to discover generational re-runs of Friends or New Wave as any collective generational discovery.
This montaging of cultural and personal eras contributes to what Mark Fisher calls a “flattening sense of time. The internet has altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition” he writes, “culture has lost the ability to articulate the present.”
Or, as Fisher goes on to describe, “it could be that there is no present to articulate anymore.” Whereas a fifteen-year period once contained the Beatles’ first album through to the start of Punk, or from Punk to Jungle, today it has an atemporal quality. The result is a slowing of culture, derailed by a lack of disjuncture between cultural movements. Deprived of a genuine sense of novelty or modernity, any generational independence through which we might collectively learn to explore and navigate the world is lost. The escapist temporal objectivity of the internet is alluring, but - running contrary to subjective human experience - it can also be profoundly disorientating, rife for nihilism and passivity. Unable to embrace futurity or rebel against tradition, we experience the “slow cancellation of the future”, stuck in eternal adolescence, existing among generational fragments of non-time. How do we sublimate an identity amid timelessness? And what for narrative, agency and personhood?
Queue Joy, the pained teenage antihero of Everything Everywhere All at Once, representing this dramatic tension, grappling with a search for meaning amid omniscient nihilism. Her anger - almost exclusively directed towards her mother – embodies a child’s attitude towards a neglectful parent: ‘I hate you, don’t leave me’. The film is about generational distance, not feeling understood, struggling to balance agency with belonging. Of being a “digital native subject to a violent removal from the habits of their parents” as Michael Harris writes, “a shift that will leave them quite alien to those only one generation older”. In other words, Everything Everywhere All at Once is a coming-of-age film, for the internet generation.
The finale of the film hinges on Evelyn and Joy’s rejection of this seductive control. They learn to find stability in the unpredictability of human relationships, finding trust in companionship.
Like the cultural aesthetics of yesteryear that haunt modern culture, both Joy and her mother are saturated with regret for missed opportunities throughout the film. Evelyn’s thoughts are punctuated by comparisons with multiverses offering brighter, happier, more successful narratives. “You have so many goals you never finished, dreams you never followed, you’re living your worst you,” she is told. “Can’t you see? Every failure branched off into a success for another Eveyln, in another life”. This evokes what Fisher describes as “hauntology,” a sense of being haunted by “spectres of lost futures [we] were trained to expect, but which never materialized”. The presence of these cultural and personal lost futures contributes to the latent sense of inadequacy experienced by the internet generation. Paralysed by endless possibility and constant comparison to uncanny avatars, we are left with a melancholic search for meaning so profound it can be difficult to imagine a future. “Everything we do gets washed away in a sea of every other possibility,” Joy tells us, “if nothing matters, then all the pain and guilt you feel for making nothing of your life goes away”.
By the same token, Evelyn’s daughter Joy is a character trying to regain much-needed control amid a world which convincingly, but wrongly, leads her to believe it’s possible. Seduced by vignettes where she defies natural and physical laws, Joy interacts with multiverse representations of her family, akin to how we engage in virtual environments. Conversations we determine the pace of, avatars we project onto, social relationships we exert control over. These virtual interactions, and our mediated presence within them, transform relations into what Heinz Kohut describes as self-objects - internalised representations of external beings, which are experienced as part of the self. The problem with these controlled relations, Sherry Turkle suggests, is that they do “not teach us how to be with people… digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”. “We are lonely, but fearful of intimacy,” Turkle writes, portending Joy’s existential struggle. The trade-off for this solipsistic existence is aloneness; the paradox of limitless personalisation is that we have nobody to actually share it with.
The finale of the film hinges on Evelyn and Joy’s rejection of this seductive control. They learn to find stability in the unpredictability of human relationships, finding trust in companionship. “No matter what, I still want to be here with you, I will always, always, want to be here with you,” Evelyn tells her daughter. The film’s conclusion is about disavowing nihilism, yes, but also repudiating the teenage neuroticism which fuels it. It champions acceptance rather than limitless possibility; preservation rather than progress; belonging rather than unrestrained freedom. As Joy finds meaning in an imperfect world, the illusory control of an escapist multiverse becomes redundant. The viewer, having compelled the film to slow down, finds relief in its conclusion. We learn we don’t want Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. We just want to make sense of it.