The multiverse, a wonderful concept that can lead to an inexhaustible infinity of ideas. There could be between one other and an infinite number of universes, other than this one, where there is another version of you leading a different life. Maybe in this universe you clean toilets for a living but in another, you are a world-famous movie star, a scientist who discovered the cure for all known cancers, an honest politician… or just a slightly different version of you wearing a hat while cleaning toilets for a living. The multiverse is an endless well to pull ideas from.
Marvel have been exploring the multiverse with their films, most recently with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. A film that I felt was very okay and that was mainly down to the fact it was directed by Sam Raimi. Then there was Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that used the multiverse to play on fan nostalgia. I really enjoyed this one but I can’t help but feel that enjoyment mainly came from the fact it did feature past Spider-Men and villains already familiar to me. If it had been the same film but with a completely un-nostalgic cast, I honestly don’t think it would’ve had the same impact.
On the flip side of that point, there is Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. An animated multiverse flick that didn’t have nostalgia to fall back on and did something a bit more ‘out of the box’. I mean, I doubt that you’ll ever see Peter Porker/Spider-Ham in a live-action Spider-Man film. Why am I bringing Marvel/Sony’s attempts at tackling the concept of the multiverse? Well mainly to show how the same idea can be handled in very different ways. With the MCU, they don’t really seem to be using the idea of a multiverse all that well, it feels very ‘safe’ and ‘fan-service’ like. However, Sony’s effort with the animated film allowed the filmmakers to be a bit more experimental and push the concept of a multiverse a bit further to make a much more interesting film.
And this brings me to Everything Everywhere All at Once, a film about Evelyn and Waymond Wang, a middle-aged married couple who own a laundrette and who are being audited by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Yup, in terms of multiverse films, laundrette ownership and tax audits are not exactly high concept ideas. And yet…
“When an interdimensional rupture unravels reality, an unlikely hero must channel her newfound powers to fight bizarre and bewildering dangers from the multiverse as the fate of the world hangs in the balance.”
Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as Daniels. These guys have a bit of a penchant for the ridiculous. See 2016’s Swiss Army Man as proof. A film that features a man stuck on an island, and who uses a dead body with severe flatulence as a jet ski to travel the seas. The dead body has a multitude of other uses too, hence the title. So yeah, that’s the level of absurdity we are dealing with here. If you can’t get on board with the idea of a dead Daniel Radcliffe’s erection being used as a compass in Swiss Army Man, then Everything Everywhere All at Once will most definitely have you screaming ‘what the fuck!?’.
Starring the absolutely awesome Michelle Yeoh, who I have adored for years now, and Ke Huy Quan… or Short Round from Indiana Jones, as he will always be known. Yeoh and Quan play the aforementioned married couple Evelyn and Waymond Wang, running a launderette. As they are being audited by Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) an IRS official, Evelyn learns that she is part of something much bigger than washing people’s undercrackers. An evil ‘verse jumper’ called Jobu Tupaki is threatening the destroy the entirety of the multiverse and Evelyn must connect with multiple parallel universe versions of herself (that she created by making different decisions in her life) to stop that from happening. Oh and don’t worry, I’m not doing spoilers here, so this is safe to read.
What kind of a genre is Everything Everywhere All at Once? Well, it’s kind of everything, everywhere and all at once really. It’s a martial arts, black comedy, romance, action, fantasy, family drama, animation, sci-fi… a discussion between rocks about the existence of the universe, a film about bagels and so much more. This film is just utter bat-shit crazy and the title really does sum everything up nicely. Split into three parts the Everything, the Everywhere and the All at Once that the title suggests. We follow Evelyn Wang as she learns that she has to stop the pretty major concern of the end of the multiverse and destruction of all life everywhere, ever in every possible reality. In terms of threat, this is a pretty big one.
Evelyn pulls skills and talents from the many other versions of herself to help defeat the evil… and that is all I’m going to say.
The film shows many different universes and some of them are really quite sane, such as the self-referential one where Evelyn, played by Michelle Yeoh, a martial arts movie star in our reality, becomes a martial arts movie star in the reality of the film. To the not quite as sane universes, such as one where everybody has hotdogs for fingers… because? There is even a part of the film that becomes a deep discussion between two rocks about how and why the universes and life exists… all done in complete silence and via text-based dialogue. Yup, that is the kind of craziness that Everything Everywhere All at Once throws at you. I mean, it does feature butt plug kung fu…
And yet, in all of that insanity, there is a real human story here about acceptance and family values, especially within Chinese culture that is highlit by the fractured relationship between Evelyn and her daughter (Stephanie Hsu). Really, nothing here should work because none of it makes any logical sense. And yet, it is the utter nonsense of it all that ends up making the most sense. Obviously, I am avoiding spoilers here so can’t really get into the details of what happens to who and how. But the basics of an evil possibly destroying the multiverse really is the gateway to a much deeper and engrossing plot about family.
The various universes that we get to see, from the perfectly sane to the utterly ludicrous, are wonderfully realised and a joy to experience. There’s a lot of circular symbolism (washing machine doors, googly eyes, scribbles on IRS receipts and more) that is seemingly pointless at first but it all becomes clear towards the end of the film. Everything Everywhere All at Once is crammed with loads of little touches that you may miss the first time around but pick up on with subsequent viewings. As I write this review right now, I have watched the film three times in two days and I’m still picking things up that I previously missed. I have only just noticed how, when Evelyn first experiences the multiverse and the screen fractures, so do the subtitles that we the viewer read. from tiny little details, to much bigger ones are littered all through the film and you’ll need a keen eye to not just see them but also understand the point.
As basic as the good guy (or gal in this case) has to stop the naughty evil plot is, there is so much more going on in this film that is subtext and leads to a much deeper piece of storytelling all round. I have been trying to summarise exactly what watching Everything Everywhere All at Once felt like and I think I may have it. Watching this took me back to the first time I watched The Matrix. Both films have that stylised action look to them and both have a lot more depth and meaning behind them too. Both have that ‘WTF’ aspect to them, even if for entirely different reasons. Both films have a duo of filmmakers at the helm with a vision that is so non-Hollywood that it stands out in its own right. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that has challenged and entertained me in the way that Everything Everywhere All at Once has since I watched The Matrix 23 years ago.
The cast is wonderful too. I have loved Michelle Yeoh ever since seeing her in Jackie Chan’s Police Story 3: Supercop back in 1992. Speaking of which, this film was actually originally written specifically for Jackie Chan. However, the Daniels decided to change the lead to a female, I think this would’ve been a great film for Chan to do too but Yeoh is outstanding. From the action scenes to the more grounded in reality/family drama stuff or even when this film goes full-on absurd hotdog fingers mode, Michelle Yeoh is perfect. It really is great to see Ke Huy Quan (Short Round from Indiana Jones) doing something with some real meaning too. He’s not the kid with the cute voice anymore and depending on which version of Waymond he is playing. The dowdy and useless one from the ‘normal’ universe or the kick-ass and exposition spouting version from the Alphaverse, he’s on point.
Jamie Lee Curtis as the IRS official is really more of a supporting character but don’t worry, she also gets pretty involved in the more bizarre aspects of the film… as well as some doing some ass-kicking of her own. Seeing Jamie Lee Curtis do some martial arts and pro wrestling moves could be the greatest thing you’ll see this year. Even James Hong is in this and if you are a big Chinese/American film fan then you should know who this legend is. I mean, Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China… ’nuff said.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is beautifully shot too with some great use of cinematography to allude to certain aspects of the plot that are very subtle. I only just noticed, on my third viewing, that the aspect ratio of the film changes as it progresses. It becomes more wide-screen as Evelyn sees and understands more of what is going on, clever. The action is captured brilliantly and clearly. Funny nods and references to things in our universe that are different from the universes shown in this film (the Ratatouille bit was great). A madcap hodgepodge of film genres, filming styles and story threads. But like a patchwork quilt, everything is stitched together to make a final product that works as a wonderful sum of its parts.
In terms of multiverse films that I have seen recently, Everything Everywhere All at Once blows all of them out of the water… and on a much smaller budget too. Proving that money doesn’t always buy the best of everything. Jamie Lee Curtis even took to Instagram to declare that this film “out marvels any Marvel movie they put out there”… one in particular. She’s not wrong either. As pissed off as a lot of Marvel fans were over her comment, that is exactly how much better this film is as an exploration of a multiverse concept and as an overall film. Around $200 million is what Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness cost to make, this film? $25 million. An eighth of the budget and yet, infinitely better in every possible way.
Now, I know that Everything Everywhere All at Once is not going to be for everyone because it is so ‘out there’. Yet as crazy as this film can be and does get in places, under all of that chaos is still a very grounded story about family relationships and human needs, mothers vs daughters, husbands vs wives, aspirations vs disappointments. There is a lot to take in here and as I said earlier, subsequent viewings can reveal details that you may have missed first time around. Like The Matrix, this film can be viewed on a multitude of levels. You want to just watch some well shot and pretty awesome action? This flick has that. You want a film with scenes that would make the Monty Python Colonel character appear and say “stop that, it’s silly” over the nonsense? Check. You want a movie about relationships and love? That’s here too.
A few days ago I watched Top Gun: Maverick and I thought it was the best film I had seen this year. A very worthy sequel to a classic 80s flick that is adored by many. Then I watched Everything Everywhere All at Once afterwards and suddenly, Top Gun: Maverick seems so ‘underwhelming’… but still amazing in its own right. Everything Everywhere All at Once is what cinema should be about more often. Ballsy filmmakers taking chances with smaller budgets to deliver refreshing pieces of unique art… no matter how absurd they may get. Proof that you don’t need a $200 million budget to make a deep and engrossing film… with a scene that features two rocks discussing the existence of life in utter silence.