If great moments in film give you chills, then Scheinert and Kwan’s Everything Everywhere All At Once, as a collective experience, will cool you with the strength of elated hypothermia. At last, the SUMO movies have found a contender maddeningly creative enough to reignite the magic of the craft using the very technology which has been homogenizing the industry over the past decade to fuel its entropic beauty. This movie doesn’t use CGI as a crutch, but rather as one piece helping to bring its manic puzzle to life. Practical effects, costuming, music, acting and writing are turned up to a refreshing eleven. If I was blown away during my first-time viewing, then this rewatch cements it as an instant (dare I predict, perennial) classic.
We begin in a struggling family laundromat owned by Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese immigrant dealing with a stressful onslaught of life and capitalism. Her marriage to Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is on the rocks, and she has a lesbian daughter (Stephanie Hsu) she struggles to connect with, tax troubles and the expectation of throwing a party for her disapproving father (James Hong). It truly feels like everything is out to get her, reflected in the cluttered nature of the laundromat and attached apartment in this opening: there is not only so much visually surrounding her, but also much of it calls to mind her flailing marriage. This is shown through the number of props which have fallen prey to Waymond’s love of putting googly-eyes on things because Evelyn always meets this incredibly charming aspect of his character with annoyance rather than endearment.
And, adding to Evelyn’s stress, a meeting with an IRS inspector (Jamie Lee Curtis) is uprooted when Waymond’s body is occupied by a version of himself from another universe: he explains that Evelyn, or rather, this version of her, may be the multiverse’s last hope against the Jobu Tupaki, an entity seeking to destroy everything.
Yes, there’s a lot going on, and we’ve seen this sort of CGI-fueled multiverse-at-stake plot in so many blockbusters, and yet somehow, Everything Everywhere All At Once still managed to split the Earth in two for me a second time. How can this be?
For one, though it takes a lot of time to establish its rules, its multiverse is surprisingly legible. A large degree of attention is put into visually showing us how its mechanics work. Evelyn is capable of tapping into alternate versions of herself and can use their abilities to fight enemies. She does something weird (a sort of cheat code opening a path to other universes), she hits a button and we see another of her possible lives. There’s one in which she chooses to stay in China rather than going to America with Waymond, and then becomes a kung fu master and film star. A quick montage of this version’s career then glides into a slow-motion bit in the present in which Evelyn begins harnessing her new martial arts acumen.
It’s clear what’s happening, and the healthy pacing with which the film teaches us its logic pays off once the story reaches a fever pitch. Only when the film is sure that we comprehend the method to its madness does it allow itself to go ham in the creativity of its action choreography, and it’s absolutely breathtaking once it does. The constant innovation in its combat scenes makes it an unrivaled entry in its genre; let’s just say that Marvel should be legally required to take notes here.
Not only does it have a leg up on its competitors in regard to its overwhelming wealth of new ideas (a real emphasis on new), but it’s also incredibly well-written. It takes advantage of its multiverse to create both its humor and its pathos. On the one hand, it shows you universes where people have hot dogs for fingers, and one in which Evelyn’s misnaming of Ratatouille becomes a real place. On the other hand, the true source of Evelyn’s powers are her failures, disappointments and disillusionments with how her life turned out.
The versions of herself she draws from are all more successful and deceptively, by her vantage, happier than she, all spawned from decisions she could have made differently. This allows every well-orchestrated combat sequence to become a layered exploration of her character: she uses the very sources of her misery to fight for the hope of a better life. The comedy never sullies these somber parts; in fact, they harmonize incredibly well. Few films can have you laughing one minute and crying the next; even fewer can have you doing both at the same time, and it’s a feeling as beautiful as it is rare.
Conflict exists between what could have been, what is and what should be. The Jobu Tupaki, the film’s tragic antagonist, is trapped in a cycle of self-consumption: its nihilism, that nothing matters, eggs it on to destroy more of the world, which only exacerbates its hopelessness. Evelyn’s relationship to this character, without giving too much away, paints such a beautiful picture of her own inner struggle to find meaning in her dead-end life.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a film emblematic of our age, where so much wants our attention, especially the good happening to those around us that we aren’t experiencing ourselves. There’s so much in this film, all of it wondrous, terrifying, hilarious and grotesque, but it asks us to cut through all of these possibilities to find what’s truly important. Evelyn’s epiphany, her discovery of what she’s really fighting for, is still an all-time moment for me in cinema. There’s no better place to be than where you are now; the key is finding out what makes this so, and at times, this gets lost in this “everything.” The answer is likely love, because love is almost always the answer to life’s meaningful questions (as films have doggedly tried teaching us since their inception), but I digress. Between its tightly wound curiosities and unbridled creativity, it’s in its charming yet laser-focused specificity that Everything Everywhere All At Once finds its human condition.