Film

Everything Everywhere All at Once – a serious exploration of a wacky multiverse concept – is an instant classic. By Anthony Carew.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Credit: Roadshow Films

Multiverses are so hot right now. From Loki and What If… to Spider-Man (both live-action and animated), Doctor Strange and The Flash, a host of big-budget comic book entertainments are serving up stories situated in an ever-shifting array of interconnected worlds.

Peel back the supposedly infinite layers and these multiverses reveal a single marketing onus at their core. With the notion of a simple superhero “team-up” movie now seeming quaint, the multiverse is a way of expanding branding possibilities, with franchises able to connect to – and solicit cameos from – not just other franchises but earlier versions of themselves.

Everything Everywhere All at Once flies in the face of such cynical singularity. It’s a dazzling, dizzying film full of so much ambition and emotion that it immediately stakes its claim as the ne plus ultra of multiverse movies.

The work of impish American duo Daniels – writer–directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – Everything Everywhere All at Once takes the multiverse not as a marketing angle but as the starting point for an existential drama cloaked in the guise of an action movie and delivered in the style of an absurdist comedy. Mining the modern condition with intellectual inquiry and true empathy, the result is a unique cinematic experience. Even on first viewing, it instantly feels like a landmark artwork that’s destined to be obsessively explored and fondly remembered, especially in its spiritual home, the internet.

The film begins in the dressed-down quotidian: Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan, an ’80s child star returning after two decades away from acting) run a ramshackle drycleaners that’s being audited by the Internal Revenue Service. When meeting the stern tax inspector Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn is visited by an alternate version of her husband, who explains to her the existence of countless parallel worlds.

From there, the film cartwheels through a colourful carnival of outré realities, often depicted in their own discrete genre. As with their previous picture, 2016’s Swiss Army Man, Daniels are, amid all the wackiness, simultaneously undertaking a study of cinema and of human nature.

Obvious products of the extremely online era  – “everything everywhere all at once” sure sounds like a description of the surveillance-capitalist, mapping-the-planet internet – Daniels draw from a panoply of source texts and ideas. They stage an artful spin on context collapse, in which lived experience and consumed content, comedy and tragedy, bleed into each other. Or, as the directors realised in an epiphany of stoner philosophy: if the multiverse is real and infinite iterations of existence exist, then every film ever made is actually a true story.

Swiss Army Man featured elaborate homemade takes on Jurassic Park, E. T., and Titanic. In Everything Everywhere All at Once, worlds within worlds resemble Wong Kar-wai films, The Matrix, and even a ridiculous riff on Ratatouille. The influence of The Matrix on the whole is evident, but the movie’s true forebears are a run of wildly inventive works that also set ultra-high-concept pitches in mundane domestic settings then mined them for unexpected profundity: Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Everything Everywhere All at Once isn’t just a film ludicrous enough to feature a world in which humans have hotdogs for fingers, but one that dares take that as rich text: tracing hotdog fingers back to evolutionary beginnings, understanding their logistics and discovering their humanity.

The human story at the centre of the film is about family. It explores the relationship between parents and children, how parents can fail to understand – or just fail – their children, and how these divisions recur across generations, through the prism of an Asian–American family with immigrant parents and a second-generation child. It was partly inspired by how the two directors have felt showing their output – such as the anarchic music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s 2013 hit Turn Down for What, where Kwan, on camera, “humps things until they explode” – to their mothers.

Here, the central conflict – both emotionally and in martial-arts stoushes – is between Evelyn and her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). In our initial reality, Joy meets with maternal disapproval of her queerness, her weight and her lack of career prospects. In the multiverse, she becomes Jobu Tupaki, a world-hopping antagonist who is the monstrous, distorted result of an overly demanding mother. Jobu Tupaki is intent on bringing the multiverse to ruin by way of a black hole in the shape of a bagel, where she’s put everything – all the known universes – “on it”.

The bagel is a joke, but it’s also a stunning visual symbol of eternity, a black nothingness into which we are all inevitably heading. Jobu Tupaki wants to accelerate her demise, even if that means dragging everything everywhere along with her. She’s a nihilist but also a representative figure of third-millennial youth: born into the Anthropocene, laden with the baggage of the generations who came before. In the face of climate change and its heavy shroud of hopelessness, it makes sense to believe in nothing; even when the multiverse, or the internet, promises you everything.

In turn, Everything Everywhere All at Once is about finding meaning where you can, about connecting with the people close to you. Its what-if possibilities play to the very human feeling of regret: the choices not made, the paths not taken, the ones who got away, the imagined other lives we might feel we should be living. And to the unknowable tangle of nature and nurture, how much experience shapes the self versus whether there is a true single spirit at our core.

Infinite possibility is reflected back on the film’s central reality, where lessons learnt from the multiverse come home to roost. Coming out the other side of its grand psychedelic, existential adventure, the great revelation is the importance not just of family but of changing a family unit’s entrenched, often negative dynamics. Which is something that, offscreen, can feel as insurmountable an obstacle as any action-movie quest.

This is, of course, the great genius at play in Everything Everywhere All at Once. The film is bursting with wild ideas, inventive direction and absurdist humour, but at its core, it’s a very human story about harboured hurts, repressed hopes and the complexity of family relationships. Take away all the multiversal madness and you’re not left with a corporate cross-promotional edict. Instead of a centre as empty as the middle of a bagel, its heart is filled with feeling. 

Everything Everywhere All at Once is now showing in cinemas.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "The human centre".

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Anthony Carew is a Melbourne-based critic.

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