Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Whenever a certain trend takes hold in cinematic storytelling, there’s eventually a breaking point where the audience becomes bored and disinterested with it. Once that happens, we start getting films which represent postmodern reinterpretations. For example, films like Dances With Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992), The Last of the Mohicans (1992) deconstructed Western epics, and District 9 (2009) Arrival (2016) and Annihilation (2018) deconstructed alien invasions. These films not only made us reevaluate the stories which inspired them, but they also breathed new life into their respective trends. In the case of Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), we’ve received a film that’s a postmodern reimagining of a trend which hasn’t even started yet.
We are introduced to Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese-American woman running a struggling laundromat with her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). Between being investigated by the IRS, dealing with her elderly father Gong Gong (James Hong), addressing divorce papers from Waymond, and coming to terms with her daughter Joy’s (Stephanie Hsu) same-sex relationship, Evelyn is not taking the pressure of her life particularly well. However, things take a particularly bizarre turn when Waymond starts going in and out of consciousness, claiming to be a version of him from an alternate apocalyptic universe. It seems insane, but Evelyn starts experiencing this all for herself, transporting to different places in the multiverse, sharing abilities and skills with her alternate selves and getting embroiled in an epic battle which will determine the fate of all universes.
At this point, you’re probably all thinking the same thing: is this based on some kind of comic book, graphic novel or science fiction franchise? After all, the recent mega-hit Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) dipped into the concept of alternate universes, as will the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) and The Flash (2023). It’s enough to make your brain hurt just thinking about how many versions of the same characters we will see running around for the next few years. Interestingly, Everything Everywhere All at Once can run with this conceit without demanding the viewer to have seen entire franchises’ worth of content to appreciate it. This is an original narrative, with original characters, and therefore can dig into the meta-physics of the multiverse without getting bogged down in fanboy minutia.
From this perspective, Everything Everywhere All at Once uses the concept to its fullest, not only discussing the meaning (or lack thereof) of reality, but also on a narrative and meta-narrative level. If you just want the film to make you think about the nature of nihilism, it effectively does so. If you’re more concerned with the character’s personal journeys, the multiverse war beautifully forces them to address the nature of their emotional conflicts. If you are looking for how the film comments on the state of modern cinema in general, it successfully presents a detailed thesis. This aspect is of particular interest, as it’s key to decoding how the film’s absolute assault on the senses still feels like it’s artfully constructed. Most modern action blockbusters are loud, fast-paced, visually messy, obnoxious, smug, and headache inducing, which the barrage absurdity intentionally leans into. Everything Everywhere All at Once appears to be aware of this, turning all that chaos into a piece which comments on and parodies that chaos. In a way, it’s making fun of where cinema is heading before it even gets there.
While there’s plenty of laughs to be gleaned from the dialogue, plot turns and shocking visuals, the narrative isn’t just using its chaos for aesthetic purposes. By the time we enter the second half, the plot diverts its focus from the external to the internal, honing in almost entirely on Evelyn’s familial struggles. Granted, the bombastic action doesn’t cease, but it’s packaged as a metaphorical struggle rather than a physical one. This is where the heart of the film truly lies, as it will likely relate on a very deep level to practically everyone in the cinema. Anyone who’s ever had a complicated fight with a friend, partner or family member will feel some kind of connection. Sure, real life arguments don’t have the literal end of the world as a backdrop, but they definitely feel like that on occasion. Everything Everywhere All at Once’s true brilliance is that it understands and believably represents these emotions.
The marriage of genuine humanity and absolute absurdity works because of the stellar performances from Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong, Stephanie Hsu and Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s not easy balancing this kind of meta-comedy with heart wrenchingly emotional touch points, but this collection of actors is like a match made in heaven. Their work is especially impressive when you consider that they had to play multiple versions of the same characters, all with different flavours, tones and beliefs. This not only displays their considerable range, but also enhances the quality of the screenplay. Specifically, we see how completely different versions of the same characters still compliment singular thematic arcs. Additionally, it’s an absolute joy whenever we get to see legends like Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan let loose in gorgeously choreographed fight sequences.
Despite clearly singing the film’s considerable praises, there’s still a handful of nitpicks holding this masterpiece back from being completely flawless (after all, no film is perfect). While the film does indeed communicate all of its big ideas efficiently and coherently, some viewers may want further explanation of the main narrative’s detailed backstory, which isn’t really given to them outside of extended information dumps. Granted, this doesn’t distract from the action too much, as it could be argued that the exposition is intentionally designed to not really matter, thus feeding into the film’s meta-commentary on convoluted plotting. On another note, there are times where this otherwise highly original work does stand on the shoulders of older classics. Some of these are perfectly harmless (and loving) references, but other times the film does borrow big thematic moments a little too obviously (and without any irony) from other climatic sequences. To be fair, this sort of thing in unavoidable as time goes on, so it’s hard to hold that against it when it all works so well.
Everything Everywhere All at Once will become one of the defining films of 2022. Yes, it’s still early days, but considering that many big budget films are on the way which use the same concepts and ideas, Everything Everywhere All at Once is sure to be talked about, referenced and discussed. In all likelihood, it’ll be the yardstick by which the forthcoming multiverse films are judged (not bad for what is essentially an arthouse film from an indie studio).
Best way to watch it: With a stimulant and a depressant.