Multiverse adventures are all the rage now, and it’s not hard to see why: simply put, this world (or, extrapolating further, this universe) is really starting to lose some appeal, and it’s nice to imagine there are other versions of our reality in which, say, the planet isn’t heating up and humans aren’t looking like a failed experiment. Versions where we got things right, or more right than wrong; versions where we are progressing as a species or even, more modestly, as individuals.
In a media-saturated reality, multiverses have a different meaning than they might otherwise; they offer opportunities to evoke the whole of culture, literature, and cinema, not to mention employing the talents of bygone actors and reinvigorating staid intellectual properties. IPs that don’t have anything to do with each other might converge in a multiversal gumbo of elements. Of course, Billy The Kid Vs. Dracula shows us that kind of thing isn’t exactly new either. By my reckoning, the first story in which a multiverse might be operating would be Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), with its Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
In any case, it’s a trend now and it’s probably going to get bigger and more all-pervasive in the next few years. One thing that might give the trend some real legs is Everything Everywhere All At Once (2021), a remarkable film from The Daniels that sets its sights rather higher than… Spider-Man: No Way Home, for example, and delivers one of the more entertaining and interesting hit movie experiences in recent memory.
It has recently become A24’s highest earner, and that means we should see a window for some original films to get approved for production in the next little while; it’s also seeing a wide market cinema rerelease on July 29. Normally, I wouldn’t concern myself with these commercial aspects, but as anyone who knows Hollywood history will tell you, such an approval window is a rare and precious thing, and in the past such opportunities have yielded fantastic cinema (I’m thinking here primarily of the 1970s). Basically, I hope we’ll see a glut of weird, uncommercial movies get made.
The story is original in more ways than one: an immigrant Chinese mother, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) – who is overwhelmed in just about every possible way – learns of the multiverse through an alternate version of her husband, Waymond Wang (Ke Hyu Quan). It turns out Evelyn has a unique ability to defeat our multiverse villain Jobu Tupaki, who is also her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). This leads to a scene in which an alternate version of her father (the great James Hong) gives Evelyn a boxcutter and instructs her to kill her bound daughter. About this point in the proceedings, I started freaking out. I mean I felt like I was going into a panic attack, and I had to pause the film to collect myself. This was powerful cinema. Such a reaction in me is exceedingly rare. I felt the film had approximated something of a psychotic experience, as well as serious depression.
It seems a little odd to contrast that with the general lightheartedness of what’s going on visually, but this ability to balance pathos with comedy, and to do so for well over two hours, is quite impressive, if a tad exhausting. The acting is excellent across the board: I’ve enjoyed Michelle Yeoh’s work for decades now, and I thought she showed amazing acting skills in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But what she brings to EEAAO is of a different level again, and I hope she wins all sorts of awards for it. Keeping pace with her is Ke Hyu Quan all the way. In fact, Hsu and Wong also give great performances (as does Jamie Lee Curtis as the IRS agent auditing Evelyn). It’s a rare production where everyone seemed to bring their A game.
Everything Everywhere All At Once differs from superhero multiverse films in many ways, including its preoccupation on our human choices, their consequences, and the possibility of different outcomes – but mainly inasmuch as we’re presented, at least initially, with the opposite of a hero. Evelyn (in the film’s baseline universe) is the worst of all possible versions of herself. This is the source of her potential. Many Taoist references may be lost on Western audiences, but this film (and other recent examples like Turning Red) mark what is hopefully just the beginning of a more serious mainstream acquaintance with Chinese culture and religion.
There is also the family dynamic to consider, particularly Joy’s place in it, her queerness and how her mother deals or doesn’t deal with that, as exemplified by Evelyn’s insistence to her own elderly father that Joy and her white girlfriend are ‘just friends’. The religious elements and gender politics may go over some people’s heads, or under their radar, but those who can see them will themselves be seen, and that creates an exciting energy and regard for what is far more than the kind of multiverse where different actors can model varying outfits. This is a great movie for many reasons, and I’d like to see it again soon (hopefully on the big screen) and catch all the things I missed the first time through. Recommended to all, particularly if you like sci-fi, action, comedy, existentialism, or philosophy in general.