Words by Siddhant Adlakha
For better or worse, modern Hollywood blockbusters often layer diversity atop action stories that may not demand a specific racial context (or are only mildly re-shaped by it). Films like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follow a largely boilerplate superhero narrative garnished with a few culturally specific touch points. Everything Everywhere All At Once, however, stands apart in that regard. It takes the hallmarks of an Asian-American immigrant movie—about family, disappointment, and cultural clashes—and transforms each emotional beat into glorious, unapologetic sci-fi lore while crafting a boldly whacky action saga that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with The Matrix and other genre pinnacles.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call it one of the most narratively and aesthetically innovative American films of the last few years.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call it one of the most narratively and aesthetically innovative American films of the last few years. Even in its most unassuming moments, the film has a madcap energy, introducing its characters and situations through mirrors and fluid quick-cuts that build anticipation.
High-strung Chinese immigrant Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) runs a laundromat from her crowded apartment just above the business, with the help of her meek husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). It’s the Lunar New Year, and Evelyn has to balance party-planning while simultaneously untangling a gnarly web of taxes on a tight deadline—thanks to an unfair audit by IRS inspector Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis)—as well as the nerve-wracking prospect of re-introducing her distant, rebellious daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) to her recently arrived and extremely jetlagged father, i.e. Joy’s grandfather or “Gong Gong” (James Hong). What the disapproving Gong Gong doesn’t know (and what Evelyn has only recently come to accept, though she’s reticent to tell him) is that Joy is queer, and her white-passing girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) is coming to the party.
Everything seems to come crashing down all at once for Evelyn, who just wants to get through the day in one piece, but fate has something else in store. While at the IRS headquarters, the usually soft-spoken Waymond suddenly becomes more gregarious and charismatic than usual, and he won’t stop babbling about multiverses, dark threats, and other nonsense that Evelyn doesn’t have time for, what with her attention already diverted in a dozen directions. Before long, her split consciousness takes on a literal bent, as she seemingly carries out multiple conversations at once—one with Deirdre, and another with this new, hopped-up-on-self-esteem version of her husband—in two different places. To match her fracturing psyche, the screen itself begins to crack, splitting even the English subtitles for the Chinese dialogue in half.
And then, well… all hell breaks loose.
Quan, who was last seen by most viewers as a child in The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, ascends to action greatness, as a flurry of practical effects and lighting changes transform the screen into an ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic collage of strange new possibilities.
To explain the nitty gritty details of the film’s multiverse mythos would rob viewers of a truly bonkers experience, wherein the filmmaking duo known as Daniels —Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan—lay down the tracks directly in front of a speeding train. As mysterious multiversal assailants close in on Evelyn from all sides, Waymond (now claiming to be “Alpha Waymond”) breathlessly provides exposition on the head-spinning scenario, wherein Evelyn must access the memories and combat skills of an infinite number of versions of herself from alternate dimensions to fend off an onslaught of attacks. Alpha Waymond carries on while engaging in delightfully innovative, Jackie Chan-esque hand-to-hand fight scenes; Quan, who was last seen by most viewers as a child in The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, ascends to action greatness, as a flurry of practical effects and lighting changes transform the screen into an ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic collage of strange new possibilities.
The last feature film by Daniels, Swiss Army Man—about a stranded loner who befriends a flatulent corpse—was weird and wonderful; Everything Everywhere captures the same spirit, just exponentially more so. If anything, it more closely resembles the duo’s music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What,” given its wealth of practical debris shooting across the screen and its performers’ full-bodied commitment to each action beat, and more importantly, to each emotional moment. As the story becomes engulfed by pandemonium emanating from infinite realities, the lore is soon clarified in a way that borders on devastating, and the film’s family-centric setup clicks into place.
The film’s boisterous visual fabric—as its worlds collide through explosive set-pieces—results in a dazzling onrush of imaginative, tactile action, with blasts of sound, color and choreography that feel intrinsically woven into the aesthetic experience, unlike so many pre-visualized fight scenes at the Hollywood studio level.
As Evelyn retrieves the skillsets of various versions of herself (from martial arts to opera singing to gourmet cooking), she briefly sees the past through their eyes, and experiences what her world would have been like if she had made slightly different decisions, and her life had turned out differently. What if she had followed other passions instead of starting a laundry business? What if she had listened to her father and stayed in China, instead of marrying Waymond and moving to the U.S.? Before long, she begins to experience these different worlds and memories in full, learning what her reality might have been if she had lived without certain regrets (though she finds herself experiencing certain other regrets in the process). These worlds, though portrayed only briefly as the film whips back and forth between realities, are ingeniously conceived in the vein of existing cinematic languages, several of them originating in East Asia. One world, in which Evelyn is a movie star akin to Yeoh herself, is dramatized in the form of Wong Kar-wai’s lush Hong Kong romance films. Another plays like a send-up of Wuxia kung-fu movies from the 1970s. The film’s boisterous visual fabric—as its worlds collide through explosive set-pieces—results in a dazzling onrush of imaginative, tactile action, with blasts of sound, color and choreography that feel intrinsically woven into the aesthetic experience, unlike so many pre-visualized fight scenes at the Hollywood studio level (from Marvel and the likes), where the fireworks feel like a detour divorced from story and character, rather than the main attraction.
One alternate world even amusingly takes after a 2000s Pixar classic, which is fitting, given that its mother-daughter story bears a resemblance to the recent Pixar release Turning Red. Without giving too much away, the tenuous state of Evelyn’s relationship with Joy ends up being a central fixture of the plot, in a way that reverberates throughout the multiverse. One of the things Evelyn eventually has to confront is Joy’s sense of nihilism, which takes the form of a pervading, pessimistic force with its own ludicrous mythology. In addition to the bits of information Evelyn must draw from across the multiverse, not only does she need to recognize these dark, previously overlooked aspects of her daughter’s emotional reality, but she also has to recognize her own role in shaping those emotions if she wants to save the day. In Everything Everywhere, heroism doesn’t just require fisticuffs, but radical empathy and emotional vulnerability.
Amidst the raucously choreographed fight scenes, fleeting moments often emerge where characters’ longing and loneliness come rushing to the fore.
The film’s exuberant weirdness is undoubtedly its central selling-point—it doubles down with relish by having characters perform some truly unconventional action sequences in order to access alternate realities, resulting in a sustained flow of unabashedly “random” comedy—but some of the story’s unlikeliest beats are also its most intimate, allowing Yeoh the opportunity for some incredibly nuanced emotional work. Amidst the raucously choreographed fight scenes, fleeting moments often emerge where characters’ longing and loneliness come rushing to the fore. Even as they access infinite versions of themselves from other universes, what each one seems to need, in order to feel whole, is the understanding of just one version of someone else, whether it’s a parent finally coming to understand their child (and vice versa), or recognizing the kindness and support one’s spouse has been providing in the background, through even the most difficult of circumstances.
Despite opening up entire universes of possibilities, and taking winding plot turns that grow increasingly unexpected, Everything Everywhere All At Once ultimately zeroes back in on its central premise, about three generations of a family, separated by oceans and cultural sensibilities, needing to recognize the pain they’ve caused each other, and finding the way they might be able to begin making amends.
Viewers may not expect a film about confronting intergenerational trauma to contain, among other things, a wheelchair that becomes a mecha exoskeleton, and a bagel that forms a spacetime singularity. But through all these audacious oddities, Scheinert and Kwan never miss an opportunity to show the way cultural and generational disconnects are often suffered in silence, and leave behind open, festering wounds. It can take a major shake up to change these family dynamics, and a freewheeling journey through the multiverse just might do it.
Published on June 13, 2022
Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter