I watched Everything Everywhere All At Once at the cinema two weeks ago. Following the screening, I felt the urge to walk around Soho. It was as if the film had just "cleared" my gaze palette. I found myself observing the tiniest details of every corner with newly installed eyes. As if someone had tweaked the lens of my camera. The colours around me, the beauty and the ugliness, it all seemed as if they were ready to offer me a new, dazzling experience. Disclaimer: I do not take drugs.
But somehow, cinema often takes over me. It’s how I let it devour me. Everything Everywhere All At Once had a similar energy force, in a way that it provoked me to face reality…alternatively (we’re already entering multiverse territory). This feeling lasted until I saw a man eating something out of a bin. Even cinema can’t counter such image. But I haven’t stopped thinking about the film since. And I kept telling myself that I was ready to sit down and write a “review”, but I’ve been postponing it day after day. Which is a message by itself; I don’t really have anything to review, but I have a lot to say. Like in the parallel universes of Evelyn Wang's existence, words, sentences, and paragraphs may struggle with each other until they take their own form and expression.
Everything Everywhere All At Once stars the legendary Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn, a laundromat owner who faces the possibility of foreclosure. Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), her husband, wants to discuss the potential of a divorce, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), her daughter, can’t seem to get her to fully accept her partner, and her father (James Hong) has just come from China and does not approve of any of this - not her husband, not her daughter, not the laundromat, and frankly, not even Evelyn herself. And as if all this were not enough, she has to meet a delightfully deranged Jamie Lee Curtis in the role of an IRS official to save her business, on the same day that she is supposed to have a Chinese New Year party. There’s just a lot going on, and that’s only before her husband shifts to an alternative version of himself announcing to Evelyn that she is the Chosen One.
Acting as The Matrix’s most hardcore fanfic, one of the many films that Daniels deliberately reference, the film proclaims Evelyn as the One: a messianic figure who wilfully ignores all of her talents and the inevitable destiny that awaits her. The fate of the world is left to her by possessing the untapped ability to access a series of alternative versions of herself that come from the vast, unexplored multiverse. In fact, what makes her so unique is that everything in her life has gone wrong. If the multiverse is based on choices that branch off into completely different realities, then this Evelyn is the version of herself that seems to have made every worst possible choice at every turn, ending up in an unfortunate impasse. But it is precisely because she did not follow her dreams, that she is the only Evelyn who can access the talents of every other Evelyn: Kung Fu Evelyn, Singer Evelyn, Chef Evelyn, and even Hot Dog Fingers Evelyn. If she is to be saved and with each of the other realities’ survival at stake, Evelyn must discover that her fragility is her strength.
At first, it is easy to understand why Evelyn is frustrated with how her life has turned out to be. However, after seeing the many ways in which her life could have unfolded, a deeper truth emerges. If nothing else matters, then the only thing that matters is what you choose. It may be tempting to think that the concept of the multiverse nullifies the significance of our own and that of our actions. If we are indeed not that important, isn’t that somehow comforting? No. If nothing has meaning, then that’s bad news for the meaning, not for you. The multiverse can contain an infinite amount of pain and sorrow, but it also contains infinite creativity, passion, beauty, and human connection. Through this kaleidoscope, cynicism itself simply translates into another choice. You are not naive or ignorant for choosing to appreciate the micro-moments, the small acts of kindness. After all, in a world where so many of us feel insignificant, the choice to be harsh or even desperate has no greater value than the choice of being kind and compassionate.
The film therefore, not only rejects cynicism, it negates it altogether. And that may be its most defining value, as it takes on the meaning of an infinite multiverse - and consequently, the vast, overwhelming nature of our own experiences - and examines it both critically and comprehensively. As the film unfolds in a crescendo of simultaneous action and emotional sequences, we discover that this isn’t quite the essence of the story, and Daniels are well aware of this. They deliberately make it seem so complex to the point that sometimes it feels nonsensical. The more minutes go by though, the more you realise that the core of the story is ultimately the Wang family and the mundane, ordinary, day-to-day problems of a woman who’s expected to be a good daughter, mother, wife, Chinese-American immigrant and business owner…all at once. Dodge this: All of the moments of worry your parents may have had to live through to keep their business afloat but protected you from. The frustration in their eyes for dreams they never dared to pursue. Their unequivocal inner pain for not being able to connect with you because they have no way of understanding you. The lingering mourning of their lost youth. For immigrant parents, the extraordinary challenges they had to face in a land far far far from home.
It’s not a pleasant, nor a satisfying, feeling when you’re lost in the absolute chaos of a film, but it is this specific chaos that Everything Everywhere All At Once brings that elicits an experience that is equal parts fun and digestible that turns it into an unprecedented cinematic achievement. Although we are talking about a sci-fi film (and therefore, there really are “no rules”), this meta-rule goes on to apply to its editing, screenplay (those poor script supervisors!), call sheets, directing, shot scheduling, and all the things inbetween. When Evelyn jumps from one universe to another, we don’t just shift from one dimension to another, we experience new genres, new cultures, new production designs, new cameraworks, new languages, new makeup styles, new meta-references and new universal paradigms. So when humour, adventure, fantasy, special effects, action, surrealism, drama, and emotion all work together in absolute chaotic harmony beyond traditional filmmaking conventions, it’s when (and how) the film succeeds. Through its anarchy, the film finds its landing. Genres by default are limiting. They sort of force you to see life from a specific point of view. While life can be everything. And cinema can be anything, can’t it not?
Life itself is chaos. If we could, most of us would choose to see our alternative/parallel lives. Even if we were lifeless rocks, we’d still ask the same question: What makes us genuinely happy. Is it in the cards? Does the universe think you deserve to be happy? What are the rules of living life? Can we do it on our own? If every individual choice we make branches into another universe, then there must be an infinite number of universes, which means that our choices ultimately do not matter. So why do we even care about the choices we make? What do they matter? Do you matter? More questions. God, my brain is exhausting me. Fortunately, the film tells us there is one prevailing answer to all these questions. Love and compassion in a universe in which we make peace with our own insignificance. If the film feels like it’s in a rush, it is because it knows that if it slows down, it will have to take a stab at some of these questions. And suddenly it does so, in the end, by embracing the low-key heroism of human kindness, and a family with newly found bonds that will most likely manage to get them through the other side. And if we hold on to each other, we may just make it too.
There are a thousand different ways to describe Daniels’ film. An intersectional exploration between The Matrix and existentialism, a sci-fi family adventure, a cinematic dive into conflicting multiverses, a maximalist journey of self-awareness, a 21st century take on millennial existential dread - these are all valid descriptions. But my favourite is this: It’s a film about what cinema is, what cinema could be and what cinema should be. If this film was a hotel, its rooms would be idyllic resorts for cinephiles. From specific references of “Farewell my Concubine”, “Persepolis”, “Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Ratatouille” to more abstract tributes to Bollywood, Kaufman, Lynch, Chan, and Tarantino, its multiverse revels in the altar of cinema. But one tribute stands out from the rest, and it is found in the universe where our filmmakers (let’s just say) flat out replicate Wong Kar Wai's aesthetics and style from "In The Mood For Love". In *that* universe, you were in Wong Kar Wai’s world. And in that moment, I felt like I was transported into the multiverse, my tears carrying me through. Feeling like you’re in two films at the same time is a rare, beautiful state of mind. I would love to see this technique, if we can call it that, be explored in more contexts. To create new emotions through old ones. To take the death of a film as a seed to create a new one. The images from the films we love carry so much emotional weight that new stories can be built on top of them. Cinema can turn to its past in a much more intimate way than mere filmic references. Of course life is complex enough to perpetually give us material for new stories. But inspiration can also be given by cinema itself as a large reservoir of stories that have marked us, through memories that have lived rent-free in our minds.
Back to the film though.
To me, experiencing Everything Everywhere All at Once was like having a million different narratives punching me at the same time, simulating the FOMO effect that is caused by modernity: FOMO for places I have not been, people I have not met and things I have not done, all while both filmmakers trying to hug me to death. The gags and the frantic pace of the film reflected exactly how I balance my own melancholy with my various levels of mania. The planet is literally and figuratively on fire. We are bombarded with images of war, environmental collapse and social unrest. The worries of being alive in 2022 are marginally exhausting. How do we operate in a landscape where every day brings a new frightening discovery? We are surrounded from all sides, and that is enough to numb us, to make us unconscious to the pain of modern existence. "Can I Interest You in Everything All of the Time / A little bit of everything / All of the time / Apathy's a tragedy / And boredom is a crime / Anything and everything / All of the time" said Bo Burnham in his Netflix special, Inside, on the aggressive cacophony of stimuli and our numbness in reaction to it. Today’s society requires me and you and expects me and you to minimise our worries in order to stay productive (Apple TV+'s Severance provides great commentary on this). But thank fuck for the 30 browser tabs that I currently have open as they so lovingly keep me company.
As I stepped out of the benevolent universe of Everything Everywhere All At Once after my Soho wander, I went back home and begrudgingly entered the universe we find ourselves in. You know, the one where you are on your phone, tablet, TV and laptop, all at once. Where everything, everywhere is immediately pseudo-accessible. Where you can be (virtually) anywhere at any time, where you can have everything at any time (as long as you’re making that ££). Where all is nothing. Sinking into my bed, I thought of how our narrowing attention spans and our failing ability to give someone else our full attention are direct consequences of our collective addiction to knowing everything about every corner of the digital multiverse. With the film recognising this unhealthy sensory overload and reimagining it by having it happen on an infinite scale, the only thing I could think of is that the film masterfully plays the ultimate prank on humanity. We go on the internet to live lives we are not living, to connect with people we are not connecting with, to travel places we are not travelling to, to read about things we’re not reading about, to find care and love we’re not giving to ourselves, to accept the ridiculous and atypical that we don’t accept within us.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a love letter to the weird and the bizarre, not because they illuminate the “best” aspects of life through the use of contrast, but because they are equally worthy of love and attention. The film didn’t have me on my knees despite their presence but because of it. It is not a meditative, philosophical film despite its hot dog fingers, talking rocks, and dildo-induced deaths but because of them. So go on. Add everything in your bagel. Your hopes. Your dreams. Your truth. Most likely, that bagel of yours, that you spent so much time building to perfection to fit the world around you, will collapse. And then you go on and you make another one. And another one. And another one. Sometimes you won’t be able to create it at all. Throughout the course of life, you may find yourself so helpless you’ll wonder if you actually grew hot dog fingers or if a raccoon-ie is moving your strings. Like a rock abandoned in the middle of nowhere in a desert where conditions do not favour the existence of life. So just be a rock. Just be present. Stay with me. Not anywhere else, but right right right…here.