Everything Everywhere All at Once is a genre-busting sci-fi adventure.
The story starts simply enough. Chinese-American laundromat owner Evelyn Wang (played by Michelle Yeoh) is exhausted. Between looking after her elderly father and keeping a failing business afloat, her personal relationships have also begun to suffer. Not only is her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) planning to ask for a divorce, her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) has recently come out to her family and the tensions between Joy and Evelyn threaten a permanent rift. On top of all this, Evelyn is surrounded by receipts and paperwork: their taxes are due, and the numbers aren’t adding up. The Wangs have been summoned to the IRS Office by Deirdre Beaubeirdre (a truly unrecognisable Jamie Lee Curtis).
In the elevator to the IRS interview, Waymond suddenly transforms from his mild-mannered persona into a bona-fide action hero. He explains to a baffled Evelyn that this version of Waymond is from another multiverse, on a Marvel-style mission to find the person who can defeat Jobu Tupaki, a villain who can switch dimensions and threatens the very fabric of reality. Waymond explains to Evelyn that every choice she has not taken has created an alternate reality where Evelyn also exists, living a life shaped by those decisions. Every alternate world is happening simultaneously (quite literally everything, everywhere all at once) and while this laundromat version of Evelyn is the worst possible version of herself, this is what makes her perfect to track down Tupaki. Waymond reassures Evelyn that her lack of proficiency means she is “capable of anything…because you are so bad at everything”.
What ensues is a mind-bending adventure of phenomenal proportion. We are taken into these alternate realities where Evelyn discovers she is able to jump across the multiverse (the directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert even cheekily reference Yeoh’s own film-career as one of the alternate worlds where Evelyn is a box-office smash). As Tupaki reveals herself, the battle begins.
This is a film that is purposely hard to pin down. It is chiefly embedded in sci-fi and martial arts tropes (the fight scenes are spectacular) but it goes further than that. Kwan and Scheinert have built worlds within worlds that collide, evade and superimpose onto each other. Painted with humour, even in a universe where life hasn’t been sustainable and Joy and Evelyn are nothing but rocky boulders, they continue to bicker. It is one of the film’s best moments.
Everything Everywhere impresses with a dazzling array of visuals – reportedly inspired by artist Ikeda Manabu, and done on a far smaller budget than any Marvel film – but the frenetic pace is tempered by very down-to-earth concerns. The relationships between mother and daughter, husband and wife, even the trauma of an unsupportive parent, are all addressed here. They anchor the film, connecting to a sense of realness that carries like a thread throughout each alternate universe. The battle between good and evil, darkness and light, takes up much of the narrative, but behind it there is a struggle between the characters to understand and forgive each other.
To get this element right, Everything required a highly-skilled cast and the dynamic created by Yeoh and Hsu is painfully true to life. Their arguing, centered around Evelyn’s inability to fully accept Joy’s homosexuality, digs down into the roots of the mother-daughter relationship. Evelyn’s shocking swipe at Joy’s weight is just as cutting as any martial-arts move.
This is maximalist film-making at its very best – the level of creativity is astounding – but Kwan and Scheinert understand the need for emotional perspective. As a cinematic experiment, it mostly works (the running time does need trimming), and the deep dive into filmic references (The Matrix, of course, and Pixar’s Ratatouille) adds layers to an already exuberant, engaging experience. It may feel overwhelming at times, but Everything fulfils its brief. A film where spectacle and substance are not at odds, but very much reading from the same page.
Everything Everywhere all at Once is in the cinema from Friday 1st – Wednesday 6th July.
Reviewed by Helen Tope