Daniels | 2hr 20min
There is an implicit promise made in the title Everything Everywhere All at Once that is about as equally ambitious as it is precarious. The story moves fast and with little regard for rationality, and yet there is also an absurd, internal logic which holds together this medley of styles, characters, and alternate universes, each one building out the bizarre tapestry of experiences that make up all of human and non-human existence. How exactly an individual can handle a perspective that encompasses what the film’s title suggests is not just the primary question this directing duo, the Daniels, seek to resolve. It is the challenge which they put to themselves as a grand cinematic statement, opting for a bizarre brand of maximalism that loudly announces itself in its editing, genre blending, and massively ambitious structure.
It all starts about as small and mundane as you can get. Evelyn is a middle-aged Chinese-American immigrant running a laundromat, trying to balance the mounting pressures of her father’s visit, her daughter’s growing emotional distance, her husband’s proposition of divorce, and a looming audit by the IRS. In the sound design of chaotic plucked strings that underscore this messy clash of priorities, Punch Drunk Love reveals itself as the first of many films whose influence the Daniels wear proudly on their sleeves. When an alternate version of her husband, Waymond, contacts Evelyn from another universe and tells her the entire multiverse is being threatened by an omniscient, omnipotent entity known as Jobu Tupaki, it might as well just be another trivial inconvenience for her to add to a growing list of errands. Very quickly though, she finds herself sucked into an existential war, at which point Everything Everywhere All at Once blasts off into a wildly outlandish probing of multiversal possibilities.
The science-fiction key to the abundant martial arts scenes driving the film’s action rests on a single, Matrix-inspired concept. By tapping into the minds of alternate versions of oneself, any number of skills can be downloaded into one’s brain, whether that be adopting the lung capacity of a singer or the dexterity of a chef. To get there, one must find the appropriate jumping pad – that is, a completely random action one must take which slingshots an individual across universes to arrive at the correct destination. In placing an emphasis on the small actions from which new universes branch off, the narrative never feels starved for direction, effectively setting a series of mini-objectives for characters to achieve while in the thick of combat.
Again, much like The Matrix, the stunt work itself is a mix of traditional martial arts and transcendent, superhuman feats, both of which are tightly choreographed with jaw-dropping kineticism and resourcefulness. Early on, a bum bag becomes the sole weapon through which a man takes down a squad of security guards, and from there the Daniels go on to make superb use of Michelle Yeoh’s physical screen presence, letting her indulge in different styles of combat inspired by the alternate lives Evelyn could have led.
It is certainly worth noting the skilful use of slow-motion and rhythmic cutting that lines up with the actors’ motions in these action scenes, and yet that would only be scraping the surface of the film’s greatest stylistic accomplishment. Everything Everywhere All at Once would simply not achieve the imposing maximalism it is aiming for without playing to virtually every editing technique in the book, and landing them all with vigour and purpose. It starts with a lightly comical visual style akin to Edgar Wright in its perfectly timed beats, whip pans, and fluid transitions, most notable of all being the very first shot of the film moving us from one location to another through a mirror that might as well be a portal between universes.
Soon, the Daniels begin to weave in creative split screens, depicted as a fractured lens through which a single universe branches off into two alternate paths. What immediately follows might seem like the point that Everything Everywhere All at Once takes the dive into the deep end of its stylistic ambition, and yet the next two hours only continue to ramp up in pacing and absurdity, rapidly firing off montages with sharp nimbleness. As Evelyn’s mind continues expanding to different versions of herself, the Daniels flit through hundreds of close-ups, accelerating until these single-frame portraits morph into a mind-bending composite of each. The effect it has is akin to the strobe lighting we witness in other scenes between Evelyn and Jobu Tapaki, pulsating in disorientating, hyperactive rhythms.
With new universes opening up, parallel stories begin to unfold in tandem between them, and the Daniels’ deft intercutting lets the Wright similarities fall away and give way to Christopher Nolan comparisons. It is hard not to think of Inception here, whereby individual characters exist across multiple settings and narrative layers, each one in harmony with their counterparts. Inspired match cuts fluidly move them between prisons, forests, kitchens, offices, theatres, and streets with such remarkably smooth precision, it almost seems effortless, barely waiting for the audience to catch up to the new location before it pulls us into yet another one. It is equally a triumph of staging in these transitions, blending realities through shared motions as simple as a head tilt or a tight embrace.
Cinematic influences mount across the subtle and more obvious references (2001: A Space Odyssey gets a particularly irreverent nod), and so the Bong Joon-ho flavour we begin to pick up on in the uncompromising amalgamation of genres feels particularly appropriate. It goes beyond the comedy, action, and science-fiction premise of the film on its broadest level – in one universe the Daniels specifically evoke the elegant neon stylings and yearning romantic dialogue of Wong Kar-wai, setting up a delicate romance between Evelyn and Waymond in a universe where their relationship never worked out.
That these affecting character interactions can play out directly next to scenes that parody Pixar movies and feature a world where evolution gave humans hot dog fingers speaks to the truly peculiar talents of the Daniels to unite such clashing tones within a single film, though this isn’t to say that they consistently and flawlessly pull it off. If Everything Everywhere All at Once is to be faulted, it is for missing the mark on a number of jarring comic beats, choosing to run with expired gags, and on occasion defusing the central dramatic stakes. That is the risk filmmakers take when they throw so many ideas at the wall hoping something sticks, so it is still at least to the Daniels’ credit that much of this chaos lands with a keen precision.
Certainly the film’s formal segmentation into three chapters (or perhaps two and a bit if we’re being picky) helps it along in its structure, with each division landing on the same frame of Evelyn sitting in her laundromat sorting through messy piles of documents. Each return sees a new colour take over the costuming and décor, subtly suggesting a shift in universes where the red ornaments of one are replaced by the blues of another. Foreshadowing also weaves through scenes where sign spinners and bagels are placed in the backgrounds of shots, vaguely hinting at the directions this wild narrative may head, but perhaps the most powerful visual motif is the menacing, black circle that crops up in hairstyles, on receipts, and behind mysterious, white veils. In that symbol is the simple, nihilistic concept of zero – the relative value which everything holds if all of existence were to matter equally.
With the epic philosophical war raging between notions of limitlessness and nothingness, Everything Everywhere All at Once studies its equivalent within the scope of the tiny Chinese-American family at the centre of it all. There, it becomes a study of generational and cultural differences, in which a multi-tasking mother piles too many expectations onto her daughter, inadvertently driving her deeper into an existential despair. Characters travel all along this ideological spectrum through the film, wrestling with that inexplicable relationship between everything and nothing which plagues both heroes and villains of this story.
We find especially profound answers to such questions in one particular universe where life never formed on Earth, and for the first time in the film simply letting us sit in quiet, undisturbed peace. If there was ever a world where the paltriness of existence could be felt on a pure, tangible level, it is here, where we can take a few minutes away from the frantic pace of Everything Everywhere All at Once to reflect on both meaningless of it all and the silly, insignificant love between two rocks. Maximalist excess and crushing nihilism might be weapons wielded by the Daniels to overwhelm us into submission, but there is also a humbling enlightenment present in the midst of it all. Only after we have considered our full potential is it that we can understand what makes up our core essence – not that we are humans with opposable thumbs and free will, but that we are lonely, fleeting entities, endlessly seeking sense and compassion from swirling universes of chaos.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is currently in theatres.