Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as “Daniels”, are the filmmaking team that brought us Swiss Army Man back in 2016. The film was immediately praised and accepted as such a quirky and endearing arthouse favorite that it’s frankly disappointing they haven’t made another film in the past six years. A couple of music videos here, a TV episode there, and Scheinert took on some solo feature project called The Death of Dick Long, but that’s about it.
Then again, if Daniels were the type of artists who cared about commercial success or giving the audience what they want or expect, they wouldn’t have made a film like freaking Swiss Army Man to begin with. And of course it’s hard to blame them or anyone else for taking an artistic hiatus during the pandemic years.
As if to prove the point, Daniels has finally returned with Everything Everywhere All at Once, a highly ambitious film with Michelle Yeoh playing multiple roles, fronting a predominantly Asian cast, in a multiversal premise with a bizarre “googly eyes” motif. So what the hell is this, exactly?
First of all, we’re going with the “Fringe” model of the multiverse, in which there are an infinite number of universes, each one a different branching path caused by a different decision or some event playing out in a different way. We follow something like a half-dozen different universes and our core cast of actors play different iterations of their respective characters in each one, so this is definitely going to get confusing. I’ll do the best I can.
Our premise centers around the Alphaverse, so called because it was the first universe to discover and explore all the other ones within the multiverse. The Alphaverse’s most brilliant minds have developed technology for “verse-jumping”, which allows the explorer to access the memories and skill sets of their counterpart in an alternate universe, or even to take over the counterpart’s body entirely. However, verse-jumping first requires the explorer to do a highly specific, yet totally random and utterly mindless stunt. (No, I’m not spoiling anything by listing any examples.) There’s a lot of technobabble about this so-called “launchpad” concept, but the basic idea is that this spark of improbability serves as the catalyst for whatever makes verse-jumping operate.
The other obvious downside is that accessing too many counterparts for too long a time causes tremendous mental strain on the explorer. The one unfortunate exception is Jobu Tupaki, a verse-jumping test subject who was pushed to beyond her mental capacity. As a direct result, she’s now capable of switching between universes as quickly and easily as changing a TV channel, and she can exert control over each universe down to the molecular level. Jobu Tupaki is using this grand cosmic power to extinguish entire universes, and the Alphaverse is trying to stop her.
Our protagonist is Evelyn, played by Michelle Yeoh. The late Alpha Evelyn was the verse-jumping master who supervised the experiment that tragically created Jobu Tupaki. There are alternate universes in which Evelyn ended up as a martial arts movie star, a master chef, a woman caught in a strained same-sex relationship, and we get to meet all of those and others. But in the universe where most of the plot takes place (let’s call it the “Homeverse”), Home Evelyn is a woman at the breaking point, straining to juggle a broken marriage, an elderly father, a daughter who’s just brought home a new girlfriend, and a laundromat business under audit with the IRS.
Home Evelyn’s daughter would be Joy, played by Stephanie Hsu. In fact, Joy is apparently Evelyn’s daughter or daughter figure in many of the universes. And all of them are the multiversal counterparts to Jobu Tupaki, thus acting as vectors for the virus that’s wiping out one universe at a time.
Then we have Waymond, played by Ke Huy Quan. Home Waymond is the beleaguered husband to Home Evelyn, and the two of them are love interests in many other universes as well. More importantly, Alpha Waymond is on hand to act as a kind of mentor/guide figure, helping Home Evelyn and the audience to understand all the multiversal craziness going on.
Next up is Gong Gong (that’s Cantonese for “grandfather), played by the undisputed GOAT James Hong. In the Homeverse, and in many other universes, he’s Evelyn’s father. In the Alphaverse, Gong Gong is primarily relevant as the overzealous leader of the resistance against Jobu Tupaki.
Last but not least is Deirdre, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Home Deirdre is the IRS auditor overseeing the struggling finances of Home Evelyn’s laundromat. Alternately, Deirdre plays a wide variety of roles all throughout the multiverse.
Oh, and I can’t believe I almost forgot about Jenny Slate, here making a small yet noteworthy supporting turn as a stuck-up white girl. She puts her wonderful comedic chops to good work, most especially during a fight scene with what might just be the most fucked-up weapon I’ve ever seen in any movie.
There’s so much to unpack with all of this, I scarcely know where to begin.
Above all else, the film is an ode to chaos. It’s a movie all about the random, bugfuck nature of existence, in which even the slightest action can have unfathomable long-term consequences, every new discovery only reinforces the notion that humans are only subatomic pieces of shit in the grand scheme of things, everything is temporary, and nothing matters.
In keeping with that philosophy, Daniels has crafted a multiverse built on such loopy, random-ass, Lewis Carroll-on-angel-dust bullshit logic that the rat bastards can get away with literally anything. There are plot holes, there are lapses in logic, and every single one of them flies right by as the audience strains to hold on and keep up. Because gentle readers, this is a massively wild ride.
There are bizarre VFX and creature effects as the day is long. (Keep an ear out for one of the creatures voiced by an uncredited Randy Newman.) One universe is a parody of a Pixar film. We get to see a universe in which human evolution was drastically altered. And that’s not even getting started on the fight scenes, as the conceits of “verse-jumping” and “launchpads” allow for any number of bizarre fight scenes with unconventional weapons and eclectic skill sets.
Folks, I’m really not that hard to please. All I need is to see a man getting clubbed to death with a dildo and I call that money well spent.
Yet even in spite of all the cosmic anarchy going on, the film is kept firmly on the rails by the Evelyn/Joy dynamic. On a small and personal level, there’s a clear generational conflict as Home Joy’s queer sexuality puts her at odds with her older Chinese parents and grandparents. On a slightly larger scale, Evelyn is struggling to redeem her daughter against all evidence that Jobu Tupaki is the destroyer of universes.
On a grand cosmic scale, the Evelyn/Gong Gong/Jobu Tupaki conflict is all about opposite attitudes toward the chaos of existence. Jobu Tupaki figures that nothing matters and everything is pointless, so better to let everything succumb to entropy and fade away as all things inevitably must. Conversely, Gong Gong and his resistance are fighting to impose order, thus putting themselves into direct conflict with Jobu Tupaki such that both sides escalate against each other until there’s rampant death and destruction throughout the multiverse.
Then we have Evelyn. As the film unfolds, Evelyn chooses to make her peace with the chaotic nature of existence and humanity’s insignificance in the grand scheme of things. She reasons that if everything is fleeting and nothing matters, why worry about the petty things? Why fight and kill and destroy over something that’s not going to last anyway? We’ve got every reason to be kind and savor every moment while it lasts.
Moreover, it’s sobering to think of every decision, every moment, every tipping point that led us to this exact moment, with everything exactly the way it is now. It’s perfectly understandable to resent the past and think about everything we should’ve/could’ve/would’ve done differently. But it’s far healthier to think of this one universe as a thermodynamic miracle and marvel that of all the possible universes — including the vast majority bereft of all human life, much less you or your loved ones — it was this one that we landed in. And it’s the one that we get to shape, to whatever degree we can control.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. At this point, you might be wondering what’s with all the googly eyes that have flooded every poster and trailer for the movie. What’s the deal with this advertising hook, and how could it possibly be relevant to the film? Well, the short and easy answer is that there doesn’t have to be a point. Of all the wacky random bullshit this movie throws at us, the googly eye motif barely registers. But of course I prefer to go deeper than that.
It’s an old established rule that with lethal weapons — as with sex objects — literally anything can be made to do the job with enough determination and creativity. Indeed, the film capably demonstrates a great many highly unconventional everyday objects that are made into lethal weapons and/or sex toys. (Again: Clubbed to death with a dildo.) But googly eyes might just be the one exception.
Googly eyes are inherently passive and purely decorative. It would take a thermodynamic miracle to make googly eyes into lethal weapons or viable sex toys or anything other than what they are. Googly eyes have absolutely no purpose other than to look goofy and maybe get a smile out of someone for a brief moment until they’re discarded. That pretty well sums up the film’s morality: Do no harm and bring joy in whatever small and silly way you can for the short time you’re around.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is a film that defies description, never mind such labels as “good” or “bad”. It’s a film of incomprehensible scope, dovetailing the small and personal with the multiversal and cosmic. Daniels were somehow able to use the concept of the multiverse to explore timeless existential themes in the context of an intimate family drama. These visionaries embraced the “anything can happen” chaos at the heart of the multiverse concept, harnessing that into a phantasmagoria with more sights and sounds than any rational person would consider possible.
It’s fun, it’s action-packed, it’s hilarious, it’s uplifting, it’s intelligent, and it’s heart-felt. You absolutely need to see this movie, if only because I can personally guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it and you probably never will again.