In Daniel Kwan’s and Daniel Scheinert’s science-fiction dramedy movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, a visit from married Chinese-American laundromat co-owners Evelyn (Malaysian Chinese Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Waymond Wang (Chinese/Vietnamese-American Ke Huy Quan, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) to the IRS takes an epic turn, when Evelyn finds herself suddenly chosen to prevent the multiverse from collapsing. Multi-dimensional fiction feels a dime a dozen, but the Daniels and their actors have used the concept to provide a stimulating reminder of the benefits behind breaking cycles and finding beauty and meaning in the unexpected. Viewers who can put up with the constant absurdity of Evelyn’s exploits can enjoy emotionally-engaging performances, excitingly varied fight scenes, and eclectic visuals. My look at this profitable critical darling took so long to write down – over a month has passed since the American DVD and Blu-ray release by now – partially because my most compelling thoughts contain extensive spoilers.
I’ve been trapped like this for so long, experiencing everything. I was hoping you would see something I didn’t, that you would convince me there was another way.
Chinese New Year provides a relatable time at which to set this movie. New Year’s Eve allows for reflection upon unfulfilled goals, and setting hopes and plans on what to accomplish next. Evelyn finds fantastical means to perform these, through technology another dimension’s Evelyn developed to help people tap into skills acquired in alternate timelines. People who use this technology must perform unconventional feats to tap into the skills, which sometimes results in comical expressions of the potential to learn from new experiences. Some of Evelyn’s feats include declaring love to an enemy, and exploring unfamiliar areas of the IRS building. The movie’s concept also delivers succinct demonstrations of Michelle Yeoh’s and her co-stars’ versatility, as Evelyn discovers various personas her family adopted across the multiverse. I typically associate Yeoh with a dignified austerity, but as Evelyn gradually masters inter-dimensional peace-making, Yeoh pulls off performing both without and with such dignity.
Across all of the dimensions, prominent circles illustrate the prevalence of cycles in Evelyn’s lives. The movie begins with a round mirror reflecting Evelyn, Waymond, and their teenage daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu, whom the Daniels previously directed on Awkwafina is Nora From Queens) happily singing karaoke, illustrating circles as a Chinese symbol of unity. When the reflection abruptly changes to one of Evelyn struggling to complete her taxes, the contrast effectively reminds the viewer that a matriarch must prepare to tackle both leisure and stress.
While media about Asian-Americans often concern a generational conflict, this movie stands out with one spanning three generations. Among other sources of discontent for Evelyn, her father, Gong Gong (James Hong, Flower Drum Song) disapproved of her marriage to sensitive Waymond, and Joy confounds her by entering a lesbian romance. When Alpha Waymond connects Evelyn to the multiverse, a run-through of her life story shows Evelyn becoming distant from Gong Gong and Joy not only emotionally, but physically as well.
Appropriately, some of the alternate realities Evelyn taps into more than once include ones in which she never permanently left China. Some of them provide reasons to feel better off, such as one in which she becomes a famous martial artist and movie star, and one in which she becomes an opera singer with a proud father. However, sources of discontent in those realities prove the futility of achieving a perfect future. Shortly before movie-star Evelyn and businessman Waymond discuss how their lives would’ve differed if they married, the viewers learn that in that timeline, Everything Everywhere All at Once ends with her failing to save the multiverse. This juxtaposition suggests the ineffectiveness of escapism from issues, over actively finding a functional solution.
In a reality where Evelyn entered a same-sex marriage, she finds additional reasons to relate to Joy. It receives an unsettling introduction, revealing that people have hot dogs for fingers, and that Evelyn wedded Ms. Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), an adversary in her own reality. Despite this, Evelyn eventually finds this relationship romantic in its own right, and surprisingly acquires some useful skills. This helps depict homosexuality and heterosexuality as equally beautiful, even if the former initially seems disturbing. The tone also comes through in how, aside from the hot dog fingers and Evelyn’s family, the reality feels identical to the main one.
Several Evelyns’ income and survival depend on cycles within cycles, to put a profound “spin” on the mundane. The Evelyns who co-own laundromats monetize a monotonous ritual, in which laundry takes a tumble to come out clean. Chinese New Year similarly provides everyone in this story with an opportunity for a fresh start. Another Evelyn landed a job twirling a sign for pizza, making a living off of a cycle she helps control herself. Her main counterpart incorporates this twirling into her self-defense tactics, similarly reinforcing the importance of maintaining control of life’s patterns.
Tying in with the value of food to Asian cultures, circular baked goods provide surprisingly poignant symbols in Evelyn’s adventures. Among the various types of Chinese baked goods featured, the movie draws particular attention to almond cookies. In the main reality, Waymond bakes these as a peace offering to the likes of Ms. Deirdre. Even in a reality where Gong Gong successfully broke up Evelyn and Waymond, her karate teacher (Li Jing) philosophically incorporates almond cookies into her lessons. Considering the teacher first met Evelyn while saving her from some thugs, the prominence of almond cookies across multiple timelines illustrates the universal need for compassion. (Notably, the uncut version of Evelyn empathizing her way through a line of opponents included her giving a cookie to someone she recognizes as a counterpart of the instructor.)
After overstimulation transforms one incarnation of Joy into the reality-warping, dimension-hopping Jobu Tupaki, the overwhelmed second-generation immigrant chooses a Western snack as her nihilistic icon. The Everything Bagel combines the concept of expressing philosophy through treats, with consequences of Evelyn’s overexerting parenting techniques, and Joy’s American preference for excess. Unlike an almond cookie, a vortex gives the Bagel a center as empty and consuming as Jobu’s diminishing sense of purpose.
Perhaps inevitably, one of the last universes Evelyn taps into turns herself and Jobu into spheres. After Evelyn suffers an intensely aggravating convergence of dimensions at the Chinese New Year’s party, she and Jobu end up as rocks in a universe where life never formed. Notably, they lack perfectly round shapes. Initially, the rocks appear unable to do anything except sit and wax philosophy through unspoken text. Jubilantly, during Evelyn’s epiphany on how to redeem Jobu, she defies this universe’s cycles by introducing independent motion.
As far as non-edible, non-electronic circles of Evelyn’s main timeline go, some of the most important ones include the googly eyes Waymond applies to objects for levity. Their color scheme inverts that of the Everything Bagel, defying the notion of placing nihilism at the center of one’s philosophies. After Evelyn realizes that combining his preachings of empathy with her knowledge of the multiverse could help rescue Joy/Jobu from surrendering to the Bagel’s vortex, she symbolically applies one of the eyes to her forehead. Meanwhile, her rock form spontaneously develops two googly eyes once it begins moving. This both provides it with a more human appearance, and emphasizes her acquired wisdom.
Jobu warns Evelyn during the climax that peace and serenity never last in any dimension. Accordingly, by the time the film ends, Evelyn only manages to solve problems immediately important to her. She reconciles with her families and enemies, but the viewers never actually see the Bagel disappear. Regardless, the performances, editing, and music of Evelyn’s reconciliations ensure a glorious victory when she convinces Joy not to let nihilism consume her. Even without showing the Bagel vanish, the movie successfully conveys the triumph of Evelyn’s accomplishments as a matriarch and community member.
During Evelyn’s next IRS meeting, inter-dimensional voices continue to pester her, but don’t cause her to break down. Her efforts to remain focused on her own timeline demonstrate one last time that even if discontent can’t stay away forever, empathy, optimism, and the capacity to learn can help overcome misfortune. By my standards, Everything Everywhere All at Once overall presents the most spectacular Asian-American-centric movie I’ve seen yet.
Violence towards Asian-Americans has reached alarming levels. I would like my readers to donate to The AAPI Community Fund, even if I personally take no share of the funds.
This article is dedicated to Perspectives in Science Fiction teacher Mr. Mike Feely (1971-2022), who helped strengthen my insight into and analyses of this wondrous medium.