By Marc S. Sanders
Exploring the science fictional context of parallel universes can turn your thought process into a tailspin. It can leave you up at night trying to find the center of a never-ending spiral. Maybe that is why this gradually more common story line is reviving itself in current films like the next Doctor Strange installment from Marvel, or DC’s The Flash with multiple Batmans, and the unexpected surprise of Everything Everywhere All At Once.
My first experience with a multi-verse concept happened one Saturday morning in the early 1980’s. At age 7 or 8, my favorite cartoon, Hanna Barbara’s Superfriends, explored a Universe of Evil. Following a volcanic eruption, an evil Superman exchanged places with the noble Superman that we all know. They each found themselves in opposite universes. For the good Batman, there was an evil Batman, dressed in pink. (Pink is evil????) Evil Robin had a mustache itching to twirl. Aquaman had an eyepatch. Later, I hypothesized that this simple plot catered for kids was likely inspired by the famous Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror. (Evil Spock donned the evil goatee. Mwah ha ha ha ha!!!!!) These two storylines, which I highly recommend you seek out and watch, were very cut and dry in the concept of multiple universes. There was a Yin and Yang structure of just black and white. Everything Everywhere All At Once welcomes diverse complexity in its storytelling. In this film, nothing is black and white. Instead, everything consists of infinite shades of grey and gray.
The Wang family are Chinese immigrants buried in demanding and overwhelming tax obligations from the IRS while trying to manage a California laundromat. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is the matriarch who is married to Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and they have a daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Upon visiting the IRS agent assigned to their case, Deidre (Jamie Lee Curtis, who finally found something else to do besides another Halloween retread), odd occurrences take place. Evelyn is warned by Waymond with suddenly a strange and very different personality to act upon their current situation, like getting off an elevator and turning to the right, not the left. Just trust me when I say that while you will likely be bewildered for a while as the exposition unravels itself, it will all pay off satisfyingly. Somehow in another universe that is performing parallel to the one we first see in the film Joy is a villain bent on destroying Evelyn…and that’s not even half of what’s out of place.
I saw this film directed by the “Daniels” (Dan Kwan and Dan Scheinert) with my Cinephile colleagues, Miguel and Thomas. After it was over, it was no surprise that they knew what I was talking about when I said this film is the reason why good editing is necessary in a film. Because the Daniels introduce not one or two parallel universes, but SEVERAL, and there is so much happening…well…all at once. I’d argue most shots in the film last no longer than an average 8-10 seconds because the multiple universe equivalents of Evelyn, Waymond, Joy and Deidre switch on a blink of your eye. I warn you not to make a quick bathroom exit. Quick flashes of scenes are relevant towards something else you may see in the next minute or an hour later.
Anyway, I’ll bet you never realized that there is a universe where the people have raw hot dog like fingers. There’s also a universe where Evelyn is a street sign twirler, and a good thing there is an Evelyn like that to help another Evelyn fend off of a bunch of attackers in a different universe. There’s also a world where humanity doesn’t exist. Yet the equivalent of Evelyn and Joy are represented by two rocks. That’s right. Rocks with no limbs, no way of speaking vocally. Yet, the film cleverly has the characters or products of its earth communicate with one another. There’s even a different variation of the Pixar creation, Ratatouille. Replace the rat with a racoon and see what transpires.
So, what does this all lead to? Fortunately, there is a reason for these different worlds to collide and it leads to a valuable lesson in love and understanding within family. Now that may sound hokey, but the film demonstrates that none of us are the same in what we are affectionate about, or what’s important to us. How a daughter considers a girlfriend is not going to be easy for a mother to accept as any more than a friend. The Daniels’ film carries much profoundness among its silliness depicted on the surface.
Having only seen Everything Everywhere All At Once one time so far, I could not help but laugh often and uncontrollably at what I was looking at, and the laughter becomes contagious when watching the film in a crowded theatre. What made my movie going experience with this film quite fascinating though is that I responded in tune with the rest of the crowd. Once you get past looking at Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis (two recognizable and accomplished actors) flap their hot dog fingered hands at each other, eventually you recognize the “normalcy” of that particular universe. You are no longer laughing with them. Now you are accepting the people and how they function in that specific environment. Same goes for the rock universe. The Daniels are brave enough in their direction to just show two inanimate rocks perched on a ledge and communicating with subtitles of very aware and well written dialogue. It looks completely crazy at first. Later, you yearn for the impending destiny of those rocks.
Much symbolism is tucked into the Daniels’ script as well. The most telling is that it focuses on an Asian immigrant family obligated by law to honor American tax codes. The Deidre character portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis is not so empathetic to the Wangs’ comprehension of resolving tax violations. Basically, two different cultures are butting heads with no progress because they have a different viewpoint on how things function. Wisely, this serves as a springboard to demonstrate how multiple universes will lack perfect chemistry as well when they collide. None of this is written off as communication barriers.
I imagine on a second viewing, I likely will look at Everything Everywhere All At Once through a different lens. I won’t laugh as much because I’ve grown acclimated to what were once very odd and strange environments for these characters that dwell within. Instead, I’ll be even more observant and appreciative of the film as it presents different behaviors and cultures encountering one another. This is a very good picture that is worth multiple viewings for sure.
In fact, this film is such a pleasant surprise, that I am comfortable suggesting this early on that I will consider it one of the best films of 2022. If at least Everything Everywhere All At Once does not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, then it would be a terrible disappointment. The imagination of its endless devices is just so inventive. Heck, I’ll throw my hat out there and strongly suggest nominations for Michelle Yeoh’s performance, along with Best Editing for Paul Rogers (this guy should win the award) and Best Picture of the year.
See Everything Everywhere All At Once in a movie theatre with a crowd and/or a large group of friends. You may just have a cathartic experience of how human nature responds when getting acclimated to what at first appears to be so foreign.