Friday, 22 April 2022

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) - Movie Review

At the tail-end of 2016, I reviewed a film called Swiss Army Man. It remains one of the most surreal features I’ve ever covered on this blog, and I loved the absolute hell out of it… although, by its own admission, it’s most certainly not going to work for all audiences. It’s a cult film made by decidedly cult filmmakers, and considering it found its way mainly into the more arthouse cinemas in my area, Daniels (the writing/directing team of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) seemed destined to stay on the fringe. Then their latest collaboration was released, to the most mainstream cinema local to me, and is seemingly adored by everyone. And what makes that fact even more astounding is that this film that has caught on like wildfire? It’s not even that much of a change-up from what these guys usually get up to.

I mean, on the surface, it’s definitely their most ‘pop’ movie yet, with its premise of an ordinary woman (Michelle Yeoh) who has explore and learn from all of her alternate realities in order to save the multiverse from an everything bagel, filled with all manner of whacked-out martial arts throwdowns. It’s a little bit Matrix in its ‘free your mind’ Gnosticism, a bit Jet Li’s The One in the scope of its parallel universes, more than a bit Adult Swim in its random-as-fuck specifics, and yeah, it definitely slots into the more recent pop culture fascination with multiverse theory (Into The Spider-Verse, Rick & Morty, the upcoming Doctor Strange sequel). And yet none of that goes any way towards explaining what this film actually looks, sounds, and even feels like in the moment. Hell, it’s arguably going to be trickier for me to explain as such than it has been for possibly any other film I’ve reviewed thus far. Until you see it for yourself, you have no idea how accurate that title is.

Let’s start off small, then, and work our way up to infinity like we’re in a bad Star Trek episode. The cast here is pretty much spotless across the board, starting with Yeoh in… well, I won’t claim to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of her filmography or anything, but if someone more knowledgeable tried arguing that this is the best performance of her career, I would at least get where they’re coming from. As the initial starting point of the story, that being the struggling wife, mother, and laundromat owner, she proceeds to jump head-first into the multiversal story to give all manner of variety in her portrayal of Evelyn in her many, many incarnations. It’s a bit of a flex to be cast as the lead in a film that asks so damn much of its central actor, and here she is, running the full gamut like it’s just another day at the office. It’s quite breathtaking all on its own.

Next to her, we have Ke Huy Quan as Evelyn’s husband, who most of you reading might remember as Short Round from Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Data from The Goonies. He’s only recently gotten back into acting, although looking at him here, you could’ve told me that he never stopped at any point and I would’ve believed it because fucking hell, this is a performance that the rest of the year… no, the rest of the decade is gonna have to live up to. Not only is he an amazing entry point for the bigger parallel universe shit, he is also the character that delivers the film’s main coda, a moment so intense and a delivery so perfect that it seems designed to make audiences cry in every reality, whether this film exists in them or not.

Then there’s Stephanie Hsu as Evelyn’s daughter, a role that originally had my main girl Awkwafina cast in it before scheduling got in the way. But honestly, I think that wound up being the best thing for this film because, as the embodiment of the film’s darker and anxiety-ridden moods, she is astounding in just how much she gives to the production with her presence. The rest of the cast is taken up by the likes of James Hong as Evelyn’s father, Jamie Lee Curtis as an IRS employee, Jenny Slate and All My Life’s Harry Shum Jr. in some highly memorable smaller parts, and even Randy Newman turns up in the most unexpected of places.

Now to get a bit deeper into this with the visuals, and I really have only one direct comparison I can think of to describe this: This film looks like how a Merzbow album sounds. Cinematographer Larkin Seiple and editor Paul Rogers go all-in with the most psychedelic interpretation of alternate universes that a film can possibly give, intercutting between numerous timelines and realities like any other film would go back and forth between the present action and a flashback. It’s absolute chaos, in a way that functions a lot like noise music does (particularly the Harsh Noise Wall side of things): It’s the extreme end of sensory overload that, depending on who you ask, is the gateway to either the mother of all headaches, or the most transcendent moment of bliss. I fit steadfastly in the latter category, just so we’re clear.

The action scenes are fucking amazing too. The choreography work from Andy Le of the Martial Club Stunt Team not only builds on the multiversal story to highlight fighting prowess through some quite unlikely origins, the camera work and refreshing lack of CGI flourish means that it’s all on-screen to drink in. Michelle Yeoh naturally gets to kick infinite kinds of arse the further she goes, and the sudden shifts in reality (including a few trips into the Wong Kar-Wai-inspired Kung Fu Universe) pretty much guarantee that it all stays fresh, resulting in quite possibly the only film in recent memory that can legitimately hold its own against the likes of 87North. For a modern action film, that’s just about the highest praise I can offer.

And now for the big one: The ultimate point of the film. Daniels as a creative duo have made their mark by making the audience care, truly care, about the strangest goddamn things. Whether it’s multi-tool corpses, death by bestiality, resurrection by broom, or post-grunge butt rock, these guys have a serious knack for applying just the right framing to something that should be completely ridiculous, but keep the audience invested in it as an actual thing that’s happening beyond mere incredulity.

Sure enough, there’s plenty of that here as well, to the point where audiences will likely surprise themselves at how much they emotionally connect with the weirdest shit on-screen here… and yet that feeling of caring about something, even though something in your head insists you shouldn’t, is basically the entire point of the film itself. Much like Rick & Morty when it delved into more explicitly multiversal ideas (and Daniels were themselves worried when certain episodes of that show aired, since they were still working on their own take at the time), it results in a plentiful amount of contemplation on nihilism. The notion that nothing matters, because with the multiverse, everything that could possibly happen has already happened somewhere out there. Within the infinite, you are just infinitesimally small and irrelevant.

Nihilism itself isn’t something I take all that seriously. I mean, the closest thing I have to a religious text contains quite a bit of taking the piss out of nihilists. But like any other life philosophy out there, and I do mean any other, I am far less concerned about the philosophy itself than I am with the actions that result from it. And this film seems to follow that same line of thinking as, when it presents this worldview, it doesn’t really reject it. Instead, it builds on from it, taking it ostensibly as matter-of-fact and then asks a crucial question of not just Evelyn, but everyone else around her: How do you respond to that?

Well, you could give in to it. Embrace it. Let the fact that nothing you do matters be a protective blanket, a way of coming to terms with your own dissatisfaction with life and your surroundings by relinquishing all responsibility for it. It’s comforting, falling into that void, and I won’t pretend that I haven’t done so at points in my own life. There’s a perverse kind of liberation that can come out of letting go like that, and I can understand why so many people today see the world that way. I mean, what’s the alternative? Over the last couple years, I’ve seen my home country devastated by bushfires, floods, tornados, and widespread plague; is there any kind of positive meaning to be gotten out of living like this? Quite frankly, it’s a lot easier to chalk it up to chaos for the sake of chaos, if only to make existing in it less of a trial to deal with.

But honestly, that right there might be my biggest problem with nihilism: It’s easy. It’s easy to see a world where so much shit happens, and happens to us in turn, and to just throw your hands up and say “Fuck it”. But you know what’s actually difficult? Caring about it. Caring about the people you share this existence with, the connections you make with them, the moments you create together, and even the mistakes you make. I mean, we sure do spend a lot of time, collectively, thinking about things we’ve already done and wondering what would happen if things went differently, especially when it comes to our interactions with others; why devote so much energy to things that apparently don’t even matter?

Because that’s what we do. Humanity’s greatest strength is being able to look at a blank space, and see all the different things that it could be. It’s the reason why the multiverse idea exists in the first place: Because even the things we haven’t done still have an impact on us, if only by making us consider what might have been. In that supposed ‘nothing’, there exists everything. And it all matters. Everything, everywhere, all at once.

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