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Everything Everywhere All at Once

Entry updated 23 October 2023. Tagged: Film.

US film (2022; vt Ma de duochong yuzhou). AGBO, Ley Line, IAC Films, Year of the Rat, A24. Directed and written by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Cast includes Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Harry Shum Jr, Jenny Slate and Michelle Yeoh. 139 minutes. Colour.

Downtrodden immigrant laundromat-owner Evelyn (Yeoh) is in the midst of an IRS tax audit when her mild-mannered husband Waymond (Quan) reveals that he is, temporarily, channelling the mind of a Waymond from another universe. This Waymond reveals that the Multiverse is under threat from Jobu Tupaki (Hsu), an all-powerful demi-goddess determined to destroy all realities. Waymond teaches Evelyn how to "verse-jump", using a set of rituals and exercises that allow her to access the Memories and skills of other Evelyns who made different choices – including a chef, an actress, and a blind opera singer. She does so in order to avoid Jobu Tupaki's minions, including Deirdre (Curtis), the tax auditor who is the first to be taken over by an antagonist from another universe.

As Evelyn flees her pursuers, her increased exposure to Parallel World versions of herself proves to be both an education and temptation. She resolves to become like Jobu Tupaki in order to defeat her, while her verse-jumps reach increasingly distant or unlikely realities, compromising her own mental integrity. She discovers that in the Alpha Universe, so designated because it is where verse-jumping first occurred, the Alpha Evelyn was its leading proponent, and that her daughter Alpha Joy (also Hsu) was her unwilling test subject, driven insane by the experience of all realities at once. Much like the characters of "All the Myriad Ways" (October 1968 Galaxy) by Larry Niven, Alpha Joy is rendered desolate and inconsolable by the prospect that in a realm of infinite possibilities, nothing really matters, devoting herself instead to a nihilist Godgame to end her own pain by destroying herself, and the multiverse with it.

The idea of a mundane everyperson, somehow also being "The One", able to access knowledge from elsewhere, owes a clear debt to The Matrix (1999). The accessing of third-party skills, too, is a long-established genre trope, not merely through Keanu Reeves' excitable comment in that film that he now "knows kung fu", but in the downloadable talents of Joe 90 (1968-1969) and the accessible skillsets of Warren Ellis's Global Frequency (graph 2002-2004). The means of access, however, bears a stronger parallel with the concept introduced by Douglas Adams in The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy of "infinite improbability". In order to approach and penetrate the barriers between universes, characters in the film are obliged to perform specific unlikely and highly improbable acts, creating moments of escalating Absurdist SF as they snort passing flies, declare undying love for antagonists, deliver an exacting number of paper-cuts to themselves, and, as the film progresses, perform acts of humiliation and self-sodomy. The worlds-building of Everything Everywhere All At Once acknowledges the nature of a true multi-verse, that infinite possibilities also embrace many improbable scenarios, such as a universe where everyone has hot dogs for fingers and where Evelyn and Deirdre are in a lesbian relationship, Anime is real, or a talking raccoon might be able to operate a human chef as a puppet, this last a Parody at the expense of Pixar's Ratatouille (2007).

Evelyn herself, in our universe, is the flotsam of fate, the losing option in multiple Jonbar Points throughout the character's life, a quintessence of bad luck that allows her to be a more flexible and powerful medium for accessing her other selves, and hence the only person who stands a chance of defeating Jobu Tupaki. But in the Alpha Universe, it is implied that she was a heartless Scientist who drove her own daughter over the edge with repeated experiments. If this were a Superhero film, Jobu Tupaki would be the super-villain, but Alpha Evelyn would be the monster that created her. But Evelyn is also a charming anti-heroine, a Chinese mother who doesn't know how to relate to her American daughter, who with baby-boomer realism about newfangled ideas, but also a degree of Satire, cannot even consistently pronounce the name of her multiverse daughter-nemesis. The title of the film, shorn of punctuation, similarly reflects the idiolect of a Chinese-speaker for whom English is a second or third language (see Linguistics).

The film subtly celebrates its liminal place between cultures, specifically those of Anglo movie-goers and bilingual Asian-Americans, each a Wainscot Society of the other. Its alternative title is Ma de duochong yuzhou, literally "The Multiverses of Mother", but also a Mandarin pun meaning "Fucking Multiverses". But even this links it to the diversity within the Chinese language itself, since in Singapore it is known as Tianma xing kong ["The Heavenly Horse Crosses the Skies", an ancient idiom meaning "bold, imaginative, unconstrained in style"], whereas in Hong Kong it is called Keiyi neuihap waangau yujau ["A Strange Heroine Plays at Saving the Universe"]. Michelle Yeoh is presented as an unassuming middle-aged Asian lady, here running a laundromat, but "in another world", both textually and metatextually, she is also a top-line movie star, and in yet another, an accomplished action performer. We see her character code-switching not only linguistically, from Mandarin with her husband, Cantonese with her father and English with her daughter, but also physically, from the slumped shoulders of a struggling business-owner, to the poised comportment of a celebrity, to textbook forms of Wing Chun kung fu, pitted against Hung Gar forms like something out of Wuxia. Similarly, Ke Huy Quan plays a hen-pecked immigrant dad, but "in another world" as a child-actor was once the acrobatic sidekick Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and also "Jonathan Ke Quan", an accomplished stunt co-ordinator and fight choreographer in the decades between his two careers in front of the camera. He shines particularly in a scene in which the unassuming Waymond suddenly breaks into knockabout improvisation redolent of the young Jackie Chan, defeating several opponents with the aid of a fanny-pack as a martial-arts weapon, but also in a nuanced series of roles within roles, in which he must also be an action-hero in mourning for the Alpha Evelyn, and for the thousands of other Evelyns whose deaths he has witnessed on his mission. Even James Hong, as the doddery Cantonese grandfather, has multiple identities in other parts of his career, most relevantly as the villain Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), elements of which come to the fore as the wheelchair-bound, addled paterfamilias suddenly becomes a more sinister, English-fluent, Machiavellian strategist.

At one point, Waymond pleads: "The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind. Please, be kind. Especially when we don't know what is going on." Hindsight may well locate the film and its attitude within a parcel of similarly-themed Conceptual Breakthrough sf movies of the turn of the 2020s, mirroring a similar trend a generation earlier. In some sense, this relates to a matter of diversity and inclusion, not merely for queer themes in the mainstream, but also as Race in SF becomes a more noticeable phenomenon of production and casting. This was not even the first film of the year to allegorize the growing pains of an Asian-American girl through Fantastika, since the Pixar cartoon Turning Red (2022) was several weeks ahead of it in the public eye. It also echoes a zeitgeist grown weary of multi-media super-abundance, but also experiencing a widespread melancholy at the political polarizations of the crisis-riddled era of Brexit, Trump and Covid-19, and the implication, also seen in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) and Tenet (2020), that there may have been some kind of wrong turn in the fate of humanity. There is also a worthy comparison to be drawn with its contemporary The Adam Project (2022), which focused on fathers and sons, rather than mothers and daughters.

The film flirts with perceptual modes of class and privilege, not least the somewhat Confucian assumption by the Alpha-universe characters that their universe is the standard to which all others should aspire, a thinning and increasingly distant state of perfection to which the rest of the multiverse should hope to return. This, of course, is not true – the Alpha universe was merely the first to develop verse-jumping, and thereby a literal case of "First-World" Pollution, spreading the aftermath of its advancements out into the multiverse. Somewhere, presumably, there is a universe where Joy is not troubled and embittered by various incarnations of her Tiger-Mother tormenter, but all such better-worlds are threatened and overwritten by the creation of Jobu Tupaki in the Alpha universe. One might also note the somewhat middle-class assertion that being a business-owner audited by the IRS is truly the worst of all possible worlds, a flippant dismissal of multiple much-worse-case scenarios, although the script does present a few possibilities, including a universe in which life failed to evolve at all, and the antagonists are presented as two absurdly chatty rocks.

Ultimately, Evelyn resolves her issues in a prolonged fight scene that turns philosophical, neutralizing her opponents not through violence, but through seeking out and salving the pain that has caused them to become antagonists in the first place. She also rejects the Reagan-era assumptions of Back to the Future (1985) and its sequels, that her reality is fungible in material terms. She resolves to stay with the fate she has, in the reality she knows. In that regard, her ending echoes that of Robert A Heinlein's Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984), in that "Heaven is where [Joy] is."

Everything Everywhere All at Once won seven Academy Awards (Oscars) in the categories Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress and Film Editing; the Ray Bradbury Nebula Award for outstanding dramatic presentation; and the 2023 Hugo for long-form dramatic presentation. [JonC]

see also: Changewar; China; Postmodernism and SF; Rick & Morty.


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