How do you capture the meaning of life in two hours and twenty minutes?
Easy: You watch the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Like life, the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once is a winding exploration of what it means to be fully present in the world. The movie weaves seamlessly between genres; it’s a sci-fi action movie that is also a comic family drama with a splash of a coming-of-age-for-late bloomers-redemption story.
Everything Everywhere All at Once explores life, the power of love, and the ways we deal with intergenerational trauma. The movie is about the infinite possibilities that exist before us, making life seem both overwhelming and underwhelming, finite and infinite, thrilling and draining.
The movie centers on Evelyn Wang (played by Michelle Yeoh), a fifty-something-year-old woman who has immigrated to the United States from China with her husband, Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) against the wishes of her father (James Hong). Together, Evelyn and Waymond have a struggling laundromat and a struggling marriage. They also have a daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), whom Evelyn fails to understand and accept. Joy is queer, American, dating a white woman, and aching for a loving relationship with her mother. As mother and daughter, Evelyn and Joy clash with each other in the way that only two people who are very much alike can.
While Evelyn is on her way to an appointment with the IRS (the family laundromat is being audited), Evelyn is contacted by a version of her husband from another universe. That universe’s version of Evelyn has figured out a way to connect people with their counterparts in other universes and draw from their knowledge, skills, and abilities.
The alternate universe has contacted our Evelyn because she might be the only one who can fight Jobu Tupaki, a supremely powerful being threatening to destroy the multiverse. Jobu Tupaki has the ability to experience reality across multiple universes and selves all at the same time. This makes her dangerous, because with access to all the knowledge known to every universe, she can bend time, space, and reality to her will.
To confront Jobu Tupaki, our Evelyn must draw from the wisdom that her counterpart Evelyns from other universes have gained. In doing so, she sees what could have been. In one universe, she is an action movie star. In other universes, she is a chef, a singer, a person with hotdog-like fingers. As Evelyn draws from these different versions of herself, she is overwhelmed with the potential that has gone unrealized in herself and in her relationships with others.
So much in Evelyn’s story resonated with me. As a married, mother of three who is fast approaching 40, it’s easy to feel that I’ve reached my potential; that the most exciting parts of my story are nearly over. While I know 39 isn’t old, I certainly don’t feel young – and I especially don’t feel the limitless optimism I felt in my early twenties. A couple decades later, I feel my identity is as much about what I have not accomplished as it is by what I have; the stories I haven’t written; the places I haven’t seen; the time I haven’t spent fully present with my family. Through Evelyn’s story, I was reminded that possibility still lives within me, and that life isn’t just about what you get done; it’s also about how you spend the time you have with the people in your life.
I cannot overstate how powerful it was to see a working-class immigrant in her 50s become a multiverse-hopping superhero. She is a person who may have been written off because of the very things that make her extraordinary. Her age, her love for her family, and her ability to navigate unfamiliar territory are exactly what make her the person best equipped to face an existential threat.
In this way, Evelyn is a refreshing take on the unassuming-savior-of-the-world trope we see in cinema and television. Often, this savior is a white male, and most often he is young. Think Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, or basically any white male superhero from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (I’m looking at you, Dr. Strange, Peter Parker, and Steve Rogers). When a woman unlocks her infinite power and potential, she is usually white, has power that is viewed as uncontrolled and chaotic, and is often viewed as a dangerous powder keg ready to destroy all that is good and holy. This can be seen in characters like Jean Grey from X-Men, Ciri from The Witcher, or Scarlet Witch from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The rare stories that show people of color with this infinite possibility seem to treat their characters as less of a threat, at least eventually; these characters are viewed has having the potential for both destruction and good. Notable examples include Ruth from Fast Color, or young Dion from the Netflix series Raising Dion.
Everything Everywhere All at Once continues this nuance, showing both the destructive potential of infinite power, as well as its redemptive possibilities. The movie shows how a marginalized heroine has the imagination to understand that power has the ability either to oppress or set free – and that we must choose wisely between these paths.
I want to pause and add that Everything Everywhere All at Once is not an overly serious movie. I laughed. I cried. I grimaced. I winced. Some of the humor was slapstick, weird, and occasionally kinky and crude.
This movie also has some of the best fight sequences I’ve seen in a while. After two decades of Marvel movies (no shade to Marvel – I love those movies too), I have forgotten that a fight scene can be artful, beautiful, comedic, revelatory, and transformative.
Transformative. If I had to use one word to describe Everything Everywhere All at Once, it would be this one.
When the end credits rolled, I was left speechless. I sat in the dark of the movie theatre for a few minutes, glad that I had seen this movie alone so I could process all that I was feeling. I felt raw and seen and laid bare. I felt like I had been to therapy.
For me, a great movie is one that lingers, and I have a feeling that Everything Everywhere All at Once will stick with me for a while. Because of all the movies in all the theatres, this is the one that just might change your life.