What Everything Everywhere All at Once Means for the Future of Film
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: VanityFair – Source
Film as a genre has always been meant to push the boundaries of the stories we can tell and the worlds we can build. Cinema physically and visually transports its audiences somewhere else more than any other medium, and the increasing use of CGI over the last decade, pioneered by films like The Matrix and Avatar, has allowed for almost limitless world-crafting potential.
Creatively, however, Hollywood has recently been finding itself in a rut. Fueled increasingly by the singular urge to make money, the film industry is supporting itself on soulless cash grabs and on reboots and repeats of films that have been successful before, banking on these tropes being successful again. This drive has eliminated a lot of opportunists for any novelty or innovation whatsoever in modern films, and creativity is frequently reduced to almost an afterthought.
There is a quiet movement, though, of releases that seem to go against this grain in every way possible, that seem to be trying their damndest to single-handedly push cinema forward by stretching the limits of what it can do in every possible way. The creative twists and turns of films like Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienart’s Everything Everywhere All at Once completely shine, and generate a little more hope for film’s uncertain future. By throwing in what feels like everything they possibly can, from hot-dog fingers to Ratatouille references, into their 2.5-hour time frame and still making a story that feels effective and cohesive, the “Daniels” prove how much more can still be done with the medium when we choose not to play it safe.
Much like its spiritual parent The Matrix, Everything Everywhere All at Once effectively packs an almost dizzying array of twists and turns into its multi-tiered plot structure, proving both the strength of its story and the strength of film as a genre. At its most basic, the delightfully bonkers storyline centers around a Chinese immigrant named Evelyn whose struggling laundromat is being audited by the IRS. Amidst her own struggling relationships with her husband Waymond and daughter Joy, Evelyn must utilize a newfound ability to tap into versions of herself in other dimensions in order to stop an interdimensional evil.
In the hands of weaker filmmakers, this plot might have severely struggled to carry all the many, many moving parts. But Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert—known professionally as the “Daniels”—find even more success and add even more substance to their characters through every crazy complication that they throw at their almost two-and-a-half hour story. “Our whole process is…making things the wrong way,” Kwan told Loyola Phoenix, the student newspaper at Loyola University Chicago during a college round table. “Let’s destroy what people think the movie should be and hopefully give them something they haven’t seen before, because that’s really what people are craving right now.” There’s a quiet cultural unrest around the subject of film these days, growing out of Hollywood’s strong aversion to straying from tradition. What Hollywood doesn’t realize is that most of history’s most iconic films resonated with audiences because they dared to try something new. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day, and the Wachowski sisters’ The Matrix were all movies that inspired the Daniels through their determination to break from the traditional tools of storytelling, and are all regarded today as film classics. Audiences aren’t just merely receptive to stories that challenge norms, but are in fact eager to seek them out.
And just like its title, all aspects of Everything Everywhere All at Once seem to intentionally embrace as much of everything as possible. Kwan told The Verge that the film is like “100 different narratives hitting you at once”, in a way that the Daniels felt captured the zeitgeist of the current times. The movie is an acknowledgment of the chaos of everyday life now, and a promise that like the characters, we are seen and will be seen through this point in history.
But in a larger sense, the film is somehow even more than its innovative and extremely successful story. It’s a testament to what film can do, even amidst the dry spot of creativity and culture that feels to be widening in the movie theater and the world of film storytelling every day. Cinema has an enormous power and potential to tap into so many stories at once, into so many multiverses, and tell stories from across generations and across cultures. Unlike many art forms, it has the ability to storytell across time and space, through worlds that are fictional, nonfictional, and everything in between. Everything Everywhere All at Once knows this perfectly well. All it does it literalize it through the many branches of the narrative it tells. It’s undeniable proof for all who may have doubted: film is not dead. It is more alive than ever. And unlike what many creators in Hollywood and the film industry might be thinking right now, cinema does not improve when it is limited to just one single space. It is always better when it is allowed to be everything, everywhere, and all at once.