The term multiverse has gone from a buzzword in theoretical physics to a tenet of blockbuster storytelling. If filmmakers want one Spider-Man to shake another one’s hand on-screen, or if studios need to explain how multiple actors can play Batman across different movies, then they can always lean on the notion of parallel universes. In Everything Everywhere All at Once, the multiverse crashes into the mundane, as the film uses comic-book logic to pose a question nearly everyone has asked themselves at some point: What if my life had gone in another direction?
That anxiety hangs in the air around Evelyn Wang (played by Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese American woman who operates a laundromat with her sweet, if guileless, husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). Her relationship with her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), is frosty, particularly around the subject of the girlfriend Joy wants to bring to a family party; Evelyn’s disapproving father (James Hong) spends many scenes glowering in the background. As her troubled business is being audited by a domineering IRS inspector (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn is dragged into a closet by her husband and informed that she’s the only person who can save the entire multiverse from total annihilation.
How? Well, by tapping into all the infinite Evelyns out there, of course, and doing battle with a mysterious, cross-dimensional warlord. The version of Waymond who recruits her is from another world, one already in the middle of an apocalypse, and he demonstrates his different identity by taking on a gaggle of security guards armed only with a fanny pack. In this genre-defying new film from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (a directorial team known as Daniels), the multiverse is an ocean of possibilities, filled with Evelyns who have collectively done and seen everything imaginable. But that fantasy premise is a double-edged sword: These other Evelyns have surprising skills to lend, but also alluring memories of events that Evelyn herself will never get to experience.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn learns how to shift among realities like tuning the dial on a radio, accessing abilities such as kung-fu mastery, opera singing, and extreme dexterity with her toes, every time catching glimpses of other lives. What would’ve happened had she not chosen to marry Waymond or move to the United States, or if she lived in a world where everyone had hot dogs dangling off their hands instead of fingers? Daniels stuffs the frame with flashes of memory, paying homage to different genres and mimicking specific film aesthetics; the directors hop from stop-motion animation to wuxia to a breathtaking re-creation of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love.
The experience is overwhelming, familiar territory for Daniels, whose debut feature film, Swiss Army Man, was a charming but outrageous tale of a man bonding with a talking, farting corpse while stranded on a desert island. The premise of Everything Everywhere All at Once demands a kitchen-sink approach, but at moments during its 139-minute running time, I was begging for a break from the dense world-building monologues and montages. The writer-directors’ expansive sci-fi thinking is absolutely joyous, although the boundless scope also means the movie could just go on explaining forever, and at certain points in the slightly soggy middle, I worried it might.
What keeps Everything Everywhere All at Once from falling into a black hole of sprawling thought is its wonderful central performances, and the emotional through line that Yeoh and Quan follow amid all the chaos. The film’s fantasy conceit lines up with the melancholic question at the core of Evelyn and Waymond’s relationship—would they have been better off apart? As the movie cycles through different realities, it keeps presenting ways that their bond makes some ineffable sense. This film is not a grandiose tale of love transcending all, but it does find all kinds of sweet, specific ways to portray a lasting partnership.
Yeoh initially presents Evelyn as dismissive and worn down, but as the film goes on she starts revealing her vulnerabilities, her fear of disappointment, and her aversion to commitment of any kind. Though her character is distinctive and well-drawn, her preoccupation with roads not taken is a universal one, beautifully externalized by the multiversal war she gets pulled into. Quan, who has had few major roles in film since his stardom as a young actor, gives a rich and grounded performance as someone far less troubled by his past choices, a gentle partner who’s also not as naive as he initially lets on.
The other major narrative thread of Everything Everywhere All at Once is Evelyn’s bond with her daughter, Joy, who is facing a future of immeasurable possibility, and (like so many young people) feels stuck trying to make even one choice, burdened both by family expectation and existential anxieties. I won’t spoil the masterful direction Daniels takes this relationship in and will just say that here is where the film displays its underlying maturity, amid all the hot-dog fingers and talking rocks. The multiverse is an exciting notion, and a narratively thrilling one. But it’s also a useful way of illustrating the quotidian dissatisfactions of life—feelings that anyone can relate to but that we can choose not to drown in.
Listen to David Sims discuss Everything Everywhere All at Once on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review: